Review: Beer & Philosophy
Thursday, September 20, 2018
   
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Review: Beer & Philosophy

Beer & PhilosophyThis collection of essays, sub-titled, "the unexamined beer isn't worth drinking", interprets its remit in a variety of ways. The great philosophers had very little to say on the subject of beer and there's only so many times one can make a pun about alcohol measured in degrees Plato -- here it's done early to have it out of the way. Some articles are simply about the brewing world and beer in general, given a slight philosophical twist. Many others are undergraduate philosophy lectures, peppered with examples from the beer world by way of illustration. A handful, however, undertake a fully philosophical examination of the enjoyment of beer. The quality is mixed, but the fifteen essays are at least short and if the reader is bored with the current one, the next isn't too far away. To assist further, every page is illustrated with a pint of beer in the corner, full at the start of each essay and gradually emptying towards the end. Not only does the book tell you how far you still have to read, but it also indicates what stage of your drink you should be at, assuming one pint per chapter. It is, to my knowledge, the only philosophy textbook to do this.

Perhaps the weakest pieces in the collection are those on topics which have really nothing at all to do with beer, but have used beery examples to illustrate the theories of Berkeley (chapter 13), or Kant (chapter 14), or to debate the issues around intelligent design (chapter 11). I think every trendy arts lecturer does this sort of thing and it's neither big, clever, nor especially entertaining. It's one thing to have to learn about Kant for an exam, but no-one, no-one, reads Kant for pleasure. The opening chapter is also quite disappointing. Here, professor of philosophy Dale Jacquette holds forth on the art of enjoying authentic, traditionally-brewed beer while displaying an open disdain for all British and Belgian beer. It's hard to warm to the theories of someone who seems to believe that good beer starts and ends with German lager. The only thinker to actually philosophise on beer (he was already my favourite, but now even more so) is the subject of the final essay in the book: "Beyond Grolsch and Orval". Nietzsche held self-contradictory views on intoxication. It was, for him, a contributor to the voluntary enslavement of the beery German people, but also an energising and liberating force used by creatives and revolutionaries since time began. The author finishes with advice to always get the right sort of drunk.

The theme of good and bad beer is visited by several of the authors. Michael P. Lynch sets the philosophical foundations in chapter 3, explaining how we can still say a beer is awful when millions of drinkers quite obviously prefer it. This is explored in rather long-winded depth two chapters later in a piece called "Quality, Schmality" about why mass-market American beer is, in general, terrible. The conclusions are really rather obvious. The editor, Steven Hales, provides an essay examining the philosophical issues around whether it's best to have lots of mediocre beer or small quantities of the good stuff. His touchstone here is the work of John Stuart Mill and utilitarian philosophy. It's all about the density of pleasure, apparently, not just the amount. Again, all a bit obvious. Of course the whole debate about the merit of codified beer styles is looked at. We've heard it all before, and there's nothing new or startling in Matt Dunn's piece (chapter 12), but seeing the issue scrutinised with the rigors of philosophical method makes for very interesting reading. Among the comparisons the writer draws are the types of library classifications and the definition of baldness. Ever feel an article is addressing you directly?

Several essays move away from philosophical theory and discuss the place of beer, and alcohol generally, in particular times and places. The psychotropic qualities of ancient northern European beers is examined by Theodore Shick in "Beer and Gnosis" (chapter 10). He ties the slightly hallucinogenic gruit ales with the ancient view that drinking was a way to commune with the gods (even before the invention of the Great White Telephone) and draws parallels with the work of Aldous Huxley and his "Doors of Perception". I'll have what he's drinking. As an aside, he tells us that, in Old Norse legend, mead was regarded as the vomit of Odin. A way of keeping the Viking kids away from Daddy's bottles, perhaps? ("You wouldn't like it, son: it's godpuke.") A more modern analysis is given by blogger Alan McLeod (chapter 8) in a piece which purports to be on drinkers' autonomy, but ends up giving us a hair-raising run-down of Canada's crazier alcohol laws -- in Nova Scotia you may not export your homebrew outside of your own home, nor may you invite anyone else in to help you make or drink it; in Manitoba you can drive around with commercial beer anywhere in your car, but homebrew has to go in the boot. Drinking beer is also illegal in all Manitoban bathrooms, public or domestic (you have been warned), while in British Columbia all beer, quite possibly including homebrew, is perpetually government property.

It's articles like these, which place the emphasis squarely on the beer, which are the highlights of the book. Two of America's celebrity brewers make contributions: Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head offers a history of extreme brewing in the US (chapter 6), from its roots in some very traditional Belgian beercraft, through the growth of American craft brewing and the point where the craft beer bubble burst in the late 1990s as all the investors turned to dotcoms instead. For the reader in Ireland, he makes some interesting points about the American macrobrewers and their recent involvement in quasi-craft brewing, taking a firmly cynical stance on the whole thing until the day when the multinationals are hand-crafting 50.1% of their product instead of 0.01. Over here, it would be nice to have that one pint in a hundred out of St James's Gate and Lady's Well.

The best article in the book is by Brooklyn's charismatic brewmaster Garrett Oliver (chapter 2). He wonders, philosophically, at what point we stop calling the mass-produced yellow swill "beer". He goes on to speak of the chemical temptations facing the craft brewer and the array of sell-out technologies available from the Dark Side ("Obi-Wan never told you how he maintained a shelf-stable haze in his witbier" -- p.42). He cites Dr Charles Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Science at the University of California, who wrote as recently as 2006 that in the future mass-produced beer will be assembled from water, cheap ethanol, flavourings and CO2. Cynic that I am, I was surprised that this isn't happening already.

If you can put up with the trendy academics, there's a lot to enjoy in the pages of Beer & Philosophy. It won't change your mind on anything, but it might just offer some new perspectives: craft beer drinkers are nothing if not open-minded.


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