Samui Wining & Dining
Hops Are The Tops

It’s beer that comes from the gods – not wine!

 

7The above comment about the gods is not the personal opinion of a bar-hopping food-writer; it comes from a much more respectable source. It seems that the ancient Sumerians discovered beer by accident. This was actually not hard to do as any chunk of bread or pile of grain begins to ferment when it gets wet. But the Sumerians were thoughtful enough to leave us pictograms, dating from around 6,000 years ago, showing barley being turned into beer and with the respectful note that, “Beer makes people feel wonderful and blissful and is a divine drink that is surely sent from the gods.” (Although this sounds suspiciously like the advertising blurb of an ancient Sumerian brewer.)

Yes, indeed, beer is the oldest-known form of intoxicating beverage and existed before even bread did. Even before, no doubt, those ancient records were written or carved into stone. Indeed, various historians have observed that beer and bread are the foundations of civilisation as we know it – although perhaps a slight smile may have accompanied their comments.

Whatever the origins, it’s true to say that every culture throughout the ages has developed their own form of beer, using different grains in different ways. The Africans with their porridge beer made from maize; the Chinese using rice and honey, the Egyptians favouring stale bread mixed with barley – although they had to sip it through a straw to filter out the soggy lumps. Deceased Viking warriors were even rewarded in Valhalla with a brimming golden ale horn (the contents of which were undoubtedly a divine secret). But the appearance of modern beers, made with hops, didn’t occur until around 1000 AD.

European conditions in the middle ages were unsanitary, to say the least, and even the poor drank beer in preference to the polluted waters of the time; although this was hardly one of the gifts from the gods. But somewhere at the end of the first millennium, there definitely seems to have been some divine intervention. The use of hops to make beer was revealed to mankind. And this had some very positive advantages. Beer made in any other way was effective, but unstable, and didn’t last long. It was also almost impossible to repeat the formula, giving rise to wildly variable brews. But using hops was much more scientific.

‘Hopped’ beer was developed and perfected in Germany and, by the end of the 13th century, this longer-lasting beer, together with standardised barrel sizes, meant that beer could be reliably produced and exported. Before this time beer had been home-brewed on a very much localised basis and more or less at random. But now small commercial breweries began to appear everywhere. And 200 years later they eventually reached England, arriving en route from Holland.

In 15th century England, an un-hopped beer was known as ‘ale’, whilst the use of hops would make it a ‘beer’. To begin with, these new-fangled ‘hop’ things were viewed with some suspicion. The venerable Brewers Company of London even publicly declared that, “No hops, herbes or other like things be put into any ale or liquore whereof ale shalle be made, but only water, malt and yeast.” But progress marches on, and after another 100 years the general term of ‘ale’ was being used to refer to any strong beer. And by this time all ales and beers were being made with hops.

Not a lot really changed over the next few hundred years: thousands of small breweries sprung up and several very large ones. Beer sorted itself out into several categories, depending on how the malt was processed and dried – brown malts, amber malts, straw malts and so on. And apart from Louis Pasteur bringing some enlightenment as to how fermentation works, the next major step forward came with use of the ‘hydrometer’ in the 18th century, allowing the entire process to become more precisely predicted and controlled.

Which brings us up to recent events and the domination of the big brewery chains. In the 1970s, more and more of Europe’s struggling small breweries were being bought up and taken over by huge national companies. The resulting range of mass-produced beers was bland and lacking in individuality, causing howls of protest from dedicated beer lovers everywhere. At which point, the wheel of beer production turned full circle, causing the small and specialised breweries to once again be in demand and spring forth and multiply.

Microbreweries, craft breweries and brewpubs rose to the fore, firstly in America and then in Europe and England. Whereas Continental Europe and America tended to favour the lager/pilsner beers with their process of colder and lengthier fermentation, ales, ales, ales and more ales, all of them dubbed ‘real’, not to mention porters, stouts and hopped ‘strong wines’, became the raging trend in England. So much so that even the big national breweries sniffed a bit and produced half-hearted facsimiles in an attempt to once again rejoin the competition.

And, in all of this, not a mention of bread for over 1,000 years! Today, however, pubs, beer and food are now found all wrapped-up together in one parcel. Although sandwiches are certainly available everywhere, ‘bread’ in the shape of gourmet catering has re-emerged in the form of high-end gastropubs. Proving that man cannot live by beer alone; but, then, neither can he, by bread.

Countless urbane, witty (and occasionally intoxicated) comments and quips have emerged over the ages pertaining to Man’s intimate entanglement with that kindest of all beverages – beer. One of the wriest of such observations is attributed to the erstwhile Ernest Hemmingway when he sardonically pointed out that, “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to become drunk to spend time harmoniously with fools.

But, more seriously, we all need to keep an eye out for the true cenosillicaphobiac; he who has a morbid and irrational dread of an empty glass. These people are unstable and can become unpredictable downwind of a tavern. It is perhaps apt to end with the words of one of the least-recognised of all of the 21st century’s American philosophers, Homer Simpson, when he soliloquised, “All right brain, I don’t like you and you don’t like me. So let’s just work together and I’ll get back to killing you with beer.” A pertinent, if terse, comment on Man’s partnership with beer – probably the oldest relationship that the world has ever known!

 


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