Beer’s illustrious past, illustrated

I recently picked up a copy of The Comic Book Story of Beer (Amazon link) by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith (and illustrated by Aaron McConnell). It provides an illustrated history of beer, complete with the beer-as-driver-for-civilization narrative that I’ve discussed at least a little bit before (a story that I think I am parodying somewhat by attempting to develop fermentation into a useful theoretical concept). There is too much great stuff in here for me to go into all or it, but some are aspects definitely worth mentioning. The book:

  •  Suggests that wine-biased scholars (the ancient Greeks and Romans among them) played down beer’s historical and biblical prevalence.
  • Depicts yeasts as tiny alligator-mawed and exhaust-piped machines (see the featured image), to go along with a mantra of praise: “Brewers make wort. But yeast makes beer. Memorize this so that we may give our microscopic friends their props” (Hennessey and Smith 2015:45).
  • Notes that before the identification of yeasts as single-celled organisms, the transferred slurry that initiated fermentation was called “Godisgood”; here is some of the magic and mysticism of fermentation that linger still.
  • Tells the story of the monopolized control of gruit (a spice mixture once used widely in brewing) during the middle ages and the subsequent rise of hops as a force that simultaneously democratized beer production and turned it into a commodity that could travel.
  • Mentions how some brewers overcame superstitious explanation for fermentation and spoilage by turning to the previously suspicious methods of chemistry.
  • Suggests that Pasteur developed his namesake technique in order to reduce the French’s reliance on Prussia after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Argues that sharing the techniques for culturing “genetically pure” yeast strains “anticipat[ed] today’s open-source movement” (Hennessey and Smith 2015:115-116).
  • Ends with an amazing passage (see picture below) that touches on a lot of why I think beer is interesting to think with. I think it’s worth quoting:

“We can elevate the simple tasting or selection of a beer to a proud, profound moment… a moment charged with deep significance. By drinking a beer… any beer… you don’t just dip yourself in a particular sensation of flavor and feel. You also become immersed in the endless and fluctuating currents of agricultural and climatological… social and religious… economic and geographical… scientific and ideological forces” (Hennessey and Smith 2015:168-169).

There’s a lot to think about here. Most of all, the authors provide a sort of “beer drinker’s history of the world.” It’s interesting and will give me a lot to chew on about how to understand what kind of force fermentation is for change, and whether getting a better understanding of this may require us to relax our affinities and adoration, taking the beer goggles off for just a bit.

scientific and ideological forces
All credit to the authors, Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith, and the illustrator, Aaron McConnell (2015).



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