Beerexit?

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.” – Frank Zappa.

Today, June 15th, is National Beer Day. Organised by a range of industry societies and bodies, including CAMRA, Cask Marque, the Society of Independent Brewers and many more, thousands of tipplers across the country will unite at 7pm to say ‘cheers to beer!’ and celebrate Britain’s continued love of the beer bottle.

The relationship between a country and their national drink is often a complex one, full of relations of power, class, and politics. Drinks and the perception of their drinkers can become contested sites of identification, or even demonization, as tastes (and tastemakers) change over time. In Britain though, beer has quite comfortably held the title of national beverage for centuries, with eighteenth-century writer and wit Sydney Smith remarking: “What two ideas are more inseparable than beer and Britannia?”. Indeed, beer has endured and outlasted various threats to its dominance in the British Isles, such as the rise of gin in Smith’s own time (defeated with a little help from William Hogarth) or the post-war swing towards continental wines as Britain rebuilt itself and its economy after 1945, only to rise again through CAMRA and the craft movement.

Smith’s words continue to ring true. Beer brands appear to lionize an imaginary, mythologized British past, with the British Empire apparently adding supermarket shelves to its list of conquests. Walk through a Sainsbury’s or a Tesco and you’ll find Spitfire, Bombardier, Fuller’s Bengal Lancer and 1845 Ale, Marston’s Old Empire IPA, and a host of others featuring the imagery and iconography of Britain’s imperial past. Even Iron Maiden’s Trooper Ale, which harks back, like the song of the same name, to the charge of the Light Brigade and the Crimean War, harnesses the emotive values of the Victorian age and exemplary British valour to tug on patriotic consumer heartstrings.

Beyond the mainstream, there are plenty of craft producers who do the same. South London brewer Anspach & Hobday state that their beers are ‘conceived for the 19th Century, refined for the 21st’, using various images to support this temporal juxtaposition. On the label of their IPA they have the following image: on the one hand (the 19th century one) we have a figure of a pith-helmeted colonial Explorer, with heavy pack and mutton chops, telescope in hand, presumably looking outwards towards the boundaries of the colonial Empire. On the 21st century side, we have what is essentially the neo-colonialist; the tourist, Rough Guide to India in one hand and a phone raised in the selfie position in the other. Two Britons; separated by history, united by beer.

Moreover, we need only think of the regularity with which beer is whipped out for political purposes to illustrate how it has become such a reliable shorthand for Britishness and the national character. In the last six months, Boris Johnson has been a very enthusiastic (and thirsty) campaigner, appearing in pubs with Zac Goldsmith during the London Mayoral elections, and more recently with Michael Gove in a Lancashire Wetherspoons as part of the Leave campaign. Images of Johnson holding his pint aloft and marveling at its contents did the rounds in national newspapers, and, though he might protest their differences, align him with Britain’s other well-known performative pint-drinker, Nigel Farage.

In my last blog post, I called attention to the social politics of the pint glass, and there are some similarities here. Get it right, and in political theatre such as this beer can project a sense of being down-to-earth, an ordinariness or simplicity of tastes, and a general air of a no-nonsense approach to life, reinforced by the choice of the no-frills, no-fuss Wetherspoons (whose CEO, Tim Martin, recently waded into the Brexit debate by distributing Leave-themed beer mats). Get it wrong though, as a slightly queasy-looking Zac Goldsmith did, and the public reaction is swift and merciless.

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Source: Telegraph.co.uk

Of course, Farage and Johnson are not the first to employ these methods (at a recent conference I attended I heard Dr Shaun Mudd, from the University of Exeter, explain how Roman leader Sulla ate and drank in front of the lower classes to show his closeness to them, a classical pedigree that Johnson himself would no doubt be thrilled with), but do they work to reinforce the ‘man of the people image’ he is trying to confect? According to the polls, apparently so, even if some of JD Wetherspoons’ (and Britain’s) best selling beers are European in origin…. In Johnson’s case, it seems that beer can not only make philosophers of ordinary men, but ordinary men of Old Etonians and Bullingdonites.

Whatever happens on the 23rd of June, there is no doubt that beer has played its part in a campaign that has gone beyond the question of whether the UK remains in European Union, and has instead struck at the essence of how the country sees itself. Come the 24th June, let’s hope there’s no lasting hangover.

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Why Size Matters.

It turns out May is a tough month to get a project off the ground. Snowed under with exams and dissertation marking (like everyone else in HE), the chance to get into the archives has yet to materialise.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 17.32.45I was able to attend the excellent PubHD this week though, a scheme where PhD students bravely explain their research to a roomful of pub punters, and get a drink for their trouble. It was a great event – well attended, and featuring something for everyone with talks on drunkenness in Victorian fiction, sustainable plastics, and improving nanospikes against bacteria. Aside from these topics though, it also set me thinking about my own work on drink cultures. In the rush to order drinks before things got going, there was a brief exchange between two of the attendees:

‘I went for a bottle in the end, as I don’t need a pint. But I wouldn’t order a half, obviously’.

It was just a chance remark, but it stuck with me. Drink Studies is full of discussion over how products are marketed and packaged, but this fixation with branding has served to obscure an aspect of drinking just as important as brand identity – namely, the size of these beers and the amounts they contain. Like the way in which it is sold, how we measure our beer and how it is served to us has a tangible impact on our enjoyment of it. Moreover, our measurement of choice (and how much we’re seen to be drinking) often sends out messages about us, our tastes, and how we want to be perceived.

Half pints always come in for a lot of stick. They seem to belong to a subsection of food and drink that comes with traditionally gendered assumptions; order one in mixed company and, like the vegetarian option, the half pint is near invariably handed to the woman at the table regardless of who ordered it. Similarly, I’ve known men order a half with apologies, or appeals to reason – ‘I’m driving’, ‘my train’s due soon’ – acting as though they need to excuse an unusual, somehow unmanly, choice.

You’d think we’d be used to variety by now. After all, our beers come in various shapes: served in tulip-style glasses that enhance aroma; pints with stippled bases in order to maintain fizziness; clean-lined conique glasses; or the classic dimpled pint pot, now making a comeback.[1] Some glassware is tied to a particular brand, like Hoegaarden’s chunky tumblers that first appeared in British pubs around 15 years ago. What unites them all, however, is the one thing with which you apparently don’t mess – their capacity for holding 568ml of the landlord’s finest.

This obsession with volume and quantity is a long-standing one, and appears often in the documents and sources I read. For example, competitive drinkers in the twelfth century were determined to ‘take each other down a peg’ – a peg was a measure of ale, and those unable to keep up were left looking weak in front of their peers.[2] Fast-forward to colonial India in 1858, and diarists like William Russell record the prodigious drinking habits of the British Army, where men would drink up to twelve bottles of beer per day, or the vast amounts put away by thirsty colonists from morning to night on the voyage out to Bombay.[3]

Such excess cuts a beery swathe across popular culture too, from the pints swilled down by Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954), the carnivalesque consumption in Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), through to the lager-fuelled lads of Men Behaving Badly (1992-98), or the grittier and more destructive drinking in the fiction of James Kelman. Even George Orwell’s otherwise high-minded 1984 (1949) has time to address the situation, with an elderly Prole lamenting the death of the pint in Oceania, remarking to Winston Smith that ‘a ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much’.[4]

But the supremacy of the pint pot is no longer as secure as once it was. Many establishments, like Bristol’s Small Bar, serve two-thirds as standard; likewise, most of the beers on the keg list at the Barley Mow will be listed as halves. There are many reasons for this shift – price is one of them of course, and it would be difficult to spend an evening drinking pints of some brews without seriously straining your debit card. The health benefits of drinking more moderately are difficult to argue with, especially the morning after. Beyond this, given the range of options often now available in beer bars and pubs (I recently visited Chuck’s Hop Shop in Seattle, which has 40 beers on tap, and a wall of bottles) as well as the higher ABV of many craft beers, drinkers are encouraged to sample and savor the flavour of various halves, rather than neck pint after pint (also, I defy anyone to get through more than one pint, even a 473ml American measure, of Terrapin’s Peanut Butter Porter…).

If you really feel like all these halves still ‘don’t satisfy’, there are other options. A largely American import now beginning to become a little more widespread across the UK is a refillable takeaway bottle known as a ‘growler’ (no sniggering, at the back). Growlers come in various sizes (I said stop it), but most, like the one pictured here, will be able to contain a few pints of your favourite beer to carry home and enjoy at leisure.

The way in which we are consuming beer and the quantities in which we buy it are always changing; sometimes these are innovative (home delivery services, craft beer clubs, even Brewdog’s Equity for Punks investment scheme), or they will hark back to a much longer standing-tradition. Canned beers have been ubiquitous for decades and generally associated with lagers; the 440 or 500ml tinnie of Fosters, Stella, or Kronenbourg a familiar sight come summer. However, the 330ml can is starting to proliferate on the craft market – cans are not only cheaper and hardier than bottles of course, but buy into the nostalgic side of craft beer culture too.

Though canned beer is not all about single servings. My Dad still laments the death of the Watneys Party 7 – a portable 7-pint barrel of ale popular in the 1970s that needed to be opened with a screwdriver (sounds a riot, doesn’t it?).

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Drinkers enjoying a Watneys Party 7 (Dad not pictured). Image credit: http://www.hipforums.com (http://ow.ly/zQdu300TpZ8)

Although he’s not one to frequent his local supermarket, I imagine he’d be delighted to see the return of compact kegs of beer to the likes of Lidl, whose Grafenwalder Lager might not have the same quaint charm as the Watneys, but at £9.99 for five litres will certainly suffice to get most parties started. The Grafenwalder is just one option though, as Stella, Becks, Heineken and Carlsberg all do their own mini-kegs, and, if they don’t already, then I would imagine a craft brewery will offering their own soon, albeit likely for a little more than £9.99…

Until that happens though, I can’t help thinking there’s plenty to be said for doing things in half measures.

 

References

[1] http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/06/beer-glasses-best-glass-for-craft-beer-taste-test.html

[2] John Watney, Beer is Best: A History of Beer (London: Peter Owen, 1974) p. 21.

[3] William Howard Russell, The Indian Mutiny: A Diary of the Sepoy Rebellion (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1860), p. 109.

[4] George Orwell, 1984 (London: Penguin, 1954), p. 74.