“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.
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.