“Heineken Export, as recommended by your smooth talking bar steward”. The great Stephen Fry’s double entendre from an early nineties advert for the Dutch lager is probably the earliest example of alcoholic advertising on television that I remember.
I want to talk you about beer, that magical elixir that has helped us through many a boring dinner party with aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, as well as helping to break the ice with Susan from HR at the Christmas party.
Beer has been brewed for over ten thousand years and has been a huge part of many cultures all over the world. For thousands of years people had to drink small beer, a low alcoholic version, because the water supply was polluted and unsafe to drink. Babies were weaned off the breast and straight onto beer.
I received the ‘World Atlas of Beer’ for Christmas 2012 and have been thumbing through it since. Here is what I have learnt so far:
- Beer is defined differently around the world. For example in Texas, any beer over 5% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) must be labelled as ale or malt liquor regardless of the fermentation process.*
- Whereas wine is made from grapes and fruits other than apples or pears (which make cider and perry) beer is made with grain. As long as it contains grain you are free to throw in whatever ingredients you wish, as long as you don’t break the laws of your country.*
- In 16th century Germany the Reinheitsgebot was introduced. It was a law ensuring that beer was made from only hops, barley and water. Ten years later malted wheat was added to the list of acceptable ingredients. (Yeast hadn’t been recognised by this point so was not included in the acceptable list of ingredients).*
- EU law defines wine as being agricultural and beer as being manufactured. This small difference costs beer drinkers millions of Euros every year while winemakers get an agricultural subsidy.*
My first experience tasting alcohol was usually at Christmas time when my father would let me have a mouthful of his beer (or ‘beard’ as I used to pronounce it). It was usually a low alcohol stubby beer called St.Omer. My parents would also allow us a little wine or sparkling wine (Asti being a particular favourite) with our Christmas dinners.
I started drinking in pubs when I was sixteen, English bartenders were never that tight on asking for ID. Myself and two of my close schoolboy chums would head into town to a pub, which shall remain nameless, and order our favourite tipple of the time Carling Premier. It was 1999, Carling Premier was priced at £2.30 which was expensive for the time as most beers were £2 or just under.
We tried pretty much every beer the pub had to offer and even some of the bar rail. When we happened into other pubs, we would approach the bar confidently while being looked up and down skeptically by the bartender and I would ask for a Guinness. The bartender would usually be so shocked that someone so young was ordering a Guinness that he or she would pour it without questioning my age.
It was apparent to myself and lifelong chum, who we shall call R, that lager wasn’t for us. We found that it made us gassy and would lead to a hangover without fail. Most of all we didn’t much like the taste. We quickly moved onto bitters and ales such as Tetley’s and John Smith’s, and later to cask ales where our hearts still lie today.
Over the years we have attended many an ale festival, drank our fill of beverages with names like “Brewer’s Droop” and “Piddle in the Middle” and awoken the next morning to be hangover free. We began to favour cask ales above all. Many of my North American friends used to scoff at the idea of uncarbonated ale served at room temperature. After trying a glass of the malty (or hoppy depending on your preference) liquid they would be converted on the spot. Incidently craft ale in the U.S. and Canada has realy taken off in tha past decade and they are producing some wonderful stuff.
However my drinking experiences weren’t without its moments of misguided over consumption. I distinctly remember at the tender age of sixteen drinking a 750ml bottle of Jack Daniels to myself…and that’s all I remember. Apparently we went to McDonalds for something to eat. Apparently I had a Big Mac and a McChicken Sandwich. What I do remember is walking into my house, looking at myself in the mirror and thinking. “Ok, we can do this. We just have to get upstairs and everything will be fine”, walking into the living room where my parents we sitting watching television. They looked at me and I giggled saying “Hello Mum. Hello Dad”. They knew straight away that I had been drinking. They made me some toast and poured me a large glass of water…thirty minutes later I was heaving my guts up in the bathroom. I brought up the toast, the Big Mac, the McChicken Sandwich as well as part of my lower intestine.
The next day as expected I felt terrible. For most of the day I lay on sofa feeling sorry for myself and drinking glass after glass of water. To this day I can’t even smell Jack Daniels, or any other bourbon for that matter, without gagging and bringing up a little bit of vomit.
What were your first experiences with alcohol? What is your poison of choice?
*Beaumont, S. & Webb, T, (2012), The World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to the Beers of the World, Sterling Publishing Co, NewYork.