Did A Thirst For Beer Spark Civilization?

Today’s UK newspaper, The Independent, has a nice write-up of Patrick McGovern’s theory (among others) that it was the desire of early man to brew beer that caused them to abandon their hunter gatherer ways and settle down to a life of farming, in the process sparking nothing short of civilization itself.

In the article, Did A Thirst For Beer Spark Civilization?, McGovern says “I think most people see (this theory) as a very plausible scenario. But we don’t have all the evidence. I just wanted to put it out there as a worldwide hypothesis. Then over time maybe the different pieces can be put together from across the world.” McGovern is the author of Uncorking the Past — a book I heartily recommend — that goes into great detail about the evidence for his theories.

Patrick McGovern, Author of "Uncorking the Past"
Patrick McGovern signing boos at GABF in 2009.

WSJ Reviews “Dethroning The King”

I got a review copy of the new book, Dethroning the King, which is all about the hostile takeover of Anheuser-Busch by InBev, a few weeks ago but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It looks fascinating and I’m looking forward to devouring it as soon as I can. For now, I’ll have to make do with the Wall Street Journal review of the book, which only makes me want to read it more. Anybody else read it yet? Thoughts?


Good Pub Guide Announces Pay To Play

I’m not quite sure what to think about this. The Publican reported today that the highly respected and nearly 30-year old UK Good Pub Guide is going to begin charging pubs to be included in the guide. Starting with next year’s edition, fees to be included “will be either £99 or £199, depending on the size of the outlet.” The current issue includes over 5,000 listings, so that would mean future books would realize between £500,000 and £1,000,000 (or between $800,900 and $1.6 million dollars).

The reason for the charge is explained by editor Fiona Stapley, and it’s just what you’d expect. “Putting together a guide like this is quite expensive and we are looking at the business model. More and more guides like this are charging. She added that the judging criteria would remain the same and pubs would still have to reach the same standards to gain a listing.”


And yes, I’m sure that it is expensive to put the book together. Having been involved in publishing for a lot of years, I don’t doubt that it’s become increasingly pricey to produce the book. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is necessarily the best fix. As Stapley states, “more and more guides like this are charging.” Maybe, but I have a hard time believing by doing so they maintain the same level of integrity and independence. The most obvious problem would come when some, or perhaps a lot, of pubs choose not to spend the money. After all, a lot of pubs in the UK are struggling to stay afloat. As a result, the “Good Pub Guide” could become the “Good Pubs Willing to Pay the Fee Guide.” It would no longer be complete. Undoubtedly, many successful pubs would feel compelled to pay in order to not have their business suffer from being excluded. Whenever that happens — and however perfectly legal — it would still be hard not to see it as de facto extortion.

Could they charge pubs to be included and then remain independent in their reviews? I’m sure it’s possible. After all, magazines that accept advertising do it all the time. But this seems slightly different insofar as this is paying to be in a guidebook whose sole purpose it to provide impartial reviews of each pub’s quality and worthiness. Even if they started out with the best of intentions, it seems very likely, to me at least, that over time the pubs that are paying would come to expect something in return for their continued support and the dynamic of the publication would change. And increasingly, pubs that should be recommended would come to not be included just because they balked at the idea of paying for the privilege. That would do a grave disservice to both those good pubs and the potential customers using the guidebook to find them. No matter how hard they tried to remain impartial, it just feels like it would still create an undesirable perception of the potential for misconduct. What do you think? Inevitable and unconcerning or a death blow to impartiality?

World Beer Awards 2010

I keep forgetting to write about this. Earlier this year I was asked to help judge for the World Beer Awards, which are put on by the former UK beer magazine Beers of the World, which is now published only online at Tasting Beers. They separated the beers into regions and Stan Hieronymus chaired the America’s region, along with me and Eric Warner.

We were each sent four large boxes filled with bubble-wrapped bottles or cans with a number assigned to each and the labels and even crowns obscured by labels and stickers. They were then separated into five broad categories: pale ale, dark ale, lager, stout & porter, and wheat beer. Then within each of those five, they were further subdivided by style. I don’t know how the rest of the judges did it, but I invited friends with judging experience and/or beer knowledge over to help taste them and bounce descriptors off one another and also had a volunteer steward to help keep the beers as blind as possible, but each beer’s numbered score came strictly from me.

The other two regions were Europe (chaired by Jeff Evans) and Asia (chaired by Bryan Harrell) with Roger Protz overseeing the entire process. In stage 2, the chairmen re-tasted all the regional winners and then a final round was held to determine the overall winners. It was great fun and the results are certainly interesting with a lot of beers with great reputations — and personal favorites — doing quite well. Because participation was not universal (that is, not every brewery submitted beers for judging) there are, of course, many beers not represented which may or may not have done as well or even better than the winners and I certainly hope more breweries will enter their beers next year. But within the group of what was submitted, it’s a pretty damn good list.


Here are the big winners in each of the Five main categories:

  1. Pale Ale: Deschutes Red Chair NWPA
  2. Dark Ale: Unibroue 17
  3. Lager: Primator Premium
  4. Stout & Porter: Minoh Beer Imperial Stout
  5. Wheat Beer: Weihenstephaner Vitus

The rest of the winners within each style and also the regional winners can be found on the Tasting Beers website.

I didn’t know this going in, but they actually published a small book with all the winners, including a mash-up of all the tasting notes for the beers. It’s a nice small-size (3-3/4″ x 8-1/4″) paperback. In 162 full-color pages, there are features about the winning breweries and listings for all the winning beers, including at least a bottle shot for each. If you’re keen you can buy one online at Amazon UK or directly from the Tastings Beers website. Amazon US also has a listing for the book, but I believe it’s from a vendor selling copies from overseas.


Civilization’s First Decision: Orgies Or Beer?

Gizmodo has an intriguing post up right now, combining ideas from two books about early man and the dawn of civilization, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. In Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One, author Joel Johnson speculates that early man eschewed group sex with multiple partners to settle down and make beer, setting us on the path to modern civilization, monogamy and the happy hour. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a pretty funny idea. (In other words, you can safely ignore the many outraged commenters who seem to have confused Gizmodo with an academic journal, they’re an entirely different kind of funny.)

As Patrick McGovern makes the case in Uncorking the Past, a growing body of evidence is pointing to alcohol — and most likely beer, or a rudimentary form of it, at least — as the reason early nomadic man settled down, in order to grow the crops to insure a steady supply of it. In other words, beer, rather than bread, may have been responsible for civilization as we know it today, with all its good and bad developments and legacies. In the newer book, Sex at Dawn, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that what we gave up for civilization, agriculture and beer was free love, group sex and orgies. Gizmodo summarizes the book’s claims in chart form.


One thing that’s funny about the chart is that everything leads to war, and the most hate-filled comment that I ever received was from someone calling himself “The Savagist” who took that same view to ridiculous heights. He vehemently believed that beer and alcohol were directly responsible for every bad thing that ever happened in the history of mankind, ignoring anything good that civilization also brought. Given his epithet, one might have reasonably presumed he had or wanted to return to that savage “pre-civilized” time, but he was obviously still living in a building, with electricity, and typing on a computer connected to the internet, with no sense of irony. Apparently, when he looked in Pandora’s Box, there was no hope at all after beer released all the evil into the world. Me, I found hope … and hops.

But back to Sex at Dawn, and the key points, as laid down in the Gizmodo article:

  • Before humans settled down into civilization, we were small bands of hunter-gatherers who had no notion of sexual monogamy. Within our relatively small tribes, most humans had multiple partners, primarily from within the tribal group, although occasionally we’d have a dalliance with a stranger to keep the DNA pool zesty. Children had multiple social “fathers,” jealousy was nearly nonexistent, and relatively easy access to calories kept us fit, happy, and satisfied well into our 70s and 80s—provided we managed to get past the perils of high mortality rates expected from a wild environment and primitive medicine.
  • Upon the discovery of agriculture, nomadic wandering was no longer possible—someone has to stick around to water the crops—so the ideas of property and inheritance became sadly useful. Domesticated food could become scarce, unlike the effectively endless bounty of hunter-gathering (ignoring the occasional climate-torqued famine or run of bad luck), so hoarding became necessary to ensure calories even in lean times. It’s a lot of work to farm, so it became important to ensure that you weren’t wasting your precious grains on someone else’s offspring, especially if it meant you own kid was getting short shrift. Hence monogamy, marriage, and the unfortunate concept of partners as property, manifested in agrarian societies as a tendency to view women as chattel.
  • Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, cause us to really hate being monogamous, but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they’re afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.

But accidental alcohol was around for probably millions of years and the “drunken monkey hypothesis” proposed by biologist Robert Dudley “attempts to explain why our bodies have evolved such a happy capacity for metabolizing ethanol.” McGovern extends that idea in Uncorking the Past.

On average, both abstainers and bingers have shorter, harsher lives. The human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzyme machinery, including alcohol dehydrogenase, devoted to generating energy from alcohol. Our organs of smell can pick up wafting alcoholic aromas, and our other senses detect the myriad compounds that permeate ripe fruit.

A couple of years ago, this came up in a different context, in a post I wrote entitled Beer and Civilization which discussed a book by Steven Johnson entitled The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. In Johnson’s book, he discusses how at the dawn of civilization, survival often depended on how a person’s body reacted to and could tolerate the beer that was generally safer to drink than water. Over time, only people who were genetically predisposed with the ability to drink large quantities of beer survived, passing that trait down to their children so that perhaps today most of us have such an ancestor as evidenced simply by the fact that we’re here. As [George] Will (and Johnson) explains.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”

But sitting here in my pajamas, typing on my laptop, beer in hand, surrounded by the trappings of modern society, I can’t help but think we made the right choice. I know the world has many, many challenges and problems but would any of us be happier crawling around the Savannah in a loincloth hunting (and gathering) for our next meal — and without a beer to pair with it? Beer may have been responsible for the single greatest butterfly effect in our civilization’s history because it’s nearly impossible to say what life might be like had we not taken the path we’re on. Did we give up orgies for our beer and civilization? Who knows, but I still think we chose wisely.

Another funny and very interesting excerpt from Sex at Dawn is The Flintstonization of Prehistory in which modern morals and values are super-imposed on to the past.


Drink What You Know

The New York Times had a great essay recently by Geoff Nicholson, entitled Drink What You Know. It’s part book review — for a re-issued “The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto” — and part survey of literary drinking and writer’s advice on both writing and drinking. It includes this gem about the perils of my profession. “People telling you how to drink is every bit as tedious and annoying as people telling you not to drink at all.”

Nicholson continues:

When you think about it, rules for drinking are not so different from rules for writing. Many of these are so familiar they’ve become truisms: Write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do. Always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more. With a little adaptation these rules apply just as well for drinking. Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.

That seems true enough, but my favorite piece of advice comes near the end:

The best you can hope for is to arrive, by whatever means, at the same conclusions as those who are older and wiser. Another piece of advice from Richard Ford runs, “Don’t drink and write at the same time,” a rule I follow scrupulously. But a more nuanced version of the same rule comes from Keith Waterhouse, the author of “Billy Liar.” He said you should never drink while you’re writing, but it’s O.K. to write while you’re drinking, a nice distinction.

Let that sink in. You should never drink while you’re writing, but it is acceptable to write while you’re drinking. Whew, dodged a bullet there.

1001 Beers Today

The book I contributed to, 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die, comes out today in the U.S. The book is the collaborative effort of 42 beers writers from around the world. We each wrote up beers from our areas of expertise, telling the beer’s story and also including tasting notes. There are 1,001 beers from 69 different countries listed, though the United States has more in the book than any other nation. I contributed 35 beers to the project, many of them from the Bay Area or the West Coast, with seven more American beer writers — all friends and colleagues — filling in the rest. Some of the beers were chosen by the editorial staff and the Adrian Tierney-Jones who headed the project, and the rest were suggested by all of the other writers. Some of the other contributors you might be familiar with include Stephen Beaumont, Pete Brown, Melissa Cole, Chuck Cook, Stan Hieronymus, Rick Lyke, Lisa Morrison, Randy Mosher, Chris O’Brien and Don Russell.


It’s a beautiful book, I must say, fully illustrated with nearly every beer’s label or bottle shown in full color. With every beer getting at least a half-page and most a full one, it’s also one seriously heavy book, weighing in at nearly five pounds and with 960 pages! I’m not sure where it will be sold, but it is currently available on Amazon.com, though the American cover is the one above, showing a full pint and bottle of our own Anchor Steam beer. It’s certainly great to see a book about beer from around the world that uses a San Francisco favorite on the cover.

Most pages look like this, which is the first beer reviewed, Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale (it’s also one of mine.)

A Beer With The Last Good Kiss

Because I write for a living, I take it seriously and am always trying to be a better writer. For that reason, I subscribe to several twitter feeds that offer suggestions and advice for writers. One recently linked to an interesting list, the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. Number one, of course, is “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It was fun to see what made the list, but I happened upon a book I’d never heard of with a very cool first line. The book is called The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, written in 1978.


It made number 85 on the list, with the following first line:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

One critic described Crumley’s writing as a “cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson,” which puts him in good company as far as I’m concerned. Another account said “The Last Good Kiss has been described as “the most influential crime novel of the last 50 years” and yet I’d never heard of it. I was intrigued enough to order the book.

For the Vintage paperback edition, Rick Lovell, did this great illustration with the alcoholic dog Fireball Roberts lapping up beer from an ashtray in a seedy looking motel. In case you’re curious, the painting on the back wall is La Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the original of which hangs in the Louvre. This could easily be included in my Beer In Art series.

Beer Lover’s Britain

Looking for a nice overview of the beer scene in Great Britain? 2001 British Beer Writer of the Year Jeff Evans has a comprehensive and affordable solution. He’s written Beer Lover’s Britain and it’s available at his Inside Beer online store as a pdf e-book for less than $10.

At a little more than 100 pages, it’s packed with information about British beer, how best to enjoy it and where to find the best beers that England, Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland have to offer.


From the press release:

The first e-book in the series is Beer Lover’s Britain, a comprehensive guide to enjoying beer in the United Kingdom, written by award-winning British beer writer Jeff Evans. With the UK pound trading low against most foreign currencies, including the US, Canadian and Australian dollars, there’s never been a better time for beer fans to check out what the British Isles have to offer, especially with this new publication to guide them through.

British pubs are often spoken of as ‘the envy of the world’, with their historic charm and embracing conviviality, and Beer Lover’s Britain reveals how to make the most of them with tips on everything from which type of pub will suit you best to how to order a pint. Essential information on pub food, games, gardens, opening hours, children’s facilities and entertainments is also provided, along with recommendations for the very best pubs to visit around the UK.

The British brewing industry – father of such beer styles as pale ale, IPA, stout, porter and barley wine – is explored in just enough detail for visitors to understand the context of what they are drinking, with recommendations provided for beers and breweries to seek out as they travel around the country.

What is real ale? Where can I find it? Should my beer be warm? Have I been overcharged? What can I eat? Where should I stay? These are just some of the important questions Beer Lover’s Britain answers in more than 100 packed pages.

According to author Jeff Evans, travellers are often baffled and a little intimidated when they first encounter British beer and the British pub.

‘The British pub is quite unlike many pubs and bars found elsewhere in the world and visitors can be more than a little confused if they don’t know the procedures and etiquette’, he explained. ‘Beer Lover’s Britain aims to demystify the pub and the British beer scene for travellers from other countries by offering sound advice and handy hints to smooth the course of their travels and boost their enjoyment of British beer.’

Hoppy Cooks Read “Grilling with Beer”

The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin has a nice write-up of Lucy Saunders‘ book “Grilling with Beer,” including a couple of recipes from the book. This is my favorite paragraph from the article. Foodies take heed.

Saunders rarely refers to beer generically. Her ingredient lists may call for Asian lager on one page, then apple ale, rauchbier (which has a smoky flavor) or a porter. Her cooking advice is for people who recognize the difference, and the beauty, of matching the right beer to an entree, salad or side dish.

And in Philly, Joe Sixpack is also waxing eloquently about Lucy’s book, in his latest column, entitled “Beer, briquettes, barbecue: bee-yoo-ti-ful.”

Without argument, outdoor grilling and beer is the greatest union ever devised by man, and I’m including bacon and eggs, fast cars and loose women and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Fire and fermentation: It’s the heroic achievement that separates us from monkeys. It’s part of our DNA, this primeval passion for flames and altered reality.

Also, it tastes good.

Well said, Mr. Russell. He sat down with Saunders when she was in town last month for a beer dinner at Monk’s Cafe and Belgian Emporium and they discussed the relationship between food and beer.

The barley malts in beer, Saunders told me over beers on a visit to the city recently, add to the flavor of grilled food, often caramelizing on its surface. Wash down a bite, and the citrusy hops will cut through the fat. Take another gulp, and the carbonation completes the refreshment.

“There are so many different flavors in beer, it’s not very hard to find styles that add to the flavor of food,” she said.

How true, I’m continually amazed at how many people still believe wine pairs better with most food and how entrenched that false notion is in our culture. It’s the perception, of course, that wine is sophisticated and beer is not, but happily that’s slowly — very slowly — beginning to change thanks to the hard work of people like Lucy Saunders and her new book, Grilling with Beer.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Lucy is a friend and colleague, and I contributed a chapter to this book, but either way it doesn’t diminish the fact that you should buy several copies right now, one for yourself and a few more as gifts. With grilling season officially upon us, you need this book right now, but Christmas is only six months away. Do you want to be at the mall Christmas Eve looking for that last minute gift? Or would you rather take care of it now, and save yourself the time to enjoy a few more Christmas beers come December? See, it pays to shop early.