Session #63: The Beer Moment

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Our 63rd Session is hosted by Pete Brown from the UK, and as his Session falls on Star Wars Day (May 4, “May the Fourth,” “May the fourth be with you”) he’s decided on a similarly cheeky topic: The Beer Moment. Read his entire stream of consciousness or the abridged version below.

I write to try to encourage other people to share the simple joy of beer as much as I do, to switch on people who drink beer but don’t particularly care about it that much, to suggest to them that there’s so much more they might enjoy. No one says you have to do it this way, and no one ever made me the spokesperson for beer. It’s just how I decided to write, in the same way others decided to write in an opinionated way about what they love, and what they hate.

So in that spirit, my choice of topic — with 62 topics already covered — is this: simply, the Beer Moment.

What is it?

Well, what is it to you? What does that phrase evoke for you?

That’s the most important thing here. Switch off and float downstream, what comes to mind? Don’t analyse it — what are the feelings, the emotions?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently, because I’ve been talking about it to various people who are working hard to try to improve the image of beer in the UK. Because whether we articulate it or not, whether we drink vile, sunstruck Corona or barrel aged imperial stout brewed with weasel shit, it’s about the moment far more than the liquid itself. The only people who disagree with me on this are people I wouldn’t want to share a beer with.

The moment — for me — is relaxation, reward, release, relief and refreshment. It’s a moment to savour, a moment of mateship, potential, fulfilment, anticipation, satisfaction, and sheer bliss.

It’s different from the moment you drink wine or spirits — it’s more egalitarian, more sociable. It’s not just about the flavour, nor the alcohol. It’s about the centuries of tradition and ritual, the counterpoint to an increasingly stressful life, and the commonality, the fact that it means the same thing to so many.

At least — I think it does. What does it mean to you?

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I was especially taken by Pete’s instructions, where he paraphrased the opening line of the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows (one of my favorite lesser-known Beatles songs), which in full is “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream.” The phrase itself is from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and that sounds like an excellent place to start; relaxed and floating, mind free of distractions — beer in hand.

The “beer moment” is for me the essence of what makes beer one of my life’s passions, distilled — or perhaps more correctly fermented — down to its core ingredients. In many ways, as Don Younger famously quipped, “It’s not about the beer, it’s about the beer.” And as inscrutable as that may sound, I believe Don was on to something. While beer is, of course, the liquid glue that binds us all together, it’s the opportunities and potential that sharing that beer creates that is the essence of the beery moment for me. Beer is the great facilitator. I makes so many other things possible, most of them entirely positive. If that’s starting to sound too zen or new agey, don’t despair. Let me put it another way.

My job often requires me to drink beer alone, which is far from my favorite thing to do. It’s perhaps the worst way to have a beer, even though it’s sometimes necessary. Alone, beer is stripped of all its intangibles, its raison d’etre. You can evaluate the constituent parts, its construction, even how they come together as a finished beer. In other words, on a technical basis. And that’s how you should begin, but there must be a discussion waiting at the end of that process. I just finished judging the World Beer Cup in San Diego this week, and even in this august setting, after silently scoring the beer and making notes, a lively discussion follows each flight. That’s as it should be, whether in a professional judging setting or the local pub. It’s the sharing of the beer that makes the moment.

The number of ways, places and settings in which beer can be shared is limitless. It has adapted itself to virtually all societies, civilizations and communities since, almost quite literally, the beginning of time. It has been an integral part of countless ritual moments, both solemn and casual; a part of people’s lives from birth to death, used to celebrate both moments and many more in between. Of all of the moments in our lives — something on the order of 39,420,000 minutes for the average person — those that involve sharing a beer, those “beer moments,” are infinitely more enjoyable, more memorable and will be the ones that we remember on our deathbed. In a sense, with a few notable exceptions, the beer moments are the ones that truly matter most.

That’s at least in part why I’m also so obsessed with holidays. They provide yet more reasons to celebrate, and celebration almost always means sharing a beer. Though in truth I believe even no reason at all is a perfectly fine reason to share a beer with a friend, and indeed two friends coming together is in and of itself reason enough, I’ve always enjoyed finding new reasons to celebrate life. And why not, I’ve only got — fingers crossed — a few decades left as a beer drinker, and there is much to celebrate, many more beers to share with friends and family. I want as many of the moments left to me as possible to be “beer moments.”

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I love this very appropriate artwork that a Lagunitas fan sent into them, and which they posted on their Facebook page.

John Stuart Mill On “Sin Taxes” & Prohibition

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The British philosopher John Stuart Mill was, besides being “particularly ill” on “half a pint of shandy,” a big proponent of the concept of free will, as the song says. In his book On Liberty, he also argues in favor free speech and, 150 years ago, was against minimum alcohol pricing as if it were today, which is why I bring it up.

In today’s UK newspaper, The Telegraph, British writer Brendan O’Neill argues convincingly against minimum pricing on alcohol in a piece entitled ‘Minimum alcohol pricing’ is a Sin Tax designed to punish poor people for the crime of getting hammered.

The British government has been discussing minimum alcohol pricing for a number of years as a way of stopping binge drinking, defined as uselessly there as here. O’Neill sees it rather differently, as “an assault on a certain kind of boozing, the kind indulged by the less well-off who prefer to drink lager or cider and let their hair down rather than quaff chardonnay and discuss Tunisia. The very term “binge drinking” — and bear in mind that, for a man, binge drinking means downing a paltry four pints in a night — is designed to conjure up images of the non-wine-drinking classes, who swig on bottles of beer with no sense of control or decorum; who scoff and down and binge rather than sip. Them, not Us.”

And that brings us back around to John Stuart Mill. I hadn’t seen these quotes before, but they’re brilliant. In On Liberty, he addressed this very issue by calling such price hikes a de facto “sin tax” because, then as now, it’s a regressive tax that punishes the poor for not behaving as some people might want them to.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

And:

“To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.”

As O’Neill concludes, that’s simply “prohibition through the backdoor, targeted at those whom the political classes consider to be reckless and self-destructive.” On this side of the pond, it’s all that moralizing plus anti-alcohol groups trying to convince us it’s about safety and “the children” and saying that raising the price will fix all our problems, and the economy to boot. Problem is, it never works. It’s just another attempt at Prohibition. Prohibition Lite, perhaps, but the aims are the same.

Comfort Food & Beer

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Friends and regular Bulletin readers will already be aware of my obsession with comfort foods. Almost all of my favorite foods fall into that category: frites, potato chips, bacon, shepherd’s pie, Monte Cristo sandwiches, cheese, peanut butter pie and pretty much anything fried. So a few weeks ago, when I got a call from my friend, brewer Brian Hunt from Moonlight Brewing, I was especially susceptible to an idea he had that craft beer, too, should be considered a comfort food in its own right. I loved the notion immediately and we got together to talk about the idea over a few pints of comfort beer. The result of those discussions — plus some more research and conversations — was a feature I wrote that was just published online at the Brewer’s Association’s new CraftBeer.com, entitled Is Beer Comfort Food?

As a word nerd, I was fascinated to discover that the phrase is actually a fairly modern one, though there’s some disagreement as to its actual origin. The first use of the phrase appears to be in 1966, though it was an isolated occurrence and did not catch on at that time.

In “The Thin Book,” a 1966 work by ‘”a formerly fat psychiatrist’” named Theodore Isaac Rubin. The book’s ad copy read, ‘”Learn about ammunition foods, comfort foods and emergency foods.’” Reached in New York, Dr. Rubin recalls: ‘”I just made it up; I didn’t hear it anywhere. It means food that makes you feel good, that was always available and would help to sustain a diet.’” (“Ammunition foods” never made it into the canon.)

Likewise, Liza Minnelli (and I assume that yes, it was that Liza Minnelli) used the term in “Dieting Is All Well and Good— But Give Me ‘Comfort Food’!”, a piece she co-wrote with Helen Dorsey for Pennsylvania’s “Clearfield Progress’” Family Weekly section in July of 1972. That’s most likely why Wikipedia incorrectly identifies its origin as 1972.

But it appears to be in the latter half of the 1970s that the concept of comfort food began to catch on. The Merrian-Webster Dictionary lists its first use as 1977, making it roughly the same age as craft beer itself. Merriam-Webster added it to their dictionary the same year, although it wasn’t listed in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary until 1997.

In the May 1978 issue of Bon Appétit, an article entitled M.F.K. Fisher on Comfort Foods appeared, somewhat solidifying the term, though some point to a March 1985 column by New York Times food writer Marian Burros, “Turning to Food For Solace.” William Safire credits her for popularizing the term, writing in 2003:

Burros was largely responsible for the term’s popularization. In a 1985 Times column titled ‘”Turning to Food for Solace,’” she wrote that the restaurateur George Lang, owner of New York’s Café des Artistes, “said his comfort foods ‘are foods I can eat any time, whether I’m full or not…. Comfort foods are the perfect tranquilizer.’” Lang said, ‘’My whole childhood is brought back with goose liver,” and the sophisticated food columnist revealed her own nostalgia for spaghetti and meat sauce or a tuna-fish sandwich.

Word expert Barry Popik disagrees and in his blog The Big Apple has undoubtedly the best account of the various claims to the term’s origins.

But back to the original question, is beer a comfort food? Brian Hunt and I think so, and so did several other brewers I spoke to. To find out why we think so, check out Is Beer Comfort Food? on CraftBeer.com.