Last Wednesday the Supreme Order of Beer Book Intelligentsia Non-Grata1 met for the fifth time. This time in 2015, this time at Community Beer Works, this time having read a book which has never been in print in this country.
I had been a little worried no one would show up. On account of the never-been-in-print thing.
My fears proved unfounded, with the local beer community proving exceptional as always. Mark, Scott, Dave, Alex and myself sat down with pints of IPA — drinking Singularity (Mosaic) before anyone else, because indulging me in my projects has its perks — and talked about Hops & Glory by Pete Brown.
Spoiler: we liked the book
Probably moreso than in any book club past we agreed on pretty much everything. For one: we loved the book. I remembered it being one of my favorite books, beer focused or not, which I reaffirmed. It’s just fun. Part history of India Pale Ale and part travel diary as Pete Brown recreates the journey, the narrative bounces back and forth between East India Company era India and the present day, as he finds out that not only does nobody take that trip anymore but that doing so is essentially impossible.
People used to drink a lot
Like, a lot. One person had written a letter boasting of having drunk 234 bottles of IPA in one year. “That’s not so shocking,” I thought, “that’s not even one per day.” Then I realized it said 234 dozen.
At various points in British India’s history the landed gentry seemed to be more or less tanked the entirety of the day. You’d be considered a wet blanket if you weren’t. Then being visibly drunk — or even drinking visibly — became considered uncouth, until it didn’t again.
Similar to the alliance of convenience between brewers and the temperance movement in 19th century US2, beer was initially seen as a drink of moderation: better have a few pints of Allsopp’s than drink yourself into a stupor on arak, locally fermented gutrot.
We all kind of want to try arak
Once Pete reaches India he hits the town with a local beer lover as guide. “I want to try arak,” he tells him. “No, you’ll go blind!” “Not the cheap stuff on the street, the commercially made kind.” “That’s what will make you go blind,” the guide says. “The cheap stuff will just kill you.”
And yet, like when a server places a hissing plate of fajitas in front of me and says “Careful, it’s hot,” I want to see exactly how terrible it would be for me. I’ve eaten a KFC Double Down, becoming covered in grease and self loathing, and if they ever bring that hot dog thing to the US I probably won’t be able to resist: how much worse for me could arak be?
But why IPA?
Hops & Glory did a wonderful job of clarifying the IPA origin myth, affirming what was true and clarifying what wasn’t. The story generally goes that people wanted beer in India, couldn’t brew it because it was so dang hot but found that the stuff currently being brewed spoiled on the trip. Enter a higher alcohol, more highly hopped beer: the alcohol helped it age and the hops acted as a preservative.
That’s mostly true, except the small amount of porter that made its way to India generally arrived intact. Some spoiled, but then so did some IPA. Instead, IPA’s rise to prominence came partly because clear glassware gave it a more aesthetically pleasing configuration but mostly because drinking a dark, heavy beer in extreme heat just isn’t that enjoyable. IPA was refreshing, and also bitter: given the gin & tonic’s later popularity it seems as though British Indians prefer things bitter.
That explains then: what about now? Why, after Anchor and New Albion and all the other craft breweries emerged, did IPA become the thing? I mean hell, we’re currently in an annual competition of 128 IPAs: I don’t see the National Dortmunder Export Championship.
We discussed possibilities with the air of a group of friends who had had a beer or two, which is to say I’m not presenting any of this as factually accurate but more along the lines of what made sense to us. I said IPA is sort of punk rock, an angry negation of the norm: “This isn’t yours”, “You don’t like this.” Dave called it a shibboleth, a way for people to signal their tastes by their actions. I liked that idea because I like it whenever anyone says “shibboleth.”
Alex had a sudden thought that I’m quite interested in exploring further, even if it winds up being completely untrue: wine is seen as being more high class, but it’s also feminine. IPAs, and craft beer in general, combine the social status of wine with the masculinity of beer. I actually wrote four paragraphs exploring the concept before pasting them into a new document for a future post. Back to the book, and the beer.
We held an impromptu tasting
As I read the early parts of Pete’s journey, about the production and early popularity of madeira, an aged and later fortified wine, I remembered that I actually had some in that cellar of mine. I had seen it in Premier one day, remembered reading about it in Hops & Glory and picked it up. I brought it, and between the five of us we finished off the bottle.
Then Scott had shown up with a smile and a bottle of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Bog Water. Bog Water is a gruit, a beer made without hops, and while we all enjoyed it the general consensus was that it was the most beer-like of gruits we had tried. My blanket statement that beer lovers are the friendliest people you’ll meet continues to prove correct, and thank you Scott for the beer!
I had one final treat with me: a bottle of Hodgson’s IPA. Hodgson was the producer of the first IPAs and had a monopoly until Allsopp’s and then Bass jumped in, and so when I saw the bottle I actually swore in surprise. I assumed the license had been sold a handful of times in various mergers, consolidations and fire sales, but upon reaching the car and reading the back of the bottle I discovered that the name was only an homage by New Zealish3 brewer Ben Middlemiss. No matter: I quite enjoyed it.
The next book
Then there was the matter of what we would read next. I knew what I was going to suggest but felt a little bad about it. Mark felt the same way, about the same book, but Alex saved us the trouble by immediately saying “Ethan’s book.”
There you have it: we’ll be reading Buffalo Beer by Michael Rizzo and Ethan Cox, with the discussion May 27 at the brewery. One of the co authors might even be there to talk! On account of he co-owns the place.
And hey, while you’re here: if you’d like to meet both authors, get your book signed and have some beer while you’re at it, they’ll be signing at the brewery Thursday from 4-7. Just sayin’.
Now then: who can hook me up with some arak?
We may need to rethink that acronym ↩
Cf. Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle, our second book club ↩
“New Zealish” is what you call something from New Zealand and nothing can convince me otherwise ↩