Literary Beer Episode 0: Ruminations

Mon 22 Oct 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Michael

People not familiar with the publishing world tend to look at me askance when I tell them I’m an intern at a place called “Small Beer Press”. It’s the beer part that throws them, I think–knowing me and my fondness for froth, they suspect me (not unfoundedly) of jerking them around. And I must admit that upon first presenting myself at Small Beer Press, I was a tiny bit disappointed that beer didn’t play a more important role in the proceedings.

Well, I am here to remedy that.

Gavin invited me to blog about brewing. Brilliant idea! Can’t think of why it never occurred to me before, except that I’ve only been brewing for just over two years–a relative newbie compared to some of the hoary old beerheads with whom I consort. But given such a fine opportunity, I am more than happy to have a go at combining my two not-so-disparate passions–writing and brewing.

What, I have at times been asked, can the brewing of beer possibly have to do with the business of books? Ha! I am often inclined to respond (though I resist). Ha!

Fill with mingled cream and amber
I will drain that glass again
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chambers of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies,
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.
–Edgar Allen Poe (copied from the bathroom wall of a pub in Washington, DC)

I most recently came across the term “small beer,” used in its original sense, in a lovely annotated edition of R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped that I picked up at a library book sale. The year is 1751. David Balfour, our orphan boy hero, arrives at the home of his last living relative, an uncle, only to be greeted with the blunt end of a blunderbuss and promptly sent packing. Not so easily deterred, and with no other ready prospects, our hero persists, and at last the old coot begrudges him a seat at his table, a miser’s share of homemade porridge, and half a pint of small beer from his personal stash. What does this mean, exactly? It means the old coot is too much of a miser to go trading his precious coin for a dram of the pale when he can cook up his own on the cheap. Homebrew!

As a synonym for homebrew, “small beer” went out of wide use in this country during Prohibition, when all beer was small beer because it was illegal, and nobody bothered making beer anyway because it was far more profitable to make hooch. Not until 1979 (tellingly, the year of my birth) did the brewing of single batch beer in the comfort of one’s kitchen cross back into the good graces of the Man. Since then, it has become popular to refer to small beer by its trendier synonym, “microbrew”.

It so happens that the independent publishing of striking and unusual speculative fiction has quite a lot in common with the meticulous small-batch brewing of delicious alcoholic beverages. First, that DIY spirit. Second, an under-the-radar uniqueness. Third, a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment.

And finally, an exhilarating hint of the supernatural.

My friend and beer ally Scott Andrews once pointed out the link between the fantastic and the alcoholic. Human civilizations have been built around the brewing of spiritous drink for four thousand years and longer, but the existence of yeast wasn’t discovered until 1680, and its role in the fermentation process wasn’t understood until the mid-nineteenth century. So from the drunk slaves who built the pyramids right up to the merry pumpkin-ale-brewing wenches of frontier New England, nobody really knew how the spirit was getting into the drink. You filled an open vat with soupy, starch-and-sugar-infused liquid, looked away for one waxing and waning of the moon–and by magic, when you looked back, the same stuff not only tasted better, it made a hard life easier to bear. Belgian monks in the middle ages attributed the fermentation process to an act of God. A myth dating from the Egyptian Early Kingdom conflates beer with the blood of Hathor, a vengeful war goddess who, after Osiris got her drunk, was transformed into a kind and nurturing goddess of motherhood and fertility. For most of the history of recorded literature, the art of brewing was a branch of sorcery.

Right then. Unless I get into my cups at the keyboard, that will probably be it from me as far as ruminations on the sublime nature of beer. Though if I come across any other great beer myths or beer lit, I’ll pass them along. And I’m not swearing off the occasional dabbling in beer history. But other than that, it’ll be DIY from here on out.

Up next: my first-ever effort at hard cider.


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  1. Literary Beer Episode 1: Traditional Hard Cider : Not a journal. on October 26th, 2007 7:56 pm

    […] (Episode 0 explains the conceit.) […]

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