There are plenty enough well-known quotes about beer. Some of the best-known, unfortunately, are made up. However, it’s still possible to come across great, genuine yet little-known snippets. Here are 20 of my favourite beer quotes in need of wider broadcasting:
“If [beer] is … the people’s beverage – and nobody, I take it, will deny that it is just that – its history must of necessity go hand in hand, so to speak, with the history of that people, with the history of its entire civilisation.”
John P Arnold, Origin and History of Beer and Brewing, 1911
If I ever worry that the history of beer is a little trivial, I re-read this passage from the American-German beer writer John Arnold and feel that, yes, I’m recording part of the story of my people, my civilisation. OK, people?
“See that ye keep a noble house for beef and beer, that thereof may be praise given to God and to your honour.”
Advice given to Leonard, titular sixth Lord Dacre, in 1570
Leonard Dacre was one of the leaders of the Northern Rebellion, a revolt designed to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England. But he managed to lose the battle of Gelt Bridge in Cumberland in 1570 despite outnumbering the Elizabethan forces two to one with his private force of 3,000 armed men, raised from the local tenantry. He subsequently fled to Flanders via Scotland, dying three years later. Part of the motive behind his taking part in the rebellion seems to have been his failure to claim the title of Baron Dacre of Gilsland after the death of his nephew, the fifth Lord Dacre. In the manoeuvrings before the rebellion took off, Leonard was sent a letter by one of his dependants, Richard Atkinson, telling him how to maintain the loyalty of the Dacre tenants in Cumberland, which included the excellent advice above about beef and beer.
I was going to ignore the latest claim by Ratebeer to have found “The best 100 beers in the world as rated by tens of thousands of our worldwide tasters” on the grounds that nobody in the real world cares what a bunch of loopy extremophiles drinks or thinks. Especially when there are far more important things going on outside in the streets. Really – a “world’s top beers” in which seven out of the top 10 are imperial stouts? You are having a laugh. As Stephen Beaumont pointed out on his blog, “In the style listing of the top 50 beers, the word ‘imperial’ appears 39 times!” This has nothing at all to do with what most people who enjoy beer actually drink or want to drink. I enjoy a good imperial stout, but it’s just one of a wide range of styles I rate highly, and not even the top one.
However, as I watched Mubarak attempt to save his sorry arse by telling the Egyptians it was all the fault of the people he had appointed, and he was going to appoint another bunch of people instead, a corner of my brain was rolling over the deeply dangerous implications of Ratebeer people’s obsession with the extremities of beer.
Because the first problem is that more normal drinkers, if they see that list, are going to look at it and get an utterly distorted and entirely false idea of what really great beer is all about. It’s like telling people that the best dishes available in restaurants are all vindaloo curries, or the best bands in the world only come from the different varieties of metal. And that won’t encourage them at all to explore the huge variety of other fantastic beers that are available.
It will also encourage journalists who know no better to frame beer enthusiasts as people totally out of touch with the “normal” beer drinker, and only interested in beers with 100 IBUs and abvs of 10 per cent or more.
The second, and perhaps worst problem is, as Stephen Beaumont hints, that this sort of utterly distorted listing encourages brewers to concentrate on “extreme” beers, with more hops, more numbing flavour, more strength, to try to impress the blinkered tasters that seem to form the majority of Ratebeer members, to the detriment of those of use who want nuance, subtlety and depth in our beers.
And if you want a perfect example of how the “enthusiasts” of Ratebeer know absobleedinglutely nothing at all about beer, here’s their “best beers of the British Isles 2011”, in which Guinness Draught Stout, a barely average beer at best, is not only at number 13, but three places ahead of Guinness FES, a world classic.
(Incidentally, when that Ratebeer list first went up, it listed the styles of each beer, so you could speedily see that the top was dominated by imperial stouts. Strangely, after uncomplimentary comments about that aspect of the results, the “styles” column has disappeared. You may think this is an Orwellian attempt to rewrite history: I couldn’t possibly comment.)
Someone has put Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “John Barleycorn”, a “lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, from the BBC Culture Show programme, up on YouTube: you can find it here and, if you haven’t heard it yet, I feel confident in saying you’ll enjoy it greatly.
Duffy’s poem is a rare and brilliant exception to the general rule that poetry about pubs and beer is mostly pretty bad: Pete Brown commented in Hops and Glory that India Pale Ale in particular seemed to inspire Britons stationed out in Bengal, Calcutta or Madras to dreadful attempts at rhyme and metre. Here’s one I reproduce for its awfulness: it appears in
the autobiography of a book by Harry Abbott, who was an officer in the Indian Army manager of an indigo factory in Bihar, north-east India in the last half of the 19th century, and, as it happens, grandson of a partner in Hodgson’s brewery, Edwin Abbott. This was “a song which used to be sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”, that is, 1830s to 1850s:
‘Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.
There are almost no descriptions of brewing processes in Britain from the medieval period, a reflection of the universality of ale and the universality of the knowledge of how to brew it: similarly “everybody” in the British Isles today knows how to make a cup of tea, and nobody wastes their time writing down a narration covering how to mash the Assam and when to add the milk.
One odd account of brewing “cerveyse”, or ale, was recorded in a late 13th century collection of poems written as an educational guide called the Treatise of Walter de Biblesworth, or, in his own words and spelling, “Le treytyz ke moun sire Gauter de Bíbelesworthe”. Biblesworth, or Bibbesworth, who was born in or before 1219 and died some time in or soon after 1270, was a knight who owned Bibbesworth manor, in Kimpton, Hertfordshire, and he was friends with some powerful people in the England of Edward I, such as the de Lacys, earls of Lincoln, and the de Veres, earls of Oxford. His rhyming treatise is written in the Norman French of the 1200s, with many obscure words. Here is the section on brewing:
One of the perks of being a journalist is that you can get married in St Bride’s, the church at the foot of Fleet Street in London which continues to be the “journalists’ cathedral”, even though the hacks and blunts have all moved out of Fleet Street and their former offices are now occupied by bankers and lawyers.
St Bride, or Brigid, is, of course, an Irish saint, from Kildare, and when the lovely E and I married, she being Irish and me being a journo, there seemed no better place to have our marriage blessed than a church dedicated to journalism and named for an Irishwoman.
While I was putting together the order of service, I even found a suitably beery quote from The Life of St Brigid the Virgin, written by a Kildare monk, Cogitosus Ua hAedha, around AD650, to use as one of the readings:
On another extraordinary occasion, this venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.
The anonymous minstrel who, some time around 1210, took Laetabundus (“Full of Joy”). a popular Nativity hymn to the Virgin Mary written by St Bernard of Clairvaux, and rewrote it in Norman French as a song in praise of beer, Or Hi Parra, was taking a risk.
It was certainly a clever parody, leaving the last line in each triplet in the original Latin, but ensuring the new lines altered the interpretation of the remaining one, so that “Semper clara” no longer referred to the Virgin, “always bright”, but the beer pouring from the barrel, “always clear”, while “Carne sumpta” no longer meant the Word “becoming flesh” but was turned into an instruction to hungry drinkers – “take the meat!”
Not all the original Latin lines stayed totally unaltered: “Valle Nostra“, “our valley”, was changed to “Valla Nostra”, “our health!”, a toast to the company of tipplers. But the power of the parody was undoubtedly that even first-time listeners would have been very familiar with the tune, and the proper words (Laetabundus was sung in churches all over Europe, and was especially popular in France and England) and could join in singing the still-Latinised bits.
However, Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux in North Eastern France, who was made a saint only 21 years after his death in 1153, was one of the most powerful figures in the 12th century Roman Catholic Church, and the man who prosecuted Peter Abelard for heresy. It seems unlikely he, or his fellow Cistercian monks, would have been delighted at some dodgy itinerant hurdy-gurdy player turning his best-known, faith-drenched hymn to the Virgin birth into a tavern sing-along about ale.