More Bad Beer History

Yesterday this nonsense was posted on a beer-related Instgram account that nearly18,000 people follow: “The word ‘toast,’ meaning a wish of good health, started in ancient Rome, where a piece of toasted bread was dropped into wine.” What a load of tripe.

While there might be an etymological connection from the latin torrere, to parch, there is no clear connection between a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine and the word “toast” being used in the afore mentioned way.

Bread and wine were staple foods in the ancient world and as such, likely made for decent bed fellows. There is no fundamental objection to saying the two went together in some combination. However, Romans added a lot of things to their wine: water, honey, various herbs and spices. Bread was likely among that list of things, but if you do any amount of reading on the subject you’ll find numerous additives far more common than bread.

What little substantiation there is to be found on the matter indicates that the charcoal on toasted bread was a means of dulling off flavors in wine, like some kind of pre-modern Brita Filter, or that it was meant to cut wine’s acidity. Neither claim about bread’s ability to perform those tasks can be rejected out of hand, but the addition of water was a more likely way of cutting acidity, as was honey and herbs to cover off flavors. Moreover, any historical precedent given as evidence for this to be true cites customs from the 1700s rather than those from classical antiquity.

The word toast (both the food and the action) might well be derived from the original latin verb. But to indicate there is a straight line between that word, and a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine becoming a metonym for honoring someone or something before a drink is a gross oversimplification of things. Rarely is history so linear.

If that were the case, wedding speeches would all started something like this: “I’d like to propose a combination of water and honey and maybe a few herbs? Is that coriander or hyssop? I can’t tell. Anyway, I’ve known Jim for a long time now…”

Here’s to keeping bad history out of beer.

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Strong Beer Month and SF Beer Week: a Personal Primer for February Brewdiligence

It’s Fe-Brew-ary! At long last that phonetic convention we all use to remember the proper spelling of February has come in handy to make a creampuff of a joke. In addition to facile word play, the second month of the year means two things: strong beer month and the annual San Francisco Beer Week. It’s 28 days of high octane brews with a week of unmitigated celebrating for all things beer thrown in for good measure.

From the 10th through the 19th, SF Beer Week will run beautifully amok, featuring tap-takeovers, unlimited pours, food pairings and dinners, special releases, meet-the-brewer, educational events, and more. In terms of total area, San Francisco is a diminutive city, but within its relatively petite confines you’ll find a densely packed collection of venues to host the afore mentioned festivities. That, coupled with severely inflated tech salaries that give people the financial leeway to guiltlessly drop money on such things, creates a dizzying array of beer-bashes to choose from. Things could get real ugly given a full 31 days. Even a leap-year might get sideways enough to crash Twitter for a few hours.

For my money (what little there is), I tend towards anything with an educational bent, or the what I feel like I can skew in that direction on my own. Mostly I do this because it’s just the way my brain is wired; research, writing, the curating of facts, and what to others seem insufferable and inconsequential minutiae, are what I love most. I’ve been this way my whole life. Anything I have ever taken an interest in has become an object of study. By turning this attitude on Beer Week, and beer drinking in general, I can curb my tendencies towards excess, and avoid fellow beer lovers who strive for it. I would love to hit every all-you-can-drink party throughout the week, but I’ve matured (somewhat lamentably) enough to know that of the 50 plus beers I might be able to try in one place, I’ll stop remembering them at about 15. What’s more, I won’t get bombed enough to think it’s a good idea to start yanking pretzels off the necklaces of strangers who just want to collect commemorative glasses and funnel as many double IPAs as they can. I don’t judge or begrudge that as a Beer Week endgame, but if I go to a talk on sours that is accompanied by a few tastes, odds are strong I’ll meet some like-minded people, learn a little something, and leave reasonably buzzed.

That said, the marquee events that I’ll not be attending without the aid of a benefactor or a press pass both include unlimited pours. Drunken debauchery may be an element at either, but shouldn’t rule the day. A great way to bookend your Beer Week Experience would be to hit these:

  • The Opening Gala at Pier 48. Over 125 breweries are helping to kick things off. This is sure to be equal part shit-show and best-night-ever, but at between $80 and $120 a ticket, I’ll save my money for something a little less raucous and sidestep possibly falling over a railing into the bay.
  • The Celebrator Beer News 29th Anniversary Party and Fund Raiser for the California Craft Brewer’s Association. 30 plus breweries will be pouring their best stuff for a crowd that is heavy on industry insiders. The more modest $60 price tag includes food, making this the event to pull the trigger on if you don’t mind paying for it and commuting to the East Bay. Though it does not have an explicitly educational element to it, this is the kind of event where if you keep your ears open and your mouth shut between sips, you will walk away knowing more about craft beer than you did when you arrived, and having met many of the people who make this whole thing go ‘round.

My other two if-money-were-no-object events of choice would be either of the off-flavor courses being offered. Diacetyl? Solvent-like? Buttery flavors in my beer? These are things I know in name alone. I should be thankful that I am not getting spoiled or poorly made beer regularly enough to be personally acquainted with off-flavors, but in my pursuit to be a more educated beer drinker, they are things I should experience first hand and learn to properly identify. If you are inclined to sleep with the enemy, there are a couple of options: A two day, advanced off-flavor course at The Beer Hall, presented by Master Cicerone Rich Higgins, the other at the Drake’s Dealership in Oakland given by cicerone.org. At $85 and $49 respectively, they’re a lot of money to go willingly go taste bad brews, but for a monied beer geek, either would likely be an eye opening experience.

In thinking about off-flavor courses, I began to wonder how they find all the bad beer. Do they actively seek it out and save it for the occasion? I’ve been imagining cicerones bellying up to the bar, ordering pint before exclaiming, “My God, man! This tastes like shit! Can we buy the keg?” Maybe they walk around in search of unkempt looking beer bars and asking questions like, “What have you got that’s chunky and smells like asparagus?” Are they intentionally making small batches of off flavor beer and letting draft lines foul? My guess is that it’s something else entirely, and one of the first things they address will be where they sourced the study materials.

As for the events I’m choosing to attend, most have the educational element I favor. Some of those will put me in proximity to special releases happening that same day. One is just to see friends that are in town for the week. Some of the following may change. I might have to skip something, I might make an impromptu trip to this place or that. So long as I come away from the week feeling as though I’ve gleaned something new from my experiences and not drank myself into a coma or new pant size I’ll be happy. After all, it’s only beer.

My Beer Week Schedule

Friday, February 10 – Lament the fact that I won’t be at the opening gala. Console myself with a  couple pints of strong beer (can’t let Strong Beer Month slide by the wayside) at the Magnolia Pub, while keeping in mind that crowds the size of the one to be found at Pier 49 that night are dreadful, and that fear of missing out is for people in their twenties.

Saturday, February 11- Go get my learn on with Ferment Drink Repeat. $20 bucks to try eight beers and have owner/brewer and nationally ranked beer judge Kevin Inglin drop some delicious science on those of us thirsting for knowledge and some his exceptional brews. FDR is probably my favorite brewery in the city right now. I could go on at length telling you why, but will save that for another time. Just know this is an essential stop on the San Francisco brewery circuit.

Being at FDR puts me in proximity to Laughing Monk, who are releasing a couple of barrel aged beers that day, including a Belgian Tripel with peaches and aged in Wente Chardonnay barrels (I’m not generally a Belgian guy, but that one has really peaked my interest). Speakeasy isn’t too much farther down the way, and they doing an oak aged, unfiltered version of their Pop Gun Pilsner which also sounds promising. Beyond that I’ll have to resist my urge to push on into the night and catch the bus home to save my energy for Sunday.

Sunday, February 12-  SF Beer Week’s Annual Battle of the Guilds. Brewer’s guilds from San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will come together at Sessions at the Presidio pouring 45 different beers. Guilds are an often overlooked and unheralded part of the craft beer movement; they put together the events we love so much, and generally speaking, work their tails off behind the scenes. I’m particularly excited about this one, knowing I’ll get to see some good friends who are in town for the occasion. The beer could all be garbage (guaranteed it’ll be the farthest thing from it) and I’d still peg this as the likely high point of my Beer Week experience. Most of the time I skulk around the city alone, a half-drunk lone-wolf stalking fermented prey. I’m grateful to know I’ll have some old friends with me on this day.

Monday, February 13- Weekday outings can be rough for a guy with a day job, so I’m doing my best to keep them simple. On this evening I’ll make my way to the Woods Cerveceria on 18th St. They’re doing Medieval Beverages that night, pouring meads and gruits. The food historian in me is properly geeked for this one; I’ll be giving myself a crash course in medieval ales (really focusing on gruits) in the week beforehand, starting with Beer in the MIddle Ages and the Renaissance by Richard W. Unger.

Time permitting, I might stop by the Social Kitchen and Brewery on my way home for their annual Brett Fest, and have them break me off a piece of some of that funky stuff.

Tuesday, February 14- I’ll likely keep it close to home this night and see what’s happening in the Sunset. A quick trip around the corner gets me to the Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company, and little further down the way I expect the Lawton Taproom to have some Seven Stills beer flowing. From there it’ll just be another couple blocks to the newly opened Woods Beer Co. Outbound post, where they’ll have a special Trouble Coffee infused stout and a coconut pale ale going. Having plotted that out, the better move is to start at Woods and work my way closer to home. As in life, flexibility in Beer Week is key.

Wednesday, February 15- Likely a night off, but a great one to hit would be The Bruery’s Wild and Sour Takeover at The Old Bus Tavern. OBT is one of the best places in the city to eat and still highly underrated, and The Bruery, in my experience, just doesn’t know how to make a bad beer. A perfect pairing for a beer and bite. 

Thursday, February 16- The Eagle Rock Brewery takeover at the Social Kitchen and Brewery sounds promising and is close to home, making it the most likely candidate for me. The always awesome Harmonic Brewing is having a band and food pop-up that night in addition to beer specials, and though I probably won’t get there, Old Devil Moon will be pouring the best of breweries from the North Bay.

Friday, February 17- Triple Voodoo Yeast Profile Demonstration. Yeast plays a huge role in beer, yet its nuances remain something of a mystery to most. Save for being able to taste the flavors in Belgian strains, and knowing a bit about the differences between lager and ale yeasts, the little beast that makes beer beer is something I’ve left tragically unexplored.

Using the same base wort, Triple Voodoo is making five different batches with five yeast varieties. What a great opportunity to sit down with a flight and really put some thought into beer’s most crucial ingredient. With the exception of seeing my friends at the Battle of the Guilds, this is the night I’m looking froward to more than any other.

Saturday, February 18- The California Historical Society is showing “Brewers by the Bay” a documentary film about the history of craft beer in San Francisco, followed by a Q&A with director Jared Stutts. This would be a great chance to find some people who share my interest in the historical aspects of this whole endeavor.

All the same, if I haven’t decided to pull the trigger on the Celebrator party by this point, I’ll likely find a place to have a few last day brews and quietly reflect on the week. And by that, I mean I’ll probably put my loftier academic goals aside and get irresponsibly drunk after restraining myself for the previous eight days. There is a ton of good stuff to choose from, like Barrelhead Brewing’s Bacon, Bourbon, and Barleywine pairing, the Woods Beer Bus Tour which will take you to all five Woods locations, and City Beer Store’s Sea of Sours (sours are figuring even more prominently this year than last it seems). Ferment Drink Repeat’s Beers Off the Beaten Path progressive beer and food tasting will take people to four different locations in some of the lesser frequented neighborhoods in San Francisco, offering a different bite paired with an FDR beer at each location.

I don’t know what I’ll be drinking or where I’ll end up, but this will be my day to go big.

Sunday, February 19- Nothing. I’m taking a day of rest as the good Lord intended. There will still be a lot going on, but my liver and wallet will likely be ready to tap out by this point. So will the kegs at The Willows where their kick the keg party will include 50% off full size pours all night. That’s the kind of deal that could bring even the most weary beer drinker out for one more night of indulgence.

Whatever you end up doing, I hope you have fun, drink a lot of good beers while making an effort to learn something, and for Christ’s sake, don’t drive drunk. Lyft is everywhere, the busses cheap. Use them. If you have ideas about places I should hit, things that are not to be missed, or stories about your own Beer Week adventures, I’m all ears.

Cheers.

Brewdiligence: January’s Beer Research

One month in to my year long beer drinking schedule and things are going quite well. January’s research, both scholarly and liquid, went swimmingly. Save for one Saturday that might have gotten out of hand, I made it through without having a single beer that was not new to me. I did allow myself multiple pints of the same beer in one sitting, provided I hadn’t tasted it previously, because going to a bar for one pint is dumb.

The research I did was mostly focused on the ancient world, because that is where my area of expertise as a historian lies, though that article I found most related to my own beer drinking experience was about Colonial America, which I suppose really shouldn’t come as any surprise.

In addition to the articles, I am making my way through Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer: An Insiders Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. It’s a fun, light read, and packed with useful information, not just on tasting beer, but it’s history, the brewing process, glassware, etc. It’s a great place to start a beer education or just have on hand for reference. I’m considering it a primer to Michael Jackson’s epic, The World Guide to Beer. What makes Mosher’s book all the better is his admonition to not even think about reading it without a beer in your hand, and since he is an expert, who am I to say no?

Brewing an Ancient Beer, by Solomon H. Katz, Fritz Maytag, and Miguel Civil. Archaeology, Vol. 44, July/August 1991.

I’ve read, in more than once place now, that beer was the primary reason for domestication of grains. As a food historian I found this claim dubious, but never looked into it further; the times I have run across this it has been in beer-centric publications where one would expect this to be championed as fact. In this article the authors sought to explore the debate about what prompted grain domestication, and to then recreate an ancient beer as best can be expected.

Though the latter half of that might seem passé in the age of Dogfish Head’s  ancient recipe recreations, in 1991 there were significantly less people interested in such a thing. Fritz Maytag, craft beer visionary and former Anchor Brewing owner, helped research and write this article, and bottled the resulting beer. One wonders how well that sold. In today’s market it would likely do well. 1991 might not have been ready for it.

My bigger interest here was the veracity of the beer-before-bread assertion, and unfortunately this article did not shine any new light on the subject. The dispute goes back to the 1950s when Robert Braidwood and Jonathan D. Sauer held a symposium asking the question, “Did Man Live by Bread Alone?” Sauer, the progenitor of the beer-first argument, postulated that the work involved in grain domestication would not have been worth it to hunter-gatherers if the purpose was only food, but provides little evidence other than inconclusive archaeological remains to support such a claim. I read the entirety of the 1953 symposium (where not a single person agreed with him), in addition to numerous other articles, and none of them are able to convincingly argue a case for beer over bread. Maytag’s co-author here, Solomon H. Katz, wrote another article (Beer and Bread: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet) proposing the health benefits of a fermented beverage, along with the social impact of a readily available intoxicant might have motivate grain domestication, but readily admits any such conclusion cannot be definitively supported.

I love beer. You love beer. Beer being a prime mover in bringing wild grain under man’s sway is great fodder for conversation over pints, but until better evidence is presented, this notion should be put to rest. 

Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story. Michael M. Homan. Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 67, June 2004.

An interesting look at the integral role beer played in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Beer was prized at every level of society, being utilized in religious ceremonies, as a form of payment to laborers, and poured for ne’er do wells in taverns and brothels (Another article from 1931 mentioned that harem girls got three quarts of beer a day and  also made the now very politically incorrect assessment that “Evidently the Orientals liked ‘em plump then just as they do now”). Material remains play heavily here, including the discovery of clay stoppers used to control fermentation, which were previously thought to be tools utilized in cloth making. In many depictions of ancient beer consumption people are seen to be drinking beer through straws in order to filter out grain hulls and other detritus (like bugs) left over from the brewing process. These straws were made of long, hollow reeds and capped with tips made of metal or bone, many of which have been found at sites across the region.

Did Ancient Greeks Drink Beer? Max Nelson. Phoenix Vol. 68. Spring/Summer 2014.

Using textual evidence in histories, dramas, comedies, and philosophical works, Nelson makes a sturdy, nuacned case for his argument that beer was most certainly looked down upon by the Greeks. Yes, some Greeks definitely drank beer. But enough evidence exists in literature, either positive or negative, that a strong conclusion can be made beer was almost a non-factor in Greek society, and that wine was the beverage of choice regardless of social status. Beer was a drink used by non-Greeks and became a means of what is referred to as “othering.” In broad terms, othering is a way in which one group delineates itself from another by way of culturally specific criteria. In the case of Greeks and beer, to be a drinker of beer was to announce oneself as not being Greek, and by virtue of that, a lesser person. 

On a related note, the oft seen quote from Plato that says, “He is a wise man who invented beer,” needs to be put to pasture along with the beer before bread argument. Should someone be able to find any text where Plato mentions beer, let alone praises its creator, I would love too see it.

Brewing Beer in the Massachusetts Bay, 1640-1690. James E. Nelson The New England Quertlery , Vol. 71, No.4, December 1998.

A detailed and well researched expert from a larger work on the internal economy of colonial New England. The selection here traces the evolution of brewing from its colonial origins as an activity taking place mostly in private homes to fledgeling industry by the end of the seventeenth century.

One of the more noteworthy aspect of this article, and one which should be of specific interest to today’s beer community, is the presence of women as brewers. It’s a well known fact that women made more beer than men, from antiquity until the time brewing became a real means of financial enterprise, that fact is really brought to life here. Since most early beer making was done at home, and more specifically, in the kitchen, it was a job often included in their may chores. Country records show an inordinate amount of brewing being done by widows, and fathers routinely willed brewing equipment to their daughters.

The tension at play between home and commercial brewers, and the regulations placed upon both might also strike a chord with modern craft beer enthusiasts. Another modern analog to be found is the use of adjunct grains, indian corn specifically. When prices for corn fell below that of wheat, barely, and rye, it wasn’t long before corn played an increasingly large role in some recipes. Then, as now, this was a source of consternation, so much so that legal measures were taken to ensure that good barely was used over corn. In spite of the distance time and modern techniques might seem to wedge between us the beer drinkers of colonial America, it turns out they might have held dear some of the same principles we see in today’s craft beer movement.