Reviews

Beer Is a Funny Thing

The Comic Book Story of Beer shows how the evolution of beer parallels the evolution of civilization. Bottoms up to civilization!


Aaron McConnell

The Comic Book Story of Beer

Publisher: Ten Speed
price: $18.99
Format: Paperback
Author: Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith
Publication date: 2015-09
Amazon

Billed as the tale of “the world’s favorite beverage from 7000 B.C. to today’s craft brewing revolution”, this graphic novel comes through with an entertaining and educational history of beer. Framing the history spanning story in a comic style makes it much more interesting than reading a normal book about beer history, thanks to the superbly versatile artwork from Aaron McConnell. Reading the book is like using a time machine to witness the evolution of beer from the fermented gruel of ancient times to the dazzling array of microbrews we’re blessed with in the modern era.

What gives the book an extra kick is the enlightening history of the socio-political impact that beer has had on the evolution of civilization. When stone age humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to grow crops, was it because of hunger or thirst? The book paints a picture suggesting that early agriculture was all about brewing, because it was such hard work that it had to have a payoff in this “flavorful, mystical and socially important beverage” to make it worthwhile. The case for such a theory mounts with hieroglyphic records suggesting that the laborers who built the Egyptian pyramids were paid in beer, “food, drink and reward all in one.”

A chapter on the brewing process provides some basic background before the history lesson moves into the Dark Ages and medieval beer. Here we learn about beer being brewed household by household, giving rise to what came to be known as Public Houses or Pubs where people could meet up and drink beer. Then there’s the advent of brewing in monasteries, where monks made beer to support themselves and fund charitable works.

Another chapter details “The Hops Revolution” in which beer grows into a genuine commodity since hops not only improved taste but also shelf life, due to antimicrobial agents in the the hops. This in turn enabled beer to become an article of trade. We also learn that wars over religious freedom in the middle ages were in part financed by tax money taken from beer drinkers. It was apparently a shortage of beer that led the pilgrims to end their Atlantic voyage and settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Classic patriots such as William Penn and Ben Franklin were top beer enthusiasts of their time and we learn that beer-drinking gatherings were havens of free speech. Brewer Sam Adams took umbrage at having to provide occupying British soldiers with five pints of small beer or cyder per day, which he considered a most unfair tax. So it’s seen that beer very well may have helped spark the American revolution, making it a most patriotic beverage, indeed.

The industrial age brought the evolution of styles to include porters, india pale ales and lagers with some great artwork depicting mutating yeasts in a classic X-men fashion. We learn of the advent of the Munich Oktoberfest in 1810 to fete a royal marriage and the pivotal development of mechanical refrigeration thanks to engineering research funded by the Spaten Brewery.

Then there’s the marriage of Adolphus Busch into the brewing family of Eberhard Anheuser, with Busch turning his father-in-law’s brewery around with a lager recipe from a monastery in Budweis, Bohemia. Those who don’t care for such product might call this a dark day in beer history, but Busch also helped pioneer the use of railroads for beer distribution. Another pivotal moment in American history occurred with the end of prohibition, when it was deemed that legalization of beer would create 300,000 jobs. Beer is good for the economy!

But many smaller local breweries had fallen into disrepair during the 13 years of prohibition, leaving industrial beer titans to control the market. By 1979, there were just 44 American breweries, a mind-bogglingly low number from the vantage point of the 21st century. But the seeds for the craft beer revolution had already been planted.

A pivotal moment occurred in 1965 in San Francisco when the Anchor Steam Brewery, with roots in the California gold rush era, was on the verge of bankruptcy. The brewery was saved when Fritz Maytag bought a majority share to keep it going, one of the great heroic acts in beer history. Quality and character were valued over quantity, fueling commercial success amidst the revelation that some beer drinkers were willing to pay more for good beer. The authors credit Maytag and Anchor Brewing for catalyzing the craft beer revolution, a most righteous honor, indeed.

The American Home Brewer’s Association and Great American Beer Festival soon followed, as well as legislation in 1978 that legalized home production of beer for personal use (although states such as Alabama and Mississippi only came on board in 2013!) Then came the brewpub movement in the early ‘80s and there are now over 3,200 breweries in the United States, making this truly the golden age of craft beer. The authors celebrate this at the end of the book, with a number of proclamations about how this has enhanced modern life.

“Like clothes or costumes, new beers can help us imagine someone else we might have been or could yet become… We are astonishingly lucky to find ourselves drinking beer at the best time to do so in all of human existence!” they write, and how true it is. The Comic Book Story of Beer shows how the evolution of beer parallels the evolution of civilization. Bottoms up to civilization!

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