Clues to the Meaning of Beer

To learn who made beer, and what they made, you can open any of a number of histories. But to find out what beer really meant to people, how it fit into a culture, it can be very helpful to turn to other areas. Literature, film and less overtly historical works can offer surprising clues to the meaning of beer.

One of the earliest writers to tell us about the image of beer was Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), whose curiosity about Mount Vesuvius led him to Pompeii where the city’s last days became his own. He was survived by his Natural History in which he noted, “Beer is everywhere the beverage of barbarians.”

Pliny’s snobbism, common to the wine-loving Greeks and Romans, has been echoed ever since. Actor William Bendix’s restatement of Pliny’s truism in the film Guadalcanal Diary (1943) is especially memorable. “Beer,” he intones on the eve of battle, “strictly a middle-class beverage.”

There are other, earlier indications of this attitude in American arts and letters. In 1861, poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

We – Bee and I – live by the quaffing
‘Tisn’t all Hock – with us –
Life has its Ale.

Which is to say, life isn’t all Hochheimer, a white wine; some days, you have to settle for beer.

A kindred spirit of Miss Dickinson’s, Clint Eastwood, uses beer to make a point about manliness. In his film High Plains Drifter (1973), Eastwood agrees to defend a Western town against outlaws. To seal the deal, he buys everyone a drink — whiskey for the men, but beer for a midget.

The image of beer as a drink for small men is given a twist by English poet A.E. Housman in A Shropshire Lad (1896). Here Housman sees ale as a drink for regular sized fellows with small minds.

Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows who it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.

Beer as lower-class anesthesia makes appearances in American literature as well. In Frank Norris’s McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), we find this reflection on steam beer:

“For a moment, Trina stood looking at him as he lay thus, prone, inert, half dressed, and stupefied with the heat of the room, the steam beer, and the fumes of the cheap tobacco… Ah, no, ah, no, she could not love him… or else, worse than all, she would come to be content with him, would come to be like him, would sink to the level of steam beer and cheap tobacco.”

Sinking any lower would be difficult in vintage American hard-boiled detective novels. They are sprinkled with references to beer as the chosen beverage of the weak, the bad and the ugly. In Dashiel Hammet’s Red Harvest (1929), the detective hero is too tough for beer; his preferred drink is whiskey, straight from the flask, or gin laced with laudanum (a tincture of opium). “I’d drink nitroglycerin tonight,” he says at one point. Beer is left to the mob of Reno Starkey; they drink “a lot of beer” one evening and then rub out a rival bootlegger in a particularly gruesome fashion.

Raymond Chandler in The High Window (1940) speaks of “women with faces like stale beer.” The film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1944), with a script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, includes this exchange between a woman who wants her husband murdered and the man she’s sounding out for the job. “Would you like some ice tea?” she asks. “Unless you’ve got a bottle of beer that’s not working,” And so the subtle escalation from tea to beer, from insurance salesman to murderer.

The more contemporary literature of squalor contains some redeeming characteristics for beer drinkers, including this tribute to sailor with extraordinary olfactory skills in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V (1963):

“I am AWOL,” said Pig. He closed his eyes. Fu came back with beer. “Oh boy, yeah” said Pig. “I smell Ballantine.”

“Pig has this remarkably acute nose,” Fu said, putting an opened quart of Ballantine into Pig’s fist, which looked like a badger with pituitary trouble. “I have never known him to guess wrong.”

Another man in uniform, Radar O’Reilly in a TV episode of M*A*S*H, notes, “Guys with tattoos always drink beer.” More tattooed beer drinkers appear in Zap Comix #2 (1968), where one of artist S. Clay Wilson’s Hog Ridin’ Fools gives voice to this sentiment, “Just give me some beer and the road and I’m together!”

The biker’s love of beer was well chronicled by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels (1967), but malt references can be found throughout his works. In “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (1970), one passage speaks volumes about the uneasy relationship of beer and the open road:

“I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a beer in one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit.”

In Salvador (1983), author Joan Didion comments on beer and manhood with this description. “In the schoolyard, there were trees, and tables, where the Queen of the Fair, who had a wicker crown and European features, sat with the local guardia, each of whom had an automatic weapon, sidearm and bayonet. The guardia drank beer and played with their weapons.”

But not all authors use beer as a symbol for the negatives of manhood. Ernest Hemingway, in The Old Man and the Sea (1955), offers a quiet, positive vision with this simple scene between the old fisherman and the young boy who wishes to fish with him:

“I would like to go,” the boy says. “If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve you in some way.”

“You bought me a beer,” the old man replies. “You are already a man.”

English literature, as well, offers positive references to beer. In Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), while young Tom is recuperating from a broken arm at the home of Squire Western, we learn the Squire’s opinion of beer:

“As to Squire Western, he was seldom out of the sick-room… Nay, he would sometimes retire hither to take his beer, and it was not without difficulty that he was prevented from forcing Jones to take his beer too; for no quack ever held his nostrum to be a more general panacea than he did this; which, he said, have more virtue in it than was in all the physic in an apothecary’s shop.”

Englishman William Cobbett’s memoir, A Year’s Residence in America (1818) had this to say about beer:

“The soldiers… had a saying, that the Quakers used the word “tired” in place of the word “drunk.” Whether any of them do ever get tired themselves, I know not; but at any rate, they most resolutely set their faces against the common use of spirits… and I am very happy to know, that beer is, every day, becoming more and more fashionable… I was pleased to see excellent beer in clean and nice pewter pots. Beer does not kill. It does not take the color from the cheek. I will make men tired, indeed, by midnight; but it does not make them half dead in the morning.”

American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Essays, Second Series (1844), spoke up for beer as well.

“God made yeast, as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.”

Emerson’s friend and contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, relates his encounter with spruce beer in The Maine Woods (1846) in reverential tones:

“Instead of water we got here a draught of beer, which, it was allowed, would be better; clear and thin, but strong and stringent as the cedar-sap. It was as if we sucked at the very teats of Nature’s pine-clad bosom in these parts… the topmost, most fantastic, and spiciest sprays of the primitive wood, and whatever invigorating and stringent gum or essence it afforded steeped and dissolved in it, — a lumberer’s drink, which would acclimate and naturalize a man at once, — which would make him see green, and, if he slept, dream that he heard the wind sough among the pines.”

Now, that’s beer. And again, in a popular romance by James Oliver Curwood, Flower of the North (1912), we read of beer and nature:

“…go and seek nature in some quiet, secluded place, and forget everything for a fortnight or two except your clothes and a half dozen cases of beer. Rest! Nature! Beer!”

Eleven years later, in the city of Baltimore, editor and author H.L. Mencken showed the same feeling for beer in a letter to friend Phil Goodman:

“Crabs will be on the table, mountain high, and there will be some of the best beer you ever tasted. This brew, indeed, almost makes me weep. It is the noblest, by far, ever broached in my house — a full-bodied semi-Dunkles, not too bitter and yet not too sweet, running about 5% of ethyl alcohol by volume. I shall reserve 30 bottles for you.”

Similar light shines in Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939), in which British humorist P.G. Wodehouse describes the effect of a pub’s beer upon a jilted lover

“Nothing can ever render the shattering of his hopes really agreeable to a young man, but the beer purveyed by G. Ovens, proprietor of the Emsworth Arms, unquestionably does its best. The Oven’s home-brewed is a liquid Pollyanna, forever pointing out the bright side and indicating silver linings. It slips its little hand in yours and whispers ‘Cheer up!’”

The subject of beer can even make writers rhapsodize about objects that others might find lowly and insignificant. Consider these words on “The Beer Can” (1964) from John Updike, as he mourns the coming of the tab top:

“This seems to be the era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements. Consider the beer can. It was beautiful — as beautiful as the clothespin, as inevitable as the wine bottle, as dignified and reassuring as the fire hydrant. A tranquil cylinder of delightfully resonant metal, it could be opened in an instant, requiring only the application of a handy gadget freely dispensed by every grocer. Who can forget the small, symmetrical thrill of those two triangular punctures, the dainty piff, the little crest of suds that foamed eagerly in the exultation of release?”

Or these words on food from Ernest Hemingway’s “Hunger Was Good Discipline” from A Moveable Feast (1964):

”… (when) the waiter asked if I wanted beer I asked for a distinque, a big glass mug that held a liter, and for potato salad.

“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a Cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.

“I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly.”

From the meaning of beer to a hungry man, consider these words on the meaning of beer to men freed from imprisonment, from Henri Charriere’s Papillon (1969). After escape from a penal colony in French Guiana in 1933, Charriere and a friend savored their first night of freedom in Port of Spain, Trinidad:

“We went into a bar and asked for two beers. It doesn’t seem like much to say, “Two beers, please.” It came so naturally, yet it seemed fantastic… all these little things that appeared so natural to everybody else seemed to us fantastic and magical… You were so recently a member of the living dead, a con condemned for life, and here you are in the process of becoming a free man!”

Clues to the meaning of beer. One more, from the last hours of author Marcel Proust, dying at his home in Paris in 1922. As he neared the end, he sent his chauffeur, Odilon, to the Ritz Hotel for a bottle of his favorite beer, which was always kept on ice for him. He feared the beer would not come in time, but it did. After a final satisfying sip, his last words were, “Thank you Odilon, for getting the beer.”

* * *

This piece was written for the program of the Great American Beer Festival in 1987.

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