It’s been said that the ocean has no memory, and if the same could be said of a beverage it would undoubtedly be true of beer. The ancient libation — its brewers’ arts hearkening back over untold millennia — is said to be the world’s third most popular beverage, bowing only to water and tea in populist preference.
Truly, beer has no memory. Thought to be among the world’s oldest prepared beverages, beer’s legacy is traced by some as far back as 9,000 B.C., recorded in the written history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; laws regulating its brewing and distribution are inscribed on the seven-foot basalt slab of ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi. From that time to now, our regard for the brewer’s endless variety has taken on nearly as many faces as there are facets to that variety — from deific proportion to the veritable staff of life, to lowbrow swill and, most lately, to gourmet status worthy of the sommelier’s regard. Truly, beer is all that and more, reflecting the tastes and proclivities of its devotees, slaking their thirsts and lubricating their lives, for better or worse.
An eminently democratic beverage, beer has always been of, by and for the people. The brew was born and raised in the kitchen, the province of Europe’s celebrated ale wives — the recipes of whom often eclipsed the demand for rich dowries or even a glamorous profile — whose product gave rise to the ‘public house,’ or pub, now an inextricable part of the culture, not only in Europe, but worldwide. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the brew moved for a time from the kitchen to the factory, as giant corporations sprung up to thrive on both our enduring love for the draught and enduring need for its intoxicating nudge out of the everyday grind. Today we find the pendulum swings back, as in all great historical movements, to find the brewer back in the kitchen, as the art thrives with an exploding array of micro-brews, niche and underground labels, home craft and more.
It’s perhaps in the democracy of beer and ale that their appeal most takes root, for there has never been a time in world history when a frosty mug or frothy tankard lacked the power to render the strife between foes altogether moot, even if only temporarily. The idea is alive and well even in this age of a nearly hopelessly polarized America — as evinced in President Barack Obama’s recent “beer summit” that sought to bury the hatchet simultaneously between red and blue, right and left, black and white, and between academia and the salt of the earth. It might have taken three vastly different brews to cement the toast between such disparate realms as president, professor and police officer, but such is the nature of beer to be so accommodating. And so between glasses of Sam Adams, Bud and Blue Moon, the hatchet was buried, to the delight of — if neither left nor right, black nor white — at least beer aficionados everywhere.
It’s in the same manner that business is frequently transacted over a draught or few: “I’m a biologist, and I was meeting in downtown Sacramento,” notes Venturan Steve Howard, “dealing with the conservation of endangered species on the West Coast, and we’d always finish up saying ‘Let’s take this to the pub.’ And we’d frequently seem to get more done over beers, with a much more relaxed atmosphere, even though we were talking about serious stuff.” He continues, “We’ve been involved in some lawsuits, and I always think, if we’d just take this over to the bar, we might actually come up with some common ground.”
Such social alchemy of the brew remains central to its appeal, as since time immemorial we have sought some means of transport out of ourselves — seeking what Aldous Huxley termed “doors in the wall” of perception that offered perspectives, if not revelations, beyond our often oppressive everyday experience. “The longing to transcend ourselves, if only for a few moments,” he wrote in 1963, “is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.” Likewise in 1952’s The Devils of Loudun, he observed: “Always and everywhere, human beings have felt the radical inadequacy of their personal existence, the misery of being their insulated selves and not something else, something wider, something in Wordsworthian phrase, ‘far more deeply interfused.’ ”
The wish to be “more deeply interfused” seems to fit the notion most aptly — and if the nomenclature feels a bit thick in everyday parlance, it would likely resonate for one regarding his domain from “deep in his cups.” Truly, could any be regarded as “more deeply interfused” than a pair of barstool brethren ensconced in a musky, dusky tavern? While such heady syllables as Huxley’s might remain out of reach of those in the arms of the deep amber embrace, they frequently effect the identical sentiment with a heartfelt, even if too-often slurred, “I love you, man,” that for all its ridicule is no less profound — at least until the onset of the hangover.
As with the democracy of beer, so is its profundity likewise central to its appeal. It’s no coincidence that early in its history the production and distribution of brew became inextricably tied to both quasi-religious practice as well as to demonstratively religious institutions. Ecstasy through intoxication has long been and remains an essential part of the religion of people in widely disparate cultures across the globe. History shows it as an essential aspect of the religions of the Celts, the Teutons, the Greeks, pre-Islamic cultures of the Middle East and many others. Citing Huxley, “Malt does more than Milton (poet) can to justify God’s ways to man.” Beer is the god. Though the sentiment may ring blasphemous to Christian sensibilities, it likely rings increasingly true as the blood alcohol percentage rises.
Even in cases where it has not supplanted God, beer has certainly financed Him: under the dictum that monasteries be self-supporting, much ecclesiastical industry in the Middle Ages centered on the brewing of beers and ales — and while many of Europe’s monastic breweries were destroyed in World War II, the practice continues to this day, with Trappist monks still producing some of the world’s most celebrated labels.
Another of beer’s many gifts is a long-standing and, contrary to contemporary popular belief, unequivocal view that the brew bestows and supports good health. In early days, when water supplies were too-often contaminated, the process of brewing rendered beer sterile and so unfailingly safe, thus embodying the physician’s first mandate of “first, do no harm.” (Of course, while it must be noted that alcohol has and continues to wreak havoc in countless ways, such is certainly not the singular province of beer.) Beyond the purely utilitarian superiority of beer to bad water, beer enjoyed a legendary status as delivering healthy and restorative effects — in the Emerald Isle, Guinness thrived under the simple, effective maxim, “Guinness is good for you.”
While contemporary sentiment might have overturned that notion, again, we find the pendulum swinging back to jibe with a more anachronistic view, as researchers at Tufts University reported this year that among older adults — especially women — a regular, moderate intake of beer is associated with greater bone mineral density. Their research was independently supported by a Spanish team at the University of Extremadura, inspiring a new look at the benefits of the old brew.
By the same token, according to the pundits that inform the “go-to” answer site www.about.com, “… Along with increasing bone density, the presence of folate in beer helps lower the risk of heart disease when consumed in moderation. Beer also reduces blood clots, and it has been shown to improve mental function in women.” Thus, while many women have, at least in modern day, been far less enamored of the amber brew than their masculine counterparts, it’s perhaps an ethic that’s changing.
According to Vincenzo Giammanco, who heads up Ventura’s upcoming California Beer Festival, advance tickets for the event have so far been selling in greater numbers to women than men, an aspect that he finds most pleasing. “A lot of women will say ‘I don’t like beer, what else do you have,’ ” he notes. “When I ask what they’ve tried, they’ll reply, ‘Coors Light.’ Well, that’s not beer,” he laughs. “Yes, it’s beer, but there’s so much more out there! With our festival we’re excited to provide a good opportunity for people to get out there and see how diverse the world of beer really is. If, when all’s said and done, we make new beer lovers out of a few women — or men, for that matter — our festival can be considered a great success.”
No matter where one resides on the scale of beer appreciation, from the refinement of the beer sommelier to the everyday devotion of Homer Simpson (“… mmmm, beer …”), there is a beer for just about everyone. Having no memory, beer simply is, as we’d have it, for better or worse, for all time. “It’s really an amazing thing, beer,” concludes Ventura beer lover Joe Lombardo. “An age-old beverage that can bring people together, complement food, support industries both large and small. It’s definitely going to be around as long as we are.”
The mecca for beer lovers comes to Mission Park
The diversity of a world of brew comes together Sept. 26 with food, fun, music and the charms of a Ventura summer day as the inaugural California Beer Festival debut at Mission Park in downtown Ventura. Founded by Ventura filmmaker Vincenzo Giammanco, the fest seeks to claim a niche in the busy festival year that already boasts three music fests, four film fests, salsa, strawberry, chocolate festivals and more. “It’s hard to just walk into a place and say, ‘Hey, I want to throw the California Beer Festival here,’ ” Giammanco notes. “At first people weren’t too excited about the idea — especially after a couple of the last festivals downtown weren’t that successful, a lot of people were a little skeptical. But we’ve worked very hard to put this together the right way. Thanks to the DVO (Downtown Ventura Organization) and people really getting behind it, it’s going to turn out to be quite the event.”
Boasting an astonishing 70-plus different brews, the event comes to Ventura with the aid of dozens of sponsors and a great deal of anticipation among both beer lovers and people who are simply looking for a good time. “Some people might expect to find drunkenness and such at a beer festival, kind of the lowest common denominator of old-school beer culture,” notes Venturan and beer aficionado Steve Howard. “But I’ve been to a number of them, and what you find is just a really great place to meet people and talk about beer and the brewing arts, a place to enjoy the day and have a good time.”
Explaining his motive behind the enormous work of mounting such an ambitious festival, Giammanco says, “I just love beer, and I’m fascinated by the many different kinds of beer. California has tons of micro-breweries — and it’s really like a fine wine, you can taste it, taste the great variety in flavors from one to the next. Every beer has its own unique taste; it all just comes down to how much love and care are put into the making of it.
“The festival is going to be a great opportunity to show that there’s a lot of great beer being made in this area that people don’t even know about,” notes Adam Bell, head brewer at Ventura’s Anacapa Brewing Company, which is among the event’s sponsors. “I’m Italian,” notes Giammanco, “and I’ve always found that beer and food are just the two things that everyone bonds over. That’s what inspired me to create this event, which is really about getting together as a community with friends and family, and inviting people from all over to come and discover what a beautiful home we have here in Ventura.”
Proceeds from the event will go to DARC (Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center), a nonprofit organization that funds programs for low income/at risk youth with learning and attention disabilities.
The California Beer Festival, 1-5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 26, in downtown Ventura’s Mission Park. Tickets, $35, available at the gate or online at www.californiabeerfestival.com.