Beercraft newspaper column #99: In praise of the pub-

In praise of the pub

By Mark Tichenor & Bruce Lish

Beer at its best is not a solitary pursuit.

The most carefully made selections, the vastest collections, and the fanciest homebrew setups ring hollow without people with whom to share.

Beer has been a community beverage since its invention. Often communally made, most cultures established places within their towns and cities where the people could gather, discuss ideas, and often behave in atrocious ways.

In ancient Sumeria, drinking house providers who shortchanged their patrons on measure were drowned in their own beer, which showed how serious societies can get about these things.  It also lent the beer a distinctive piquant earthiness.

In Germany, the breweries themselves usually opened a Bierstube and or a beer garden out front, which quickly became the nexus of their communities.

But nowhere did the public drinking house become as much a part of the national character as in the British Isles. From Georgian times, the pub served as social spot, entertainment hub and home away from home for people from Land’s End to the Orkney Islands.

For Americans, the classic image of the British Pub gelled during World War II, US servicemen on leave brought back fond memories, which wound their way into popular American culture and media.

That image continues to this day. For many bar owners, American love for the pub aesthetic drives décor choices, floor plans and beer selection.

That’s a good thing, because for as long as the pub existed in Britain, certain sections of the government and the population have been at war with the very idea of its existence. Though never as successful as the temperance movement in the USA during the 1920s, influential social engineers in the UK were able to pass laws which, at various times, limited the alcohol content of beer, tightly constrained hours of legal operation, and seriously impeded potential pub owners during the licensing process.

In addition, the tied house system spurred the growth of, but then ultimately decimated the pubs of the UK. Under tied house, pubs were funded by large breweries, and therefore were required to exclusively sell their breweries’ beer. That might have been all well and good when there were hundreds of great British breweries, but as the brewing industry imploded it was a death knell for the social hubs of countless communities around the Isles.

The pub in is still limping along, increasingly in the form of large chains that buy beer in bulk, and operate under such tight margins that they cannot turn a profit unless they confine their offered beer to those brands for which their parent companies obtain those bulk pricing discounts.

Fortunately, the pub ideal lives on in the USA. Nearly every city sports a place or six where folks can still come together in a home away from home, amid comforting surroundings, familiar faces, and unfamiliar beers.

And that aesthetic need not manifest itself in the form of Victorian décor, a giant wooden bar, and a cheery pink-faced publican referring to you as “guv’nor.” The spirit of the pub is now integral to how we perceive friendliness, comfort, and varying degrees of inebriation in dives, sports bars, and even chain restaurants. It’s a friendliness that has permanently modified our culture.

So, even if you tend to be kind of a homebody, it’s a good idea to give your local pub a chance every now and then. If you don’t, you’re using the world’s greatest social lubricant to, well, to only lubricate yourself.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://www.beercraftsite.com. Find us on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

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