Non-Fiction Reviews

How beer explains the world

( 2017 ) , Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 187pp, ISBN 978-0-198-80830-5


To start with a summary. This work has a serious purpose and occasional levities do not conceal that this is to give a high level perspective of the sort of processes which have dictated the progress of the world's brewing industry over recorded history. No small undertaking in a mere 160 pages with scattered basic graphs and statistical tables; much more so given that the viewpoints are supplied by professionals who presumably expect their observations and deductions to be applicable across business domains other than just brewing (or I misread).

The style of the book is, however, not quite that arid. This is a good general reader’s text demanding no specialist preparation. Leaving aside the prevalent references to American culture which might seem a mite exclusive to UK readers, they do distil a sense of the 'global' movement as a whole and frequently convey a sense that things are happening according to universal and perhaps only poorly understood imperatives. Consequently, readers already familiar with the economics of other businesses might agree, with surprise, with what they find, while beer aficionados have before them a handy complement to existing knowledge and a range of very recent information resources to pursue.

Not so recent as to allow for any attempt to second guess the native industry’s post-Brexit future; no pleas are entered on anyone's account. Given the global focus, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is little if anything to cover the role of consumer organisations in shaping the late 20th century beer world. You are sometimes left with the picture of the market as a mere duality between producers and the drinker in isolation.

The range of material runs from Sumerian culture to adverts on commercial TV and from London porter brewing to the eventual outcome of the "enforced secularisation" of continental monastic brewing. The biographies of brewers and of their institutions are recounted, new and old, established and upcoming alike, revealing that the story is not necessarily one of competition, but sometimes of collaboration leading to survival, sometimes with unlikely strategies being deployed and always against a background of circumstances which cannot be taken for granted, with catastrophe beckoning where this is ignored.

Of particular interest might be the potted history of British brewing and, central to this, the effects of legislation on the domestic market and on European wine imports. In general, due attention is paid not solely to markets in history but also to the emerging ones; the vast and occasionally sudden changes here are examined, and factors contributing to shifts to, and away from, beer consumption in differing parts of the world. Along the way we see that ‘beer’ suits economic models as being a commodity and as such acquires a purpose which has had to be re-evaluated to suit conditions, driving new approaches to its marketing, which then in symbiosis entail further reconsideration of purpose. It is, however, not forgotten that there are cases in which individuals with a dedicated drive have founded new enterprises, sometimes serially, with the stimulus coming directly from a sense of being in opposition to a large monopoly whose stance towards that purpose is divergent, wilful or hard-headed.

A whole game-box of concepts abounds in combinations such as regal patents, cartels, concentration of production, tax farming, protectionism, covert motivation, scientific (and unscientific) development, collective effort, economies of scale, standardisation and business takeovers. The chapter on the brewing revolution in the ex-Communist countries is particularly hair-raising.

Any socio-political theorist will have matter to chew over from here to Christmas, and if you don't know your gruitrecht from your Reinheitsgebot and you really can't pick a Pilsner from a Porter on a good day, you'll get this and a good deal more here.

Roland Amos

Roland Amos is a member of Bexley CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale).

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