As I sip the fresh West Coast India Pale Ale, the floral aroma hits me like the incense of a Solemn High Mass. The Irish Abbess, St. Brigid of Kildare, during the twilight of the Roman Empire equated heaven with a lake of ale and I understand what she meant. Then with my friend, we say sláinte as we toast with our Gin and Tonics. They are made with craft tonic and a local gin that uses botanicals from the farmlands of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. There is the snicket taste, but also the flavor of our homes on the coastal borderland of southern and central California.
Beer and gin are two of humanity’s great elixirs. In The Philosophy of Beer and The Philosophy of Gin, English cicerone (beer sommelier) and pommelier (cider sommelier) Jane Peyton offers philosophies of these philosopher’s stones. Peyton does not so much write literal philosophies of gin and beer in this duo of monographs, but rather a celebration of the drinks intermixed with history and trivia. Peyton writes in Beer, that she has chosen themes that will allow the reader to become a “Mastermind in Beer Knowledge.” Analogously, Gin coaches one to obtain a Master’s in Gin Knowledge. Two contributions to the British Library’s “The Philosophy of . . . ” series, the alcoholic tracts are published in quality hardcover with wonderful historical illustrations.
It may or may not be appropriate to call Peyton’s texts “philosophy,” but she does touch on aspects of political philosophy such as taxes, deregulation, and prohibition. (She also gives a nod to the great Pliny the Elder, after whom the quintessential West Coast Double IPA is named.) Before reflecting on philosophical considerations, I will give examples of the hoppy flavor of Beer and the jenever piquancy of Gin.
Ale and Beer
Monks have long been involved in winemaking, given the need for sacramental wine in the monasteries. And there was usually some for their own imbibing, too. In his eponymous Rule, St. Benedict of Nursia dictated the proper amount of wine for a monk. In a discussion on religions and beer, Peyton notes that one of the reasons the Trappist monks, who interpret St. Benedict’s Rule in absolute austerity, became associated with brewing is because some monasteries were in areas where grains grew better than grapes.
In the Middle Ages, there was a difference between ale and beer. The former did not include hops, while the latter did. While ale and beer are now used interchangeably, adding hops to ale was revolutionary since the oily resin in hop flowers contains antibacterial compounds that are preservatives. The German Benedictine Abbess and Doctor of the Catholic Church St. Hildegard von Bingen stated that the hop, due to its own bitterness, not only makes beer taste better, but makes it last longer. Beer could now be stored, which lead to commercial brewing. Thus, the alewives who peddled ale out of their kitchens, and the Church that sold gruit (the inferior preservative that was used at the time) began to lose their customers to commercial Big Brewing by the 1400s thanks to hops.
One of the most popular current styles of beer is the India Pale Ale (originally, East India Pale Ale), which emerged in England. While it is named after one of the subjected countries in the First British Empire, it could have just as easily been called the West Indies Pale Ale or New York Pale Ale. Ships carried the hop-laden ale for long voyages from England. It was used for nutrition and hydration for the sailors as well as ballast for ships on their outward journey. Peyton puts to rest the often-repeated claim that the reason this beer is called IPA is because it was meant specifically for the British soldiers occupying India. This is false since this type of ale existed in the early 1800s (known as an October Beer for the time of the year it was traditionally brewed) and was sent wherever the British had colonies.
Genever and Gin
Other than the “Gintroduction” at the beginning and a gin-based cocktail menu and glossary of types of gins at the end of the book, each chapter of Gin has a theme based on “Why we drank gin.” For example, in the chapter about gin in eighteenth-century England, the reasons are “Desperation, Addiction.” The British gin of this era was far from its roots in Dutch genever and was essentially distilled poison that led to a mortality rate higher than the birth rate during the height of the Gin Craze. As we’ll discuss in the next section, the British government repeatedly meddled, with predictable results, in the gin market in hopes of ending the craze.
Just as the India Pale Ale earned its name due to the high seas, the Gimlet and Pink Gin cocktails were born on the ocean. Around the early 1800s, British sailors began mixing their anti-scurvy rations of citrus juice with gin, which became known as Gimlet. The medicinal bitters in the Pink Gin had a rose-colored hue, which was served as a seasickness preventative. The Gin and Tonic traces its lineage as a drug to fight malaria. The antimalarial agent quinine became a key component of tonic water since it was tonically used as a prophylactic and a therapeutic. Thus, gin has the singular distinction of being the alcohol that has both saved and destroyed the most lives.
The pot still benefited from the Industrial Revolution. The Irishman Aeneas Coffey created a still in 1831 based on Scotchman Robert Stein’s column still that generated a cleaner and higher-caliber distillate. While the Coffey Still was created with whisky in mind (its inventor being an Irish customs agent), it worked perfectly for gin as well. Since the Coffey Still produced a smooth gin (essentially a vodka), distillers began to add botanicals from around the world to make a pleasant tasting gin.
Governments Drunk on Power and Taxes
A motif throughout the monographs is the role of the government in the regulation and taxation of alcohol—a story about how government can be purposefully unaware of the notion of unintended consequences.
The British Government was in a bind during the Gin Craze. They were raking in taxes on gin, but at the same time, gin was destroying society in much the same way that fentanyl is in the United States today. (The American government is neither corrupt enough to tax fentanyl nor competent enough to stop it from being illegally imported from China and Mexico.) Parliament passed the 1729 Gin Act that restricted gin sales to licensed premises and set a high cost for the license. This did nothing to stop the unlicensed selling of gin in the streets. The 1733 Gin Act paid informants a hefty award for the conviction of an unlicensed seller, but perhaps unsurprisingly, several informants were beaten to death.
The 1736 Gin Act quadrupled the duty on gin and vastly increased the cost of the license to sell it. While this did cut down on the number of legal establishments, street sellers began to sell gin under other names to skirt the law.
The myriad of acts did nothing to stop people from drinking gin, but it did increase other illegal behaviors and reduce the income of the Exchequer. It was not the government that made gin less lethal, but the Coffey Still. The Coffey allowed for a cheaper and cleaner gin to be made without such additives as cyanide, turpentine, and sulfuric acid. Where the government failed, individual ingenuity succeeded.
In 1825, Parliament passed an act to reduce the duty on spirits in response to widespread smuggling of alcohol. The most immediate effect was that the amount of gin consumption in England doubled. This led to the 1830 Beerhouse Act that allowed individuals to brew and sell beer for an inexpensive license, resulting in Public Houses overtaking Gin Palaces. This battle between spirits and beer is happening today in the United States as distilleries are arguing for a reduction in their taxes so that they are commensurate with those of brewers.
Peyton informs us that the Magna Carta’s Clause 35 gave legal protection not only to beer, but also to the cereals that were used to make it. In laws before and since, governments have regulated and taxed beer (and wine) just as they have gin and other spirits. Peyton mentions the increased criminal behavior during Prohibition and the turning of the law-abiding into criminals by the mere raising of a glass of gin or beer. She does not, however, discuss how turning something that is a commonly exercised natural right into a crime inevitably leads to these two actualities. While the afront to natural law that is the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, many Prohibition legacy laws remained on the books. One of these bitter endowments continued until 1979 when the House and the Senate voted almost unanimously for the legalization of home-brewing, which Jimmy Carter signed into law.
The legalization of brewery pubs on the west coast in the early 1980s, coupled with a home-brewing law five years prior, led to the growth and innovation of American ale that all beer lovers have benefited from. While Peyton glosses over this story, it would have been illuminating for her to detail how deregulation led to technological advancements in brewing equipment and proprietary hops. American distilleries are now also having a renaissance thanks to decreasing governmental intervention.
Peyton’s philosophies of beer and gin are refreshing, and they go down as quickly as a crisp lager on a summer day or a dry gin martini after a long day’s work. Both monographs are soused with enough alcoholic information to make you a Beer and Gin Meister. Like good beer and gin, these books should be shared among friends and discussed while you are at your local pub. But before you leave, remember don’t drink—or read—and drive!