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Beer before capitalism

18th Century Norwegian Ale Bowl, copyright Victoria and Albert museum
Bradley Hughes

June 20, 2020

Review of Historical Brewing Techniques: The lost art of farmhouse brewing, by Lars Marius Garshol, Brewers Publications, 2020

This book is meant for brewers but it also illustrates how much we lost when capitalism took over the world.

Lars Marius Garshol likes beer and in his travels he came across a number of beers that were incredibly different from any he had previously tasted. He discovered that there are farmhouse beers made using methods and ingredients that have been passed down for generations across northern Europe, especially in his home country of Norway.

He combined in person visits to traditional brewers across Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Lithuania and other places with extensive research in museums and archives. The result is a little encyclopedia of lost beer brewing methods and ingredients. As such it is an invaluable aid to any brewer looking to learn new (ancient) brewing methods and how to use new (centuries old) ingredients.

It's also a look at the fascinating history of beer outside the commercial brewing industry.

Up until the 1800’s or later, most people lived on farms, and nearly everything that was needed on the farm was produced on the farm. This included beer. You would grow your own grain. Then spend the several days required to malt the grain – the heating and drying process that turns the starch in grain into sugar so that it is fermentable. And then spend another day or so making the wort – the fermentable liquid that yeast turns into beer. The yeast would be carefully harvested from each batch of beer and kept to start the next. If your beer turned out poorly, you could borrow yeast from one of the neighbouring farms.

Since grain was sown from grains kept from the previous harvest, over the generations strains of grain arose that were adapted to their own neighbourhood. This would result in local grains with their own unique colours and flavours. Nearly all of these landrace strains have been replaced by commercial mono-cultures, and so their unique properties are lost forever.

The same thing was true of yeast. Yeast from the best beers would be shared around, and those that didn’t turn out so well would be abandoned. Across Norway, traditional brewers have been handing down a strain of yeast that is radically different than what became the standard commercial beer brewing yeasts elsewhere in the world. It brews much faster and hotter then other strains.

Once Garshol explains how beer was produced and consumed on a self-sufficient farm it becomes clear why these yeast characteristics were chosen over centuries of brewing. The faster the yeast grows the better chance that it can out compete the bacteria that will sour the beer. Fermenting at higher temperatures helps speed it up, but it also means that beer stored in a cool cellar will stop fermenting. This leads to a sweeter beer, and when you bring the beer upstairs a few hours before you serve it, the yeast will start fermenting again. Fermenting yeast produces carbon dioxide, and so you get mildly carbonated beer without needing pressurized containers.

However, with the end of self sufficiently on the farm, many brewers turned to commercial yeast. In some cases for ease of use, but also due to the perceived status and superiority of store bought versus home made products. Some of these unique varieties of yeast, with their surprising flavours survived – handed down through generations. But many, like the unique strains of grain, have disappeared forever.

The same is true of various unique brewing methods, there is a written record, but without a living brewer to show us how it was done, and some beer to taste the results, it is probably impossible to reproduce these beers.

There is no need to romanticize the back breaking work of pre-capitalist farming methods. Garshol recounts the efforts of a farmer in Norway whose crop failed and he had to walk 100 km to buy a barrel of grain to support his family. The grain was too heavy to carry, so he divided it into two sacks. After carrying one a distance, he would put it down and return to pick up the first one. Turning a 100 km trip home into a 300 km one. He also points out that the greatest technological advance for farmhouse brewing is probably the garden hose, replacing endless trips with heavy buckets to the well.

A loss of flavourful beer yeasts and unique grains may not seem like much of a price to pay in return for garden hoses and supermarkets. But this loss is widespread across all sorts of foods and production methods. And it has never been about efficiency, or raising living standards, this destruction was only ever in the interests of the profits of a few.

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