Sunday, 8 May 2011

Why drink beer?

It's a question I've never really asked myself. Why do I drink beer? Because it gets me pissed would be an honest answer. Or maybe I'm just trying to look tough.

The good people of Worktown (Bolton) came up with more sensible reasons when they were asked.


There are two sorts of explanations as to why people drink beer. One is really the explanation of why men drink, why they go to pubs. It is the answer to what is called the "drink problem". This we won't attempt to give until near the end of the book. But the reasons that people themselves give for drinking beer are a different matter. A competition in the local press (organized by us) brought a number of replies relevant to this.

Reasons of health and/or beneficial physical effect, the factors recently stressed in brewers' advertising, were given by the majority; and the greatest number of actual references in the letters were to these reasons. 52 per cent mentioned them. Their references (some gave two or three reasons) are classified as follows:

Health Reason Given  Percentage Giving This Reason
General health-giving properties  24%
Beneficial effect in connection with work, or refreshing after work  17%
Good effect on appetite  14%
Laxative effect  10%
Sleep inducing  10%
Nourishing  6%
Tonic  8%
Valuable properties of malt and hops  6%
Vitamins  6%
Diuretic  2%

35 per cent of people gave social reasons — drinking for companionship. Other kinds of statements were made. One communication, in capital letters on a small piece of paper 4.5 inches square, said: "My reason for drinking beer is to appear tough. I heartily detest the stuff but what would my pals think if I refused. They would call me a cissy." This may be meant as a joke, or even an invitation; but it may far more likely be a genuine cry of distress.
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), page 42.

The last paragraph highlights one of the dangers of any anthropological investigation: not realising when your subjects are taking the piss. Personally, I think it's much more likely piss-taking than a cry for help. But it's impossible to know for sure.

It seems, though, there were some who genuinely hated the taste of beer:

One correspondent wrote us that he only went into the pub with his friends for the sake of their company—"otherwise I am sure I should never set foot in a public house . . . actually loathing the taste of every glass of beer that I drink". This is true of others; beer is often spoken of as "an acquired taste".

A letter from a woman who certainly has acquired it, is the following:

My reason is, Because I always liked to see my Grandmother having a drink of beer at night. She did seem to enjoy it, and she could pick up a dry crust of bread and cheese, and it seemed like a feast. She said if you have a drink of beer you will live to one hundred, she died at ninety-two. I shall never refuse a drink of beer. There is no bad ale, so Grandma said.

A man aged 66 wrote:

Why I drink Beer, because it is food, drink, and medecine to me, my Bowels work regular as clockwork and I think that is the Key to health, also lightening effects me a lot, I get such a thirst from Lightening, & full of Pins and Needles, if I drink water from the tap it's worse. Beer makes me better the more I drink better I feel, neither does it make me drunk, when a Boy a horn of Beer before Breakfast was the foundation for the day.
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), page 43.

Funny that "acquired taste" stuff. I've heard it said often. I'm sure it's true, though my personal experience was quite different. I got acquired the taste for beer after one mouthful. When I was 15. I can remember trying my Dad's Davenport when about 11 or 12. It had a funny bitter taste and I decided I liked in better mixed with lemonade.

The last correspondent wasn't affected by thunderstorms. The Lightening he refers to must be something used in the cotton industry. His experiences of beer-drinking tally with mine. The more I drink the beeter I feel, too. A horn of beer before breakfast - I wonder why that custom has died out?


Anonymous said...

I see that 10% drank because of the laxative effects.
It might have been a higher proportion in Nottingham as Shipstone's was renowned for this ; it used to be said "If it doesn't go through you in 24 hours you're a corpse"
One of the brewers told me that this wasn't surprising bearing in mind the amount of Epsom Salts used in the water treatment.

Matt said...

I'm amused by the reasons given in the table: nourishing, health-promoting, sleep-inducing etc.

Like me, I'm sure if they were being honest they would have said that they drank beer because they liked the taste and its socialising effect.

Gary Gillman said...

I think if the respondents were honest, or more searching, they'd have said they drink for the effect of the alcohol, which is a calming, sedative effect.

It is true beer is an acquired taste, and it sounds like it was the second mouthful that convinced you Ron, after a hiatus. A quick learner though, to be sure. :)

I too remember the first taste, at about 14 also, in my grandparents' flat in east end Montreal. It was probably Dow Ale or O'Keefe Ale - neither is made today but Molson Export Ale, which Jackson gave a decent rating to in his early pocket guides, would be close. I'll never forget the weird taste in my mouth.

Today, beer doesn't taste remotely like that to me, and I drink far more "beerier" beers than that. I have always wondered why this is, since, if something is truly revolting, how could you learn to like it? Perhaps it is like many tastes young people don't acquire naturally in many cases (e.g., herring, liver, canned tuna).

One think brewers have never done in advertising, perhaps for legal or social reasons, is explain why beer tastes as it does. Michael Jackson was the first writer I read, and perhaps the first one comprehensively, to do that. Once he explained it (that the aromatic bitter of hops is a counter to the sweetness of cereal malt and yeast imparts a fruity or earthy taste, etc.), it all came together for me. Although I had acquired the taste by then for mass-market beer, what he did helped me understand the assertive taste of more traditional beers, beers which to that point I would not have liked. Stout, say. "Oh, okay, it tastes like that because it is SUPPOSED to, now I see". But I also got into the history and tradition of it as he explained it, which helped the process along.

It's all a learned behavior in other words; but isn't everything?