MAGIC AND LOSS

If you go back far enough, magic, superstition, religion and science are all essentially the same: observing phenomena in the world and forming the best theory you can about why they happen. By Pete Brown

I know someone who once wore a pair of gloves to a football game and his team won, so he now wears the gloves to every game, even in summer. Even though his team often loses, he still believes the gloves play a part in their victories.

If you know nothing about the rotation of planets, or much else outside your local valley, and you sacrifice a goat in mid-December, it makes some kind of sense that you’d sacrifice a goat every December, and when the days start getting longer each time you do, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that your poor departed goat had something to do with it.

For thousands of years, we’ve observed fermentation happening and exercised some degree of apparent control over it. But we’ve known the truth of how it actually happens for less than 150 years. And let’s be honest: from a standing start, the notion that alcohol is created by invisible fungi eating sugar, pissing booze and farting CO2 sounds, if anything, less plausible than alcohol being a gift from the gods, or a function of magic.

Go back to the first appearances of the magical stave in myth and legend — the forerunners of Harry Potter’s wand or Gandalf’s staff — and it always appears as an instrument specifically of transformation. In ancient brewing cultures from Norway to Africa, a stick or staff was stirred through the wort to start brewing. In traditional South African villages, prayers are still said to the ancestors as the wand stirs. We now know that yeast cultures that have lain dormant in the wood since the last brew are introduced to the fresh wort by this practice and start the fermentation once again. Without microbiology, repeated practice and observation make it seems obvious that the waving of the magic wand is transforming grain and water into alcoholic beer.

In the middle ages beer was mostly brewed by women, known as brewsters, ale-wives or — sometimes — ale-witches. In surviving engravings, these ale-witches are pictured in tall, conical hats. When a brew was ready they would sometimes mount long poles or even broomsticks outside their doors to show that the beer was ready.

Wise women, accumulating the knowledge of the poisonous, healing and transformative powers of various plants and passing it on through generations, had knowledge that sat outside the patriarchal pyramid of the church. Monasteries gradually took control of brewing away from ale-witches who were eventually, inevitably, persecuted as evil.

Science was born as the conjoined twin of alchemy, with both conducting experiments to discover how the world worked, and magic — such as the transformation of lead into gold — not yet discounted. The foamy cap atop a fermentation vessel was known as ‘godisgoode’, a substance that seemingly appeared from nowhere to create beer.

But gradually science progressed, with chemistry disproving the spontaneous creation of matter in the 18th century, and biochemistry proving that microorganisms were responsible for both fermentation and beer spoilage in the late 19th. Finally, we understood the fundamentals of brewing. But as in many aspects of life, detailed, rational knowledge killed some of the magic around us.

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Pete Brown’s book, Miracle Brew, is out now. 

Illustrations by Sam Marsh @sam_marsh_illustration 

First published in Issue 17 of Original Gravity. Click here to read Ritual by Adrian Tierney-Jones and Brand, Myth and Magic by Daniel Neilson here.