RITUAL

‘It is like saying grace. In the wine cellars of Baron Bachofen von Echt, under his schloss at Nussdorf, on the edge of the Vienna Woods, I have raised a glass of “Sir Henry’s” dry stout, brewed on the premises, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale.’

Called to the Bar — an account of the first 21 years of CAMRA, published 1992

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

If we define ritual as an act that is always repeated, as an act of devotion, sometimes as an act of exaggeration, often as a sense of belonging and being in the vanguard of something with its own quirks and language and a heightened sense of its own reality, then brewing and beer is as ritualistic as say the Tridentine Mass or the fulsome applause whenever Kim Jong-un utters some proclamation. Think smells and bells, chants, Gregorian or otherwise, gestures or fingers crossed in the air, prayer and meditation, the unknown and, when it comes to working with mixed fermentation and barrels of various denominations, an act of blind faith.

Like many a writer and brewer, I have heard the tale of a head brewer at Guinness’ former Park Royal plant in west London, who at the start of the brewing day would sit on a chair (or a throne even) overlooking the brewing kit, and, at the appropriate time, fob-watch in hand, boom out ‘let the mash begin’. Whether true or not, the very existence of the story (or myth, another important part of ritual) seems to suggest that ritualistic practices have their place in the world of beer. On a personal level, I’m reminded of my experience at St Austell about 10 years ago during the first brew of the day — it was customary to taste the runnings of the wort from the first mash. It was horribly sweet, but at least it didn’t have a raw egg in it, an experience Roger Protz wrote about in The Ale Trail.

So how is brewing ritualistic? The same procedures are adhered to for each brew of a certain beer (unless of course you have split away, hammered your theses on the door and work with the uncertainties of wild yeast); the correct amount of salts are added to the liquor; the same temperatures for the mash and the boil; the same time given to the length of the brew. Meanwhile, hop varieties — Citra, Cascade, Centennial and Eukanot, perhaps — are intoned with the dedication of a prayer, an evocation that these hops will make the beer that beguiles drinkers, batch after batch after batch. And finally, the quiet slumber of fermentation and conditioning, head bowed, thought cowed, the mediation on the ritual taken.

There is also ritualistic behaviour in the pub. We buy rounds for each other, we say, ‘cheers’, ‘good health’ or (in my case) ‘long legs to the squadron leader’s baby’. A multitude of Maß brimming with gold-flecked Oktoberfest beer is clinked with gusto at Munich in the autumn. Smartphones are tapped and glasses snapped with metronomic passion and Instagrammable aptness at beer bars up and down the country, companions to those for whom beer festival programmes and spiral bound notebooks are chapbooks for the faith when face to face with new ales.

With all this in mind, it makes me think: are the rituals that run rife through beer and brewing a case of making the ordinary extraordinary? For after all, it does seem that the fermented juice of the barley has had the power to cast a spell on men and women ever since the first brewer stood up and said (for all I know) ‘what has happened here is magic’? Or are they, as could be ascribed to any ritual, a nervous tic of behaviour, an itch that needs to be scratched, a way of celebration that leads to ecstasy? Is this the real magic of beer: the unknowable?

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First published in Issue 17 of Original Gravity. Click here to read Magic & Loss by Pete Brown and Brand, Myth and Magic by Daniel Neilson here.