Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Some (Unhelpful & Incoherent) Thoughts on Irish Brewing History ...

It is said that history is written by the victors and that is certainly the case with Irish brewing history, where the need to shoe-horn events into a prescribed marketing narrative means that we often get a not-so-accurate view of our wonderfully rich and story-laden brewing past. But some of us are fighting back, and reporting the facts of that past as well as we can given the lack of records, while also calling out any errors - or blatant lies - that litter the projected image of our drink history, and although I have been writing on the topic for a relatively short length of time compared to others, I do feel that in that time - via my posts here as well as social media - that I have contributed greatly to the real brewing history of our country, as conceited as that might sound.

The research I do is to satisfy a general curiosity in the subject as well as to delve into why we think certain things about our beer, pub and brewing history, and the writing that follows is mostly done to scratch an itch of creativity that was unreachable to me for many years. I emphasised the word mostly, as obviously it is nice to get some recognition for the revelation of new facts or the rediscovery of old ones. I am quite sure that any author regardless of their field of interest or the quality of their work feels the same, and although I would never claim to be the best writer on my chosen topic with regard to quality of my output - not to mention syntax or grammar - I am sure that the recording of the content itself outweighs the need for perfection.

I write on a very specific subject, a niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche, which means I will never appeal to a huge audience of readers and I am certainly okay with that, but what surprises me is the lack of interest and interaction by general historians, especially by those on social media and who publish online. Is it just because it is a subject that they are not so sure about? Or perhaps they have repeated some of the falsehoods that litter our brewing history? Is it because they have no interest in the topic? Or is there another reason? (It is worth me pointing out - before you do - that I can have a somewhat abrasive quality at times, plus I can be repetitive, and some of the content I produce can be quite, well, boring as a subject regardless of how I present it. But then again much of that can be said of many or perhaps most of those who post about any historical topic.)

The same lack of traction is somewhat true of food historians, although they do seem to get much better response with their content than those of us who comment and write about our country's drinking history. Although it is worth pointing out that - with some notable exceptions - food-based accounts in general rarely show interest in our brewing history, be they historical focussed or not - although it is also fair to say I and others on the drink side of things do not interact enough with those accounts either. But there is for sure a snobbish element within a sector of the food writing industry that sees beer - and probably therefore our brewing history - as something low-brow and vulgar compared to wine-related content, or even whiskey writing. It is certainly - along with cider - the black sheep of our beverages in the mind of many if not most of those in the food industry as a whole. A look at how many restaurants and chefs treat beer on their menus is testament to that ...

And ironically among the majority of my 'followers' on Twitter there is a total lack of interest in history in general which naturally follows on into brewing history. I can completely understand this, especially if you are of an age where the present and the future is what you look to and what excites your mind, not ramblings about some old beer style, brewery of bottle label, and in truth not too long ago I would have been in that very same mindset.

But the bigger worry is that in total we just do not care enough about the history of brewing in this country, or certainly not about its real history. Why do I worry - and worry is the wrong word of course - about this? It is possibly because certain aspects of history do have a tendency of repeating themselves. For example, we are at a relatively - and I do mean relatively - buoyant place with regard to the number of new breweries we have in it this country, so it would be a shame if in a hundred years’ time - or less - we ended up back where we were in the second half of the twentieth century with just a few large businesses owning all our brewing output, with once important breweries now relegated to brand names of bland products, with all that wonderful creative output from breweries both in liquid form as well as the paper and digital media lost, uncared for, and obliterated for the sanitised timeline of our then ‘new’ brewing history. (I will admit to being a little over dramatic and extremist about all of this but I have always preferred drama and enthusiasm to apathy and ignorance.) Of course, providing the servers that hold all the virtual information for those breweries still exist then we will have an inkling of what those ‘lost’ breweries produced and a good oversight of their businesses in general, but for example will we have their recipes? Will we know anything of the brewers themselves and others who work in the breweries? I doubt it, and this could leave the historians of the future wondering just what did all these beers taste like, not to mention why was it really brewed and who designed it.

Does any of this sound familiar?

So, what should be do about all of this …?

Do we need an archive for our past, present and future brewing history?

Should we have more general interaction and sharing of the subject by more people?

Do we need ‘proper’ historians to interact more with those who promote the topic?

Should we invest some time and provide more content to this niche history?

Should we care about it more?

Obviously you cannot force people to like something they have no interest in but I do think there is an obvious answer to all of those questions ...

Also, as a group, beer historians need to do better - and I am reluctantly including myself in that cohort in order to be tarred with the same brush. We can come across as a curmudgeonly and aloof lot at times, and we (almost) all seem to revel in ploughing a lonely furrow in the same field as others without make eye-contact with the plough-wielder beside us, rarely commenting on the quality and depth of the sod they have turned, because we are as blinkered and stubborn as the oxen we drive at times.

We need to try and get our message across to more people too, which might mean changing our writing style, varying our content and being a little more sociable and outgoing - something I have been remiss at - and would have difficulty with - but it is probably something I need to change.

Okay, in case you are wondering what exactly I am trying to say here, well I am not entirely sure …

Sometimes when you write you have no direction to take, you just follow a path and often retread old ground or stumble into a ditch until you are lost in a forest of thoughts and opinions that leave you as confused and unsure as your readers.

But perhaps that is the place we need to be to start a new journey.

If only we had a decent map and an accurate compass …

Liam K.

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