A seriously comic-al look at the history of beer

WHAT BEER NEEDS is a superhero.

One of those comic-book action figures – let’s call him (or her) Sudzzler: Faster than a speeding bar tab. Able to open a wax-sealed cork-and-cage bottle with a single twist. More powerful than a multinational industrial-brewing conglomerate. Pitted in an ageless battle against evil archenemy Dr. Wino.

Superpowers include:

Ice-vision, to instantly chill warm beer.

Shape-shifting belly.

Tapakinesis, the ability to use one’s mind to attract a bartender’s attention when the crowd is three-deep.

Invulnerability to excessive hops.

Belching. Really big belches.

Till Marvel inks up Sudzzler, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with the newly published The Comic Book Story of Beer (Ten Speed Press, $18.99). Wonderfully illustrated by Aaron McConnell, the story by Jonathan Hennessy and Mike Smith is a graphic depiction of the 9,000-year-long history of beer.

In this age of beer reverence (the next book on my reading list is Jeff Alworth’s 644-page The Beer Bible), I suspect some will dismiss a comic book as heresy. Beer is serious stuff worthy of pointy-headed academic scholarship, right?

Well, firstly, this is not one of those pulp rags we used to page through as kids. It’s solid, thoroughly researched and indexed. It’s closer to Classics Illustrated – those old comics we’d scan rather than cracking open the real Robinson Crusoe – than “The Amazing Spider-Man. “

And secondly, beer has a long history as a common, almost vulgar drink of the masses that’s perfectly suited to a comic-book treatment.

In tracing beer’s evolution, The Comic Book Story of Beer says the drink was once so revered that ancient Egyptians wrote poems in its honor. Even some early Old Testament references to alcoholic drink likely referred to beer, not wine.

What happened?

“It’s very possible,” the book says, “that the many academics who worked to translate the Bible expunged from it all mention of beer. “

Why? Blame it on the ancient Greeks.

They were wine drinkers, cavorting among the ample grapevines of their countryside. They had no history of making and drinking beer. To them, beer was the barbaric drink of their enemies to the north.

So, they demonized beer. “The Greek playwright Aeschylus depicted Lycurgus of Thrace, ‘The King of the Barbarians,’ killing the disciples of Dionysus, the god of wine. ” Other Greek scholars wrote that beer was nothing but the “revolting” by-product of plant rot that caused “bad phlegms and elephantitis. “

In other words, these early Greeks, whose writings laid the groundwork for centuries of academic and biblical scholarship, were wine snobs.

Thus, beer’s status was reduced “to the drink of everyday folk. “

We barbarians would eventually have our day. Beer survived and flourished in northern Europe, where it was impossible to grow grapes. Christian monasteries that pledged allegiance to wine-drinking Rome nonetheless survived through the Middle Ages by making and selling beer.

Of course, the history of beer is far more complex than its battle against wine, and this book ably puts it into the context of other world events: the expansion of European capital and the plague that nearly wiped out a continent; the writings of Shakespeare and the growth of religious freedom; the American Revolution and Hitler’s beer-hall putsch.

There are villains: the medieval Gruitrechmafia and prohibitionist Carry Nation, among others.

But they are no match for the likes of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin and FDR. Fritz Maytag, the man who revived San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, gets his due, and so does Jack McAuliffe, who opened New Albion Brewing Co., in 1976, as America’s first modern microbrewery.

And so does Michael Jackson, the British newspaperman whose seminal World Guide to Beer gave the craft-beer movement “a good, hard shove. ” Regrettably, you could argue that that book also sparked some of the current navel-gazing that beer freaks (myself included) can be guilty of.

The Comic Book Story of Beer reminds us that beer is both serious stuff . . . and fun. Oddly, though it’s a history full of superheroes, there are no alter-egos.

Where is Brews Wayne?

Meet authors Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith at Yards Brewing, 901 N. Delaware Ave., from 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 21.


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