“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





14 November 2014


A small but hard-core ensemble of maltsters, brewers, botanists and beer lovers gathered at the Adelaide Botanic Garden for the launch of the Garden's own Botanic Ale. The barley was developed by the University of Adelaide, grown at the Botanic Gardens, and malted by Joe White's, and the ale was made at Lobethal Bierhaus with assistance from Coopers Brewery. Botanic Ale is available exclusively at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant and the Fibonaci Cafe behind the Museum of Economic Botany in the Gardens on North Terrace ... it's a rich, malty, hearty mouthful: a beautiful thing indeed.

Refreshing economic botany:
A five-way co-operative effort
results in very happy stomachs

Since he was here to present the remarkable series of lectures I recently reported, it seemed perfectly appropriate that Professor David Mabberly should launch the new Botanic Ale on the grass in front of Adelaide's very special Museum of Economic Botany. DRINKSTER is grateful for the opportunity to publish David's witty and, as always, dazzlingly informative speech: 

Botanic Beer © David Mabberley 
28th October 2014

What a wonderful practical economic botany subject! 

But I’d like to put it in a broader context if I may ... though it may seem a bit odd to start with ... coal.

In the modern world, unlike say the Carboniferous period, little coal, which is old plant-remains, is being created - because the actions of fungi and bacteria cause plants (and animals) to rot away rather quickly. Modern ecosystems are too efficient to lock up resources in that way. ‘Change and decay in all around I see ... ’ as Abide with me has it! 

On top of this, evolution has favoured many plants that, in rotting, have consequent fermenting smells that attract certain insects to flowers in pollination, or dispersal animal-agents to fruits. For example, the fermenting fruits of the maroola tree of Africa are dispersed by increasingly drunken elephants. It is not surprising, then, that alcohol in limited amounts has been selected by evolution as attractive and indeed beneficial to animals, as relationships between plants and animals linked by alcohol through the agency of fungi, largely yeasts, not least in bringing vitamin B12 produced by bacteria found with the yeasts, has been advantageous.

Birds, foxes, bears and all primates are attracted to alcohol. A celebrated study of vervet monkeys served alcohol found that the monkeys fell into four groups: binge-drinkers (5%, usually young males), steady drinkers, social drinkers and tee-totallers. No doubt early hominids were the same.

But to beer. It is likely that the beery smell of fermented bread or grains would have been attractive and may indeed have led to the first domesticated alcoholic drink of western civilisations. Beer was certainly important in the grain-growing areas of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean and it was even suggested in that seminal work of 1868, The beer of the Bible, that the manna from heaven that God gave the Israelites was a bread-based porridge-like beer called wusa.

Detail from Beer Club by Georges Lilanga, 2000 ... Contemporary African Art Collection Ltd/Corbis

Certainly these early beers were really thick like gruel and the fastidious Sumerians used drinking-straws to avoid the bitter lumps left over from the fermentation. This beer may even have been used as currency but was replaced by date-wine as soils became degraded and unsuited to grain-growing.

For the modern period, as ever, though, it is always best to start with the Oxford English Dictionary, which delightfully tells us of beer 'The word occurs in Old English, but its use is rare, except in poetry'. The word beer, though, is certainly cognate with the old word for barley - and the OED reminds of the extended use of the word: beer and skittles, beer-up, on the beer, beerishly, beery, beer-bemuddled. By the nineteenth century there were friendly ‘beerhoods’, leading to the perhaps more sinister ‘beerocracy’ of the 1880s and even the noble ‘beerage’ of 1891.

‘Small-beer’ derives from the healthy dilute beer doled out to schoolboys in English towns where water quality was poor and ‘beeragar’ was the name for vinegar made from old beer; a ‘beer-off’ was a bottle-shop - but I will leave ‘beer-boys’ to your imagination.

Beer’s predecessors, the original ales, unlike modern ales, were made of malt with spices and other flavourings. But beer in all its modern variety is the wonderful marriage between two botanical families bonded with yeast, the grasses (or Gramineae) and the Cannabaceae (the nettle-tree group) which family has, besides hops, cannabis, making it perhaps a truly ‘happy family’.

Professor David Mabberly with Stephen Forbes, director of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia

Barley’s Latin name is Hordeum – the Roman name for it; the hordearii, the gladiators, were fed on it though they later shifted to wheat. Of the 30 odd species of Hordeum in the north temperate region, H. vulgare of western Asia was probably first harvested c. 11,000 yrs ago; by 1750 BC, 40% of the yield of the ancient Egyptians was used in ale with a gallon being a dignitary’s daily ration.

The word hop is from the Anglo-Saxon hoppan, to climb, referring to its habit. Its Latin name is Humulus (med. Latin) perhaps from the Slavic name for hops, and lupulus, little wolf, apparently due to the mistaken idea that it strangles other plants.

There are male and female hop plants, with flowers pollinated by wind. The annual shoots, eaten like asparagus in parts of Europe – just a the Romans did, climb clockwise (unlike most European climbers), produce a fibre for cloth, mixed with jute giving the familiar hessian. But only the females are grown as it is only they with the glands in the flowerheads - per head some 10 000 – 15 000 lupulin glands that contain a cocktail of resins and essential oils, bacteriostatic substances effective against caries, resinous and bitter ones including alkaloids like codeine and morphine. This is why hop pillows are sleep-inducing – and cured the insomnia of the insane King George III.

But the bacteriostatic qualities make the beer keep better. Beer using hops was being consumed on the Continent of Europe from at least the ninth century and imported to Britain by 1400. Hops were grown in England from 1524. By 1542, though, one author wrote somewhat xenophobically, that ‘ale for an English man is a natural drink’ whereas ‘Bere is a natural drink for a Dutch man’. Indeed the Flemish had established themselves in Kent bringing with them the technology and know-how of hop-growing.

But then it was espoused by the English and there was a conscious move to make the ‘Flemish ale’ a British institution, with the foaming tankard the national drink (indeed by the 1980s twice as much was spent on beer as on bread), so in the sixteenth century hops must be grown in England, as importing them was a drain on the economy. Reginald Scot’s great book of (1574) A perfite platforme of a hoppe garden and necessary instructions for the making and maintenance thereof, with Notes and Rules for Reformation of all Abuses. (his next book was The discoverie of witchcraft) was a kind of ‘dig for victory’ another xenophobic exhortation in which he wrote.

So the piqued English planted hops with vigour and subsequently brought them to Australia,. And a byproduct of the brewing process is of course Vegemite!

But the first beer brewed in Australia had no hops, nor barley, at all – it was made from maize with tomatoes as bittering agent. From the look of what we are launching here today, we have certainly moved on as a nation – at least in this sphere! Many Congratulations! 

1 comment:

Bob Colman said...

Very interesting as always