How can a product as simple as beer generate so much controversy, asks Simon Jackson

How can a product as simple as beer generate so much controversy, asks Simon Jackson

After his first comment piece for just-drinks earlier this year, Simon Jackson, executive director of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling, returns to our pages this week, to look at the recent plight of beer and argue that the future looks good for a return to the halcyon days for the beverage.

Beer has been part of the human cultural canvas for the best part of 5,000 years – is that why we have taken it for granted? Since the days when beer appeared alongside early agricultural economies as a natural - and rather enjoyable - variation of the use of grain from the fields of hunter gatherers-turned-farmers, it has played an important role, not only as a social ‘glue’ but as a safe and potable staple in the human diet.

The thing about beer is its simplicity: Four ingredients - malted grain, water, yeast –and, only relatively recently when considered in its long history, the use of hops and other flavourings (herbs, heather, spices). So, four humble ingredients producing what is the third most popular beverage in the world (beaten only by tea and milk). Beer is truly the beverage given to us by the gods – well, at least godly intervention in the form of the yeast species Saccharomyces, a ‘sugar-eating fungus’ that utilises the natural sugars from malted grain to produce alcohol and the foam that sets beer apart from other alcoholic beverages.

Of course, the yeast, which produces important vitamins such as B12, only consumes the sugar so other important cereal components, such as soluble fibre and minerals (most significant of which is silicon), flow through to the beer. From the hops, we gain not only aromas and flavours but some potent antioxidants. Then, the combination of alcohol, the reduced pH of beer relative to water and the antibacterial properties of certain hop compounds also give us a liquid which does not harbour the kind of bacteria that induce illness. Hence, one can understand the importance of beer in communities where the water was regularly contaminated and therefore dangerous to consume. So, beer is literally ‘no small beer’ to society.

So why, when once beer was revered in society, has it become the Cinderella of the alcoholic beverage markets? 

Perhaps, this is the fault of the beer industry itself. What joined-up approach has been taken to develop the ‘persona’ of beer in a modern society and to reinforce its remarkable provenance and heritage? The answer is none, really, and the playing field has been left open for categories with far less history to take to the field – beer has been taken for granted.

But, the worm is turning and it is consumers that are leading the charge. Consumers are beginning to show reverence for beer in a way that has been missing for a generation - the founding fathers of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) are being emulated by a new generation of consumers who recognise that beer is not only a natural beverage but also one that can manifest itself in endless styles and guises. There truly is a beer for everyone and for every occasion and there is an increasingly adventurous consumer movement that is searching out and consuming beers for every possible social occasion. Social, of course, as beer is the natural drink of moderation, being low in alcohol content relative to other alcoholic beverages.

Is beer finally heading back to territory that it never should have yielded so passively? The beverage that is the natural heart of any decent pub, the beverage that is seen as just as enjoyable a partner to food as wine, the beverage that offers endless variations in style, flavour and aroma and the beverage that is the natural national drink brewed with locally-grown and -sourced high quality materials by master brewers who are proud of what they do and of the wonderful heritage of brewing?

John Barleycorn is marching once more with a real spring in his step.

For more information about beer, brewing and beer styles, visit www.beeracademy.org or book onto one of the Beer Academy’s educational courses.