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A Natural History of Beer (Book Review)

A Natural History of Beer book cover

One of the most interesting books that I’ve read about beer in the last few years has been A Natural History of Beer by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall. Rob DeSalle is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Biology and its program for microbial research and Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus, AMNH Division of Anthropology. A small 256 page hardcover published in 2019 by Yale University Press. The authors draw on a wide variety of academic disciplines to discuss the history, science, sociology and physiology of beer.

I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this particular book for most of the last year. And I’m a little hard pressed to find the words to describe this one because I’m not a fan of book reviews that merely repeat content. No, I’m going to have to tell you how it is. There was a lot of information packed into the pages of this enjoyable, if challenging, read. This wasn’t a breeze of a read, but I found it a lovely book that sat on our coffee table for a month while I whittled away at the content.

This is an almost textbook discussion about biology and chemistry for the most part. And anthropology, archeology, sociology, history, law and culture. The story of beer reaches from the ancient world through to modern times; it touches our lives socially and culturally (and probably always has performed that role); beer makes us jump for joy and cry with unfettered release; it allows respite from the complexity of that burden that humans carry – the ability to predict the future consequences of our actions and the awareness of our mortality.

Robert Dudley’s Drunken Monkey Hypothesis proposes that our relationship with ethanol predates the evolutionary split into modern humans. He suggests that humans are hard wired to seek out the chemical compounds (ethyl acetate and isoamyl acetate) dispersed by fermenting fruit in the rainforest intended to attract fruit flies. And that, along with several species of our family tree, we’ve evolved the ability to break down toxic ethanol in our bodies using a group of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. So, more than any other drug humans choose to embrace, ethanol holds a special place and may trace back millions of years.

When we look at all of these facets of our historic relationship to ethanol in the same discussion it becomes evident that beer is a part of being human. It’s hard to imagine our lives devoid of this single important component.

The history of beer is perhaps a chapter in that greater history of Homo Sapiens and ethanol, but it spans thousands of years to a point we may not ever really discover. Archeology, after all, is limited by where things were left or buried. The point is to understand that beer isn’t just the commodity you see at the liquor store; beer has history and cultural meaning to us. Whether we’re drinkers, or abstain.

A large portion of A Natural History of Beer wasn’t new to me. I’ve read quite a few books, blogs and essays related to the broad areas under discussion. However, what I really enjoyed was the manner in which they were all pulled together. Some of the chemistry became a little bit clearer, my understanding honed just that further iota with a few lightbulb moments. Because knowledge has to be hung on hooks to become understanding. Rather than isolated facts in a wilderness.

So I enjoyed that part of the experience as a reader. The deeper learning. I’d highly recommend this book for home brewing deep divers into the science types. This needs to be in your library. It’s not that complicated it’ll make your brain hurt, but you’ll know you’ve been studying.

Also worth noting, this is a time in history where the low cost and potentially unlimited access to alcohol has brought another dimension to the conversation. Modern beer, in this regard, is an anomaly. Many of the current attitudes toward beer have been shaped by modern history, culture and industrialisation. This certainly doesn’t make beer a bad thing; however, it’s become a bad thing for some people. Drink responsibly and play nice.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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