All rituals in pubs and bars issue from a collectivity, a we, while in coffeehouses the I is central.
The bar is a thogoughly archaic place. […] With the instinctive sureness of migratory birds, [drinkers] follow the rules and rituals of offering and reciprocating without an inkling of their ancient origins.
Starbucks might be hewn from “local wood,” but we’re only there for the bathroom and the wi-fi. No one toasts at a coffee shop. We drink alone and Instagram our latte, a transmission out from the private headphoned fortress of our screens. Beer is social; coffee is spectacle.
“To our unspeakable grief, we find of late a very sensible decay of that true old English vigor, our gallants being every way so Frenchified that they are become mere cock-sparrows.” Why? “That newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee.” In Germany, “the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended on to endure hardships or to beat his enemies.” No camaraderie in coffee shops; no mead-bench bonding. No toasts—but will you watch my laptop while I run to the bathroom?
“A man must leave his conscience at Cape Horn,” Richard Henry Dana wrote. His sobriety too.
Our crew fell in with some who belonged to the other vessels, and, sailor-like, steered for the first grog-shop. This was a small mud building, of only one room, in which were liquors, dry and West India goods, shoes, bread, fruits, and everything which is vendible in California. It was kept by a Yankee, a one-eyed man, who belonged formerly to Fall River, came out to the Pacific in a whale-ship, left her at the Sandwich Islands, and came to California to set up a Pulperia. S— and I followed in our shipmates’ wake, knowing that to refuse to drink with them would be the highest affront, but determining to slip away at the first opportunity. It is the universal custom with sailors for each one, in his turn, to treat the whole, calling for a glass all round, and obliging every one who is present, even to the keeper of the shop, to take a glass with him. […] Each of the crews of the other vessels treated all round in their turn, and as there was a good many present, (including some “loafers” who had dropped in, knowing what was going on, to take advantage of Jack’s hospitality,) and the liquor was a real (12 1/2 cents) a glass, it made somewhat of a hole in their lockers. It was now our ship’s turn, and S— and I, anxious to get away, stepped up to call for glasses; but we soon found that we must go in order—the oldest first, for the old sailors did not choose to be preceded by a couple of youngsters; and bon gré, mal gré, we had to wait our turn, with the twofold apprehension of being too late for our horses and of getting corned; for drink you must, every time; and if you drink with one and not with another, it is always taken as an insult.
(“Corned,” by the way, is not quite “drunk”, but neither “steady”—halfway between “half seas over” and “tightly slight” on the Inebriometer.)
The Camba did not drink alone. They did not drink on work nights. And they only drank within the structure of their elaborate ritual. An analysis of the rum the Camba drank revealed it to be a hundred and eighty proof. And yet there was no social pathology among the Camba—no arguments, no disputes, no sexual aggression, no verbal aggression. There was no alcoholism.
They drank until they passed out. Then they woke up. To an outside observer, drinking bouts like these seemed excessive—dangerous, even. The 6th-Century Roman writer Venatius Fortunatus dropped in on German sesh, and barely made it out: “They were carrying on like madmen. A man had to consider himself lucky to come away with his life.”
Patrolling 18th-century Boston bars to “prevent and redress disorders,” Judge Samuel Sewall “found much company” but, he wrote in his diary, though the night wore on, “they refused to go away. They said they were there to drink the Queen’s health and they had many other healths to drink,” including, as an insult to the prim magistrate, his own. “[They] call’d for more, drank to me,” and, when he turned down the offered pint, “Mr. Brinley put on his Hat to affront me.” Ouch.
But to those inside the circle—following the rules—the session was a safe space.
“Drinking rituals are communal,” wrote Wolfgang Schivelbusch “so that all will feel safe and be able to keep a watchful eye on one another.” Now, thanks to Budweiser’s “innovation,” that’s what facebook is for.
And here is the beginning of the conception of humans, and of the search for the ingredients of the human body. So they spoke, the Bearer, Begetter, the Makers, Modelers named Sovereign Plumed Serpent. […] They sought and discovered what was needed for human flesh. It was only a short while before the sun, moon, and stars were to appear above the Makers and Modelers. Broken Place, Bitter Water Place is the name: the yellow corn, white corn came from there.
Our ancestors were made from maize dough. And the gods in corn’s image, “myth made material,” with hair like corn silk, decapitated every harvest, and reborn.
But corn isn’t quite ambrosia—sacred, but sustaining.
It is, let’s face it, pretty stodgy, and so from very early on, farmers also cultivated an ingenious—and tasty—accompaniment; the indigenous chili. It has virtually no nutritional value but, as we all know, it’s uniquely able to liven up dull carbohydrates—and it shows that we’ve been foodies for as long as we’ve been farmers.
We are the makers and modelers now; we are the chefs. Corn needs a human hand, not just to make it tasty, but to make it edible. America’s first European settlers didn’t get it.
Although the barbarous Indians, which we know no better, are constrained to make a vertue of necessity, and think it a good food: whereas we may easily judge, that it nourisheth but little. […] A more convenient food for swine than for man.
John Winthrop, Jr., more enlightened than most, defended corn to the Royal Society. It just takes some getting used to, he said. “There is a different way of ordering it, from what is used about the bread of other grain.” Corn needs to be cooked with an alkali like lime to make it digestible—a process called nixtamalization. Natives used wood ash.
This inedible grain, this “salvage trash,” grown, it seemed, haphazardly, in accordance with sacred cycles of birth and death—no straight furrows, no linear progress toward heaven’s ideal—this, in a nutshell, in a husk, so to speak, was America. A weird place: At the same time desolate, “a very barren country” where wheat “came to no good,” and yet wild with a “furious growth of vegetation.”
Makers and modelers, settlers Anglicized maize into corn, planted it in rows, brewed it into beer—or, at least, “as good ale as was to be desired.” In time, the “heathen graine” became the “luxuriant corn stalk,” and then, as we turned from chefs to gods ourselves, not mere modelers but engineers now, “Commodity Corn #2,” as American as high-fructose apple pie, as American as Budweiser. Adolphus Busch first called it St. Louis Lager, proud of its domestic roots: homegrown corn, the secret to its sparkle. Now we’re genetically modifying corn to put it in our cars instead. Aztecs sacrificed blood-soaked tamales to their gods; we fill our tanks with ethanol. Does corn belong to us, or do we belong to it? Who makes, who models whom?
The boys had spent several long afternoons mashing hundreds of apples gathered from the Coles’ modest orchard into a gloppy pulp of apple meal. They placed the sweet mass of fruit in cider bags that the daughters had woven out of human and animal hair. The boys then picked up the bags and proceeded to twist and squeeze them as quickly and as tightly as they could, pressing the apple juice into a vat called a Mobby tubb. […] After inserting a four-inch tap into the tub, they decanted the liquid into a second tub to separate the juice from the lees. After bottling the apple juice in earthenware jugs and corking them, they placed the containers in a cool dugout beneath the barn.
Revolution in Eating, McWilliams
Hair-filtered, cloudy, and sour. Still, in Colonial America, cider reigned. In 1721, one Massachusetts town split 3,000 barrels among 40 families. That’s 100 pints per house per week. Out in the country, every porch had a cider keg for thirsty farmhands. At grog time (11AM and 4PM—listen for the bell), they gathered to dip a mug. Taste—Who cared? Cider was sustenance, slurped hairs and all, after (before, and during) a hard day’s work.
In taverns, more discerning drinkers mixed bad cider with beer, rum, even mead (a “cider royal”). They topped it with spices, frothed it with milk. A blend of tartar and “sweet spirit of nitre” could treat a sour barrel. The good stuff—pressed from uniformly ripe, high-quality bittersharps, late-filtered for clarity and strength, was rare. Some say New Jersey–made. (“I have scarcely tasted any better,” wrote wandering Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm.)
Today, the best is still Bernie’s: rich, cloudy, and, yes, non-alc. But hard cider is coming up—and the big guys have noticed. InBev has Michelob Ultra Light Cider and, in the UK, Stella Cidre. MillerCoors bought Crispin and Fox Barrel; now they make Redd’s.
Ads for Stella say, “C’est Cidre; Not cider” (and feature plenty of ice).
Ads for Redd’s say, “Crisp like an apple; Brewed like an ale.”
Why all the pussyfooting? For one thing, Cidre is only 50% apple juice (though, in fairness, UK law says cider, so called, has to be at least 35%). Redd’s is even farther from the tree—beer, basically, with “natural apple flavor and caramel color.” American settlers would blend in pumpkins and persimmons, unripe apples even (hence the nitre), but surely not caramel. I think drinkers are just scared of real—that is, taste-able—fruit. Coco-mango-citrus? Strawberry-kiwi? Drink up! I say, nothing’s more natural than a horse hair in your glass.