Jesus was a beer drinker

Beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.

I wish I liked beer more. It has a fine sense of humour; names such as Electric Nurse and Anarchy would look ridiculous on a winery. But I’ve always considered it wine’s poor relation, so Ben McFarland, the author of Boutique Beer, is out to convert me.

We meet at the Craft Beer Co, where the fridge glows with brown glass and the gleaming taps could blind you. I’m the only woman here. I’m surprised my arrival doesn’t trigger a mass exodus. This is one of my gripes: beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.

While Ben goes off to drool – I mean, order – I open his book and read about Bernard Leboucq of the Brasserie de la Senne, who named his brewery after a buried river in Brussels and thinks the Bruxellois are deluded to claim they have great beer. They used to, he reckons, but nowadays . . .

Maybe that’s the difference between beer and wine, apart from details such as contents, history and method of manufacture. Beer looks back to a glorious past. It was probably the first drinking alcohol and at one point it was considered a healthier substitute for water.

Yet it has taken longer than wine to consider the future. The standard picture of a beer-lover is a whiskered pot belly, peering into his oversized glass for a glimpse of the good old days.

Beer is catching up. In 2006, London had only a handful of breweries, one of which produced Budweiser. Today, there are 30 microbreweries in the capital and many more beyond, all making boutique beers with just hops, grain, water, yeast and inspiration, some of it rather odd, such as the Australian who brews using boiling-hot boulders from Fiji.

Ben returns with our pints. I dislike pints: simply too much drink in one place. Ben, oblivious, starts telling me about Thornbridge, which comes from Derbyshire but is made like a Kölsch – a light style of beer brewed in Cologne. The city forbids other places to use the name.

My ears prick up. Convoluted, terroir-based rules are, so to speak, my territory. And there’s more concern with place in beer than you would think, because hops taste of where they’re from, although they’re so light – you dry them – that you can pitch your brewery wherever you like and import them. (Unless you want to call the resulting brew Kölsch.)

There are national tastes in beer, apparently. Americans are bigger and brasher, while Britain historically prefers a gentle, lower-alcohol beer – one reason it can be served in pints. Kölsch, Ben tells me, usually comes in a tiny glass. I regard my transparent tower of beer and think predictable 21st-century thoughts about the German gift for economy.

The beer is soft and toasty and rather moreish, unlike Ben’s Dark Star, made with American hops, which has a bitter citrus kick that I find interesting to try but easy to leave.

We sample Kernel Export Stout, an 1890s recipe produced in Bermondsey by an Irishman. It’s malty – chocolate on the nose and tar on the tongue, like boozy Marmite. Ben’s Evil Twin seems rather too well named. He’s now muttering darkly about how Jesus actually turned water into beer, because he was poor and only rich Romans drank wine. He clinches the (one-sided) argument by pointing out that Jesus had a beard and wore sandals, so was obviously a beer drinker.

Jesus the hipster. Nobody ever concocted a theory like that while downing fermented grapes. But beer’s greatest mystery remains –why can I consume champagne until I overflow, yet a couple of beers fill me up? Is the flaw in me or the beer? I can see Ben biting his tongue (not easy with a mouth full of beer), so I consign the Holy Trinity to his care and depart, sober: Kernel’s 7.2 per cent ABV may be hardcore for beer but it’s nothing compared to your average grape-based beverage. They get Jesus, we get drunk. Not much of a contest, in my jaundiced view.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Roll out the barrel: Dogfish Head Brewery is attempting to recreate a Neolithic-era Chinese beer. Image: Andrew Hetherington/Redux/Eyevine

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue