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What’s the deal with alcohol, again?

By Dylan Lemert
Columnist
Dylan Lemert, Preface columnist

I want to talk about beer.

Not just how I enjoy beer, although I certainly do. I want to talk about alcohol in general, and how it’s been treated both for better and for worse over the years by different civilizations (without forgetting that especially dark period of our own nation’s recent past known as Prohibition).

But to talk about alcohol’s place in our own country now, with all its taboos and quirks, also means to talk about alcohol’s place within the context of history.

The ancient Egyptians, for instance, are often credited as being the first beer drinkers. Their discovery was accidental, when they left an open basket of wheat in a field for a few days only to discover that the rain, combined with the air and contents of the basket, resulted in a magical process: fermentation.

A few millennia later, the Greeks delegated the wine they drank to a special place in society. They knew there was something exceptional about alcohol that was suited perfectly for consumption during political debates, philosophical discussions and other public gatherings.

In fact, it was the Greeks who laid the foundation for the idea of the pubs we have now. Back then, the Greeks would hold what was called a “symposium,” which in formality was a gathering to discuss a myriad of high-culture topics, but in actuality was just a place where folks could come, relax and drink wine socially.

Still, there were rules to these symposiums. The M.C. of the meeting, or the “symposiarch,” would choose how strongly to mix the drinks, which was mostly determinant on the type of discussion going on. And drinking to get drunk was generally discouraged. As the playwright Eubulus wrote in 375 B.C., “After the third [pitcher] is drained, wise men go home.”

A dark stout sits next to someone’s breakfast. Stouts and many other craft beers are quickly gaining popularity along with an increase in local breweries.
Photo via/Wikimedia Commons

For the Greeks, wine was a tool, albeit an enjoyable tool, but a kind of mystical substance that helped fuel some of the ideas that make up modern Western thought.

Alcohol in all its various forms continued to be implemented by everyone in similar fashion for centuries, whether by peasants or royalty, philosophers or clergymen. (Quite often, the town’s monastery also doubled as the best brewery around. The monks of old apparently had all sorts of divine commissions.)

So with some historical context in place, what went wrong between then and now? Why was alcohol suddenly treated as taboo in the U.S. during the beginning of the 20th century? And why does it still carry so many negative associations even to this day?

While it may not be fair to pin the blame entirely on any single religious or governmental institution, the simple fact is that sometime around 150 years ago alcohol consumption began to be seen as an inherently evil thing, instead of a purely neutral substance that was either enjoyed or abused by an individual at will.

Maybe it’s obvious by now, but the turbulent history of the world’s ever-changing views toward alcohol fascinates me. That’s partially why this past summer, a few friends and I made it a point to meet once a week over beer and wine. Like the Greeks, the purpose was to discuss things we felt culturally or philosophically important to us, all while appreciating our drinks for the temporal joys they were.

It was during these meetings I discovered alcohol’s role (or in my specific case, Two Hearted Ale’s role) as a great equalizer, and how perfectly it lends itself to dialogue, community and broadened perspectives. The bond created between people over a couple pints of beer is quite unlike anything else.

I know nothing will ever completely kill the controversy surrounding alcohol, but I know from experience some of the best, most profound moments I’ve ever had occurred in a dark pub surrounded by good beer and good people.

Here’s to hoping you’ll grab yourself a pint and discover that, too.

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