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Beer Class: week five

The publ-lic sphere

(Yes, I’ve been delinquent on the beer-blogging front. There are excuses: a broken wrist impeding typing, overwhelming amounts of real work, a prolonged winter-induced bout of SAD, a… well, there are no excuses. But I’ve been regularly attending class, and keeping copious notes, so not too much will be lost here. I’ll just apologize and get on with the beer blogging.)

Week Five: The Pub-lic Sphere

When we last left off, we were discussing the Industrial Revolution and its effect on brewing (see Week Four). In a nutshell, for better or worse, the old craft knowledge of brewing had given way to the industrial manufacturing of beer on a colossal scale.

I complained that the last lecture was kind of boring, being to some degree just a rehashing off all that steam-engine stuff we learned back in high school, but this week’s lecture got into a lot of high-minded social theory, which I guess is what you’d expect from a philosopher of science like Mcouat. All in all, pretty interesting stuff, even if a lot of it went over my head.

Mcouat started off talking about Jurgen Habermas, a German philosopher whose book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere spoke of the historic development of a new kind of social space that occurred with the Industrial Revolution. There were other philosophers thrown into the mix, including Hannah Arendt, which made me realize that my fellow King’s students were either reading way beyond anything I ever picked up in college, or they were just as flabbergasted as me.

But anyway, the gist of it is that this new social space was something, er, new. It used to be that people had their home life, or the structured collective life that was found in churches and such, but not much else. This new thing was something else entirely: a kind of collective space built around leisure that was not controlled by any political or religious authority. It was a social sphere where regular people met as equals and discussed events of the day, read newspapers and took political action.

Mcouat made clear that some of the philosophers who wrote about this stuff were focusing on the salons and coffee houses, and others had extended it to include the pub. I can’t remember who was which, but it doesn’t much matter unless you’re looking to become one of those nutjob philosophy profs wandering around Halifax, because Mcouat himself was saying that *the*---Mcouat has a way of turning the word “the” into an entire underlined and highlighted in yellow paragraph--- *the* site for the new public sphere was the pub.

So you see, that’s what we were talking about, and never mind whether any of the famous German philosophers actually wrote any of this down.

We have to back up a bit to get into the fun stuff.

You’ll recall that beer had always been big in Europe. Back in the Middle Ages most people brewed beer in their homes, and there was surprisingly complex organized trade in towns and villages, as one home or another would take the lead brewing, supplying the local populace until the next household took its turn.

Very slowly, though, beer drinking moved out of the home and into a semi-public place.

A fellow named Peter Clark investigated the rise of the English Alehouse and thoughtfully detailed his findings in a book called, yep, The English Alehouse. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the Inn and the Tavern were more oriented toward the upper classes while, from about the 13th century on, the alehouse served the lower classes.

The alehouse was simply someone’s home. Usually it had that rarity, a fireplace. So people could come, have a few beers around the fire, get a simple meal. (Much more on this for next week’s blog entry.)

Understand that the alehouse was the precursor to the pub. It grew as a regular social institution, especially after the protestant reformation. From 1577 to 1596 the number of alehouses in England doubled, and by 1711 there were 40,000 of them across the country---one of every 32 houses was an alehouse. In London, the number was more like one of every 12 houses. Clark says this number is actually too small, and the real number is more like 60,000, as the 40,000 number reflects only licensed establishments. “All you need is a cellar and a fire,” said Mcouat.

A monumental change came to brewing in the 18th century: the introduction of hops. Compared to ale, hopped beer can be kept longer, and therefore was more easily marketed, at a distance. Through the century, there was a corresponding change in tastes, and ale became increasingly described as “loathsome,” hopped beer as “pure.” This would lead to the elevation of the “common brewer” we discussed last week, and therefore the industrial brewing of beer and the “tied house,” the alehouse that was directly tied, either by exclusive contract or outright ownership, to a brewery. The alehouse was no longer in someone’s home, but a separate establishment: the public house, or pub.

Along with all these developments was a sense among the upper classes that the pub was a place of ill-repute and dangerous behavior. This was entirely warranted. The alehouse had long been the meeting place of the various secret societies like the freemasons and Jacobins, and as the industrial revolution came along, radicals and troublemakers likewise associated in the pub. The pub was the community centre for the lower classes: the site for marriages, for entertainment, for fighting (a spectator sport), for organizing politically.

The elites were worried as all get-go about this new public space. In 1787, William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery crusader, railed against the alehouse, calling for strict regulation, and in 1792 the city of London agreed. Licences were withdrawn from any establishment that allowed radical clubs to meet on the premises, and new rules prohibited gambling or the disbursement of wages.

But all this supposed tight regulation was turned on its head by the Beer House Act of 1830.

As Mcouat explained it, the Act completely de-regulated the trade in beer. It dismantled the old licensing system controlled by local magistrates, and basically threw open the doors for just anyone to start an alehouse, with nominal regulation by Parliament.

The new licensing fee was two guineas. The class couldn’t figure out what that means, really--- who the hell knows what a guinea is? But whatever it was, said Mcouat, “it was very close to almost nothing.”

Within eight years after the passing of the Act 40,000 new pubs opened in London. 40,000! There were pubs literally everywhere, on every street, pubs on top of pubs on top of pubs.

Now, given the upper classes’ disdain and fear of the pub, why would Parliament pass such an Act?

Mcouat had a few theories. First, they were getting pretty distraught about the whole gin situation. I won’t get into the whyfors and whatnots of that story (maybe that’ll be my next class), but suffice it to say that the populace was getting ginned up at alarming rates. To illustrate the concern, and the public attitude around the two kinds of drinking, consider an illustration from the time: Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane . (If you want to waste a couple of hours, grab a few cold ones and examine that for an afternoon, or go see the beer portion of it over at Henry House.) In short, Beer Street shows prosperous people living an idyllic urban life, while Gin Lane shows people of the most wicked, perverse sort.

Second, there was political pressure amongst the lower classes for Parliament to do something about the increasing monopoly the common brewers had over beer, which led to fixed prices. Some 14,000 Londoners signed a petition against the common brewer monopoly.

Living as we do in a time when, sensibly or not, the “free trade” mantra wins all arguments, it’s really no surprise that in 1830 England embraced deregulation as the “solution” to the beer monopoly. The more things change, yada, yada. The stinking wealthy brewing monopolists themselves embraced deregulation as the political solution, so those 19th century anti-monopolists should have known something was up, just as maybe we ought to cast a suspicious eye when Archer Daniels Midland calls for deregulating ag policy, but hey, what are ya going to do? Anyway, then as now, the politicians bought the argument hook, line and sinker, and passed the deregulation. Those 40,000 new pubs? Every one of them was a tied house, extending the beer monopoly to previously undreamt heights.

So that’s how the pub became the fundamental, ubiquitous site for communal working class society.

That story is pretty neat, but Mcouat made clear that our understanding of 19th century pub culture has been sadly misunderstood until very recent times. Sure, radicals and such met at pubs, but there was depth to this society that historians have largely missed, until recently. The class was assigned to read Anne Secord’s Science in the Pub, which describes in great detail how working class botanists meeting in the pubs of Lancashire contributed importantly to that science.

It’s a fascinating read, and one worthy of its own blog post, or more. I’ll try to get to it in more depth at a later date, but for now, let’s move on to next week’s lecture…


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