Small Beer

Pynchon Small BeerAmong the many pieces of historical, gustatory, and alcoholic miscellanea we can gather from the pages of Mason & Dixon, the early birth and long-life of the mutual incomprehension customary between British and American beer drinkers is one I particularly enjoy. Yanks find British beer dank and warm, Poms find the US stuff fizzy and insipid, and apparently it has ever been thus. Here’s Dixon offering to buy a round on page 569:

“Eeh, lo, thy Jack’s empty…? Can’t have thah’, allow me, all who’re dry, no problem, Mr. McClean shall enter each into his Ledger, and in the fullness of Time will all be repaid,— aye then, here they come! how canny, with those greeaht Foahm Tops on ’em, what do tha call thah’?”

“That is a ‘Head,'” Blackie quizzickal. “They don’t have that, back wherever you’re from? What kind o’ Ale-drinker are you then, Sir?”

“Shall we quarrel, after all?”

“Innocent question,” Blackie looking about for support.

“Very well, as tha did ask,— I’m a faithful and traditional Ale-Drinker, sir, who does thee a courtesy in even swallowing this pale, hopp’d-up, water’d down imitation of Small Beer.”

“Far preferable,” replies Blackie, “— even if sladerously and vilely untrue,— to that black, sluggish, treacly substitute for Naval Tar, Sir, no offense meant, that they swill down over in England?” with a look that would have been meaningful, could it get much beyond a common Glower.

After which point, unexpectedly, both find the forgiveness in their hearts and the broadness in their palates to appreciate each other’s ales after all. They pull back from the precipice of this argument and join in another comradely American Pint.

As an aside, when I first read Mason & Dixon the 18th century-ish language seemed forbidding at first but quickly came to feel familiar and comfortable. But transcribing bits of it really dispels the illusion that this kind of writing could ever come easily–the effort that must have gone into making such strange sentences read so easily must have been phenomenal. And they don’t just read easily, they spark incredibly into life. The layers of phonetic accents and mock (?) 18th century weirdness somehow result not in abstract postmodern textual artefact or overblown monstrosity but in a Jeremiah Dixon so real and human you can just about smell the beer on his breath.

Small Beer Mason & DixonSmall Beer, the particular British style Jeremiah denigrates the American specimen in relation to, was a lower-alcohol beer that was often brewed from the second runnings of wort when making a stronger beer. Workers would drink it through the day, children at festivals. The beer I have here is quite literally a “hopp’d-up imitation” of such a style. It’s the Small Ale from Colonial Brewing Co in Margaret River, Western Australia, a pale ale with grassy and citrusy hops, suprisingly flavourful for its 3.5% abv. The Foahm Top is decent if perhaps not greeaht. I don’t love it, would rather go straight to something stronger. But if Mr Dixon happened around, I guess this wouldn’t be the worst representation of Australian beer he could try. No doubt we could have a most convivial time over a few pints of it.

Canadian Ale

GRAVITY'S RAINBOWThe Kenosha Kid episode is something of an early milestone in Gravity’s Rainbow, I’d say. Sixtyish pages in, playful and bizzare, it might well mark the dividing fork at which a new Pynchon reader either hurls the book at the wall or really starts to settle in for a good time. Slothrop’s doped up on sodium amytal, dreaming variations on the phrase “you never did the Kenosha Kid.” They start brief, e.g.: “Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you…?” and then suddenly Slothrop’s upstairs in Boston’s Roseland Ballroom watching his harmonica disappear down a toilet’s maw. If you’ve ever seen Trainspotting, you’ll be familiar with Danny Boyle’s ripoff of what happens next: he chases that Harmonica right down the toilet and finds a murky world submerged below:

The light down here is dark gray and rather faint. For some time he has been aware of shit, elaborately crusted along the sides of this ceramic (or by now, iron) tunnel he’s in; shit nothing can flush away, mixed with hard-water minerals into a deliberate brown barnacling of his route, patterns thick with meaning… icky and sticky, cryptic and glyptic…” 

Pynchon Canadian Ale…which whole episode eventually and unexpectedly circles all the way back to “you never did the Kenosha Kid.” Anyway, while he’s down in the gunge, Slothrop “finds he can identify certain traces of shit as belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances.” Useful talent to have. One “Dumpster Villard” features prominently among these acquaintances. 

A-and here’s Dumpster Villard , he was constipated that night, wasn’t he–it’s black shit mean as resin that will someday clarify forever to dark amber. In its blunt, reluctant touches along the wall … he can, uncannily shit-sensitized now, read old agonies inside poor Dumpster, who’d tried suicide last semester: the differential equations that would not weave for him into any elegance, the mother with the low-slung hat and silk knees leaning across Slothrop’s table in Sidney’s Great Yellow Grille to finish for him his bottle of Canadian Ale, the Radcliffe girls who evaded him…

The list goes on. All the cumulative sufferings of Dumpster’s life (and being named thus must factor in there somewhere too) are recorded there for shit-sensitised Slothrop to read. Including that episode with the Canadian Ale! 

St Ambroise PynchonI realise none of this has made the loveliest introduction for a drink. But nevertheless, allow me to present my Canadian ale selection: the St. Ambroise Pale Ale. It’s from a brewery in Montreal. I’ve gotta say, I was pretty excited to have a chance to drink some crafty beer for this blog. But this one isn’t my favourite. It’s very bitter, but without all that much hop aroma. Much more like a British style Pale Ale than the American I was expecting (and hoping for). Actually tastes weirdly like Pilsner Urquell. So much so that I would have bet they’d used Saaz hops. But no, it’s Cascade, Williamette, Golding, and Hallertau. Who knows. It seems to be a pretty well-liked beer. Maybe it didn’t survive the trip across the world so well. If I were Slothrop, I might leave this one for Dumpster’s mother too.