Monday 27 September 2010

Remembrance of Beers Past

I’m in my flat. It’s September and almost sunny. I pop the swing top of a chunky bottle and pour it out while I’m concentrating on making dinner and doing other jobs. I’m juggling and making a mess and I’m not thinking about the beer but as soon as I raise the glass to my lips and take one mouthful I’m whooshed away and I’m sitting in the Pivovar Modra Hvezda and microbrewery in Dobrany. I’m sitting at a table, the brewer at one end, me at the other, surrounded by others, with lots of glasses in front of me. My hand goes to the glass in the middle and lifts it up, takes a gulp and says, inaudibly, how much I like this beer. Back in my kitchen I feel a warmth moving outwards from my heart in a quickening of its beat; the memory comes alive in me. I remember that it had a striking flavour which hadn’t been present in anything we’d had all weekend, an egg custard tart quality, but in a subtle-not-weird kind of way. I remember how I drank more and more of this beer until it was gone. I remember its silky body, the sweetness and creaminess of it; I remember how much fun that hour at the brewpub/hotel was and how everyone was buzzing when we left. Standing in the kitchen at home, raising the glass to take a mouthful, I’m thrown to that memory.

The brewpub/hotel from the outside.
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence.”

Of course, it’s no ordinary cake which Marcel Proust is writing about in Remembrance of Things Past; it’s a madeleine. For Proust, “the past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us).” This material object could be anything. For Proust it was a piece of cake soaked in tea. For me, it’s beer.

The Modra Hvezda lager (it's the 10 degree unfiltered) isn’t the only beer to have this effect on me. A few weeks ago I shared a bottle of Racer 5 with Mark from BeerBirraBier and it simultaneously took me on a wild memory ride to four different places (such is the power of this beer for me) – just a mouthful of it is powerful enough to do that, which is probably why I call it my favourite beer. The strange thing is that I don’t remember the taste of the beer in the memories, instead it’s the rosy and hazy experience it conjures back in my mind.

Racer 5 in the Bear Republic brewpub.
“Our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental,” writes Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist. “This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the centre of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible.” Lehrer explains that the other senses are processed by the thalamus, which is the source of language and the “front door to consciousness,” meaning that sight, sound and touch “are much less efficient at summoning up our past.” By taking a mouthful of beer (or cake or anything else), the brain can pin it to a distant memory and recall it from the library of our mind.

But the memories I’ve recreated are not fully complete. They are powerful flashes of the moment which brings back a feeling more than anything else. I can see the image of it but it’s almost static, like someone has taken two or three stills and is playing them back to back, creating a jarring video effect. I remember being there, I remember little details, but mostly I remember the feeling.

These memories “do not directly represent reality,” says Lehrer. “Instead, they are imperfect copies of what actually happened, a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph.” Memories require a “transformative process... we have to misremember something in order to remember it.” By drinking these beers I’m flung to a great memory and in my mind this has a cumulative effect and makes it better; a halcyon glow fills the senses. I don’t remember how tired, drunk or hungover I am in any of the memories, that headache isn’t there nor am I was worried that I don’t have enough money for breakfast or that I don’t know where my hotel is, instead I bring back a snapshot of something which means a lot and I raise it up in my mind to something bigger and better and each time it happens the beers and the moments continue to get better and more important to me.

These are the sorts of beers we don’t forget. They are also the beers which we raise to be more than perhaps they should be. Is the Modra Hvezda lager a great beer or is it just the lasting memory of a great moment? Is Racer 5 my favourite beer or have I just been lucky and had some unforgettable experiences with it in my hand. Strangely, I’ve had it more times than just the four which flash into my mind, but they don’t come back instantly, instead they take a little more searching until I remember them.

Beer is a visceral time machine capable of lifting us from reality and dropping us back in a distant memory, visiting places we hadn’t forgotten, just merely stored in the annuls of what’s already happened. By having these transformative remembrances we raise the original moment in our minds and it gets better and better until it ostensibly becomes something of fictional quality. But this isn’t a bad thing. It’s good to have these special beers and special moments and they are rare drinking experiences; it makes beer an important part of our past and present.

Have you ever experienced this kind of Proustian remembrance? If so, what beer? Or what food? Or whatever else?

I’ve written something similar before. That time it was how Deus takes me to my last Summer Ball at university (the Taste of Memories). I have a similar thing with Mythos which, despite having countless pints in the last few years, I still recall a particular few. Desperados is there too and it’s my 21st birthday and we’re standing in my garden, it’s freezing cold and dark and we’re drinking a mini keg. Then there’s the time we’re drinking a mini keg in a swimming pool. 


  1. This sort of insightful writing is exactly why you'd have been wasting yourself reducing beer to numbers on or whatever. Very nice...

  2. There is a perfume that triggers a certain memory for me when ever I smell it but I haven't had the same effect with beer!

  3. i had it not so long ago, at the GWBCF in june tasting the Otley/Melissa Cole Thai-bO. One mouthful and suddenly i was 8 years ago in "Annie's Thai Kitchen" a restaurant in Torquay, pre-kids. So weird.
    No-one else knew what i was babbling about though!

  4. One bar of Strings For Yasmin and I'm sat on the edge of the North West Corner, scarf and shirt swinging around my head, jumping in a sea of 40,000 people with no idea where my seat is, in disbelief and utter joy that Eddie Lewis just curled the ball into the top corner from 25 yards in the dying seconds....

    I've yet to have a beer take me to quite a place yet.

  5. My "not about Crucial Brew" post touched on this. Most of my great beer memories are fairly recent, but every so often I taste something malty and Welsh and BAM-

    I'm fifteen years old, it's a sunny day in south Wales, my Dad's just bought me a sneaky half of Buckley's and I am leaning back in my (plastic) chair blessing him for buying it, blessing Richard Boston for banging on about real ale in the Guardian and blissfully anticipating all those years when I'll be able to drink this stuff whenever I like, because it is the best thing I have ever tasted. (In retrospect it was only the second real ale I'd ever tasted, but that doesn't affect the subjective sense of having stumbled upon the Holy Grail of booze. And the first was London Pride, which was pretty good back then.)

  6. Nice post, mark. Yes, It happens often to me. There's a perfume that i sometimes catch which a girlfriend circa 1998 used to wear which has a powerful effect. The smell of old books also takes me back to my grandparent's library. The aroma of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale makes me feel something special - but i can't yet find what it is in my memories. It's a really familiar aroma now, but it takes me back to my early days of drinking (well, appreciating Craft Beer) which no other beer can. The only music one I have is Nessum Dorma - memories of playgrounds and playing footy at school - beleive it or not, it was a bit of a theme tune, despite being an opera aria. The only song to bring a tear to the eye, actually. It represents more than footbal - more a period in time. But theres' not enough space to get into that here...

  7. Definitely the taste linked to the moment,what an enjoyable read.