Beer is a beverage which has splashed over the tables of many across the world, assuming many names and causing many quarrels. From Ancient Egypt to Anheuser Busch, this ‘amber nectar,’ from production to palate, has captivated minds and hearts. In Lauren Clark’s latest book, ‘Crafty Bastards,’ everything New Englanders love and know (and don’t know) about how brewing that tasty drink shaped the lives of their forebears is brought before one’s consciousness.
“You know the joke about the guy ordering a glass of water at a bar and being served a light beer?” begins Clark’s book. “For New England’s early settlers, the punch line wouldn’t have hinged on the shortcomings of the beer, but rather on the idea that anyone would seriously ask for a drink of water. Everyone knew water was poisonous.”
So begins beer’s journey in New England from necessity to one of the biggest commodities in the world. Clark’s itinerary is closer to home, however, closer to the heart as she deftly tracks not only craft beer’s production, successes and failures, but the social and historical interactions by which the drink became a symbol for the ‘Yankee’ spirit.
Clark, who has written for a number of Massachusetts-based and national publications, divides her explication of beer’s influence in New England thematically, examining the social and economic context of each ingredient, from water to grain to hops, as well as the production and transportation of said materials. And the journey is a funny one.
“If you drink beer like water and, at the same time, consider drunkenness a sin, you’re going to have a complicated relationship with alcohol,” writes Clark about the Puritans’ predicament as their fellow men and women (most of the time women) produced beer to survive.
Reading each chapter of ‘Crafty Bastards’ feels like a well-informed, sometimes wild, sometimes awkward conversation among a bunch of friends at a bar. Letters from such prestigious historical figures as John Adams are read with the same breath as modern craft brewers fighting the obstacles of the three-tiered system and for the trained tongues of modern drinkers.
Most importantly, Clark captures vividly the fascination and enthusiasm for craft beer which pushed her subjects to scrape, claw and rebel against anyone who dared to take it away. Throughout the 199 pages of ‘Crafty Bastards,’ the nation’s constant legislative and moral complex for and against intoxication is comedically portrayed.
“Hey, maybe these guys wouldn’t drink so much if their bosses weren’t pushing hooch on them all the time,” writes Clark about how 19th century laborers commonly received alcohol as a means of pay.
In the later chapters of the book, Clark delves into the emergence of the craft-brewing generation over the past several decades, and how New England has steadily gained a voice from the imperium of West-Coast craft beers through brewers such as Jim Koch of Sam Adams and Richard Wrigley’s Commonwealth Brewing Company.
“There was the sense of being part of something new, a shift in taste,” write Clark about the craft beer boom of the 1990s. “The mainstream news referred to microbrews as a fad, but brewers knew better.”
Ultimately, ‘Crafty bastards’ is a cool, funny and informative bundle of New Englanders’ obsession with that beverage of choice; beer. From the 1600s to today, that fascination still rings (or drinks?) true, and Clark has put an apt shape and sound to it.
“If Sam Adams were alive today, he’d be delighted,” writes Clark in closing. “Remember when he begged his fellow colonists to brew their own beer so that they didn’t have to ‘be beholden to Foreigners for a Credible Liquor?”
“Almost two hundred and fifty years later, New England’s brewers are fulfilling that wish once more.”
For more information about Clark and her latest book, ‘Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day,’ visit Union Park Press at www.unionparkpress.com .