Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Hymn to Ninkasi
December 13, 2011

Hymn to Ninkasi, Hop Pendant Necklace by Feral Strumpet on Etsy

The Hymn to Ninkasi is a 4,000 year old song to the Sumerian goddess of brewing, and it’s also a recipe for beer.  (There’s a brewery in Eugene, Oregon named after her, but I have yet to try any of their beers.)

History often shines a miraculous light on what we take for granted.  Who first learned to turn the heel of a sock when knitting it?  Who first knew which herbs would cure or kill? And who first discovered brewing? There are many legends across cultures, but when confronted with the details of the thing it’s no less startling.

“You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks
the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked
mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

(translation by Miguel Civil.  You can read the whole poem here.)

The goddess is both the brewster and the brew itself. The rhythm and repetition, the vivid scene rendered in each stanza reminds me that brewing is very much a fun time, some cooking and cackling over a boiling pot– but it’s also a ritual, a visit with the ancestors who once saw brewing as such a wonder, they sang about it.

I was inspired to make the necklace pictured in the post after reading this poem. I have many elegant beer-inspired designs in the Feral Brewhaus section of my etsy shop.

What Survives
December 23, 2009

Near Finsbury Park Station there’s a boarded up old pub, a matte lapis facade festooned with a remnant of London’s disappeared beers: Meux’s Original London Stout.  In every corner of London a mysterious detail hides a story; to note them is to chase ghosts.  Ghosts of the drowned; of the sudden, absurd death.  Even death by beer.

Meux’s was “famous for its black beer” and the great porter vat it was brewed in: 22 feet high and containing enough beer to supply more than a million persons with a pint of beer each.  According to Zythophile the brewery “…once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street.”  But British Historian Thomas Pennant describes it as exhibiting a magnificence unspeakable.

One day, this vat burst. The London beer flood was immortalized in Peter Pindar’s poem, “The Lamentations of the Porter-vat”

Here—as ’tis said—in days of yore,
(Such days, alas! will come no more),
Resided Sir John Barleycorn,
An ancient Briton, nobly born,
With Mrs. Hop—a well-met pair,
For he was rich, and she was fair.

And yet the pair quarrels, love-locked, waltzing disaster like petty gods.  Are these the genius loci of this Seven Sisters corner, driven from their original perch by the tourists flocking to see We Will Rock You musical playing at the Dominion Theatre which now stands in place of the brewery?  I imagine Meantime’s London Porter to be a fitting ode to these bitter, roasted ghosts.

1814.  It’s that hour when everyone’s at home. You run from a flood of porter, through the crowded tenements surrounding the brewery. The basements of the rookery fill.  Up on the first floor: a mother and daughter at tea and then not, the mother dead on the spot.  The daughter tries to swim and is dashed to pieces.  Running, a tidal wave of the stuff after you. Timber and neighbors, feral cats swept up in it. Drunk on the fumes. The drunk are dying.

There are rumors: in the nearby hospital the doctors minister to the injured who stink so of beer the other patients there demand beer too, almost causing a riot.

And following it all, punters with pots, gleaning from the porter river: knee deep or face first.

You would cup your hands–let nothing go to waste.

Bronze Age Microbreweries
May 19, 2008

Bronze Age Brewery

(In borrowed gear at the excavated burnt mound near the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney)

While in the Orkneys last year, I noticed the plethora of “burnt mounds” on the OS map, and I wondered what they might have been for. While in the visitors centre of the Tomb of the Eagles, one of the archaeologists there was hot with excitement about something she’d just read. She asked me to guess what the mounds might have been and I offered something about cooking and food storage, and she said– “Almost! How about a brewery? Think about it!” and I did.

I was prompted to post this shortly after reading the story of St. Brigid, the patron saint of brewers, turning bathwater to beer for some lepers. This bathwater might have been a vat of soaking barley, part of the malting process, as The Zythophile points out. Recent research conjectures these bronze age burnt mounds might just be ancient versions of this kind of processing. Apparently these researchers brewed an ancient ale using similar facilities, and the drink was “sweet,” being unhopped– I would have liked to try that!

St. Brigid is the Christianized version of a much older Goddess, Bride, whose name appears in places all over this island. If these researchers are correct, this brew, a joy older than bread, has left its ancient mark on the landscape. Sumeria has written records of brewsters and even recipies, but these sites will remain a prehistoric mystery, not unlike the process of fermentation itself. Michael Jackson describes wild yeast, “descend[ing] from Heaven even more gently than rain.” He imagines it must have seemed magical to ancient people. And I would venture– a gift of a benevolent and fecund goddess.

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