Monday, October 12, 2009

The Search for God and Guinness

Beer, well respected and rightly consumed, can be a gift of God.
(page xxv)

Okay, I had to keep reading after that.

Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World is a story of the Guinness family’s rise from the humble working-class to the owners of the largest business enterprise in Ireland (the Guinness Book of World Records is named after them). But it’s also a paean to beer, and to money used well. I received this book from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Bloggers program, and enjoyed reading it.

The Blessing of Beer

The first chapter is a history of beer and why people throughout that history considered it good for them – for instance, it was a healthy substitute to unboiled water, it was an alternative to hard liquor and it contained B vitamins. The author’s enthusiasm froths over in this section (sorry, bad pun) and beer all but gets God’s stamp of approval. I think the reasoning is that since the Bible praises wine in Psalm 104:15, beer is likewise allowed, in moderation.

This section also includes mentions of famous people who have appreciated and influenced beer, from Martin Luther to Enkidu (from the Epic of Gilgamesh), but I would have liked to see some attributions for Luther’s more… permissive, shall we say… quotes.

Of God, and Gold, and Beer

The rest of the book deals with the Guinness family, starting with Arthur Guinness. I’ve never even drunk beer, much less taken an interest in its history, but this section of the book was easy to read and involved interesting facts – for instance, the lease on Guinness’s first major brewery was for nine thousand years. Talk about long-term planning. Then again, the yeast strain originally used in the 1700s is still busily at work today.

Guinness coupled ambition with vision – he bought property near the docks, so ships could one day transport Guinness beer abroad. At the same time, though, he had a social conscience. His workers were treated very well by the standards of the day, and the Guinness board supported its company doctor’s reforms in public health. Guinness also disapproved of the poor treatment of Catholics, which frequently had tensions brewing (OK, I’ll stop here) in Ireland.

Only one thing disappointed me about this book. The author mentioned that when Arthur Guinness started out, brewing was more superstition than science. People waited for airborne yeasts to ferment the alcohol, rather than selecting for and adding their own strains. Since my education is in microbiology, I was waiting eagerly for the moment when they would do this, but the book is far more about the men than the microbes involved in beer.

And that’s a small issue compared to the unfolding saga of a famous family, people who transformed wealth into the service of others, and changed water into beer.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a beer drinker, nor did I have any prior knowledge of the Guinness family's history. But that book sounds rather intriguing.

I think that's the greatest testament to a non-fiction piece (whether article, book, etc): if it gets me intrigued about something that I normally wouldn't be.

And nicely written review on your part.

colbymarshall said...

sounds like a cool book--but I'd have been cool if they got into the science of it. There was a freshmen seminar at my college on beer brewing. Now there's setting up some folks for failure, lol

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Tasha. :) You're right, a book which can intrigue a reader even without prior interest in the topic is a good one.

And Colby makes the same pint I did - if the book had a lager section on the science of brewing, it would have been a head of the crowd in every respect.

OK, now I'll really stop.