Masters of the ancient craft of beer writing will continue to the bitter end

Ever wondered where the phrase ‘gnat’s piss’ comes from? Perhaps The British Guild of Beer Writers can put down their pints and enlighten us all

Comic%20ApologizeAlthough all press releases make a hurried and undignified progress from desktop to waste paper basket, occasionally one breaks free and catches the eye. So it was with the following item headed “So have you got the words to be Beer Writer of the Year 2007 and win £1,000?”

There is nothing exceptional in the invitation itself – gimcrack competitions and footling surveys are the stock in trade of jaded public relations people – rather it is the organisation behind the stunt that causes the eyebrow to raise and the mind to boggle. The British Guild of Beer Writers. The very name raises a myriad of questions.

Are theses beer writers occasional artists who, like poets, reach for the pen when prompted by the muse? Are there unpublished works, fragments with furled corners lying amid the dust of the taproom floor, with titles such as “On First Looking into Theakston’s Mild”? and “Ode to a Handpump”? Or are they full-time practitioners who, when stopped and searched, give their occupation as Beer Writer?

Do they conform to the stereotype of the beer connoisseur? Do they wear open-toed sandals and have unkempt beards that are home to animal life and vegetable matter? Do the women writers – for such there must surely be – drink bitter by the pint and wipe their mouths with the back of their hand?

Then there is the matter of calling themselves a guild. They are not, you note, a club, which suggests a kind of informal social gathering, or an association, or even a society, both of which must fall short of the grandeur of their ambition. They are a guild, a mediaeval term originally used to describe an association of craftsmen or merchants who often had considerable power. Beer writing is plainly seen both by those in membership of the guild and those who aspire to join its ranks as a distinct special and skilled form of writing worthy of recognition and deserving of esteem.

And who are we to doubt that claim? Writing of any kind is not easy; it requires the ordering of one’s thoughts and their lucid expression, tasks one imagines made greatly more arduous and taxing by the preoccupation of drinking beer. Anyone who wrestles with the English language in all its infinite variety knows how elusive can be the words with which to describe emotion, sense, feeling and understanding. 

The French have similar difficulty, or at any rate Gustave Flaubert had: it was said that the the author of Madame Bovary would sometimes agonise for days over the choice of a single word. Pity the beer writer, then, the depth and quality of whose research will be in inverse proportion to his or her ability to reach out and grasp the slippery mot juste.

How many guild members have sat, sweat-beaded head in trembling hands on the morning after, desperate to dredge a single consonant, let alone apt and sparkling simile and metaphor, from the tumult of their minds. And with what relief must they have at length picked up the pencil and inscribed in a shaking hand the single adjective “hoppy”.

It is not as though the idiom of the beer drinker is especially rich and varied to begin with. On which subject I should be grateful for enlightenment from the guild. For instance, I have heard it said of a beer deemed by the drinker to be of a disappointingly inferior bouquet and flavour that it tastes like gnat’s piss. I should be interested to know more of the origin and meaning of this expression. The gnat, being a small, mosquito-like insect, may or may not urinate. Assuming for the sake of argument that it does, it must do so in quantities too minute to be detected without the aid of a microscope.

It follows that in order to taste the water passed by these creatures it would be necessary to assemble a vast quantity, several thousand swarms at a guess, and hope that they might be induced simultaneously to relieve themselves, and moreover do so into a suitable receptacle. Only then would it be possible for a tasting to take place.

It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that no one has tasted gnat’s piss. How valid, then, is the comparison with, say, a domestically-brewed lager? Very valid, I hear you say, and quite right too, but the comparison is imaginative rather than literal. The same must apply to the expression, often used by one beer drinker to disparage another, “pissed as a newt”. Just as it is uncertain that a gnat pees, it is also unlikely that a small amphibian drinks alcohol to excess. As both piss artists and writers, have the guild’s members a view on this?

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