Beer Tuesday 2: “Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants.”


As noted here previously, the realization some weeks ago that I’d be appearing in February at a craft beer writing symposium, and in the company of genuine industry heavyweights, finally got me off my duff and thinking again. There’s nothing like desperately seeking to avoid embarrassment to get the wheels spinning.

The gist of my recent writing shtick is this: NABC borrowed a bunch of money and built a second brewery in 2009, and in the five years since then, it has become clear that numerous assumptions we made about craft beer and the craft beer marketplace were skewed. Sometimes they were plainly wrong — just ask any banker.

Not that the Bank Street project has been unsuccessful, just that almost every gain recorded there in terms of beer distribution reflects an unexpected refutation of a blithe prior assumption. In my writing of late, I’m trying to determine whether our experience is unique to us, or if there are universals involved.

Of course, we’ve had our share of screw-ups, but I tend toward the latter, and consequently, it worries me. Any time everyone agrees on something (“craft beer is great and we’re conquering the world!”), it gives me pause, because the interests of the dialectic are not being served. As I told the FOSSILS club on Sunday night, I’m not prepared to offer answers. What I’m trying to to is ask the right questions, although merely being a gadfly absent polemics simply doesn’t suit me.

Confrontation? That’s another story, and the shoe definitely fits.

My column at is running weekly on Mondays. Just last week I had the chance to look at the numbers and see whether the column was being read. At first, it seemed depressing; typically, just a couple hundred hits each time, or roughly equal to what I get here for “On the Avenues” and popular features about health department tyranny. Then I realized that traffic was evenly distributed among the various columnists, confirming what I already knew: My only real skill is writing, and I live in an era (and write about a topic) in which there are too few readers.

However, no discouragement here. Writing is a compulsion, and I get to attend a symposium. That’s edifying. This week’s column is about one of my favorite books.

Tastes of paradise can shatter mirrors

Published at on January 13, 2014

I’m not in the habit of compulsively re-reading books, even those of the highly influential sort.

Of course, there are exceptions:

  • The early beer writing of Michael Jackson
  • “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a sobering tome by John Barry
  • Jim Bouton’s ribald baseball tell-all, “Ball Four”
  • “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the classic New Orleans comic novel from John Kennedy Toole

Another is “Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants,” by the wonderfully named Wolfgang Schivelbusch. He is not a Groucho Marx character from Duck Soup, but a German-born cultural historian operating from a decidedly (Karl) Marxist perspective.