Historic--or Just Old?

I've spent the better part of the past week rummaging around some of our nation's most famous museums here in Washington DC. it's given me the chance to reflect on the objects we preserve. That something has managed to avoid the city dump for a century or two does not immediately make it historic. Nor does the fact it was owned by a famous person once--though that may make it valuable to collectors.

In the Museum of American History, I was surprised to find a weirdly-curated collection of truly historic artifacts along with a bunch of random old stuff. There are a few exhibitions that touch on the lives of the presidents, and the blend of historic and random is instructive. An exhibition on the Revolutionary war has one item that absolutely staggered me: the sword Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington after he lost the battle of Yorktown--and effectively the war against the incipient American state.

The sword itself probably has some value as an object, and even more as an object owned by a famous British general. But what makes it historic is its function as a symbol of American independence achieved--as opposed to the inspiring but entirely aspirational Declaration of Independence. This sword symbolizes British recognition of American independence.

By contrast, the museum also has this on display:

In case you can't read the placard, it's one of Obama's basketballs. There's nothing historic about this; it's interesting, perhaps, and it's a lighthearted detail of a man's life. It's even a telling detail--something like Ike's golf bag, which the museum also displays. But these have no value to history; they describe nothing about the world we find today or how we got here.

Fans and even historians of beer have often conflated age and history. This is a tendency encouraged by individual breweries of a certain age. Most of the world's dominant mass-market brands promote their historical importance as a matter of PR, but we needn't accept it at face value. When I visited Carlsberg last year, we were basted in a constant marinade of achievements: isolating a pure lager strain, funding scientists, the curious family history. But the beer Carlsberg makes, that pure yeast strain aside, is one of the thousands of derivative pilsners breweries took to making after Urquell introduced it to the world. There is absolutely nothing historic--or interesting, really--about that beer. The same is true of nearly every old brand. 

Another mistake we make is mythologizing, which robs beer of its actual history. For decades, people repeated a story about George Hodgson, the man who supposedly "invented" IPA. Of course, that's not true, nor is the lovely tale of how clever brewers figured out how to send the one beer that could survive the trip around the horn of Africa and arrive, sparkling and sublime, to slake the substantial thirsts of the swashbuckling British soldiers. (None of that is true.) In repeating the myth, we overlook the real reason that beer became popular: because clever marketers realized that a beer called "Indian pale ale" would sell brilliantly to a local market hungry for relics from the colonies (the false, romantic story, probably originated with them). It's a more nuanced story, not one of myth, but it's every bit as entertaining. 

The historic (?) elephant gates at Carlsberg.

Or take another English myth--the one about London porter, which features another single-origin story about a brewer named Ralph Harwood who combined "three threads" of beer into one "entire butt," which came to be called porter. The story has been told for over 200 years, but it's all wrong, too. It ascribes to one person a beer that is the product of many, and that whole three threads and entire butt stuff is just ignorance about the brewing process. Again, the real story of porter is longer, more convoluted, but a whole lot more interesting.

Getting history right isn't just blind pendantry: there are real costs to getting the history wrong. It means we both misunderstand our world and overlook artifacts of real historical heritage. IPA is a story about empire, but not the same story our fathers were told. The old, wrong version gilds the triumphal narrative of the Raj; boats circling the globe to deliver sparkling, journey-proof nectar. The real story, of a country beginning to turn inward, to develop middle-stage narcissism typical of empires, is less heroic, but certainly interesting. (I speak from rueful first-hand experience on this subject.)

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
— George Orwell, 1984

There's a further, and especially urgent reason to consider these matters. History isn't just something that exists in the past; it is being born minute by minute. Beer is having a moment of grand flourishing, one that will calcify and become a historical note for future generations. When a brewer makes a tart Belgian IPA or a kettle-soured mango tart, they are no longer tethered to older traditions. The "innovation" era seems to risk reducing beer to flavors, separate from lineage and history. But actually, this is itself an acutely historical moment. It has already produced the American IPA, a style that should endure for decades at a minimum. We can't know which of these other styles will survive and collect their own histories and myths, but some will. Their creation stories will be told, accurately or apocryphally, by our descendants about this moment.

So, to recap, not all that is old is historic. Not all that is said to be historic is true, and not all that seems disposable and trendy is a passing fad. History is a moving target, but one that shapes the world we inhabit in our minds, so it's good to get it right.