Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s in the Draught Lines

Christina Wade has written an accessibly scholarly book about women in beer that offers a refreshingly different lens on the world.

It tells us, with overwhelming heaps of evidence, that women have always been involved in brewing, and still are.

But more than this, it shows us that it’s possible to write a 180-page book almost without citing or talking about men at all.

Women are the centre of the stories told. Academic texts by women are cited in every other paragraph – many of them, more than most of us could digest in a lifetime. And when punditry and insight are required, Wade is able to call on a cast of sharp, experienced experts, all of whom are women. It feels effortless, too, and natural. Who else’s opinion or experience could possibly have more weight or authority?

Despite its clear focus, as a result of when it was researched and written, this is also a vital text about brewing and hospitality during the pandemic. Wade draws parallels between COVID-19 and historic plagues, which also affected the brewing industry, and women’s roles in it.

One particularly eye-opening argument is that the Black Death reduced the population, increased wages, increased demand for better beer, and thus gave men an incentive to muscle into the brewing trade, displacing the women who’d dominated it for centuries. Then, whoosh, we’re back in the 21st century and Wade asks, will COVID-19 have a similar effect? Post-pandemic trading conditions, she suggests, favour larger, better-funded breweries… which happen to be run by men.

One of Wade’s hobby horses, explored in blog posts and articles, is the muddled mythology around brewing and witchcraft. That is, the pervasive story that ‘alewives’ inspired the modern image of the witch. Fun and empowering as these stories might be, and easy as it would no doubt have been to sell a book on the strength of these stories, Wade is as rigorous in debunking them as Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell have been in correcting the popular understanding of the histories of porter and IPA.

Structurally The Devil’s in the Draught Lines resists the simplicity of chronology. Instead, each chapter covers a different angle and whizzes us back and forth through hundreds of years, from the mediaeval world to the 21st century.

There’s also room for stories around race, culture, gender identity, with names and faces unfamiliar to us, like Lizzie and Lucy Stevens of Closet Brewing, and Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela of the Tolozaki Beer Company. In fact, there’s the equivalent of about 25 Pellicle articles hidden throughout the book – and we mean that as a compliment to both parties.

This helps leaven the wholemeal archival research that underpins the book. Any time we start to suspect we’re being fed a chunk of thesis we’re given an interview with a woman working in beer today. These are often cleverly chosen and placed to underline what has changed since the historical examples were recorded – and what has not.

It’s clear Wade put a lot of effort into finding the balance between academic style and plain language – something she’s practised rather brilliantly on her blog for many years. Sources and authorities are named in the text, but not with scary foot- or endnote numbers. Then more detail for each is provided at the back of the book.

If you want to understand the deeper history of brewing in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it’s a readable survey of previous research. And it’s a must-read if you want your world view shaken up a little – something which is good for all of us to do from time to time.

We bought our copy from CAMRA Books for £15.99 delivered with a member discount.

3 replies on “BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s in the Draught Lines”

I enjoyed the book and I’d probably have enjoyed it even more if it had been more academic. The writing style very much looks like it would normally have numbers for all the references scattered across the page. And I’d love to have had technical details on some of the things mentioned: how did they store their yeast and make their malt and beer.

Yes, we like numbered notes, too, but didn’t miss them too much in this instance. Partly because the author has real academic credibility unlike, say, us, so we didn’t doubt the sources existed for anything she said.

Comments are closed.