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BREW: Of horses and metaphors

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August 12, 2010 | Leave Comment

Enterprise beer columnist

IÕve known about dude ranches for a very long time.

I just never thought IÕd spend five days at one, and I certainly didnÕt expect to have so much fun. But last week my trail-mate and I, along with our whole family of 14 people, installed ourselves at the Greenhorn Ranch near Quincy, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our wedding day.

We had a blast and enjoyed a most memorable week: worthy, in every way, of 50 years in the saddle.

WeÕve won our spurs.

That last phrase Ñ weÕve won our spurs Ñ is, of course, a metaphor for success. It set me to thinking about all the many dozens of metaphors we use in the English language, based on horses and horsemanship. Most have become well-worn clichŽs.

After all, one must think of something while on the trail, to counter the pain of the saddle coming up as oneÕs butt goes down.

We may be spurred on to do better, or we may dig in our spurs to encourage others. We get saddle sore when tired, or we sit high in the saddle when proud. WeÕre sometimes saddled with stuff weÕd rather avoid; when annoyed, we might get a burr under our saddle.

We keep a loose or Ñ more usually Ñ a tight rein on children or finances; occasionally, when anxious, we might chomp at the bit … or, if excited, take the bit between our teeth.

You get the idea, so letÕs quit horsing around.

This infusion of the English language with color and vigor, derived from long experience with horses, made me ask whether alcoholic beverages have similarly enriched the language. To my surprise and disappointment, IÕve been able to think of very few beverage metaphors: this despite the fact that the human experience of alcohol must be almost as long as the experience with horses.

We have many words for drunkenness, of course Ñ sloshed, sozzled, pickled and pie-eyed, for example Ñ but few are actual metaphors. And the famous Òthree sheets to the windÓ makes no literal sense to me.

I do claim for beer and brewing the metaphor Ògrist for the mill,Ó because the brewerÕs grain bill traditionally is called the grist; this is milled and put in the grist case before mashing-in.

Life might not be all beer and skittles Ñ or, from Shakespeare, cakes and ale Ñ and we similarly cry into our beer when sorrowful and unable to do anything about it. Sometimes emotions are bottled up, or flow is impeded by a bottle-neck. We also listen to canned music, but IÕm not sure I can claim these metaphors for beer or brewing, any more than using ferment to imply excitement, or agitation or tumult, even in the sense of to foment (a different derivation) a riot.

Wine provides us with metaphors about aging well, and perhaps references to bad corks.

The metaphoric use of words possessing a literal meaning help to illuminate our wonderful language Ñ to make it more vivid Ñ and gives those of us who grew up with the language a vastly complex lexicon of words and usages to play with. It also makes English difficult to learn, or speak well and understand, especially when the language is used at its most adventurous (and the author is galloping along at full tilt, and even riding for a fall).

This idea sends my mind off at another tangent, which leads to an instructor of mine while I was at university, who spoke English very badly. She taught me brewing microbiology laboratory practices. Of all my instructors, I perhaps learned the most from Dora Kulka, and I remember her teaching best; some years later, at UC Davis, I based my own laboratory instruction methods on hers.

Kulka brought her students many working samples from the brewing industry, and told us stories that were intended to make us better brewers. She often was called to breweries, to solve microbiological problems that were common in those small, old traditional British ale breweries of that time.

Most breweries in that era sold their beer locally, through the tied house system of pubs: that is, through retail outlets that the breweries themselves owned. In this way, drinkers at their local hostelry really had access only to the beers of the brewery that owned the pub. To a significant degree, the brewery that owned the most pubs therefore defined the local taste in beers.

Kulka memorably shared a story to bring that idea home: She told us of one brewery she cleaned up, where-upon beer sales plummeted. Predictably, the brewery demanded that its old problems be returned. The moral: DonÕt change horses in midstream.

Kulka was a demanding instructor. At the time, my class-mates and I frankly didnÕt much appreciate her intensity and rigor, and the complexity of the things she made us do; to our embarrassment, we always seemed to fall short of her high expectations. She rode us hard.

Kulka was a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. I have no idea of her other history, nor do I know how she came to teach laboratory practice to the likes of me and that unwashed cohort of brewing and biochemistry students of those days Ñ the 1950s Ñ at the biochemistry department and the British School of Malting and Brewing at the University of Birmingham.

But there she most memorably was, intensely shy and speaking poor, heavily-accented German-English. She often lamented to us that the English language was impossibly difficult for her, and I suppose that was the reason she couldnÕt deliver formal lectures. Kulka told us that she learned French and Italian in three years to fluency, but thought she never would master English.

For her, English was a horse of a different color.

At the Greenhorn Ranch on Aug. 6, the anniversary day of our wedding way back in 1960 and, incidentally, the same day that we traveled to the United States, we all wore blue T-shirts that we designed for the event; they bear the images of an English rose and a Welsh dragon within a golden ring.

Fifty years is a pretty long course to run, but in the steeplechase of life weÕve ridden at every fence together, and jumped most of them.

We might be getting a little long in the tooth, I suppose, but my goodness: WeÕre still a good team.

Ñ Reach Michael Lewis at cymro@sbcglobal.net. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

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