Sun, 23 Apr 2000

Drink... beer when you're thirsty

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Somewhat oblivious to the need of the majority of people in the world for clean drinking water, all that a few others thirst for is their daily glass of beer.

"If water is not clean enough, give the world beer to drink," says one who is able to afford all the glories that beer is said to offer.

Beer is that foamy, fermented concoction that is perhaps the oldest known, and also the highest consumed alcohol beverage worldwide. And during ancient times it was indeed safer to quench the thirst with beer rather than bacteria-infested water.

Allison, who loves to drink beer, said that she came across her first beer at an Australian university campus.

"Drinking beer is part of the curriculum there," she added in jest. But it is not the alcohol that she goes looking for in beer. It is the divine taste of the naturally fermented drink that she enjoys. Although she does admit to acting a wee bit silly after a few beers and if she happens to be on the dance floor where there is good music playing then the sky is the limit to the amount of fun she can have.

It is suspected that it all started when a careless housewife from Mesopotamia forgot some bowls of bread dough outdoors which filled up with rainwater after a sudden cloudburst. Sunshine made the contents bubble and froth for a while. Someone thrust a cup into the suds, tasted it and pronounced the drink superb. Ever since then it has been difficult to hold that hand down.

But Erwin van Grootel, the technical director at PT Multi Bintang, thinks that it was a Sumerian housewife from 4000 BC who taught the world to brew its own beer. Whatever its origins, people today will even beg for a beer as it is the cheapest and most refreshing alcohol drink in the world. Its reputation varies from taking weariness out of one's bones, raising the spirits, turning dullards into conversationalists and restoring the sickly back to health.

"One of my grandparents' is 103 years old and another 96 years old and both have been having a daily mug of beer for years," van Grootel told a group of 10 expatriate women during a tour at the newly opened Bintang Bir Brewery in Sampangagung, Surabaya, recently.

There are different reasons why people drink beer.

"It is a part of our culture. We never question ourselves as to why we like to drink beer," said an athletic-looking Agnes. For her beer is the only drink that quenches her thirst especially in the heat, humidity and easy lifestyle of Jakarta. She feels that the wheat grains, malt and yeast that go into making beer are good for her liver and skin.

While some do not like the bitter taste of the drink, Christa drinks it only because she finds the bitter taste so delicious, adding that she is definitely not looking for alcohol either as she enjoys alcohol-free beer as well.

Carla can never find good wine when she goes out to dine in Jakarta. Since she has to drink something with her dinner and the fresh fruit juices are too sweet for her taste, she asks for a beer instead.

But beer can be more than a drink. Some drink it only to keep company. "It is a social lubricant," Erik said. "The world would not come to a halt, but it would be a poorer place without beer."

While drinking an alcoholic beverage is a major issue in eastern societies like Indonesia, in the West a drink like beer is consumed as naturally as a plate of food. In fact the art of brewing beer and baking bread remain the prerogative there of temple priests and the head of the church for centuries.

In the end it is all a question of moderation, as Indra Said puts it. "I am a Muslim and I love beer," he confesses, and he plans to continue drinking beer as long as he feels he is in control of his actions and speech.

According to statistics compiled by the Center for Education and Information on Drugs and Alcohol in Australia, drinking sensibly means having two glasses of beer a day or one glass of wine, or a glass of 30 ml of spirits or 60 ml of fortified wine like port or sherry each. The center recommends at least two alcohol-free days per week for everyone and any intake of alcohol that exceeds the above average involves a medium to grave risk toward alcoholism.

In a recent report from the Institute of Mental Health's Alcoholic Treatment Center in Singapore, it was found that the number of women taking to the bottle had gone up by almost 30 percent in the past year. About 40 women were treated as in and out patients last year compared to the 22 patients that came in 1997 and 1998.

Dr. Dominic Lim, the associate consultant psychiatrist at the center, who organized a symposium recently on alcohol and women, did acknowledge, however, that most women treated at the center came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, have relationship- related problems, are less educated, are not strongly influenced by religion, are unemployed and come from homes where there is already some form of alcohol abuse.