June 11th, 2005

operesque

A complete history of drinks

Someone anonymous (it may have been design writer Rick Poynor) left an interesting comment yesterday on the topic of globalisation and our conceptions of the exotic: "Some cultural borrowings can become so internalized that they no longer convey to the consumer an image of "the other". Back in the 60s, having an espresso at Bar Italia in Soho was an exotic appropriation of an Italian "other". But having an espresso in Starbucks on Leicester Square in 2005 no longer is, although there's a direct evolution. It's simply become a part of our globalised culture."

I started thinking about this again later in the day when I went with Hisae and Yukiko to the Japanese deli in Friedrichshain. We were drinking Kirin and Asahi beer from the cold cabinet, comparing the taste. The Kirin tasted a bit more hoppy, stronger, with a bitter aftertaste on the back edges of your tongue. The Asahi was refreshingly watery, a bit like Budweiser. The girls told me the brands tasted different from their Japanese counterparts: this wasn't "real" Japanese beer flown in from Japan, but European beer bottled for the Japanese brands in England and Germany. Nearby were cans of "Calpico Water", the Euro-version of Japanese Calpis Water (rebranded, presumably, because Calpis sounds a bit like "cow piss" to English ears and nobody wants to quaff piss).

I told the girls about the beers marketed in Britain as "exotic". In the early 80s continental bottled pilsner was the thing. I remember going to bars with members of Josef K, copying them when they ordered "a pils, please". It sounded like "pills", as if you were ordering blues or poppers or something: a lot cooler than "Half a pint of cider, please!" (my tipple at uni). Later, when I moved to London, Mexican beer was the cool drink. It was a shock to discover that Sol, the stuff I drank at Bar Escobar in South Ken with my dish of stuffed baby squid (accompanied by tequila shots from the tequila girl if I was on a date) was actually a fake Mexican brand: the Mexicans really drank cerveza Corona. Just as watery and yellow as Sol, though in a less "exoticist" bottle (Sol had a label with Day of the Dead sun motifs), Corona soon replaced the ersatz brand.

Soon Sapporo Japanese beer started to appear in London's cool eateries. The curvy non-parallel silver can, swelling generously from a narrow base to a wide brim, looked like it could have been designed by Philippe Starck. Imagine my surprise, on my first trip to Japan, to find that this beer didn't exist there! There was Sapporo beer, of course, but it tasted different and the "luxury" can was nowhere to be seen. And Sapporo in Japan was a humble third to Asahi and Kirin beers: in fact, it was Asahi who employed Philippe Starck, architect of their famous beer hall at Asakusa.

If my typical 80s hot date happened in a Mexican restaurant with whistle-blowing tequila girls and music by The Gypsy Kings, things switched radically in the 90s. The cool London restaurant became Belgo at Chalk Farm; wanton tequila girls were replaced by severe Belgian monks carrying plates of mussels. My beer taste suddenly went Dutch: Hoegaarden, a cloudy Dutch white beer, appeared and was very successful with people who didn't really like normal bitter clear beer. By the late 90s the white beer market had expanded: I remember drinking Erdinger at the Bricklayer's Arms in Hoxton. In fact, it's still my tipple here in Berlin, but whereas a bottle in Hoxton costs £2.50, here, where it's local and not marketed as an exotic "premium" product, it's 45 pence.

Non-beer drinks also had a succession of brief moments in the limelight. My childhood in the 60s was dominated by horrific chemical concentrates like Cremola Foam, a sort of agribiz fizz that became a toxic pink scum when you added water. Family holidays in France opened my eyes — and palette: a drink called "French lemonade" became my favourite, but you could only drink it in France. In Montreal in the mid-70s we drank Tang, an orange juice concentrate which had apparently been developed for astronauts to drink in space. I guess you can't get more exotic than that, although tastewise the stuff was a rather faded chemical memory of Florida groves. In the mid-80s, when I moved to the King's Road in Chelsea, Perrier water suddenly appeared. I started using my dole checks to pay for... water.

I can't drink coffee, it makes me hyper. I went through a brief cappuccino phase in the early 80s, again influenced by my bandmates in The Happy Family. We'd go in Paul's car to the only cafe in Edinburgh that served the stuff, the Cafe Vittorio on Leith Walk. Later, in London, I'd walk down to The Dome at World's End and sip the frothy stuff slowly, hoping I wouldn't get heart palpitations. But I'm really a tea man. In the late 70s Twinings released Earl Grey in tea bag format. Twinings was the only widely available "connoisseur" tea in Britain then, a metonym for exoticism. If I want to remember my life in an Aberdeen student hall of residence I just have to imagine Simon Artley, my nextdoor neighbour, calling "Cup of tea, Nick? Darjeeling? Lapsang Souchong?" Later I switch to cinnamon/cardamon teas bought in the Bangla supermarkets of Brick Lane, and then to sticky American chai, alternating with Japanese green tea bags, and finally to loose leaf sencha. Just in the last week I've switched to the double price high quality sencha (100g for €12) sold at my local tea store Bodea, and it's unlikely I'll ever go back to the cheap stuff. Green tea bags will never again be "the real thing". How could I have thought they were? What was I thinking?

What is "the real thing", if it's so relative, though? Is it just a position that successive products occupy one by one, none of them definitively? Are we drinking liquids or ideas? Ideas about reality, exoticism, refinement, quality, exclusiveness, the Good Other, social class, consumer power, personal ideals, wealth, self image... Do I drink to scorn my former self, that provincial buffoon? Do I drink to soak the Other, literally and physically, into my body? Do I drink to remember, or drink to forget? If I found a sticky tin of Cremola Foam, even if I knew I'd get a Proustian rush back to 1968, could I bear to add water? If my body is 65% water, who are all these exotic drinks turning me—well, 65% of me—into? More tea, vicar?