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Posted August 2016

Wayward musings on the eve of MegaBrew

Having followed closely the year-long saga of the world’s number two brewer SABMiller being taken over by the world’s number one, AB-InBev, I could not help but look at Edouard Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) with different eyes. This iconic painting is widely available on the internet.

What do you see when you look at the painting? Do you see a woman behind a bar with flushed cheeks and mournful eyes, her arms resting on the marble top? Or do your eyes zoom in on her white neck, adorned with a locket on a black velvet ribbon dangling above some peonies stuck into her corsage?

Well, what you should actually see is a woman standing in front of a large mirror. She looks at us, the viewer, but the mirror to the right shows her leaning forward, engaging with a customer.

For some reason, the mirror behind the barmaid refuses to reflect what it should. It does not show the same bottles we see in the foreground. What is more, the posture of the barmaid in the background (right) is far more bent than it appears to us. Most confusingly, the mirror does not show us. Instead, there is a man in a black top hat talking to her. Is he supposed to be us? By the laws of representational painting, that is impossible.

This is an unusual portrait. It shows the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls and cabarets of Paris, the Folies-Bergère. ‘Tout Paris’ and a good number of expats went there for an evening of ‘unmixed joy’.

Really? Where is the joy? What we see are quickly painted, harshly reflected faces and bodies, a woman in hat and gloves with her companion on the balcony, someone looking at the scene with binoculars. These are the merrymakers the barmaid is looking at. Perhaps it is their being several times removed – first through the mirror and then through the painting – that the exultation got lost.

The only solid objects are the marble bar top and the bottles. In fact, there are two sets of the same drinks. Champagne, beer, red vermouth with a bowl of oranges and two roses in a vase between them. The beer bottles depicted are easily identified by the red triangle on the label as Bass Pale Ale. Brewed in Burton-on-Trent, Bass was sparkling and strong and in the 19th century became a success in the European market.

The chance discovery of a wine list from the Folies-Bergère in 1878 showed that there were no fewer than ten champagnes on offer apart from various ‘glaces, sorbets and boissons américaines’. The bottle of English Bass was probably included among the ‘American drinks’ – certainly an involuntary anticipation of things to come for a British beer style that today is mainly associated with American craft brewers.

Manet must have been less interested in giving an authentic rendering of the bar top, or he would have put the champagnes and the beers on ice. None of the moneyed punters at the Folies-Bergère would have wanted to drink warm champagne.

And as to the bottles of Bass, why are German beers like Beck’s and Löwenbräu conspicuous by their absence? They would have been very popular at the time given that German brewers had revolutionised beer production in the 1870s and significantly improved beer quality. Art critics have pondered their non-appearance on the bar top too and suggested that this was to emphasise anti-German sentiment in France following the Franco-Prussian War (1871), which was won by the Prussians.

Considering all those inconsistencies, what do we really see in the mirror? The short answer is: Time. It is time caught between the now and the very next instant when the barmaid will lean forward and address the gentleman who will then take over the position we currently occupy; the next second, when the trapeze artist, whose stockinged legs extend into the painting top left, will have swung out of the picture.

It is the privilege of art to halt time. But its message on time is sombre. The bottles, the oranges, the flowers and the locket – a small case containing a miniature portrait or a lock of hair of a loved one who has passed away – are reproduced with the precision of a still life and the symbolism of a Dutch vanitas painting, which are designed to remind the viewer of the brevity of life.

Unintentionally, Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère can also serve as a memento mori for brewers. Bass was the world’s biggest beer brand in the 19th century. Löwenbräu and Beck’s had a significant international presence in the 20th century. Where are they now? Brands, the most ephemeral of human creations, have always struggled to remain relevant, lest they fall prey to hipper upstarts. But tradition and heritage, once beer marketers’ bulwark against impermanence, are losing their might, or rather they have gone down the drain like the melted ice in those big champagne coolers Manet’s barmaid would have emptied at the end of her shift.

Presenting us with the Now and the Soon, the painting effectively squashes the march of time into the confines of a canvas. This notion should be familiar to us. Who does not feel that time is speeding up? More likely, in our age, time is being compressed. In the brewing industry, only a quarter of a century ago, SAB and AmBev were third-tier brewers. Today AB-InBev is among the world’s top five consumer goods companies.

Manet has gifted us a time capsule. Each viewer can open it to ponder time and its passing. This is how I would like readers to approach my book. Co-authored with the economist Ernst Faltermeier and called Beer Monopoly: How brewers bought and built for world domination (Hans Carl Publisher, forthcoming), it offers a snapshot on the brewing industry in the summer of 2016. While concentrating on how the brewing industry came to look the way it does now, we will also offer a few glimpses into the soon. Well aware that time will progress even as we write and obliterate one of our protagonists, we nevertheless hope that future readers will look at this book benignly and just take it for what it will eventually become: a chronicle of times past.

 

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