A Lesson in Barley

Malting Floor

I walked in the door at the corner of Jackson and Central, passing the flickering gaslights and the dark-grained woodwork and taking a seat at a stool. I took my wallet, keys, and phone from my pockets, set them on the smooth, epoxied countertop, and laced my fingers together in a posture that Jeff had come to know well. He walked up with an expectant smile, drying his hands on a small towel and throwing it over his shoulder.

“I’ve got something you need to try, man,” he said, and he drew a bottle of deep amber liquid off the shelf. “We just got this in, and it’s fabulous.”


Now, let it be known that I do not wish to raise a controversy. I’m perfectly happy to defend both the Scriptural doctrines on both quaffing strong drink and on abstaining therefrom. Both approaches hold water, so to speak. I’ve got plenty of family who rightly refrain, plenty of friends who rightly partake, and a number of friends who cannot partake for reasons of the trouble it would cause. Who could forget the jarring ending of Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, in which a litany of Dickens’ dry, witty essays comes to a close with “The Drunkard’s Death,” a sobering picture of a man who slowly destroys his entire family, and eventually himself, with his addiction? Strong drink can become an affliction, no doubt, and a bringer of pestilence. In no way do I wish to minimize this. However, my purpose is not to dwell on that peril-fraught conversation in particular. Furthermore, I lean well toward Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest and (presumably Episcopal) chef, who said: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system.” These things weren’t made to be medication, but to be a blessing.

Therefore, I submitted wholeheartedly to the dram-full of liquid artwork which Jeff poured into a tumbler for me. And, as I smelled it, I could not help but recall that it began its life as a field of golden grass, sown, awaited, and reaped by men and women with real names and real faces. The process of raising barley takes a season’s worth of time and more than a season’s worth of thought, and it can be a struggle. The shoots might take on any of several fungi. The leaves or awns might develop scald under the influence of the wet Scottish climate. The pH of the soil might shift by degrees. A sudden cold snap might strike the plants before they’re hardened off. A thousand enemies vie against a farmer’s livelihood, and his family’s welfare hangs in the balance. Work of any sort is a brave undertaking, and work that depends on something as mercurial as the climate is especially so.

After it is harvested, barley must be threshed, dried, partially sprouted—that is to say, malted—and dried again. This takes time, patience, consistent effort, and an attention to craft. As the grain undergoes these processes, moving from the furrow to the drying floor of the malt house, it takes on a character, a terroir. Everything from soil composition to local water quality to the native air used to dry the sprouted cereal lends tiny components to the flavor. The taste becomes unique, unbalanced from conformity by the thousand graces of soil, water, heat, and careful tending. The grain leaves the farmer’s hands and drops into the hands of another, adding to the number of people dependent on a single year’s cutting. Many people have only taken on pedestrian tasks like transportation or bookkeeping, yet they are bound up with the fate of the grain. Often, for one reason or another, they are also passionate about what they do.

The annals of Second Samuel hold a short list of David’s “mighty men” and their worthy deeds. It reads like some old Anglo-Saxon epic, recounting feats like those of valorous Eleazar, son of Dodai, who stood alone and “struck down Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword.” In the midst of this lovely mythos, David, in a fit of passion and thirst, cries out for “water from the well near the gate at Bethlehem.” At that time, the army was cut off from Jerusalem, but three of David’s mighty men broke through enemy lines, drew the water, broke back through the enemy lines, and brought David his drink. David, in response, would not drink the water, but poured it upon the ground as an offering before the Lord.

“Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this,” he says. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?”

It’s a drastic action for a man thirsty and besieged. Without a firm grasp of David’s motivation, one might even call it rude, uncaring, or even tyrannical. If we don’t feel comfortable accusing the king, we might at least allow that he has gone mad. Normal people say, “Thank you,” and take what they’re given. It’s only polite, after all.

David, however, understood something about the nature of human work, about human action, that eludes our disjunct and compartmentalized society. It is a truth recognized by farmers, monastics, and pioneers alike throughout the course of history: Work is an offering of yourself. The way you spend your time is a sacrifice. Whether that be in one direction or the other, towards blessing or cursing, when you labor, you pour out your very self. It is certain that we are much more than the work we do, however we are not in spite of the work we do. At the very least, the way we labor, the work we choose to do, and the work we refuse are all reflections of who we are. There is something of us in our expenditures of time. Our propensities to ask new acquaintances what they do might be more than just small talk. For the same Scriptures from which Luther drew his Sola Fide spend a great deal of language on doing.

This is alarming when one considers just how much of other people’s work we consume on a given day. Just this morning, the list of products that have contributed to my well-being extends beyond my reckoning. I woke up in a bed, took a hot shower, fed my children food that I did not plant or raise, and drove a car I didn’t make using gas made from oil I didn’t draw from the ground or refine. Merely considering the actions of a few hours, untold people have made my day possible. My proper response ought to be gratitude to the Lord who brought together these diverse crafts to provide for my children and me. Is it not the blood of those who went at the risk of their lives? Doesn’t everybody always go at the risk of their lives? Should I not eat, drink, drive, sleep, and shower with a sense of wonder and thanks?

Now, you might say that I paid all these people for their work, and you would be right. But insofar as work is an offering of the self, money is hardly a replacement of the self that was sacrificed. I pay them money because it’s what we’ve agreed upon and what I have to give, not because it is pregnant with any humanity of its own. Furthermore, if you believe that the Maker of all things uses people to serve other people—and I do—then you have to remember that, while you are called to be fair in your dealings, the Maker who made both people and things doesn’t personally need your money. This means that you can’t actually repay anyone, God or the merchant, fairly. That makes everything you have a kind of gift. What better way to turn economics on its head?

Now, back to our tumbler of scotch. While I don’t have the mental prowess to constantly imagine everyone who ever worked on my car or cut the wood for my house, I can certainly make an effort to pay close attention and think imaginatively about the food I eat and what I drink. A single sip of scotch is an entrance into ages, a trip through time. It is a peat-flavored song of molecules that were before you and will be after you. Every farmer, driver, distiller, and bottler played a measure or two in the rhapsody of potation that pools in your glass. It is no longer water; it is uisge beatha—“water of life” in Gaelic—something containing the time and effort of many. It has become poetry through a liturgy of years. Liturgy, after all, means “the work of the people.” Is it not the blood of those who went at the risk of their lives?

So drink slowly, and with consideration for the gift you are given. And eat with a mind to the savor of the meal. The least salted peanut grew in the ground over months, and it was God’s pleasure to watch it grow. Of course, if you feel given to gluttony, slow eating might be a good cure for a time. Moreover though, food and drink are a blessing, and blessings take some imagination to consider. The grace of God is writ large upon them, so read well, give thanks, eat, and drink.

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