Murano’s artisan glass has become cheapened by the scourge of tatty tourism, but like Venice itself, Murano glass is a gem worth exploring in greater depth by the diligent courtesan. All visitors admire at least some Murano glass, in some of its forms. So too does the beer lover swoon over proper glassware. Glass is beer’s favorite vessel, Venice’s favorite export, and glass symbolizes both with fragility, paradoxical strength, and endearing imperfections.
No other material could be as apt a metaphor for Venice and beer, both. First, glass represents the paradoxes of this city: delicate and strong at the same time. The paradox of beer is that what is and always will be the “people’s drink” can be elevated to the sublime. Especially when served in the right glass.
- The Paradox of Perfection. Imperfections like bubbles and seams become part of its glossy whole, just as the most rustic parts of Venice are also its most attractive and the most rustic beers can be the most satisfying.
- The Paradox of Flame. The furnace of glassmaking become the unlikely primogenitor of a substance that looks like ice; likewise the brewing kettle is the forge of a mysteriously vibrant bubbly beverage served cool.
- The Paradox of Fragility. Like Venice, and like glass, beer is fragile but long lasting with proper care. They can age well, Venice and beer. But you must be kind and careful. Lovers of the city do not give up on dilapidated buildings. Instead, they save whatever vertical space they have left by building private bridges to front doors, which are now on level two because level one is gone. Some beers age well. Lambics incredibly so. Others need to practically be drank from the vat, practically like placenta from the womb. Anything lagered is like that. Pay attention and learn. Have respect.
- The Paradox of Popularity. Both are becoming tainted by throngs of ugly tourists. Recently, Cigar City Brewing was forced to terminate their popular Hunahpu Day because people were forging tickets and doing other unsavoury things. Some beer consumers have become more interested in the rarity of the beer and its trade value than the beer itself. Beer has become a Disney attraction, like Venice.
- The Paradox of Depth. One the one hand, both Venice and beer are immediately approachable. But before long, they both ask you to become engaged with them, to shift past superficialities. Getting to know the city and its lagoon is like a long drawn-out courtship. Venice will play hard to get. She will ensnare you in her labyrinthine lanes, she will disorient you, and she will lose you. She wants you to walk with her for hours before taking your relationship to the next level. It can take years to learn about beer, too. Drinking Dark Lord does not make you an expert.
- The Paradox of Water. Water is seemingly simple and yet integral to both beer and to Venice. The people who live in Venice have honed an alternative lifestyle of aquatic dimensions. The ingenuity is like that seen in the developing world, but it serves the wealthy. Goods for sale are offloaded onto motorboats that fit through narrow-neck canals, and then reloaded onto wheelbarrows, pushed up and down bridges.
- The Paradox of Modernity. Venice and beer have both become thoroughly modernized without losing a raw connection to tradition. If you needed to be rushed to hospital, Venice has a fleet of boat ambulances that will speed you through water channels with yellow sirens blazing to an amphibious hospital perched on the lagoon. This goes on in one of the richest countries on earth. Likewise, some of the best breweries in the world do not use state-of-the-art technologies. They use real wood fire, like Schlenkerla, or deliver beer with horse and carriage, like Samuel Smith’s. At least one zoigl brewery in Germany does not use electricity at all.
- The Paradox of Respect. Venice demands to be accepted on its own terms. It is a parallel universe from the terra firma that both hugs and encroaches upon it. Don’t blame Venice for being crowded because you were too lazy to leave the Rialto. Likewise, don’t blame the beer for being too rare, or for not tasting in top form, because you were unwilling to travel to the brewery. Don’t judge a beer before understanding what it is you are drinking, and respecting the culture from which it arose.
As Venice warms to you, she may allow you to observe its few resident teenage boys wearing shirts striped blue and white. They stand together on a boat and paddle furiously, training to be gondoliers. If she really loves you, Venice will let you catch glimpses of good humor on an otherwise jaded population of locals who have surrendered their city to the inevitability of tourism. You will then notice the frequency with which vaporetto drivers wave to friends he recognizes ashore, and the neighbors who greet each other with a friendly “Ciao!” before scowling at you and your camera.
- The Paradox of Moderation. Both tourism and drinking can become sordid. Tourism in moderation, so too drinking in moderation. The lagoon sloshes like a bathtub full of water that seeps into my thoughts. The presence of water in Venice is so powerful and pervasive, it feels like the earth beneath me is moving at all times. This is why towers are leaning, and buildings are sinking. The occasional queasiness feels like a hangover.
I am not drunk with anything but love for Venice, even after filling up a 1.5 liter plastic bottle with wine from a barrel for €3. Venice has a working class, ordinary side that belies its miraculousness. When you see this side of the city and learn to appreciate it, you have made it. Your love has become mutual.
- The Paradox of Humility. Don’t underestimate the importance of table wine, or table beer. Learn to look forward to the special bottles, instead of taking them for granted.
- The Paradox of Miracle. Venice and beer are both created by human beings and yet they both have a miraculous, mystical dimension–beer because of the uncertainties of yeast, and Venice because of the inherent chaos of human life.
- The Paradox of Life and Death. Beer is alive, which is why it makes us feel good. Venice is alive and yet the presence of death is nearby. Isola San Michele is the Venetian cemetery. There, notable writers and musicians are buried, and many not from Venice. Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and Joseph Brodsky–a Jew–are buried here in a Christian cemetery. Their desire to be buried in Venice is a sign not only for their love of the city, but of the city’s symbolizing the defiance of nature. Jews are not supposed to be buried alongside Christians, just as large important cities are not supposed to float in a lagoon.
Unfortunately, the integrity of both beer and Venice are under threat from thoughtless zombie hordes. Breweries are resorting to the creation of poorly made gimmick beers sold at prices far beyond their actual value, thus driving up prices of all beer. The same phenomena take place in Venice. Taken with its imperfections, and its lifeblood-sucking sellout to tacky tourism, Venice remains the most beautiful thing ever created by human beings. Because it is as imperfect, fragile, and irreplaceable as beer.
For further reading on similar themes related to the paradox of tourism in Venice, this article echoes my analogy to Las Vegas and asks us to think about what can be done. This article raises the most frightful possible future imaginable: that Venice will cease to be a living city, by yielding completely to tourism by being open during the day and then closed at night. If it ever reached that stage, would Venice remain the most beautiful thing ever created by human beings, or the most tragic?