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Back to Basics: Whitman's Brew du Monde

A lager is a lager is a lager. Unless it’s a Lager+. And that’s what I deem the sixth beer in the Leaves of Grass tribute series from Bell’s Brewery: Salut au Monde! Bell’s dubs it an Unfiltered Rustic Lager, their version of a Kellerbier. Rustic and unfiltered can also describe the persona that Walt Whitman cultivated in “Salut au Monde!” and other poems from Leaves of Grass. As I mentioned in my review of beer I in this series, the poet frequented Pfaff’s Lager Bier Saloon and hailed the Bowery’s beerhalls in an 1862 newspaper account. Whitman preferred German immigrants’ establishments, which he saw as “the real democratic lager element of New York.” I’m writing this on Whitman’s birthday, which was 201 years ago. Lager is about 50 years younger. America’s premier beer poet pairs well with this popular beer style, which prompts a refresher of beer basics and Whitman 101.

In beer’s binary code, lagers are bottom-fermented and tend toward clear; ales are top-fermented and tend toward hazy. All beers are one or the other. The ubiquity of lager beer may make it seem the stale pint of the turning world. But The Oxford Companion to Beer reminds us that lager is in fact a wide spectrum of distinctive styles: “there are very opaque, almost black, chocolaty lagers; there are smoked lagers; thick, heavy, sweetly malty lagers; amber lagers; deep golden rustic lagers; golden aromatic lagers; straw blond and malty lagers; blond, hoppy, spritzy lagers”—as well as the watery ones that replace malts with rice. Bell’s Salut au Monde! is the golden, rustic variety. If Song of the Open Road warmed our homeboundedness, Salut au Monde! cools our outdoor pursuits. More translucent than clear, this lager plays on the tip of your tongue with a refreshing zest; it’s not hoppy. What the label touts as a “tangy rye malt” tastes a bit lemony to me, and the Pilsen malt brightens the finish. There’s a lift to this finish that reminds me of homebrewing days—my first rental home’s cellar beer (kellerbier). You know you’re drinking a lager with Salut au Monde! But you likely didn’t know that know that lagers could be so good. I consider this a refined lager. Plain style and artful simplicity are rustic, after all. This brings us back to Whitman’s poem, and his idea of a “real democratic lager element.”

If bottom and top-fermenting yeasts distinguish beer styles, catalogs and camaraderie distinguish most Whitman poems. “Salut au Monde!” first appeared in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass as “Poem of Salutation.” As Carol Zapata-Whelan puts it, the poem is Whitman's “calling card to the world.” Or as Derek Mong puts it in his beer review, Whitman seems to have “got ahold of Google Earth.” In “Salut au Monde!” Whitman’s embrace spans the planet and beyond:

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in the west,
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends;
Within me is the longest day—the sun wheels in
slanting rings—it does not set for months,
Stretched in due time within me the midnight sun
just rises above the horizon, and sinks again . . .

Whitman even sees “filaments of the news” – as if envisioning the digital transmission of his poem to us.

In addition to diverse geographies and oceans, “Salut au Monde!” catalogues nations, religions, historical events, and people. Whitman sees himself as a world citizen, “a real Parisian” and “a habitan of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople.” The poem attempts to join humanity in perpetual fraternity, “each sharing the earth with all.” And yet even within such wide embrace, this poet of American democracy does not embrace all equally. Part of my process in writing about these beers is reading their namesake poems aloud with friends. None of us wanted to read the “Salut au Monde!” passages that depict Asians, Africans, and the African diaspora. Veering from Whitman’s default aesthetic of vibrant diversity and distinctiveness, some of these lines contain indiscriminate “swarms” and “hordes” of subordinate world citizens who will “come forward in due time.”

In the meantime of our own times, we look for the better world that Whitman envisioned:

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.

Coca Cola proposed to unite the world through caffeinated soda and harmonious singing. Might beer bind us into more equitable communities who share pints and plainspoken conversations? Bring us back to the basics of life, liberty, and listening? Saluting his world, Whitman offers to “raise high the perpendicular hand.” Confronting ours, we can join hands in solidarity. Salud.


MARSHA BRYANT writes about modernism, poetry, women's writing, popular culture, and pedagogy. Her recent essays have appeared in Feminist Modernist Studies, The Classics in Modernist Translation, and The Conversation. Bryant is Associate Editor of Contemporary Women's Writing, and Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida.

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