“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l'huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l'huile were gone I ordered another serving of cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce. I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and finished it and ordered a demi.” – Ernest Hemingway, at the Brasserie Lipp, from “A Moveable Feast”
The beer at Brasserie Lipp was so renowned by Hemingway that it features in both his writing and his letters: Providing advice on the delights of Paris to his sister Marcelline, he insisted “Go to Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard Saint Germain opposite Café des Deux Magot for beer. Best beer in Paris.” After leaving Paris and feeling – as he put it – “cockeyed nostalgique” whilst writing to friend Guy Hickok in 1928, Hemingway listed affordable wine and Lipp’s beer amongst those simple highlights of his fondest memories “not the Burgundies or Chateau Yquems of literature.” Lipp was the venue that Hemingway frequented before success eventually took him away. When The Sun Also Rises was first published he claimed in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald that Henry Loeb — the basis for the hapless Robert Cohn — was so annoyed with the novel’s portrayal that he was telling the people of Paris that he was going to shoot Hemingway in retaliation. Always one for bravado Hemingway told Scott that he “sent word around that I would be found unarmed sitting in front of Lipp’s Brasserie from two to four on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and that everybody who wished to shoot me was to come and do it then or else for Christ sake to stop talking about it.” Fortunately for future the literary entertainment of future generations “No bullets whistled.”
One of the great things about Hemingway’s writing and his life is that the range of experience runs the gamut. His drinking took him from enjoying the beer at Lipp as a fledgling poor writer to drinking champagne and martinis at the world’s best establishments when life would afford him the privilege. Like his writing however, even when individual pages might be seemingly full of riches, the prose and story maintain a simple honest style that never gives way to decadence and remains at most Epicurean.
I personally read Hemingway and the tale of his life as a impressionable young man. I imagined drinking at the Gritti and Harry’s Bar in Venice and consuming daiquiris whilst feeling the air of the Gulf Stream. Like many aficionados I dreamt of “liberating” 51 martinis at the bar of the Ritz Paris like Hemingway did at the head of the allied army’s advance in 1944 too. At the time the best I could get was drinking pints of beer in my local pub. No one drank martinis there – order a dry martini at the bar of an English pub and you better be able to box like Hemingway in order to survive the ridicule. Beer then, whether it was a pint of local ale or an imported lager, was the basis for my drinking education — Much like any man I guess. Beer in the drinking world is the most basic of alcoholic drinks. Try as craft-beer makers might, beer will never be elevated to pretension like wine. It has none of the refinement and glamour of spirits or cocktails. During the Middle Ages beer was brewed and apparently consumed as a safer substitute to drinking water — the fermentation being a natural antiseptic. “Small beer” as a term to denote something beneath worry or contemplation is as equally as old as Shakespeare and still pretty much sums up the level of serious thought that one might reasonably give beer given how ubiquitous and overlooked it is amongst even serious imbibers.
In French a brasseur is a brewer, the term Brasserie then, so plentiful in Paris, originally implied a small brewery that would provide food to promote and serve alongside its raison d’être — beer. At Brasserie Lipp a neon glass of frothing beer is lit up above the frontage and the menu features a waiter carrying a chalice of beer on its cover as testament to its past. I eventually made it to the Bar Hemingway at the Ritz on occasions — even to the point of returning and being recognised asked if I wanted my “usual”. I dined at Harry’s Bar which I walked to from my room at the Gritti too. I cooled myself with daiquiris in the Gulf Stream. Finally at last — almost as a footnote — I made it to Brasserie Lipp. There I eventually sat in front and ordered a beer and simple meal. When the beer arrived I was amused to see that rather than a unique craft beer (never as good as one might anticipate) the famed Bière Lipp – consumed by many Hemingway fans who travel the world over – was simple Stella Artois. This was very same beer that I drank in my youth. UK-readers will recall the “Reassuringly Expensive” Stella Artois marketing of the days of their own drinking education and might consider how apt this was given that I eventually paid 14.00€ per 50cl for the privilege. Despite this the “Bière Lipp” as I’ve come to call that same drink, readily available and consumed back at home, was as wonderful as any beer would be as the sun set on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I didn’t at the time however think that moment particularly special. I finished my meal, settled the bill and went instead to drink champagne and cocktails into the evening at the Crillon. Despite that and given all the other more lauded drinks I’ve enjoyed whilst chasing Hemingway around the world it is however the thought of that very beer at Lipp that I look back on most “cockeyed nostalgique” about now.