Guiding Thirsty Travelers
Traditional Books Still Leading the Way to Beer
Lew Bryson, author of the first beer guidebook to focus on an individual state, says he owns all the major national survey books on American beer. But his model while writing his Pennsylvania Breweries was a quirky local book, Bars Of Reading & Berks, by Suds Kroge and Dregs Donnigan. Behind the protective pen names were two high school teachers, David Wardrop and Bob Weirich, who wrote up the watering holes of Reading and Berks County, PA, in the ’70s and ’80s. Suds and Dregs enjoyed some celebrity, with an appearance on the Tonight Show and a profile in The New Yorker by food-loving humorist Calvin Trillin.
“The thing that inspired me was not that they had done it, it was how they managed to encapsulate a bar in about 50 words and really capture the whole atmosphere,” Bryson says. “It was amusing—it was funny as hell. That really inspired me to do more than just, ‘This is the bar. This is the brewery. This is when they were founded.’ I wanted to do narrative.”
So, rather than scale down the tabular format of the national books to fit his home state, Bryson scaled up the story-telling approach of Suds and Dregs. Pennsylvania Breweries, published in 1998, evoked beer and bar culture. Bryson gave plenty of attention to new brewpubs and breweries, while tipping his hat to the heritage breweries. He also clearly relished the atmosphere and the patrons at the old taverns and distinctive hotel bars, insider knowledge that readers appreciated.
In 1998, the Internet was new, but it became clear that basic information about breweries and brewpubs that had once been challenging to find—address, opening hours, beer lists—no longer required special access.
“When my book came out, we were already starting to get stuff on the Internet,” Bryson recalls. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that first edition of mine had suggestions about how to use websites. But that’s all it was, long tabular information, nothing about whether the place was any good. I wanted to avoid the formulaic approach.”
Pennsylvania Breweries, today in its fourth edition, was the first beer guide for Stackpole Books and the founder publication for a franchise of sorts that now includes eight books—covering 10 states—with four more coming out shortly.
Stackpole acquisitions editor Kyle Weaver has overseen the whole Breweries series. Initially in charge of the publisher’s Pennsylvania-themed books, Weaver worked with Bryson on Pennsylvania Breweries.
“It occurred to me that it would be really nice to do a series for other states on this subject, since it was so popular,” Weaver says. “Lew and I got together to see if he’d be interested, Stackpole agreed, and we went on with New York Breweries in 2003 (we’re currently working on second edition). That kind of launched the series.”
With Bryson on board, the Breweries series expanded to cover Virginia, Maryland and Delaware in a single volume, then New Jersey with Mark Haynie as co-author. Weaver realized he had a winning approach that could expand to other states. “Obviously, Lew couldn’t do every single book,” he adds, “so I started looking into other authors. I decided I should find a resident author for each state.”
Local knowledge was important. So, too, was a consistent approach that consumers could rely on. Even though Weaver wanted to nurture each author’s voice, the early commitment to narrative remains. “I think the best kind of approach is to have the voice of someone sitting beside you at the pub.”
Julie Johnson is co-owner and contributing editor at All About Beer Magazine.