Guiding Thirsty Travelers
Traditional Books Still Leading the Way to Beer
Include the Basics?
Almost all guides contain some Beer 101 material: “the front few pages nobody reads,” as Ken Weaver wryly puts it. But if the intended audience includes everyone from the curious history buff to the beer dabbler to the confirmed beer geek, there has to be something for all of them.
Most books contain a basic discussion of beer styles, in the dreaded front pages or peppered through the guide in sidebars. Beer history, whether ancient (the Sumerians, once more) or recent (George Washington’s porter), is another fixture. Basic brewing steps and diagrams are useful to the newbie who wants to make sense of brewery tour after brewery tour, and a glossary of terms completes the essentials.
More creatively, many authors add value by connecting beer destinations in convenient day trips or local walks. Morrison mapped out pubcrawls within a mile’s distance of favorite destinations. “It’s a good way to fit in a few more locations,” she says. “They might not have the best stories, or they might be relatively new, but they’re still places to check out. If you’re in the area, heck, you might as well walk three blocks and try them out.”
Beer Lover’s New England by Norman Miller includes sections on beer and food pairing and on beer recipes. The book is one of three in publisher Globe Pequot’s Beer Lover’s Series: with four more guides in preparation, perhaps this publisher might make cuisine a signature piece of its series.
Overall, though, food gets scant attention. Since brewpubs are really restaurants with brewing systems, this is strange—and either means that brewpub menus are too changeable for accurate inclusion, or that writers would have to find fresh ways to describe, yet again, nachos, wood-fired pizza and wings.
A number of volumes focus instead on local cuisine to look out for outside the brewpubs. Alongside “do not miss” sidebars, these entries can help broaden the readers’ visits beyond beer.
Why a Book?
Given the proliferation of electronic media and the expense of conventional publishing, why write a guidebook at all? Why not leave it up to Siri?
All the authors agree that the longer form of a book allowed them to tell the sort of stories that aren’t the norm online. Morrison searches for what she calls beer’s “terroir,” which she sees as a blend of characters, custom and place. Weaver describes his viewpoint as “a hedonistic approach, a drinking-based focus.”
Writers of these guides attempt to be comprehensive; that means showing up in person at every brewery and brewpub if possible, and investing the time to ferret out the unexpected. “When we walked in, we had information we had researched from the local archives, but you never knew what tidbit you could find to build a story around,” notes Maryanne Nasiatka, co-author with her husband, Paul Ruschmann, of Michigan Breweries.
Ruschmann recalls a moment of serendipity that appealed to his love of history: “In northeast Michigan, at a town called Oscoda, they had an Air Force base which had closed. It had been one of the major employers. We knew that coming in. We sat down to talk to the brewer—the brewer had been in the Air Force and he told us some literal war stories. Wandering around the bar area afterwards, and there was a photograph taken of him when he was piloting a B-52 in Vietnam.”
For many writers, the interest in history runs as deep as their fondness for beer, and many guidebooks, including Douglas Wissing’s Indiana: One Pint at a Time, have been published by state historical societies.
“From my perspective, this book was the history of Indiana through the bottom of a beer glass,” says Wissing, for whom writing about middle-American history alternates with assignments covering wars in Central Asia. “You can see all of the main periods of Indiana history played out through the breweries. The way I like to think about it is, first, the history, and then the living culture that comes out of those deep historical roots.” In Indiana, the history he uncovered encompassed the brewing records of a utopian religious community and waves of early German settlers, with the living culture being the 35 craft breweries whose stories occupy the travel-oriented half of the book.
Ken Weaver offers another take on why the guidebooks are still needed in an electronic age. “I work for RateBeer, and I know that you need a certain critical mass of data to get any useful information. If you’re hitting places that have few ratings, you never quite get a full, focused overview. I love what RateBeer can do. But having an overarching voice and discerning palate—or two palates in our case—gives a view of a region that you can’t get from a crowd-sourced database.”
Julie Johnson is co-owner and contributing editor at All About Beer Magazine.