The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer
At times channeling Ken Kesey, Bruce Chatwin and Charlie Papazian, William Bostwick, in his new book, The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, intersperses a keen understanding of the nuances of modern craft beer culture with detailed historical narratives. Meticulously researched and often possessing fresh and unrecycled references, the book is ambitious, intriguing and occasionally dense.
With chapter names such as “The Immigrant” and “The Industrialist,” Bostwick divides the book into eight historical brewing archetypes. The author of Beer Craft and a beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, Bostwick often writes with engaging and bright prose. The mildly lyrical and poetic nature of his words, however, when too heavily employed, detracts from the readability of the text. Mixed with the weight of obscure historical analogies and literary references, chapters such as “The Shaman” and “The Monk” tend to bog down.
With the wide range of brewing history in its sights, the book quickly and frequently shifts focus between modern-day craft brewers and beermakers of centuries ago. Even with the listed historical archetypes as a guide, the connections drawn through this time-travel narrative device occasionally seem difficult to make.
The Brewer’s Tale is at its best when Bostwick captures a modern story, one where he performs the primary reporting onsite, especially if it’s an under-reported subject. While modern brewing history books appear compelled to include lengthy sections on Jim Koch, Sam Calagione and Sierra Nevada—and The Brewer’s Tale does as well—it also explores some less-familiar stories. The profiling of Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Co., whom Bostwick describes as a “barefoot, Pan-like trickster,” is particularly strong and engaging. The Hunt section includes stories about eating (and brewing with) tree bark and explores nuances of flavor and aroma. This all-too-short narrative adventure tells an appealing story in colorful prose and is a highlight of the book. Similarly, “The Farmer” chapter is perhaps the most effective example of Bostwick’s juxtaposition of modern and historical narratives. Beginning with an inviting visit to Rogue Ales and its hop farm, the chapter smartly integrates stories from Allagash Brewing and Jolly Pumpkin with a foray into the history of saison and lambic beer styles, culminating in a particularly descriptive capturing of Bostwick’s homebrewed attempt to re-create the styles.
The Brewer’s Tale (W.W. Norton & Co., Hardcover, $26.95, 304 pp) marks a welcome departure from the stale and prosaic prose that comprises so much of beer writing today. Despite its structural challenges, the book provides homebrewers, history buffs and modern-day craft beer fans, as well as lovers of a good story, with much to contemplate.