Soft cover, $19.95, 208 pp.
Here’s beer’s quandary: when it claims its legitimate place as the most popular adult beverage, it also becomes the most despised and dumbed-down of beverages. When beer embraces all its diversity, it risks taking itself too seriously: it becomes precious and snooty.
This tension surfaced in a recent editorial in the high-end food magazine Saveur, which chastised beer writers who took their subject seriously for trying to find “ways to make beer more exclusive—more like (let’s be honest here) wine.” Beer writers howled, and rightly so. The assumption, of course, is that wine is high-brow and beer, low. Hence the bizarre phenomenon of over-educated rich kids searching for their proletariat roots by buying Pabst Blue Ribbon.
There is some terrific beer writing out there that can hold its own with the best food and drinks writing, but not all of it is easy going for the beginning beer reader. They’re not all going to plunge straight into Jackson, sign up for the Beer Judging Certification Program, and learn to brew their own helles.
Duane Swierczynski has written a perfect “gateway” book for an untapped audience: young beer drinkers who may be put off by the serious tone of other beer writing, but who are, nevertheless, primed to learn more about their favorite beverage. Even the title The Big Book O’ Beer (subtitled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Greatest Beverage on Earth”) is popular and reassuringly jokey.
The Big Book O’ Beer is a heavy-weight paperback, lavishly illustrated, that is remarkably broad in its coverage. Any beer topic you can mention gets a nod in the form of a two-to-four page mini-article. The evolution of the beer can: four pages (with a sidebar on how to “shotgun” a beer). The art of the beer label: six pages. The perfect glass (from chalices for abbey beers to the goofy plastic cap with room for two beers and tubes that lead to your mouth): four pages. Brewing your own beer: four pages. Prohibition: three pages.
Each of these subjects can be—and has been—the subject of entire books, and experts will certainly find errors and omissions (for example, the throw-away line that beers termed dubbels are “double the malt strength”), but for every small slip, there is a host of “Hey, I never knew that about beer” entries that will entertain and enlighten.
This certainly feels like a book for the web-savvy: the bites of information are short, discrete, and well-illustrated. You could dip into the book at any point—web-like—find a nugget of information on the subject you need, then leave satisfied. More and more books will probably look like this in the years ahead.
The writing is informed and funny. Swierczynski is writing for fellow beer drinkers who he may just convert to beer lovers. And, refreshingly, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. An entry under “Great Moments in Beer History: Modernity” reads:
1993. The author turns 21 and retires with some close friends to the Sam Adams Brewhouse in Philadelphia. It is a Monday night, and glasses of sweet, nourishing Sammy are only a buck. The author drinks at least $11 worth of beer, and later can’t remember how to spell his last name.
Buy this book and give it to your smart, 25-year-old, web-wiz nephew who is just now earning enough to develop his adult beer tastes.