Hard cover, $25.00, 432 pp.
Many common beliefs about the character and evolution of American beer are flat out wrong. So says historian Maureen Ogle, who unfolds a masterfully convincing case in her new book, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. The title makes a big promise. After all, the history of beer in the U.S. is broad, complex and multi-faceted. But Ogle more than lives up to the title, and goes even further, busting myth after myth with an impressive array of expert research.
Take, for example, the grand-daddy of all American beer misnomers: that greedy beer barons of the 19th and 20th centuries engineered a conspiracy to foist inferior brew—a “watery swill brewed from cheap corn and rice”—onto a helpless public. Not true, Ogle proves. She rolls out a well-documented evolution of adjunct-based brewing driven not by economy, but by an American palate in distinct conflict with heavy all-malt beers of the European tradition. Commanded by demand, the barons invented their paler, often costlier, adjunct-based beer style for an American market that, for a century and a half, anyway, “didn’t want to imbibe in a brown broth that hit the stomach like a seven-course meal.”
Well-read students of American brewing history will be dazzled by all of the fresh material—whether it be the 1893 legal battle between Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing over the name “Budweiser,” the brief but colorful discussion of how beermakers responded to the youth counter-culture of the sixties and seventies, or the inspirational stories of Northern California’s early craft brewing movement.
Ogle unearthed well-buried archival sources in terrain where no beer historian had yet ventured to dig. The result is, in part, a collection of riveting and intimate portraits of American brewing’s key movers and shakers—from the old-school likes of Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst to more recent visionaries like Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe. In her fresh, almost conversational writing style, Ogle puts us right inside their lives and breweries, and, in the process, illuminates for us the true saga of beer in America. “Of one thing I am certain,” Ogle concludes, “the heart of brewing will always be its people.”