Amy Mittelman’s book, Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer, looks at several centuries of alcohol consumption in America. It’s a workmanlike effort that covers old ground and lays some trails of its own. The book’s strength is its focus on the relationship between government and alcohol manufacturers. That’s not surprising, given that Mittelman’s excellent dissertation examined alcohol and federal alcohol tax policy from 1862 to 1900. She also mentions some of brewing’s long-forgotten moments, such as the 1930s conflict over a post-repeal bock beer advertising campaign. Indeed, the books abounds in obscure names, dates and facts.
But what’s missing are the context and analysis that would provide narrative structure. One problem is the research: Mittelman relied heavily on secondary materials. That’s evident in her brief look at colonial America, where she focused on alcohol in general rather than beer in particular: she surveys colonial drinking habits, the extraordinary popularity of rum and government policies that shaped the manufacture and consumption of drink. But readers interested in that period will learn more from the marvelous, lively research of Stanley Baron, Andrew Barr, John J. McCusker and Peter Thompson.
Even when Mittleman turns to primary sources, such as the pages of newspapers or trade journals like Modern Brewery Age, she focuses on the facts themselves rather than their meaning. As a result, the chapters never quite reach a substantive conclusion, and the connections are missing. For example, she mentions that Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewing, helped change Delaware’s laws about beer retailing—and then tells us that Delaware had been the first state to ratify the Constitution more than two centuries earlier. What’s the connection?
Often the facts are simply wrong: she tells us that Anheuser-Busch “named its trademark beer” after a Czech town. Not quite. The people at Anheuser-Busch didn’t name the beer because the company didn’t own the beer. Carl Conrad did, and he chose the name to honor a style of beer he drank during his trips to Europe. (Conrad owned the beer recipe, the name and the trademark; he hired his friend Adolphus Busch to brew the beer.)
But as every author knows, writing a book takes time, effort and money, so we should applaud and thank Mittelman for her achievement. And for those who enjoy facts, there are plenty here. Now about that cover image…there are plenty of American beer festivals. Couldn’t the publisher come up with something better than a photo taken at a German Oktoberfest?