Curating is not an easy job. And whether it’s art, music or beer, only the best curators can make the task of selecting and organizing look effortless. Fortunately for drinkers adrift in a sea of craft beer choices, Christian DeBenedetti proves himself to be an adept guide in his first book, The Great American Ale Trail. Setting out to compile an eclectic if necessarily incomplete almanac of brewpubs, breweries and bars, along with the occasional restaurant, DeBenedetti ends up with a highly readable volume that impressively includes more than it omits.
Sure, it would’ve been nice to see a few entries for Washington, DC, especially since the capital’s excellent Birch & Barley is mentioned elsewhere, and it does seem like the author—a Portland, OR, resident—favors the Rockies and the West Coast (nine Western states make up roughly half of the content), but there’s much to praise here nonetheless. His voice is knowledgeable, entertaining and easygoing, almost as if a trusted friend rather than a seasoned expert is dispensing the advice within this publication’s 352 pages. Grouped by region and further refined by state, The Great American Ale Trail should, above all, succeed at encouraging more people to set out on beer pilgrimages or sudsy road trips. Truthfully, it’s hard not to be inspired to visit a bar like Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain, MA, especially when DeBenedetti describes the locally brewed Samuel Adams Boston Lager as a “spicy, malty, and faintly nutty-fruity elixir with a gorgeous, new-penny color, fluffy white head, and smacking dry finish.”
Concentrating for the most part on larger cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, the book is more Roadfood than 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and offers a fair balance of older, better-known locales as well as establishments by plucky new entrepreneurs who have only recently waded into the craft-beer current. Rather than attempting to rank or rate his selections, DeBenedetti describes them precisely and affectionately, revealing something about the philosophy behind each and then steering the reader to a key beer or two. Along the way he includes “Detours,” fun sidebars that tell a bit more about a place like Sante Fe, NM, (hint: try the chicken burrito at El Parasol) or pioneers such as Brian Hunt, the mad scientist behind Moonlight Brewing Co. in California. “What Hunt is trying to do,” we learn, “is shake things up. He bristles at the notion his beers can be classified into set styles, scoffing at what he considers hidebound conventions of acceptable brewing norms.”
Top Ten lists at the end of the book are grouped into themes such as “Old School Taverns” and “Best Rare Bottle Lists” and Garrett Oliver (who himself appears in a Detour feature) provides a short, snappy introduction. Like a tasting tray that whets the appetite for more sampling, The Great American Ale Trail encourages frequent bursts of reading—preferably with a map and a beer close at hand.