Finally, a beer book that doesn’t labor over beer styles and mind-numbing tasting notes. Ken Wells has written a witty, informative, easy-to-read book from the perspective of a non-beer geek. Better yet, he writes with a reporter’s eye for interesting details not just about the subject, but also about things to the right and left of the subject. Above and below, as well.
Travels with Barley was born out of several articles on beer Wells wrote for The Wall Street Journal, where he has been a senior editor and writer for Page One since 1993. One of his colleagues suggested he write a book on the subject. Wells thought that was a good idea and he soon received a book contract and a sabbatical from the Journal.
Given the plethora of beer books on the market, Wells needed a new angle. He decided to write about beer culture in the United States and about Beer People—those who make, sell, drink and think about beer.
In his introduction, Wells tells the reader that he’s no beer expert, just an average enthusiastic amateur with a bias only against light beer. Growing up he knew only three types of bad beer: warm beer, flat beer and no beer. He stresses that he wasn’t a beer snob before writing the book, and that he’s not one afterwards—and this is after tasting perhaps 15 percent of the estimated 3,400 beer brands sold in the United States.
Wells decided his research should show how a River of Beer runs through America, and set off on a literal and figurative voyage on this river. His narrative is a car trip he took along the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana, eventually logging 2,600 miles, “to find the mythical Perfect Beer Joint, all the while seeing America through the prism of a beer glass.” This was a trip, Wells writes, which “a man on an expense account ought not to be too eager to finish.” The result is a selective and subjective look at beer in the United States today.
Wells takes his readers to The World’s Largest Six-Pack and to a DuBuque, IA, bar once owned by Al Capone. He discusses Elvis and beer. (Did The King drink beer? Apparently this is a controversial question.) Other topics include the role of the Beer Goddess in contemporary beer retailing, the story of Budweiser and the Lager Wars and the birth of the Spontaneous Beer Joint on a New Orleans street corner.
Of course, as in any book about beer in American culture, the history of beer in the U.S. is explored from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to the present. The current Extreme Beer Movement—hugely alcoholic beers from Dogfish Head Brewing and The Boston Beer Co.—is also examined, as are Yeast Rustlers and the question of whether Big Beer hates Little Beer.
In the end, after tasting many beers in many places and talking with many Beer People, Wells decides that Thoreau was correct when he wrote: “The tavern will compare favorably with the church.” Wells also writes: “Or to put it in a modern context: the TV tavern Cheers is alive and well across America, where the beer joint does in fact function as a place of community and comfort; a place where people ordinary and extraordinary gather around Ben Franklin’s benighted elixir, taking solace in friendship, camaraderie, and beer.”