Starting in the Spring of 2011, I merrily began a project I was naïvely underestimating, blithely ignorant of how big it would turn out to be. Workman Publishing had given me two years to write The Beer Bible, an extension of their “Bible” series that began with Karen MacNeil’s landmark Wine Bible. I was so naïve, in fact, that I actually told the editor at the time that I couldn’t see how it would take me that long. Two years later (I did make the deadline, but just), I had racked up some big numbers on the way to learning just how naïve I had been: 52 breweries toured, six foreign countries visited, 17,000 miles traveled, and 23 hotel rooms slept in. And the biggie: 228,840 words written. (The final book, printed to eliminate white space and stay somewhat compact, is 644 pages long.) That book finally came out last week.
I can’t answer the most important question people have about this book (“okay, it’s long, but is it any good?”)—though I hope you’ll find a copy and see for yourself. What I can do is tell you why I wrote it, and why I think we need yet another book about beer.
Beers Have Biographies, Just Like People
Most beer books organize themselves around “styles” of beer. But what, really, does that mean? When I started writing this book, I had an idea, but it wasn’t until I was trying to introduce mild ales that everything came into focus. Mild ale is not a sexy beer. There’s no way to make it a sexy beer. (I mean, come on, its name is “mild,” for God’s sake.) They’re almost never made in the U.S.—Jester King explains why in the name of their mild, Commercial Suicide—and when they are, few swoon. What could I write to make these odd little ales interesting to a reader? Should I even bother to write about them?
As I dug into the history of mild, I discovered unexpected facts—in the 1800s, milds were often strong, sometimes as strong as 10%; after WWII, milds commanded a 70 percent share of the draft market. But one thing was curious. Unlike so many other British styles that influenced brewing in the 18th and 19th centuries, mild was never popular outside Britain. That was when I had the ah-ha! moment that guided the book.
Beer styles are not like flavors of ice cream. We get different styles from a very particular confluence of circumstances. Mild ale definitely had an interesting history, but it was this clue about the fact that it never traveled well that was the key to understand mild. Until very recently, Britons did most of their drinking in pubs. After the war, they favored ales that were both cheap and weak enough to be drunk in quantity over the course of a “session” of drinking. To a country recovering from war, to workers rebuilding a country after that war, sitting in a pub with a pint of mild looked like a very pleasant thing. Mild is the ultimate British beer, a style fused with British pub-going culture.
And so it is with every style of beer; they all have a story to tell us. You don’t have to know that bock originally came from Einbeck (or that the name comes from what locals called it, Ainpöckisch bier, not the word for “goat”) to enjoy it. On the other hand, knowing the stories behind the beers did, at least in my case, make me enjoy them more. In each chapter of this book, I try to tell the full story of the beer, creating what I thought of as little biographies of each one.
People Don’t Make Beer the Same Way
If you tour a Belgian ale-brewery, you will almost certainly visit a location absent in breweries elsewhere in the world. It’s called a warm room, and it contains pallets of bottled beer stacked ceiling-high. In Belgium, nearly all the ale goes through a secondary fermentation, which changes the flavor and feel of the beer as it produces more fermentation compounds, naturally carbonates, and further attenuates. It doesn’t matter if you’re touring a brewery where saison, abbey ale, or tart Flanders ale is made—they all do it. Indeed, it is so much a part of the philosophy of brewing that when Belgians take up another style—Scottish or English ales, stouts—those beers go through a Belgian-ification process that makes them unrecognizable in the end. They become Belgian beers.
This is true country by country. In Britain there is a focus on making beer “moreish,” one tethered to the ancient tradition of drinking beer from casks. In Germany, every brewery, from Northern kölsch-breweries to weissbier breweries to Bavarian lager breweries, all have plaques of the text of Reinheitsgebot on the wall. It hovers over the country like a strict school teacher, ready to rap the knuckles of any brewer who would dare violate its spirit. In the Czech Republic, brewers make beer the old way, through decoction mashing (it’s a legal requirement if you wish your lager to be called “Czech beer”). But even more important are the fluffy, rich, aromatic pale malts that are so key to the flavor of local lagers. So important are these malts that in breweries where malt is still prepared on site, it is the sladmistr—the “malt master”—who outranks the master brewer.
Since culture is invisible to those who inhabit it, I never realized that the United States had developed its own approach to brewing, either. But once I started seeing “American-style” beers in places like London, Milan and Prague, I realized the rest of the world was seeing something I was missing. Americans do brew differently—in an unprecedented fashion, in fact—and it wasn’t until I started seeing how the rest of the world does it that I understood how.
If a constellation of factors helps create style, something more specific (but intangible) creates national brewing tradition. Throughout The Beer Bible, I describe the methods and techniques of brewers in different countries, and try to surface their philosophies and approaches. Understanding the way brewers think when they make a beer is another important element to understanding what you’re drinking.
There are of course a lot of other things in the book. I tried to meet the challenge of compiling a fully comprehensive reference book, so you’ll find a chapter on fresh hop ales, a discussion of traditional ales like African Umqombothi and Indian Handiya beer, and even a chapter devoted to those largely-loathed mass market lagers. There are bits about travel, food pairing, a history of beer, and even some mention of drinking games. I hope people find all of that valuable or at least interesting.
But the real reason this book may be useful to both novice beer fans and serious beer geeks has to do with the two points I mention above. I think—I hope!—there’s more here than you’ll find elsewhere, a more complete accounting of the wonderful, fascinating world of beer, and the two keys to unlocking it. As always, you the reader will have the ultimate say in the matter. I hope you let me know what you think.
Incidentally, I’m in the first week of a national book tour, and if you want to see when I’ll be coming to a location near you, updates can be found on the book’s Facebook page. (A full list of dates is here).