Craft beer drinkers implicitly understand the beauty of a good brew. When you taste a great beer, you know you are tasting something crafted by another human, made with attention, creativity, and purpose. You are making a connection, one in which the brewer is central. This is a connection that cannot be made through any of the mass-produced shlock advertised on TV and interstate billboards. Great craft beer eschews the vapid constructs of mass production for something not only tasty, but truly human. Thus is the premise of William Bostwick's The Brewer's Tale, a book which should resonate with all craft beer lovers.
Bostwick is the beer critic for the Wall Street Journal (career envy anyone?) and is a great writer capable of weaving together disparate ideas and facts with aplomb. The Brewer's Tale opens with this quote from John Steinbeck:
My senses aren't above reproach, but they're all I have. I want to see the whole picture- as nearly as I can. I don't want to put on the blinders of "good" and "bad" and limit my vision. If I used the term "good" on a thing I'd lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don't you see? I want to be able to see the whole thing.
A book about beer that opens with a quote about truth, about seeing things as they really are -I was hooked before I even got to the introduction.
The Brewer's Tale is stuffed with facts, but like any good history read, it isn't all about about the facts, it is about people. In eight chapters Bostwick takes the reader on the mother of all historical beer tours, each one centered around and told from the lens of a brewer from a particular era, beginning with an ancient Babylonian brew, in which the brewer is a fly. The fly notwithstanding, Bostwick introduces us to a host of interesting characters. In the second chapter, "The Shaman", we learn about Brian Hunt, a reclusive eccentric in the Bay area who creates brews using just about anything, and whose beers cannot readily be pigeon-holed into modern beer nerd classification schemes.
Brian is a barefoot, Pan-like trickster, and his beers are magic. They exist in this world but gesture beyond it. Rooted in one place, they transport the drinker to another: out to the Sierras, back to memories of family trips to New England, up into the treetops in Brian's yard. Brian is a shaman and this is his medicine. Beers of transformation.
When my daughter was in preschool, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit" was the iambically chanted slogan when snacks were handed out. This could aptly describe most of beer history. Drinkers did not have many choices. Bostwick enlightens us on how many beers were limited by available ingredients and geography. George Washington brewed beer using molasses because it was readily available to him. The result was less than desirable and Washington himself referred to it as "small beer". The earliest IPAs owed their success to the water particular to Burton, England and its high sulfur content. Most beer styles, if not all of them, have distinctly local origins. Pilsners came from Pilsen and bocks from Einbock. Beer types evolved not always by intention but by force of circumstance and sometimes serendipity. In contrast, modern beer drinkers face a tyranny of too much choice. There are simply more beers than I have the time or liver function to try. Pity. In the same chapter we learn how early Nordic brews were central to ritualistic communal ceremonies (there weren't any session ales at those drunken throw-downs), and about how and why tension between wine drinkers and beer drinkers can be traced back to ancient Rome. Lots of interesting morsels to share over your next happy hour IPA.
At some point in each chapter Bostwick, an adventurous home brewer, tries to recreate a beer from that period. Or more accurately, he tries to put himself in the shoes of that brewer, using the same ingredients and imposing the same limitations on himself that a brewer, in say, colonial America might have encountered. The results are often rewarding. Sometimes they are disastrous. His ale made from George Washington's recipe, which Bostwick tries to foist onto his family at Thanksgiving dinner, was hardly palatable. But even the unfortunate outcomes are part of the journey, and for Bostwick, as it should be for all of us, it is very much about the journey.
Fellow craft beer lover, borrow, buy, or steal a copy of The Brewer's Tale for yourself post-haste. It will enlighten your own journey and is an excellent read in its entirety.