Saturday, 30 November 2013
My Favourite Beer Books ... #beerylongreads
My Favourite Beer Books ...
A seasonally self indulgent guide for the literary minded
I love books, I always have. Reading is something that I've always enjoyed and was a big part of my up-bringing, whether it be the Shoot! and Victor annuals (and comics - do you remember 'Tough Of The Track' and 'Morgyn The Mighty'?) via Commando books (possible unhealthy war theme appearing there!) to the Target series of Dr Who books, I read and read and read. Granted it wasn't the highest level of literature but it was the 1970s and I hadn't reached double figures age-wise.
I also collected.
I have a rather completist mentality, an almost obsessive trait which leads me to try and obtain all of the particular thing that has become the focus of my single-minded pursuit at that time.
To be honest I haven't really grown up but I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that there have to be limits.
Beer has been an passion of mine, and I'm guessing yours as well, for as long as I have been old enough to be served in pubs. Now I could reminisce for a while about Courage light and bitter, pints of Flowers and Ruddles County and trips out to the Olde Dog Inn from my then home in Barking to drink Mauldons wonderful Black Adder and Suffolk Punch beers, but I won't because this isn't what this post is about. As an aside though, I have realised a dream and now live within walking distance of the Olde Dog and even though the Mauldons range is no longer a constant fixture, Crouch Vale Brewers Gold is. No. This longer than usual post is for me to share my passion for books about beer.
I have been asked by a few folk to provide recommendations for beery reads so, as part of Boak And Baileys Long Reads I thought I'd share these on my blog so that you, should you be so inclined, might think about getting for yourself or for a friend or partner who might want a book (or books) for the festive season. Look, I 've even put the title up in Christmassy colours!
I've tried to (loosely) clump titles together in sections that will I hope become apparent as you read through, and this is by no means a definitive list but rather a list of books that I have particularly enjoyed. I am aware that some of what I have written may not properly be classed strictly as reviews but more accurately you could call them rememberings as did not have the time to re-read every page of every book, but I have tried to give you a little of their flavour and perhaps you will pick up on some of the emotions I have when reading a book I enjoy. I make no apologies if you don't agree with my recommendations but I would urge you to pick one or two at least to read if they take your fancy.
First up, and a book incidentally that I have re-read recently is The Death Of The English Pub by Christopher Hutt for a number of reasons. First published on the 5th November 1973 this book is almost exactly forty years old, but to read it you wouldn't think so. Sadly much of the issues mentioned within its pages are just as relevant to lovers of beer and pubs in 2013 as they were then. If you substitute the then 'Big Six' (Allied, Bass Charrington, Courage, Scottish and Newcastle, Watneys, and Whitbread) with the Pub Companies of the present day, which some of them became, then you'll see we haven't really come very far in some respects. This is a book of its time for sure, some of the images are a real delight, a real window onto the pub culture that I have brief remembrance of from my youngest years, but it's also a seminal work, one which galvanised activists and provided a point of reference for the fledgling Campaign For Real Ale. In fact Christopher Hutt, then a young journalist, went on to become Chairman of CAMRA when he succeeded founder Michael Hardman, and this book very much reflects the mood which caused the campaign to be founded in the first place. I highly recommend this book, it is clear and very easy to read, you won't regret it.
Inns, Ales And Drinking Customs Of Old England by Frederick W. Hackwood is not actually the most spectacular, insightful, or in-depth book on the subject however it is rather well written and rather easy to read. It's not a thin volume either comprising of some 392 pages and 34 very manageable chapters, it is nonetheless very comprehensive covering the birth of the earliest inns and taverns through to the birth coffee houses and tea rooms (remember beer isn't the only drink) with some lovely quotes and literary references. It is the illustrations that make this book an absolute joy however. I could quote some specific passages, practically every page has something that I could reasonably use, and even though it's been a while since I've read it I still smile as I hold it in my hand and can't resist a little look through, just for old times sake. It's simply a romp through roughly 800 years of English drinking and if that's your thing, and you quite like the idea of working your way through this rather hefty tome then you can pick it up relatively cheaply online, making it a rather safe bet in my view.
The Bedside Book Of Beer by Barrie Pepper is exactly as it sounds, a book to relax with before you turn out the light (accompanying drink optional). It is basically a compendium of beer related stories, rhymes, literary quotes, songs and cartoons both factual and fictional presented in easily digestible segments which are perfect for dipping in and out of as the mood takes you. Published in 1990 by Alma Books, CAMRA's first publishing company and not to be confused with this years 'Independent Publisher Of The Year', this was one of the first books on beer that I remember buying on release and as such holds a special place in my heart, but beyond the nostalgia it contains both wit and gravitas in equal measure. Barrie Pepper, Chairman of The British Guild Of Beer Writers from 1991 to 1998, pulls together passages from William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas as well as including some writings by more established by such beer luminaries as Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, and while the limericks section is a little puerile that really is the only criticism of this book that I have. I can't really say fairer than that.
The contribution of the United States to modern brewing is undeniable and I have put the next three books together as even though they end up at roughly the same point in US brewing, that being the 'Craft Beer Revolution' and particularly how it came to be, they arrive there via very different but nonetheless very interesting routes.
Ambitious Brew: The Story Of American Beer by Maureen Ogle is essentially a history book, but rather than taking its starting point at the earliest attempts at brewing by the first colonists, it instead begins with the later arrival of the first Europeans and particularly those from Germany and how the introduction of lager changed the drinking habits of a nation and, it could reasonable be argued, the world. It truly is, as the back of the book proudly says 'a tale of gamblers and entrepreneurial visionaries, of ambition and passion', written in a captivating style that manages to maintain your interest throughout. Unsurprisingly much of the story is centred around Anheuser Busch however there are enough surprises and twists and turns along the way to keep even the most ardent anti-Budweiser drinker engaged to the very end.
The Birth Of The Craft Beer Revolution by Ben Novak is a book that is almost perfect in it's naivety in places but this is by no means a criticism as the passion and enthusiasm that the author exhibits for the then emerging 'craft beer' scene and the momentum is was gathering is so apparent it is infectious. It is a collection of articles that Ben Novak wrote for his column on beer for the Centre Daily Times newspaper in central Pennsylvania between September 1984 and May 1987, the first regular column on beer anywhere in the United States and it just so happened to coincide with the what could be said to be the birth of modern beer. It would be easy to pour scorn on some of the articles with the benefit of hindsight and it would have been easy to have omitted some of them for that reason, however that would have missed the point, and the rumblings that were going on prior to the explosion of American brewing can be experienced throughout. Read this with an open an accepting mind and you will get a glimpse of the anticipation and excitement of those early days.
The Audacity Of Hops: The History Of America's Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli deals with brewing in the USA with a starting point considerably later, beginning as it does with Fritz Maytag's acquisition of the failing Anchor Brewery is San Francisco in 1965. Exactly as the title suggests, it charts the rise of 'Craft Beer' using a pastiche of short articles gathered together in roughly chronological order using quotes and stories from and about the people who were involved at the time whether directly or indirectly. What started as the realisation of a dream, a struggle and determination to do something different, to produce something better than that was available by different groups of people or individuals in different places at different times can be seen in this book to grow and blossom into a real movement which we can now reap the benefits of. It does get a little bogged down with covering similar stories and little too much detail just past the middle of the book but if you stick with it you will be rewarded with a much clearer understanding of the current surge in American beer and how that is being reflected in the UK right now.
Staying with American beer, Brewed Awakening by Joshua M. Bernstein states on it's cover that it goes 'behind the beers and brewers leading the world's craft brewing revolution' but it is so much more than that. It's a bit of a 'journey' book insofar as it follows a young mans exploration and total immersion into the world of great beer. It is the style of this book, not just in the way it is presented but also the way that it took me along with the author and made me genuinely excited about the beers it introduces, that make it for me the pick of this list of favourites. It is so achingly good that it almost hurts and the beers that it features, surprisingly many of which are now available in the UK, are the very best of their kind. You could argue that it's a bit too trendy-looking for its own good, and it certainly is very modern in its approach but if you think that there's not much more to American beer than Budweiser and Coors you are most certainly in for a very pleasant surprise, and if you are already passionate about beers from across the pond then this could well be your perfect read.
Another book that one that is very much up their with my 'highly recommended' in this list is Shakespeare's Local by Pete Brown. I'm sure many of you will have read this book already, and if you haven't will probably have at least one of Pete Brown's books on your shelf at home, but for me this is his best by some way. Centred around the George Inn close to Borough Market on the south side of London Bridge, Shakespeare's Local is feast of beer and pub related history that happened around the area throughout the six centuries of this pubs documented existence. Southwark is an area of London that I particularly love and somewhere that my family enjoy going to as well as a place where I can bump into many of the friends that I have made in the eighteen months or so since I started writing about beer, so it resonates very strongly with me. The fact that you can visit what is left of this pub today, walk the streets and visit or imagine many of the places mentioned within its pages make it a must-read for anyone with an interest in history or London itself. I have to confess that I couldn't put this book down when I read it, it totally absorbed me, and I can give it know higher praise than that.
Looking For The Moon Under Water: The Search For The Perfect Pub by Paul Moody and Robin Turner takes its title from George Orwell's 1946 essay in the Evening Standard concerning his (fictional) perfect pub and is the story of two men trying to discover if such a place exists or even if it ever really existed in the first place. This book could so easily have deteriorated into a 'road-trip of disappointment' and there are some places that they visit that will make your heart sink, however it is written in such a way that the authors take you along with them and there is much with and clarity within the pages to make you smile and think. It takes you on a journey, albeit a brief one, around Britain and the culture of pubs and drinking drawing in some diverse elements along the way as well as meeting brewers, politicians publicans, singers and writers who help the narrative along. It is a rather pleasing read all told, and almost the complete opposite to the other book that I've chosen in my 'journey' category Beer, There And Everywhere by Peter Hill. This book starts with a challenge, to drink in every one of Banks's pub and evolves through, it has to be said, a series of drunken escapades into a continuing twenty-six year pub crawl quest to drink in every single pub in Britain. It really is a most enjoyable romp, even if it is a little crass in places, and it is the sincerity and sheer sense of fun, adventure and warmth that shines throughout this book which means that you can't help but smile as you read it.
I've started a new paragraph here as even though Around Bruges In 80 Beers by Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn isn't technically a 'journey' book it is the book that I used extensively when I visited Bruges in the summer (I did warn you that this was a self-indulgent list) and therefore becomes a 'journey' book for me by default. Bruges is of course a destination that is high on any beer lovers list of places to visit and the Third Edition published this year was a terrific help in enabling me to locate some of the newer places that have opened since my previous visit. The format is clear and concise but still managing to maintain a sense of fun in every entry, each featuring a different beer and I will be eternally grateful to it for directing me to Bierboom on Langestraat with its decidedly different selection of Belgian beers from small producers. There are currently '80 Beers' guides to Brussels (which I also found useful this year), Amsterdam, London, and Berlin so if you're thinking of visiting any of those cities then you could do a lot worse than taking one along with you.
I have to give a mention to Great Yorkshire Beer by Leigh Linley as it's a pure celebration of some of the best beer that my favourite (extended) county, obviously excluding Essex, produces. It's very easy on the eye and succinct in its writing as it takes you from the Dales to Sheffield via Leeds and ending up in the North Yorkshire Wolds at the appropriately named Wold Top Brewery featuring producers of some of the finest producers of beer in 'God's Own County' along the way. Featured throughout and having their own section at the end of the book are some of Leigh's tried and tested recipes that either contain beer or compliment/contrast the beer pairings from the breweries it is about. In fact there is so much to love about this book that it is hard to believe that it is all contained within such a relatively small volume. It really is a sheer delight.
Beer is Best: A History Of Beer by John Watney and Trumans The Brewers 1666-1966 are two very different books but are united in that they both hark back to a bygone era when brewing in the UK was ambitious and grand, providing sustenance to the thinkers, planners and toilers of the Industrial Revolution. Beers Is Best paints its picture with a broad brush, encompassing as its title suggests a wide history of beer, splitting it into three sections - Down The Ancestral Throat, Social Graces, and The Money Game - all of which are surprisingly thoughtful and quite insightful in places. It's an unexpected pleasure. Trumans The Brewers is rather narrower in its celebration of beer and is a little pompous in places but that only adds to its charm. The pictures and illustrations in this slim volume are a real treasure trove of images from a past era, and one of the main reasons I've included it here is that its recent rebirth has carried its history on into the Twenty-First Century so that perhaps there will be an edition produced to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Let's hope so.
Even though I have many of them, and you could even describe Brew Awakening as one of them, I'm not the greatest fan of the 'six-million-beers-to-drink-down-the-years' 'how-jealous-are-you-of-the-great-places-I've-been-and-awesome-beers-I've-drunk' list books but there are a few out there that at enjoy. Melissa Cole's - Let Me Tell You About Beer was the first one that I actually read all the way through from cover to cover, and very good it is too, but I decided that I could only choose two of them to be in this list and to be honest it wasn't that difficult when I'd set that criteria, and I deemed they had to be different enough to be worth acquiring both. First, and my favourite of this type is Boutique Beer: 500 Of The World's Finest Craft Brews by Ben McFarland. Ben was the youngest recipient of the acclaimed 'British Guild Of Beer Writers Beer Writer Of The Year' award in 2004 (as well as two other times since) and his writing can often be found in the national press as well as a range of beer and food magazines. You may think that a long and distinguished career in beer writing might cause a modicum of superiority to creep into his work but you couldn't be further from the truth. I found this book extremely accessible with the descriptions of the beers interspersed with interesting articles, brewers 'Top 5' beer lists and snippets of information about all things beery that make this a book that you'll want to dip into again and again. The pictures are particularly gorgeous and the nine sections (Quench, Lager, Hop, Grain, Classic, Curiosities, Sipper, Wild & Wood, and Cellar) are enough to spark any beer lovers inquisitive nature to make you want to delve deeper into them. There's something here for everyone, interesting brews to seek out and savour as well as some old favourites for you to re-examine and perhaps drink in a new light, this book is a true gem. Much more straight forward in its approach is All Belgian Beers compiled by Hilde Deweer. With this book you get exactly what it says on the cover, all Belgian beers (as of 2011 in the latest edition), and contains over 1100 of them arranged alphabetically by brewery in a very sensible fashion. This no-nonsense approach continues inside with no flowery brewery(or even blogger)speak descriptions of the beer just brief sentences under seven sections (Fermentation, Beer Style, Ingredients, Colour and Transparency, Character Taste and Flavour, How To Serve, and Tips and Facts) alongside a picture of the beer in its appropriate glassware and the bottle it comes in. It reminds me very much of those Taschen coffee-table books, 100 Chairs and the like, that I'm rather partial to and if you're familiar with those then you'll feel right at home with this. This book will offer something to even the most ardent Belgian Beerophile and I hope an even more up to date version is in the works as the Belgian beer scene is constantly expanding and evolving and really rather exciting. Op uw gezonheid.
I really need to pause and say a few words about The Oxford Companion To Beer edited by Garrett Oliver. This is a book that was simply crying out to be written (or rather compiled), a one-stop reference work on all things beer related and on the whole it succeeds wonderfully in this ambition. Much has been written about its faults and errors, but on balance these are minor and if you set them aside then this as near essential as beer books get. Sure, it's big and it's pricey but I have found it invaluable as a reference point when used alongside online and other literary research. I don't really need to say any more than that.
As I have previously mentioned I've rather indulged myself in this post, and possibly in no more section than this one. Cheese & Beer by Janet Fletcher and Beer & Cheese: 5oo Delicious Combinations by Vinken & Van Tricht may seem on the surface to be almost exactly the same book, and to a point you'd be right. However, when you discover that Janet Fletcher is a California resident who teaches cheese-appreciation classes across the US, and that Ben Vinken is a Belgian Beer Sommelier and Michel Van Tricht is a cheese master who owns what the Wall Street journal has described as 'the best cheese shop in Europe', then you may start to get an inkling of the differences in the two books and their approach. As a huge fan of both US and Belgian beers you may well work out why I'm having trouble choosing between them as well. There are some cross-overs here although they do err toward the Belgian side, but the mouth-watering descriptions and stunning photography make both of these books a wonderful addition to the collections of any beer or cheese lover, and particularly in the winter months when such an indulgence is almost mandatory.
We're on the home straight now so I'll highlight two books that have both bought me immense pleasure this year. Often when I look for books online I know roughly what to expect when I make my purchases, occasionally however a book arrives that greatly exceeds my expectations. These two books most definitely fall into that category. First of all I have chosen Unusual Railway Pubs Refreshment Rooms And Ale Trains by Bob Barton. This book takes you on a wonderful journey through the emergence of the railway and its close and on-going association with beer, breweries and pubs. I'm guessing that this book is aimed more toward the rail enthusiast with an interest in beer, and whereas I confess to having little interest in any kind of transport I was totally captivated by this book from start to finish. It is part history book, part travel guide, part directory and part beer related railway events calendar with plenty to sustain the reader in an area that I can't remember being covered before, and to be honest I can't really see it being bettered.
Geuze & Kriek: The Secret Of Lambic by Jeff Van den Steen is by far the most visually stunning of the all the books I've featured here. It is so full of detail and an absolute feast for the eye that I feel a tremendous sense of both calm and excitement every time I open it. As books go this is the most completely immersive of any book about a beer style that I have ever read. Starting with the history of Lambic beers such as it is know, and dealing in depth with the producers and blenders in separate sections this superb book is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
Finally, because the holiday season is upon us it wouldn't be write to not feature a beery Christmas book and Wishing You A Merry Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, And Most Unusual Holiday Brews by Don Russell more than admirably fits the bill. I mentioned my love for books and collecting right at the start of this piece, although I did neglect to state that in addition to my collection of a considerable amount of beer books I also have close to a hundred books related to Christmas too. This book is no mere stocking filler either but a rather satisfactory list of around a hundred Christmas brews that the author has collected and sampled. It's not all US beers either, there are a fair few from Europe and the UK too, as well as some interesting sections on beer-related Christmas customs, some recipes and even a piece about acquiring, collecting and storing them. It's a lovely book to have and I find that there hasn't been a Christmas since I first purchased it in 2009 that I haven't re-read it. In actual fact it's the book that I shall be reading this evening before I go to sleep.
So there you have it, a reasonable smattering of some of my favourite beer books. You may notice for instance that I haven't included any by such wonderful authors as Martyn Cornell, Michael Jackson or Roger Protz, all of whom I greatly admire and whose books I would not hesitate in a heartbeat, however a list such as this has to have limits, so I limited myself to my twenty-one desert island reads and a seasonal indulgence just for good measure.
You may well have your own views, comments or recommendations, all of which I'd be delighted to read and answer if you'd like to post here or contact me via twitter where I'm more commonly known as @1970sBoy.
Alternatively if anyone would like me to recommend a book or perhaps a reading list on any aspect of beer then I'd more than happy to oblige.
All that remains for me to do is wish you some very merry Christmas reading!