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Book review: Mastering Homebrew

How many homebrewing books do you really need to own?

In the foreword to “Mastering Homebrew: The Complete Guide to Brewing Delicious Beer” Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch writes, “This book might just be the only brewing book most homebrewers will ever need.”

For personal reasons, I hope that most homebrewers don’t take that thought seriously.

There are a bunch of “if you were to buy only one homebrewing book this one will take care of all yours needs” books available, but it seems to me that “Mastering Homebrew” jumps immediately into what now constitutes a Big Three (I might as well mention now there is a disclaimer at the end). “How to Brew” and the recently revised “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” are not only at the top of Books > Cookbooks > Food & Wine > Beverages & Wine > Beer at Amazon, but also the books you find in any decent homebrew shop.

I can see where somebody who has already worn out a copy of “How to Brew” and has a growing interest in sour beers would choose to buy “American Sour Beers” next, but I think a book that serves a beginner may offer value for even the most experienced homebrewer (in fact, commercial brewers as well). John Palmer (“How to Brew”), Charlies Papazian (“Complete Joy”) and Randy Mosher (“Mastering Homebrew”) think about beer differently, different than each other but, as important, different than you or I.

Within the early pages of his book, Mosher writes about “Brewing with Both Halves of Your Brain” and that “The first question is an existential one: Why is there beer? That answers will depend very much on your point of beer.”

He’s not always deadly serious. So “Doing It the Hard Way” (yes, that’s really the header on page 134, and it is a dive into mashing) is balanced with “Brewing the Perfect Party Beer” (Page 352).

Gravity to IBU chartAnd if you bought a copy of Mosher’s “Brewer’s Companion” when it came out in 1993 some of the graphs and charts will look familiar, if a little fancier. Like “Radical Brewing” and “Tasting Beer” the book is beautifully illustrated, reminding us that Mosher is a graphic designer in real life. We’re not simply talking eye candy, but illustrations that, well, illustrate. The chart at the right makes it easy to visualize the balance between gravity and bitterness in various beer styles.

You can use the “Look inside” feature at Amazon to see the table of contents, but that only hints as how astonishingly complete this book it. (So you can see why Koch wrote what he did.)

*****

The disclaimer: My friendship with Randy Mosher is old enough to buy beer legally. In addition, he was the technical editor for “Brew Like a Monk,” for which I will always be in his debt, and he has said and written nice things about me on occasion.

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Session #95: Have I got book ideas for you

The SessionThree-time Session host Alan McLeod — the first three-time host — has offered a question for the 95th round that is delightfully easy for me to answer.

What is the book you would want to write about good beer?

I’m already at work on a book focused on indigenous beers of North America, past and present. Expect it from Brewers Publications in September of 2016.

There are plenty of other books I think somebody should write, so three quick suggestions:

– More indigenous. It’s a big world.

– More national or regional books like Martyn Cornell’s “Beer: The Story of the Pint: The History of Britain’s Most Popular Drink.” Memo to publishers:it is out of print and used copies are going for $40. Seems to indicate a level of reader interest.

– The last few days Jeff Alworth and McLeod have posted some year-in-review stats for Beervana and A Good Beer Blog respectively. A quick look here reveals that the best read post here is from almost seven years ago (gee, Stan, what have who written recently?): “Words to describe the beer you are tasting” (14,754 views). And I am pretty sure they are coming to read what I cribbed from the Merchant du Vin newsletter. No 2014 post attracted one third the attention (the top ones were all hop related). Does this demonstrate the need for an entire book? I’m pretty sure somebody clever could wrap a very interesting book around this topic, or use it to write something I would find totally silly and useless. Strangely intriguing.

Of course I’d like to see these books in print in English. That’s the language I read. But it should be obvious much of the research requires understanding other languages, making sense of things when Google Translate struggles.

If you decide to tackle one of these projects you are welcome for the ideas. You know you’ve got one customer. If you are looking other inspiration, then poke around the comments section at A Good Beer Blog. I fully expect to see something there I wish I’d thought of first. (Confession, I have a “Steal this idea” folder on Evernote.) But I’ve already got a book to write.

Public drinking, in context

Terminal Bar, from the book of the same name

Among the photos on page 105 of “Terminal Bar: A Photographic Record of New York’s Most Notorious Watering Hole” is one of a man with his chin resting ever so lightly on his closed right hand, looking like he could have been a silent screen star in the 1920s although the picture was taken in 1973.

The caption reads: “He used to come in on Saturdays, and the more he drank, the more lipstick he put on. He drank beer.”

That’s it. A reader is free to fill in the rest of the story.

Or there’s Charlie on pages 88 and 89, with beard and without; in 1977, in 1980, and at other times. “He once told me that these pictures of him were going to be valuable because he was going to do something. Every time he came in, he drank something else.”

So the description at Amazon simply doesn’t do “Terminal Bar” justice. “In 1972 Shelly Nadelman began a ten-year run bartending at one of New York City’s most notorious dives: the Terminal Bar, located across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal near Times Square. For ten years, right up until the bar closed for good in 1982, he shot thousands of black-and-white photographs, mostly portraits of his customers — neighborhood regulars, drag queens, thrill-seeking tourists, pimps and prostitutes, midtown office workers dropping by before catching a bus home to the suburbs — all of whom found welcome and respite at the Terminal Bar. This extraordinary archive remained unseen for twenty years until his son Stefan rescued the collection, using parts of it in a documentary short. Featuring nine hundred photographs accompanied by reminiscences in Shelly Nadelman’s inimitable voice, Terminal Bar brings back to life the 1970s presanitized Times Square, a raucous chapter of the city that never sleeps.”

At the time Termnal Bar was featured in the movie Taxi Driver it was known as being one of the roughest bars in the city. That was mostly a media fabrication, Nadelman says in this NPR interview, and instead he describes it as the gayest bar in New York.

It closed in 1982, and it appears there isn’t a sign of it remaining on Eighth Avenue. (If you were looking for a place with a wide beer selection you’d head for the nearby Beer Authority, but that’s a total aside.)

Describe “Terminal Bar” as a documentary if you’d like — 10 years in the life of a New York City bar and the lives of its regulars and its passers-through — or call it a book for the imagination.

*****

Disclosure: 1) I received this book after a PR person contacted me to see if I’d consider looking at it. 2) If I spotted it in a book store I would have bought after flipping through maybe a dozen pages. But this is a sort of book I’m predisposed to like.

Q&A: Sean Lewis, ‘We Make Beer’

There has been discussion of late about the need to find different ways to write about beer. I could be wrong — happens all the time — but it suspect it will be interesting to compare “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” and “The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer” within that context.

I’ve read the first, and hope to cuddle up with the second before long. In the meantime, I emailed “We Make Beer” author Sean Lewis a few questions. These may be of more interest to me than you, and probably make more sense after reading the book. So a bit of background. Lewis is 30 years old, from Southern California and a sportswriter and beer columnist by trade, currently at the Santa Barbara News Press.

Lewis was living in Massachusetts when the story began with Blue Hills Brewery. He traveled across the country in writing the book, which includes interviews with principals at much better known breweries, such as Jim Koch at Boston Beer Co., Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada Brewing, and Matt Brynildson at Firestone Walker Brewing. He got to know them well enough that he felt comfortable writing about them by first name — which is one of the things I asked him about.

Are you your target audience? Are you craft beer’s target audience?

I’m part of my target audience, but I’m also a real big nerd and I definitely wanted to make sure that the book wasn’t overloaded with technical terms so that it could be accessible for someone with just a casual interest in beer. I probably fall smack dab in the middle of craft beer’s target demographic. I don’t want to over generalize a whole subset of beer consumers, but I meet a lot of people that are a lot like me in this industry.

Did it start out to be a different book than it ended up? Did Blue Hills end up playing a bigger role, a smaller role, the same role?

Amazingly, just about the only thing that remained constant from my original intention for the book and the end result was the role of Blue Hills and Andris Veidis. I wanted to have a familiar character for my readers to go back to. I felt if I could relate the larger themes I was trying to convey to the daily operations of one particular brewery then it would only make my points that much clearer.

What changed greatly from the initial concept was my role in the narrative. The book began as a sort of road story, but much of that faded away as the team at St. Martin’s Press and I worked with the text. My background is in journalism, and the book was much stronger in the parts that were more journalistic.

Did you pick out the stories in the book or did they pick you out?

I had an idea of what I was looking for, but most of the stories took on lives of their own. And that’s a good thing — I don’t think it’s the best journalistic practice to go into a story assuming you already know what it is.

Is this a big picture book or a small picture book?

It’s a big picture book illustrated by many small pictures.

What changed from start to finish?

In terms of the structure of the narrative, almost everything. It went from an intimate story of my brother and I driving across the country drinking beer to a story of brewers making beer. But in terms of the themes I thought I could convey, things like craftsmanship, community and collaboration, those remained the same.

Why did you refer to the people you interviewed by first name on second reference rather than by last name?

I wanted to really connect my readers to the brewers. I originally had it written with the brewers’ last names, but it felt stiff and formal — which beer never is. I really hoped to capture the voices of the brewers I spoke with, and I feel that using the first names helped accomplish that better. Granted, there were times where using the last name seemed more appropriate as well, but in the spirit of uniformity I decided that using only first names was better than using either only last names or some blend of the two.

What were the “holy shit” things you learned?

Holy shit, pro brewers can handle their booze. Apart from that, I was amazed at how open and accessible everyone was. It was easier for me to get an interview with the heads of the largest craft breweries in the country than it would be to speak with the commissioner of Southern California high school football. I’m constantly impressed by how few brewers have their heads up their own asses because it’s so common everywhere else.

Local books about local beers

In case you missed the press release, 75 percent of Americans now live within 10 miles of a brewery. (There are 15 within 10 miles of our house — and, of course, more that will open soon).

The country has gone from about 100 to 3,000-plus breweries in little more than a generation. And, it appears, books must follow. More specifically, more local beers seem to lead to more books about local or regional beers.

Of course many of these are “guide” books. Although there were a few before “Pennsylvania Breweries” with that one Lew Bryson laid out a template that Stackpole Books continues to use today (such as with “Colorado Breweries”). Globe Pequot Press since began its own series (see “Beer Lover’s the Carolinas: Best Breweries, Brewpubs & Beer Bars”), and there are plenty of interesting “one-offs” from regional publishers (for instance, “Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland” and “A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland”).

But what I find interesting is what you find when you begin playing “six degrees of separation” at Amazon. Start with “Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day” and see what comes up under “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” It could be back to a guide-like book such as “The Great Northeast Brewery Tour: Tap into the Best Craft Breweries in New England and the Mid-Atlantic” or into the
History Press family of books, which are whole new territory. These include books such as “Upper Hudson Valley Beer” that have covers that look the same but stories inside that are quite different.

What I like about these books is that limiting the scope does not limit the thinking. “Crafty Bastards” unfolds in basically chronological order, but the chapters are labeled Water, Malt & Hops, Barrels, Ice & Steam and so on. This makes for a easy to absorb narrative. Although this is a book that a beer drinker in Missoula, Montana, might enjoy and one that a total beer geek in Massachusetts will learn from it seems like one best suited for a casual beer fan in New England. That is as it should be. A local book about local beer to be read in your local.

*****

This is something of an aside. Despite the title the book does not, thankfully, dive into “craft versus crafty.” However author Lauren Clark does go into detail about the various controversies swirling around Boston Beer Co. and Samuel Adams in the mid-1990s — among them that some New England brewers did not care for seeing a beer labeled “Boston” when it was brewed under contract outside of New England. She writes:

“Another reason craft brewers learned to stop worrying and love Sam was that ‘made in Pennsylvania’ vs. ‘made in New England’ was a non-issue for the vast majority of craft beer drinkers, who cared more about whether the liquid in the bottle tasted good and was priced fairly. (Andy) Pherson of Long Trail recalls, ‘We were all beating the drums against Samuel Adams, because the beer wasn’t made in Boston. Then we all stopped, because we found that consumers didn’t really care.'”

A fair enough reminder that not everybody values local the way I do.

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