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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.

Comment about indigenous beer; win a book

Earlier this week, Boak & Bailey pointed to a couple of other posts and offered a thought and a question about “Native or Local?”

First, the thought. “It seems that native style, then, might be a more important idea than local manufacture.”

Second, the question. “Thought experiment: if you were to visit Berlin, would you feel you’d had a more authentic experience drinking American-brewed Berliner Weisse, or locally made Cascade-hopped IPA?”

Maybe it was the word “native” that caught my attention. Or the question John Holl asked about if beer were invented today was still rattling around in my head. Anyway, this is something that’s been on my mind for a while — what makes a beer indigenous and what belongs on the official indigenous beer list?

Yes, there might be a book in the works, which I’d like to help make better. So I’ve been building a bit of a list of what might be called “indigenous beers.” You can help improve it and in return you might win a book. I’ve had several show up at my door, so will reward one contributor an opportunity to pick from them.

To win, add a beer to this list. Or provide meaningful details about one of the beers already here. Or add something to the “What the heck is indigenous?” conversation. For instance: New Glarus Brewing uses the phrase “Drink Indigenous” on its logo. The brewery is Wisconsin through and through, but what does that mean for its beers?

The prize winner will be drawn from those who comment or — for those feeling shy — email suggestions to beerterroir@gmail.com.

So for starters, uniquely American beers:

Choc
* Classic American Pilsner
Steam
Kentucky Common
American colonial ales

* And then there is the question, does this beer really belong on the list?

And (this list is woefully short) the rest of the world:

Grodziskie
Chang
Chicha
Sahti
Gotlandsdricke
Keptinis Alus
Heather ale
Eqyptian Bouza
Mesopotanium ale
African sorghum beers (there are enough perhaps they should be considered individually)

What I learned about beer today

BEER From The Expert's Viewpoint

“The original extract is … the most reliable measure of quality, and the determiner of types of products of the brewing industry.”

That’s from an “expert’s viewpoint.” At least in 1937.

I’m a sucker for the classic reprint series that BeerBooks.com began releasing in 2005. Granted, my “needs” are a little different than yours. John Arnold’s “Origin And History of Beer And Brewing From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science And Technology” is a delightful if sometimes clumsy read, but from my viewpoint packed with essential information (some fact checking needed). Arnold’s “History of the Brewing Industry and Brewing Science in America” is likewise essential, along with “Beer, Its History And Its Economic Value As A National Beverage.”

BEER From The Expert's ViewpointThe latest, “BEER From The Expert’s Viewpoint” was written to serve the new generation of brewers who went to work after Prohibition ended in 1933. Before Prohibition, the Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology in Chicago was the premier brewing school in the country at the beginning of the twentieth century. “The Wahl-Henius Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and the Auxillary Trades” (by institute founders Robert Wahl and Max Henius) remains an essential resource, both for the details about brewing as well basic chemical analyses of many American and European beers not seen elsewhere.

Robert Wahl wrote the “Expert’s View” with his son Arnold Spencer Wahl, and it is full of his personal observations on the previous 50 years of brewing. The Table of Contents reveals the rather broad scope of the book, but the bits of cultural history Wahl throws in are as valuable as looking at what brewers knew, or needed to know, in 1937. If you want to better understand the beer culture in and around Bamberg, Germany, you can visit the area. If you want to better understand how American beer culture evolved immediately following Prohibition you need to find a time machine or read a book like this.

But back to the value of original extract, and what made for a quality beer.

The original extract gives a beer all its distinguishing features and contributes not only the quality but the character of the brew! The original extract is also responsible for the real extract (residual extract) which is the main substance in the beer or ale … Alcohol is of minor consideration for the brewer. He does brew some of his products to obtain that tang demanded by the consumer but the composition of the extract is responsible for the flavor, the taste, the smell, for the fragrance, savor, bouquet, smack, and aroma; the palate-fullness, foam fineness, lasting quality, adhesiveness; color, clarity, brilliancy, sparkle, effervescence and süffigkeit. All these look to the real extract for their origin which is in turn indebted to the original extract for its existence.”

I also learned about “hospital odor” but will spare you those details.

Book recommendation: Brew Britannia

In 1977 in Dorset, a town in the south of England where Thomas Hardy’s Ale was first brewed in 1968, a splinter group of the Campaign for Real Ale calling itself The Real Ale Liberation Front engaged in “acts of civil disobedience.” They would order pints of beer dispensed from a keg— CAMRA was organized to preserve cask beer, at the time under threat from keg beer — then refuse to pay for them.

Nearly thirty years later BrewDog in Scotland turned “kegging into a statement” — a sign of a young, open-minded brewery. It was a message intended for CAMRA.

CAMRA has not eliminated keg beer, and the success of BrewDog and a legion of small breweries who sell “keg craft beer” has not eliminated CAMRA. Sure, authors Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey recount both success stories and failures in “Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer,” but this is more simply a book about people who care about beer. And what can happen when people care about beer.

Those who read Boak & Baley’s Beer Blog will know what to expect — particularly since regulars sometimes had a sense they were seeing parts of chapters written before their eyes. The writing is straightforward and unpretentious, easy to read even for those whose primary language is American. Reviews from several writers in England (Alan McLeod has links, although not to Pete Brown’s late submission) sometimes suggest the authors should have emphasized particular people or events more or less. But none of them, most of whom have been writing about beer longer than the authors, questions the research. It is superb. There will be no online wiki for “Brew Britannia.”

There are a couple of books I’ve recently praised in this space by suggesting I wish I’d written them. I wouldn’t tell you that about “Brew Britannia.” I’m not as generous as Boak and Bailey. Had a publisher been silly enough to commission me I would have insisted on devoting an entire chapter to Sean Franklin, for instance, or tracking down members of The Real Ale Liberation Front (if they had jackets with cool logos sewn onto the backs I want one of them). The book would have been missing seventy percent of the essential information it contains.

Instead “Brew Britannia” serves two masters — those who want to read scores of delightful stories about people who care, stories that together provide meaningful context; and those who twenty or sixty or how many ever years in the future are going to come looking for a source they can trust.

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