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‘Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest’

I wish I had written “Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest.”

That’s why I must tell you about it even if doing so feels terribly awkward. Awkward because it comes with a ton of disclaimers, reasons that make it hard for you to consider this an objective recommendation.

But, dang, Evan Rail has written this wonderfully compelling multi-dimensional tale.

First, the basic story.

When the ancient brewery in the Czech forest town of Kout na Šumave reopened in 2006, rumors began circulating about a mysterious brewing log — written in a long-forgotten, black-letter script — that had been discovered, hidden in the crumbling walls of the brewery.

The beer from Kout na Šumave was so good, so strangely delicious, that many who tasted it believed that it had to be made using secrets from the old brewing book.

Over the course of several years, Evan Rail made several trips out to the old brewery in Kout na Šumave, even bringing Anthony Bourdain out there to film a segment for his television show “No Reservations.” This is the story of Evan’s attempts to get to the heart of Czech beer, and to learn the secrets of the old brewery in the Bohemian Forest.

Now, some background and disclosures. In preparing to speak at Craft Writing: Beer, The Digital, and Craft Culture in Kentucky earlier this year I exchanged emails with many people who write about beer. Some of these are writers, and Rail is one of them, who I’ve trading ideas about writing and publishing (meaning getting our writing published and paid for) far longer than you can possibly care.

I ended up quoting this throw-down-the-gauntlet thought from Joe Stange:

“If we judge by books and magazines alone, beer people are simpler than wine people; they are less thoughtful but more practical. To hell with a good story — just tell me how to do it, where to find it, what I should drink. It’s boring, and in my view we as writers, editors and publishers — so far — are failing American beer drinkers. Maybe the narrative-type books don’t sell well. So what? What is this craft thing about, anyhow? If we want brewers to make what they like to drink, maybe we as writers should do a better job of writing what we want to read.”

“Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest” was already a work in progress, but you wouldn’t be able to read it were it not a story that Rail so obviously needed to tell. It’s longer than you’ll find in most magazines, 15,000-plus words, meaning usually more than a single chapter in a book.

Maybe it will lead to a printed book — perhaps when some publisher is smart enough to package a variety of things Rail has written, maybe commission a few new ones. Or it could end up in something of an anthology including work from other writers.

So back to disclosure. If you click on “show more” here you will learn this: “A new series of long-form writing on beer, ‘Beer Trails’ is dedicated to writerly narratives and essays about the world’s best-loved beverage. Forthcoming titles are planned from beer writers like Stan Hieronymus and Joe Stange.”

So I have a rooting interest in “Beer Trails” succeeding. Beyond that, Evan and I are friends, we’ve broken bread and drank beer together, we’ve been trading thoughts about writing for a half dozen years, and I owe him a considerable debt for collecting the recipe from Kout na Šumave that appeared in “For the Love of Hops” (a story, in fact, he tells in “Beer Trails”).

All of those are facts. So is the one that I continue to wish I had written “Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest.” Evan has set the bar high.

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Is this the best job ever or what?

Today the topic for The Session #85 is “Why Do You Drink?” and I can’t make myself believe you should care about that any more than why I seem to be favoring black t-shirts these days.

Instead I planned to post a Friday beer note (so why I drank a particular beer) about the very nice dunkel I had last week at Kansas City Bier Co.. But that’s going to have to wait until next Friday.

Because …

Roger Baylor pointed to a story about the explosive growth of breweries in Indianapolis (they are up to 23, with a dozen more planning to open this year).

And the second one on the list is called Books and Brews. A used book store in front and a one-barrel nanobrewery in back. But, wait, there’s more. They’ll have live music Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. I bet it won’t be long until there’s a food truck parked out front.

How did this not happen in Denver or Austin or either Portland first?

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Books: ‘Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer’

The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerAppropriately enough, last time I looked, Amazon told me that “Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer” and “Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers” are frequently bought together (along with “Water”).

This has caused me to rethink which book shelf to put “Vintage Beer” on when I am done reading it. I had planned to file it with the books about brewing and brewing techniques, somewhere near “Radical Brewing.” Now I’m thinking it belongs next to Martyn Cornell’s books, on the shelves more generally devoted to history and culture.

My personal library fetishes aside, this is a book brewers, primarily homebrewers, but certainly some commercial brewers, interested in classic British styles must own. Although the reading is always interesting — there’s something of historic or philosophical note on almost of every page — the book is properly focused, on process and recipes. It is that simple and that delightful.

Oh, I just realized I have not mentioned Ron Pattinson wrote “Vintage Beer.” He did. The disclaimer here is that I’ve known him for a while, drank beer with him in Amsterdam, and he provided generous help on my previous two books. I’m looking forward to drinking more beer with him in Grand Rapids in June. This is not an unbiased recommendation, but is one I’m pretty sure I would make anyway.

Publishers seem to have noticed the booming interest in homebrewing, because this is one of several new books of interest specifically to amateur brewers (although, again, you’re going to see commercial brewers make some of the recipes in this book). Those who want to replicate a wider range of styles, and using recipes from small American breweries, are going to prefer “Craft Beer for the Homebrewer: Recipes from America’s Top Brewmasters.”

It’s your call. You could buy both. You can use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book, so I’ll spare you those details. Instead, a thought from something Pattinson posted more than six years ago about “an epiphany while in Franconia.” It does not work perfectly to replace the word “beer” with the word “book” in every instance, but it’s close enough. He wrote:

“Honest beer is what I want. Beer that can look me straight in the eye and not flinch. Beer with heart. Beer that’s like an old friend. Beer you can sit and drink by the pint in a pub with your mates.”

There’s no way I am going to get around to writing about all the new brewing related books available. Nor, quite honestly, am I inclined to read another book intended to take a new brewer through the process from the outset. (At least until Randy Mosher’s “Mastering Home Brew: The Complete Guide to Brewing Delicious Beer” is finally available.) But, just so you know, these look more interesting than the rest:

- Homebrew Beyond the Basics: All-Grain Brewing and Other Next Steps

- The Homebrewer’s Journal: From the First Boil to the First Taste, Your Essential Companion to Brewing Better Beer

- Beer Brewing for Everyone

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About the movement in Craft Beer Movement

BOOK REVIEW: “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer”

Is the “craft beer movement” a social movement, a political movement, an aesthetic movement, any sort of movement?

Tom Acitelli uses the term, or simply the movement, on more than a third of the pages in “The Audacity of Hops.” He does not categorize this movement, and that probably illustrates how the words “craft beer movement” have become an entity unto themselves. Only a couple of months ago, the Detroit Free Press suggested “Pride, personal experience help define the craft-beer movement” without explaining what makes it a movement.

Within the context of “The Audacity of Hops” the implication would be that Acitelli is discussing a social movement. The publisher states, “This book not only tells the stories of the major figures and businesses within the movement, but is also ties in the movement with larger American culinary developments.” And Acitelli certainly links craft beer and Slow Food, often itself described as a movement and even defined by Wikipedia as a social movement.

(The lengthy Wikipedia list also includes the civil rights movement, right to life, Tea Party movement, Ku Klux Klan, and Health at Every Size. In the end, what constitutes a “social movement” is less clear than finding a definition for “craft beer” and we know what folly that is. Academics have laid entire forests to waste simply theorizing on the life cycles of social movements. If there is such a thing as a craft beer movement, social or not, it would be interesting to determine where it might be in its life cycle. Another day.)

I’m pretty sure that Max Bahnson and Alan McLeod would not label it a social movement. In fact, perhaps they should rename the eighth chapter “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer – A Rant in Nine Acts.” Instead of calling it “Evangelism, Movement and Community” they might have chosen “Evangelism and the Myth of Movement or Community.”

A quick explanation is probably in order. “The Unbearable Nonsense” is a work of fiction, science fiction really and not at all like Evan Rail’s “Triplebock: Three Beer Stories.” Rail’s stories are about fictional characters who, through their actions and the dialogue, eventually reveal truths about themselves and beer, perhaps about ourselves and our relationship with beer. Banhson and McLeod are simply Max and Alan throughout the book, time and space traveling into fictional setting, but talking just like the guys who write their blogs.

Each chapter, as the title promises, provides a platform for them to rant. In Chapter 8 they basically kidnap a guy variously known as Lanky Geek, Lank Geekston and LG, a not particularly adept beer evangelist. He doesn’t stand a chance. They describe him as trying to “keep his grip on the myth.” It is Alan who tells him:

Supporting and promoting what you like is a nice thing to do. Sharing it with friends even better. We all do that… But taking it as a mission, as a responsibility? That just ain’t right. Believing that you, a consumer, are part of a movement that involves producers; that ain’t right either. You’ve been lied, duped. You’ve been disingenuously made believe that you and a group of brewers share a common interest. You don’t. In fact, your interest couldn’t be any more different from theirs.

Alan continues to pile it on, then Max resumes. Eventually, “The lanky guy nodded but kept his thoughts to himself.”

I wish he hadn’t. I wish he’d suggested that at some/many/most post industrial breweries those paid the most make only a reasonable multiple of those at the bottom of the salary ladder, compared to an obscene multiples CEOs enjoy at many large corporations. That would imply such breweries are part of a social movement. Or he might have pointed out that the producers genuinely enjoy the taste of the beers they make, just as the customers who buy them must (or they wouldn’t be buying them). So perhaps an aesthetic movement.

Do I know these things to be true? I’d like somebody (else) to do the research. I wouldn’t suggest it, however, if there weren’t anecdotal evidence.

That “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer” provokes such thinking beyond the words on the screen is a good thing, but I’m not certain what sort of audience this Kindle book (a Lulu version is in the works) will reach. It is one thing to kidnap a Lank Geekston and another to expect him to pay for a series of one-sided rants that will mostly piss him off. He’s not as likely to be entertained as those who regularly read A Good Beer Blog and Pivní Filosof – Beer Philosopher or consider this alternative view.

(And to be honest, even those who agree with the authors may not always be entertained. The word “rant” in the title is perfectly accurate so there is some rambling, and the language R-rated.)

But, geez, it costs just $3.99, less than a pint at happy hour. I only hesitated to hit download when I considered what other sorts of science fiction Amazon might recommend for me based on this purchase.

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Making sense of beer: Pick your guide

“I think a lot of people who are coming up in the craft brewing world — since, as I mentioned, we’re sort of on the fringe — they’re either hippies or they’re into metal.”

       - Barnaby Struve, vice president, Three Floyds Brewing

I guess that means I’m a hippie, because I’m not familiar with bands like Pig Destroyer and I would not think to pair Jester King’s Funk Metal with “Suck on This” by Primus, although intuitively it makes sense.

In the introduction to “The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits” author Adem Tepedelen writes “I’ve always equated craft beer drinkers with the segment of the population that isn’t necessarily listening to Top-40 radio and consuming mainstream music.” Me, too. It just so happens my outside the mainstream choices don’t include metal. In fairness, I’m not sure how easy it would be to assemble an entire book pairing alt.country music and beer. (Perhaps you’d start with James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo” and Lagunitas IPA, because when we last saw McMurtry that’s what he was drinking on stage and he does sometimes refer to himself as a beer salesman.)

In the December issue of Beer Advocate magazine Andy Crouch writes about how overwhelming and confusing the beer aisle (which usually occupies a lot more than an aisle) at your favorite store has become. He suggests breweries need to find a sensible way of naming and describing beers to give drinkers a decent idea of what the beers they are thinking about buying might taste like. I don’t see that happening soon. Instead, expect it will be harder to make sense of “beer,” particularly for a newcomer.

That means there’s likely room for specialty books such as “The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers” and certainly that we’ll get more general guides. A quick scan through Michael Jackson’s “World Beer Guide,” his “Beer Companion” and later “Ultimate Beer” illustrates there are at least three ways to attempt to organize the topic.

Three recent newcomers include “The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer Geeks: From Novice to Expert in Twelve Tasting Classes” by Josh Bernstein, “The Pocket Beer Guide: The Essential Handbook to the Very Best Beers in the World” from Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb, and “World Beer.” (At this point you might want to skip to the disclosures at the end.)

The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer GeeksEach of these books seeks to educate a novice and satisfy the more experienced, but Bernstein is the first to turn the adventure into what could be a semester. In fact, the first class is about the essentials and the last about pairing beer and food, with the middle 10 focusing on styles — working through the spectrum of flavors much as you would a rack of tasters at a brewpub. You own the book, so it’s not like you have to think, “I can’t cut class this week because it’s about IPAs and that’s the real reason I signed up.”

I’m not sure if anybody reads a book like this in a strictly linear fashion, because it’s too tempting to flip ahead and see which American Porters he chose to feature (The Duck-Rabbit Porter and Deschutes Black Butte Porter) or which brewery in the Class 2 (Victory Brewing; the chapter focuses on the “pleasures of cold fermentation”). However, it’s best at some point to flip through every page, because “quick facts” are splattered all about, just waiting to be dropped into a friendly bar conversation.

The Pocket Beer Guide: The Essential Handbook to the Very Best Beers in the WorldA year ago, Webb and Beaumont organized the beer world geographically in “The World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to the Beers of the World.” Lavishly illustrated with maps and photos that was a coffee table book. “The Pocket Beer Guide” is much smaller, although your pockets need to be pretty good size to hold it (it is 4 1/2 inches by 7 inches, and more than 3/4s of a inch thick; much fatter than any of Jackson’s pocket guides), and the plan is to update it regularly.

It will appear familiar to those who used Jackson’s pocket guides, with quick tasting notes and star ratings, although generally there is a bit more information about each brewery and quite a few more breweries (thus the thickness). The one sentence review: if you are thinking about visiting Lithuania it is an essential book, and otherwise it is pretty dang useful.

“The Brewtal Truth Guide” is less essential, but plenty of fun to read. Tepedelen writes a column for Decibel (America’s only monthly metal magazine) as well as beer articles in more beer focused publications. Each of six chapters includes an interview with a brewery type (including) and a musician type, with a bonus Q & A with Tomme Arthur about the Ultimate Box Set Lost Abbey released last year. More than anything it is an introduction to 100-plus “extreme” beers, each of them paired with a song. Tepedelen explains, “The majority of beer-drinking Americans will never appreciate them, but like the thousands of independent metal bands who … (know) they’ll never sell a million copies or be played on mainstream radio, extreme beers are made for the diehards who are open-minded and want something well beyond the status quo.”

I’m rearranging my bookshelf now to accommodate these books, sliding “Complete Beer Course” into a spot next to Zak Avery’s “500 Beers” and “The Brewtal Truth” between “The Bedside Book of Beer” and “Christmas Beer” because it’s a grab-it-and-read-a-few-pages-at-a-time book. “The Pocket Beer Guide” goes on the reference shelf alongside “Amber, Gold and Black.”

*****

The disclosure stuff. Although I mentioned “World Beer,” it is not reviewed because Dorling Kindersley paid me to write most of the US entries. As you would expect in a DK book it weighty and generally what people call a coffee table book.

Beaumont and Webb also paid me for few dozen entries in the “Pocket Guide” but because it will be ongoing, and likely the best way (at least in print) to track the changing beer world, it deserves your attention. Besides, and more disclosure, I’m more likely to be influenced to write something positive by my friendship with the authors, and that Webb wrote the foreword to one of my books, than what they paid me (let’s just say you wouldn’t quit your day job for the gig). So there’s one more reason not to trust my “review.”

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