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Battle of the ‘Beer versus Wine’ books

Grape vs. Grain

He said Beer, She said Wine

Next weekend in Washington, D.C., the Brewers Association plans to show that beer belongs at the table with the grownups. OK, maybe that’s not the best analogy – suggesting beer might otherwise be served at the kids’ table won’t go over well in most circles – but you get the point of SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience.

And the BA has called on several luminaries from the wine world to help make the case, like Ray Isle from Food & Wine and Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast. Fortunately beer people as well, so I’ll pass on pointing out that maybe this looks a bit too much like beer has an inferiority complex.

For the most part attendees won’t hear much argument about whether beer or wine is better.

But that debate seems like a good way to sell the printed word. Exhibit 1: “Grape vs. Grain” by Charles Bamforth. Exhibit 2: “He Said Beer, She Said Wine” by Sam Calagione and Marnie Old. Three and four: Old and Calagione have taken their rivalry to the current issues of All About Beer and Beer magazines.

And a friendly rivalry it is. It started with a series of beer dinners where they’d pair each dish with one beer and one wine and ask dinners to vote for their favorites. They are a very entertaining team, in person and in print, and don’t be fooled if a few of their exchanges look a little adversarial. Although Old is a sommelier and educator and Calagione — you surely know — the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, in this instance they could both be described as promoters, even sales people.

HSB,SSW is jammed with inviting photos, including 20 each of the protagonists. Both talk about simplifying wine/beer and the editors of the book have set out to help them with easy-to-understand presentations. For instance, charts with objective characteristics for specific beers or wines, then charts with rules of thumb about serving wine or beer with particular dishes.

Bamforth’s approach is decidedly more academic. He is the Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology and Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis. Reading the book feels like attending a college lecture, but one conducted by everybody’s favorite professor. He successfully acts as his own foil, spinning stories that go beyond the chemistry behind beer, such a look at the evolution of the pub.

Yet you remember this is the author of “Standards of Brewing – A Practical Approach to Consistency and Excellence” when he chooses to explain dimethyl sulfide (DMS) — an aroma often described cooked corn — in particular detail in order to illustrate the complexity of brewing.

He’s always the educator, and the book could be characterized as a beer primer from wine drinkers and a wine primer for beer drinkers. He doesn’t hide his own preferences, writing in the preface, “To that extent, and reflecting my professional specialty, the theme of this book is primarily one of demonstrating how beer is a product of an excellence and sophistication to match wine, and I seek to do this by championing beer while being entirely fair to that other noble beverage.”

He’d need to be a little flashier to keep up with Calagione and Old. Consider this from the authors within two pages.

Old: Every culture what has had access to both (beer and wine) has judged wine to be superior — from the ancient Mesopotamians straight through the modern day.

Calagione: “It’s true that beer drinkers may burp more often than wine drinkers, which could seem “uncivilized.” However, I’ve always thought that is because wine drinkers don’t stop yakking about pretentious things like “notes” and “bouquets” for long enough to build up the required internal pressure.”

Old and Calagione will encore their debate to SAVOR on Saturday. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t be fair for Bamforth to act as “referee,” but let’s give him the final word.

“Wine and beer — both wonderful beverages, sublime outcomes of humankind’s oldest agricultural endeavors. They have much to learn from one another.”

Book review: Good Beer Guide West Coast USA

Good Beer Guide to USATravel guides are worthless without trust.

So, you might be thinking, why should we trust a couple of British blokes who showed up for a holiday or two on America’s West Coast and then presumed to write about our beer?

Oh, sure they seem clever, for instance describing American IPAs as “hoppier than a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.” And the publisher Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has outdone itself with a colorful, easy-to-find-what-you-want presentation plus an embarrassment of color photos.

But ultimately here is why you can trust Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, authors of “Good Beer Guide West Coast USA.”

When I managed a newspaper copy desk the rule repeated every day was, “Readers trust everything they see in the paper until you write something they know about.” So pick up a copy of the book. Turn to a section you know about. Do they write about the best places? Do they leave any out? Are they right about the beers? Do they give you a reason to visit? Yes, no, yes and yes.

Feel free to be skeptical, but the proof is there in black and white. They dropped by the Craft Brewers Festival in San Diego last month to sign books and I sat down to talk with them about how they accomplished this. To be honest, my notes ended up full of “inside baseball” (or cricket) talk — and we weren’t even drinking. You’ll likely find their Q&A at the CAMRA site more amusing.

But some basics. They researched the books in two four-week stretches. The first included Las Vegas and Southern California (then back to Vegas). “We laid down for a week (afterwards),” McFarland said. “I got shingles . . . We were in pieces.”

They came back anyway, flying into Seattle and this time destroying their livers with the beers of the Northwest. They leaned on Tom Dalldorf (of Celebrator Beer News) for Hawaii and Dr. Fermento (James Roberts of the Anchorage Press) for Alaska. Obviously they also received a lot of help on “leads” about where to visit. Quite often they’d be in one pub or brewery and the principals there would ask, “Have you been to …?” and they were off again.

The resulting book doesn’t exhibit the sense of familiarity of one like Jay Shevek’s The Beer Guppy’s Guide to Southern California, but the authors are no less enthusiastic about what comes first — beer. In fact, surprisingly so, writing a love letter to American small-batch brewing that nicely carries on a tradition started by the late Michael Jackson.

And at times you get a glimpse of what the book might have read like had they been able to spend two years instead of two months wandering in and out of breweries and pubs. Writing about Diamond Knot Brewery in Muketilo, Wash., they begin:

“We must have been in here for about 20 minutes before ‘Johnny Vegas’, a Port Townsend ferryman, offered us a place to stay the night. Being British we naturally regarded the gesture with a level of cynicism and, fearing we’d be somehow chopped up and a feature in his wife’s stew, said yes and promptly disappeared. The fact is, he was simply a generous and friendly local and a perfect example of what this bar offers.”

Despite their youth — they are in their early 30s, giving them a fighting chance of surviving their research — both are accomplished journalists. Sandham had edited CLASS, a leading drinks magazine, for five years. McFarland became the youngest ever recipient of the British guild of Beer Writers’ beer Writer of the Year Award in 2004. He won it again in 2006.

And because of their youth they offer a look at American beer through fresh eyes and taste American beer with fresh tongues.

Monday morning musing: What time is the toast?

75 Years of BeerYou’ve probably heard about this: Today is the 75th anniversary of when breweries could resume selling beer, although it was months later until Prohibition officially ended and full strength beer returned.

I mentioned Maureen Ogle’s excellent daily countdown a while back, and suggest you stop by if you haven’t been. Also read her opinion piece, “The day beer flowed again,” in The Los Angeles Times.

The anniversary even got a mention on National Public Radio this past weekend. I wrote last week at Real Beer about the press kit Anheuser-Busch sent out and that Noah Adams mentions in his short commentary.

For the record, I didn’t receive a six-pack of beer (as Adams found in his desk), which doesn’t bother me at all. However, this does seem relative to part of the lengthy discussion about beer criticism, etc. Adams makes something of a point of not accepting the free beer.

But back to celebrating this anniversary. We should all wish Pike Brewery in Seattle were close enough for us to visit.

Schlitz advertisement– Rumors last October about Schlitz going retro turn out to be true. The press release does not make the meaning of “Classic 1960s Formula” based on the original recipe exactly clear.

The 1960s Schlitz and the original 19th century Schlitz clearly were not brewed to the same recipe. More than likely it will be made as it was in the 1960s, with adjuncts, before the brewing cycle was shortened in the 1970s and disaster followed. Philip Van Munching details this all very nicely in “Beer Blast,” calling the chapter “Number Two Schlitz Its Wrists.”

“We are going after the baby boomers who remember Schlitz when they first started drinking,” Jerry Glunz, the general manager of Chicago-area distributor Louis Glunz Beer Inc., told a business newspaper. “This is a different beer than the (current Schlitz line in the can), and this beer will stand up to its former glory.”

Pabst, which owns the Schlitz brand, has had the greatest success with retro marketing, but because Gen X (and perhaps Gen Y) drinkers embraced the brand — not by reaching out to baby boomers.


– Do you want somebody to write like this about beer?

“I’m looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue.”

I’m a fan of Alice Feiring and looking forward to her new book,
The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

I even like the notion that there’s a great story behind some of my favorite beers and that they may sometimes speak to me. But not every one. That’s why beer is not the new wine. Thank goodness.

Book review: Learning from ‘Brewing Battles’

Brewing BattlesThe countdown to April 7 has begun. A good place to follow along is Maureen Ogle’s blog. It will be 75 years ago April 7 that breweries resumed shipping beer, albeit lower strength (3.2% alcohol) until Prohibition was repealed later in 1933. Thus the Brewers Association, Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association are promoting a 75 Years of Beer celebration.

So far you won’t see many events listed, but it would be fun to find something like the one Portneuf Valley Brewing plans closer than Idaho. The brewpub will sell a nine-ounce glass of Ligertown Lager for 10 cents, compared with the usual cost of about $2.

Heck, the taxes on a glass of beer run more than 10 cents, which — to be honest — is one of the reasons Prohibition ended. As long as we are celebrating history it’s good to view it from more than one perspective. Beer back = good. Why = more complicated.

If you view American beer history through the filter of Stanley Baron’s “Brewed in America” and then Ogle’s “Ambitious Brew” you’ll see facts hidden in the shadows in one look different in the bright light of the other. Same with “Beer & Food: An American History” and “The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis.” (More about all these in Book Reviews.)

Add Amy Mittelman’s “Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer” to the list.

Mittleman has a Ph.D. in history with a special focus on the politics of alcohol production. Obviously that includes examining the role of Prohibitionists, but also taxation — an issue with beer long before the first European settlers arrived in America.

The United States Brewers Association (USBA), the nation’s oldest trade association, was formed in 1862, not coincidentally the same year the federal government started taxing beer. The USBA worked with the government, the government assured that taxes would be collected and the brewers minimizing (as much as they could) how much they would be taxed.

Despite increasing rhetoric from Prohibitionists this was a solid partnership for more than 50 years. Until ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment (introducing federal income tax) in 1913 liquor industry taxes provided more than 50 percent of the federal government’s revenue. Little wonder that if you browse through the USBA’s annual yearbooks from the ‘teens you get a sense that the government surely would not ban the sale of alcohol and eliminate the source of most its income. By 1920 they were wrong about the income and wrong about Prohibition.

Prohibition did not end simply because the federal government, and now the states (which generally had not taxed liquor), reconsidered the need for the taxes liquor generated. However it did take them only a week after beer resumed shipping to pass new taxes. And 75 years later we’re still debating “sin” taxes.

That’s not all there is to this book. It’s certainly academic in tone, with even more footnotes than “Ambitious Brew” (don’t take that wrong; I like footnotes), but Mittleman doesn’t settle for just economics and politics.

Often the details are more interesting than sweeping generalizations, most of which you may already have read. These may be quick facts, such as what brewery workers were paid in the 1860s, or a mixture of culture and politics, like the debate between those who wanted to make the annual release of bock beer a major promotion and those who wanted to discontinue production altogether.

She certainly sees the big picture, for instance using the Miller Brewing arc — beginning with Frederick Miller in the 19th century, rattling the brewing industry in the mid-20th century when Philip Morris buys the company, and continuing in the 21st century as a global company after being acquired by South African Breweries — to take us right up to today.

She does not linger over modern micro/craft brewing, but does get to a point at least one person (me) thinks matters.

The emergence of craft brewing highlights a battle within the brewing industry over authenticity and identity. Since World War II the national brewers have connected beer to all things American — baseball, barbeques, race cars, and pretty, sexy women. Yet the nationalizing of the beer industry removed one of the most potent aspects of beer’s identity — localism. The new generation of brewers emphasizes its connection to place and community even more than taste. They stake a claim to authenticity via their roots in a specific locale.

There’s little chance they’ve been around 75 years, but go ahead and toast them on April 7 (or 5th or 6th, because party dates may vary).

‘Tis the season for beer book suggestions

The Best of American Beer & FoodThe question I get asked second most often — after “What’s your favorite beer?” — runs something like, “What book about beer would you recommend?”

Then I ask a question of my own: Is this for somebody who wants to learn about beer in general, for a homebrewer, a history buff, a breweriana collector, or somebody otherwise interested in beer?

This, although if you press a beer to my lips and insist on a single answer before I drink it turns out I have one: “Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion.” It was first published in 1993 and later reissued, but recently used prices have jumped, if Amazon is to believed. I’m sure it would have been a James Beard award winner had the publishers got around to nominating it, and it covers to all the subjects listed above.

It’s worth tracking down, but in the spirit of the season I’ll off a few alternatives. (Note that these links go to, and I would receive a small commission if you buy through them. I usually use Amazon links because that’s what most people are comfortable with. But this way you get a chance to support a small, independent business. I guarantee you the service is great, and right now Carl is shipping a copy of the video “The American Brew” with every order.)

For a homebrewer: John Palmer’s “How to Brew” is perfect for the everybody from a total novice to a brewer interested in making his or her own equipment. John also worked with Jamil Zainasheff on this year’s top release: “Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew.” Zainasheff has established himself as one of (if not) the best all around homebrewers in the country, and he shares it all. In this case award-winning recipes mean “gold medal.”

For a home cook: Another 2007 release tops the list — Lucy Saunders’ “Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer,” which I reviewed a while back. Garrett Oliver’s “The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food” is also a fine book, but not if you care looking for recipes.

For a history buff: I raved about “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota” just last week and stand by that. However, it will be a little specialized for some. For entertaining reading and a solid explanation beer choices are what they are today try “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer,” a clear-eyed look at how beer in became and industrial products and how beer that once were called microbrews lead to still more change. Reviewed last year.

A couple more excellent choices are “Brewed In America: The History of Beer and Ale in the United States,” a history that stops in 1962 and doesn’t suffer a bit, and “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Here’s a review of Brewed in America.

For moments of beer reflection: “Beer & Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking” requires a little bit of thinking while drinking. A review.

That’s 10 books . . . and I didn’t even manage to mention “Brew Like a Monk.”

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