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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75 years ago April 7 that breweries resumed shipping beer, albeit lower strength (3.2% alcohol) until Prohibition was repealed later in 1933.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.”

Book review: To Cork or Not To Cork

To Cork or Not To CorkAs you might be able to tell from the full title of “To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle,” author George Taber is a wine guy.

He happens to have been the Time magazine correspondent who attended the 1976 event that turned out to be known as “Judgment of Paris.” If he hadn’t been there the results wouldn’t have been as widely known and the ascension of American wine might have been delayed. Just a couple of years ago he wrote a thoroughly entertaining book about the tasting, appropriately titled “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.”

So why would beer drinkers find this book interesting?

First, we’re enjoying more beers from bottles sealed with corks. The wine industry estimates that between 3 percent and 10 percent of corks suffer from “taint,” exuding musty aromas that at all but the lowest levels begin to ruin flavor. TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) doesn’t discriminate. It will happily muck up the flavor of beer as well as wine.

Taber writes, “In the entire world, only a few sounds bring joy to all but the most jaded. One is the purring of a kitten. Another is the thwack of a well-pitched baseball hitting a perfectly swung bat. And the third is the pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle of wine.”

If you’d be inclined to substitute the word “beer” in that last sentence, then you may have already felt the pain of opening a 1985 Jereboam of Chimay Grand Reserve to discover a distinct impression of “wet dog” that can even make beer undrinkable.

Second, Taber has an eye for interesting detail and knows how to tell a story. His passion shows in his research, whether it is the history of cork growing and production or the search for alternatives closures, and his journalistic training in the way he explains all this.

“To Cork or Not To Cork” also examines the balance between art and science, commerce and tradition, romance and just-plain-snobbery. All in the context of wine, of course, but these topics are just as relevant to Beer, Not the Commodity.

Taber writes there is much more for wine scientists to consider and for wine consumers to learn. There certainly are analogies here with beer, although in this case we’re not talking about bottle closures.

For instance, before starting research on “Brew Like a Monk” I asked brewers what sort of questions they’d like to see answered. “Fermenter geometry” was at the top of many lists. Turns out that most of the research on fermenter geometry, like most brewing research, has focused on the production of lagers in large vessels. No surprise since those beers account for more than 90 percent of beer sold.

As a more brewers produce more beers of a different ilk scientists will have reason to analyze what they are doing. The question of “to cork or not to cork” likely won’t inspire the extreme positions taken by some in this debate, but perhaps there will be another one that does.

Book review: Land of Amber Waters

Land of Amber WatersIn the preface to Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota author Doug Hoverson writes how he came to decide that there might be something he could add to the literature on Minnesota’s breweries:

“Without making this sound like a research grant proposal, I think it is easy to demonstrate that the history of the brewing industry is important in understanding Minnesota’s history and culture, and that Minnesota’s brewing industry is important to the wider history of the brewing industry in general.”

Mission accomplished.

I could likely dash off a quick 2,000 words about this book, but that’s more than would interest you.

Hoverson teaches social studies and coaches the debate team at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minn. He’s a homebrewer and associate editor of American Breweriana. It’s obvious early on, like when he thanks his family for “the times we drove out of our way to look at a hole in the ground,” this was a labor of love. He writes he spent hundreds (although I suspect it may really be thousands) of hours in local libraries.

The result is information we’ve never seen before. The dude has details on all 290 breweries that ever operated in Minnesota. All but 40 opened before Prohibition and all but 20 no longer exist. That makes for challenging research.

The University of Minnesota Press certainly does the book justice in 340 pages, each 10 inches by 10 inches, printed on heavy stock and packed with illustrations.

But what makes Land of Amber Waters worth its $39.95 price tag is the perspective Hoverson adds on top of his meticulous research. For instance, he introduces the third chapter with a 1902 quote taken from the Pine City Pioneer:

“Mr. Buselmeier makes a purer beer than any that is shipped in here and we are glad to know that the drinking public appreciate that fact. Every dollar that Mr. Buselmeier gets is expended in Pine City and those who patronize him are benefiting the village. The same can be said of every other home industry. … So when in need of a glass of beer, a glass of pop, a good cigar, a sack of flour, a newspaper, or in fact anything that is manufactured at home and will benefit home trade be sure and call for it. This is the way to build up a town.”

Maybe that’s a little rah-rah, but this chapter about the “glory days of the small-town brewer” offers example after example of the role breweries played in communities and the role communities played in beer in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Small towns have changed a bit since then. Small breweries literally disappeared then came back. We’re not returning to 1902, but as well as doing a terrific job of chronicling Minnesota’s beer history Land of Amber Waters tells us more than a little bit about beer in America today.

Eyewitness Beer: Michael Jackson’s last book

Beer (Eyewitness Companions)In the introduction of Beer (Eyewitness Companions) we are reminded why there will never be another beer writer like Michael Jackson:

“When one thirsts for a glass of wine or a pint of beer, the brain gradually registers the order as a half-heard whisper. The volume is slowly turned up, creating a gentle, purring, reverberation throughout the nervous system. It seems a pleasurable massage at first, then becoming tenacious. You are in the hands of a higher authority that brooks no argument. It is desire, and the streetcar cannot leave its lines. Your destination is a rendezvous with a drink.”

Are you still here? Or are you on your way to a bookstore, as thirsty for the rest of this book as you would be for a beer?

Because I contributed to Beer Companions it doesn’t seem appropriate to offer a “review,” but I can tell you a little about it. Shortly before the book shipped Amazon linked used copies of “Great Beer Guide” to this one. Both were published by Dorling Kindersley, which might have created some of the confusion, but they are quite different books.

Probably because the “Great Beer Guide” was itself a repackaged version of “Ultimate Beer” and because Beer Companions was published shortly after Michael’s death some beer discussion boards contributors hypothesized that this would be another one with “re-purposed” content. That is not the case.

Michael explained in the acknowledgments that rather than researching and writing the whole book himself he recruited correspondents to provide up-to-date information from the world’s great brewing nations. He acted as editor-in-chief as well as writing the front matter. Some parts — such as the introduction to beer’s ingredients, how it’s brewed, and how to enjoy it — will be familiar to those who own his other books. But much it totally new.

This book is part of another “Eyewitness” series from DK. You’ve likely seen the Eyewitness Travel books (we must own a dozen). The Companions series focuses instead on subjects such as beer, wine, cheese, olive oil and golf.

Going into the project Michael noted, “The readers as inherited from the Eyewitness Guides will tend to be well-travelled, interested in food-and-wine, well educated, earning a reasonable income, open-minded.”

He greets them with with an introduction and treatise on styles that are essential reading.

He doesn’t pull punches, writing early on that “neither European brewers nor most drinkers on either side of the Atlantic have yet grasped that tomorrow’s most exciting styles of beers will be American in conception.”

Michael once said: “I think I was the first person ever to use the phrase, ‘beer style.’ The next thing was to try to define what they were, which lots of people have done since, but I think I was the first person.”

That was, of course, in his 1977 “World Guide to Beer.” Now we get his perspective from 2007, a last chance to see the world through his eyes. One certainly worth treasuring.


Although the headline above describes this as his last book, I hope that turns out to be false. I’d happily read a well chosen collection of his essays and columns from the many publications he wrote for. I suspect you would as well.

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