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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.

The economics of Widhook, and a book review

The U.S. Brewing IndustryPatrick Emerson has been kind enough to the work of Vic and Carol Tremblay in analyzing the merge of Widmer Brothers Brewing and Redhook Ale Brewery, giving me an excuse to mention that and also offer something of a review of their book, The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis .

Please start by reading his post at The Oregon Economics Blog as well as Jeff Alworth’s response (which is what got me to the Economics Blog). Emerson brings up quite valid concerns, particularly the ongoing competitive landscape.

I’m not going to repeat what he said about minimum efficient scale (MES), but expand on it a bit. From the end of Prohibition until the late 1950s the minimum production a brewery needed to reach scale efficiency and be competitive was 100,000 barrels per year. A-B was the largest brewery in the country, producing 8.4 million barrels per year, and Miller was 10th at 2.4 million. (Visit BeerHistory.com for more.) It wasn’t 1880, when we had more than 2,500 breweries, but regional breweries were a competitive force.

MES began to rise dramatically in the 1960s and was 4.5 million by 1973. Now it’s 23 millions barrels, which only Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors achieve. And the latter two plan to merge U.S. operations.

With that in mind, although it will still produce only a fraction of that Widhook (as those in the Northwest are already calling this “new” brewery) makes sense. Drawing on Tremblay and Tremblay, Emerson writes: “These are the cold, hard facts: economies of scale exist in beer brewing, they can be quite large and thus the economic incentive is to grow bigger and become more profitable and/or more competitive.”

So what about the fourteen-hundred-and-however-many other breweries in the country?

I’m reminded of what Eric Wallace of Left Hand Brewing said more than 10 years ago: “The large brewers are not tooled to do what we do. They’ll have to build less-than-efficient breweries to make beer like we do.”

And as beer drinkers we need to remember that. Less efficient means more expensive. I won’t climb on on that soap box today, because I promised something of a review of The U.S. Brewing Industry.

You don’t need the book if you are looking for the best Czech lagers, are wondering what kind of glass to pour a particular beer into, or want to read entertaining essays in the manner of Pete Brown.

You might enjoy the book if you’re deep enough into American beer history to wonder how and why the beer industry changed from 1950 to 2000. It fits quite nicely with Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, although it’s not quite the breezy read. It’s an economics book.

You really should own the book if you want to sell beer in America. Robert Weinberg, who made part of his company’s extensive brewing data base available to the Tremblays, explains why in the foreword:

“The Professors Temblay have hit a home run. In a single volume they provide the theorist with more than adequate basic knowledge of the fundamental operating dynamics of the brewing industry. At the same time, they provide brewing industry executives with an excellent demonstration of how the tools of economic analysis can improve even the most pragmatic managers’ understanding of the environment in which they operate.”

Book review: Beer & Philosophy

Beer & PhilosophyWould you trust a philosopher with your beer?

Is that in itself a philosophical question?

To tell the truth, even though I was careful to bite off portions of the book in small chunks, after reading Beer and Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking I’m not exactly sure about either. I seem to have reached philosophy overload.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself throughout.

This is a great collection for a book club to tackle. Read a chapter a week and discuss at the local pub. After after finishing this book the club could move onto to the other two in this “Epicurean Trilogy,” Food & Philosophy and Wine & Philosophy. I’d suggest discussions continue at the local pub rather than moving on to a wine bar.

And after that? Southpark & Philosophy and 24 & Philosophy should be out. Really. It seems publisher Wiley-Blackwell has quite a franchise going here.

Philosophers who have a certain affection for beer wrote most of the essays. There’s also Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog representing the blogosphere, as well as philosophical brewers Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver.

The topics include many — quality, pricing, authenticity, etc. — that pop up here. Also some you don’t see in your basic beer blog. Such as an inspection of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism through beer goggles.

I particularly liked editor Steven D. Hales contribution. He uses the philosophy of John Stuart Mill to examine this question: If you had $30 to spend on beer, would you be better off spending it on a single case of Pilsner Urquell or two cases of Miller Lite? Don Russell recently covered this in nice detail. Take a look and come back. Carefully consider Hale’s argument that quality is the density of pleasure. Could be a New Beer Rule.

And if you don’t have a book club to share thoughts with? Jeff Alworth has suggested this book will provide blogging fodder for quite a while. I have to agree.

Perhaps that’s what Michael Jackson was predicting in the foreword (a delightful surprise to find at the outset) when he wrote: “When I grow up, I want to be a philosopher.”

As Hales points out in his introduction it all comes down to Plato — degrees Plato or the guy who keeps popping up in this book.

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