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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.

Book recommendation: American Sour Beers

As the interest in homebrewing has bloomed Internet discussion boards have turned into a (at least sometimes) valuable tool. That’s certainly true in Brazil. However, regulars in these groups can get bored answering the same newbie questions time after time. As a result some of them have taking to replying to questions asked the eighth, ninth and fifty-third times they are asked by typing, “Read the $#@&*% Palmer.”

Ronaldo Dutra Ferreira explained that the quote was created and posted in English as something of an inside joke for those who have leaned heavily on the book from Brewers Publications, of course including John Palmer’s “How to Brew.”

This story is funnier when you are riding in a van full of Brazilian homebrewers, who use the phrase often with the expected expletive rather than keyboard symbols, and John Palmer is in the backseat. But I’ve got another point. I often receive questions about brewing sour beers, generally ones that are above my level of expertise. I am delighted that although the premise is different — in this case, not referring to questions I find simple and repetitive, but ones that should be answered by somebody who knows what he is talking about — that now I can reply, “Read the $#&*% Tonsmeire.”

Michael Tonsmeire has written a book — “American Sour Beers” — that somebody who knew better probably wouldn’t have attempted. The subject is dynamic, which can be a bit terrifying. But “American Sours” is wonderfully complete, both the way Tonsmeire presents the process involved in conjuring up such beers, the science behind them, and the number of breweries, each of them taking a slightly different approach.

Here’s an example of one of many charts, this one detailing the production of Cambridge Cerise Cassée (one of my favorite beers):

Cambridge Brewing souring process

“Wild Brews” remains an essential resource for those interested in wild or sour beers, but “American Sour Beers” basically picks up where it left off (in 2005).

Want a better idea of the scope of the book? Read the table of contents. It is a “complete guide,” well organized, easy to read, and — I’m going to have to consider another job if I keep typing this — another book I wish I’d written.

‘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.

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?

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 &#151 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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