Over the last few years or so, I have started to delve into the complex and tasty world of beer. Never much of a drinker in my past, after one of my friends started up a hobby of homebrewing I slowly began to ease into beer tasting. I’m not quite an expert connoisseur yet, but I’m enjoying this new hobby! I even tried my own hand at home brewing recently, brewing two of my own beers. One rather successfully, and the other, well, less so. During my quest for better beer knowledge, I consulted a few books in recent months. Here are a few highlights!
The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer, read courtesy of my local library's collection of ebooks, was a casual, informative first place to go to explore the wide, crazy world of craft beer and what all of these weird words even mean; stouts and porters, ales and lagers, imperials versus doppels, for example. From the brewing process to judging the finished products using the correct terminology, Ashley Routson (aka, the “beer wench”) writes in an engaging, breezy way that makes even the drier aspects of beer culture interesting. Describing and introducing all the various styles of beer, from the ancient to the postmodern, she also mentions which foods they pair well with, and which other drinks they are most similar to for those hoping to expand their palates of alcoholic beverages to beer. Among my favorite aspects were the gr eat beer related recipes included, of which I will have to take more time to explore later.
There are a lot of beer list books out there; one that is particularly interesting for the traveling beer enthusiast is Great Beers. Not a bad place to begin looking at the wide variety of beer that exist in the world, though really, this is a list of 350 breweries, each with a couple of beers highlighted. Each entry profiles a brewery, in alphabetical order, along with a photo of one of its flagship bottles and some description of couple of the beers the brew. None of the descriptions, of the beers or the breweries, are very in depth, though it does give good highlights of some of the global beers to look out for while traveling. I've personally tasted beers from about twenty of them.
Though an international list of beers, not surprisingly, most of the entries focus on beer areas with high concentration of breweries, largely European locales. Travel itineraries are also provided for touring these regions: England, Brussels, Prague, Germany, and one non-European location, Oregon. Other regions of the world, if represented at all, typically only have a single brewery entry. The index is not very useful, consisting of only a list of the included 700 beers featured, regardless of brewery, and no index dividing them by locations. This would make make it difficult to use the book as reference while traveling. Really just a basic list of breweries in a rather compact book, Great Beers is a fun, if bare bones, coffee table book.
Similar to the the previous book, A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland chronicles all of the breweries and popular beers of the burgeoning craft beer scene in four of the most active brewing states in the US: The Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. If you are traveling through or happen to live in any of these areas, this book would be a good travel guide to consult for some fun places to stop. Beginning with a short history of brewing in the region, Michael Agnew writes an exhaustive list of all current breweries operating at the time of his writing in this region. Of course, published two years ago, the burgeoning craft brewing scene mentioned earlier has already made this book hopelessly out of date. Still, until an updated edition comes out, this is pretty useful! Anyway, speaking of a history of brewing...
Written just at the dawn of the burgeoning crop of independent craft and microbreweries across Minnesota (and the nation), Land of Amber Waters is an exhaustive and informative treatise of the history of commercial beer brewing in the state. Author Doug Hoverson has compiled what must be the deepest resource available on the topic, a veritable flowing tap of beer knowledge. While not as well known or populous as the beer brewing tradition of our neighbor, Wisconsin (though, who could be?), Hoverson illustrates that Minnesota had an important footprint on the history of beer culture in the US. We can, for instance, boast the inventors of the first malt beverage and one of the most beloved mid-20th century corporate mascots, the Hamm's bear (a vintage ad is included at the intro of this article).
After a short description of the brewing process, Hoverson documents Minnesota beer from the very earliest German immigrants to brew some beer to sell to their compatriots, to the rise of local brands and the trial of WWI and Prohibition, through the proliferation of bland beers and the collapse of smaller breweries, to the explosion of craft breweries. In addition, he includes an exhaustive history of all known breweries throughout the history of the state, arranged by city (including the mysterious "lost" breweries mentioned only in periodicals). While focusing exclusively on beer, it would be interesting to read this along with Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. As I was reading, I had the opportunity to sample some Hamm's beer at a local St. Paul bar, and know I'm craving some Grain Belt Nordeast in addition of any number of our more unique local libations! In fact, some of the newest Minnesota beers were birthed in my own apartment...
After successfully making some cider and a variety of homebrewed sodas (as well as getting started on some mead and wine) from Emma Christensen’s first book, Better Beer Brewing, this one was a must read. After checking out a variety of homebrewing how-to books, trying to get started on brewing my own beer, I felt that hers was the most user friendly, nicely organized, and comprehensive I looked at, offering instructions for a lot of varieties of beer, including gluten-free types. Whether starting with with simple extract based kits, or going all in with all grain recipes, Christensen shares all of the equipment, ingredients, and background information you will need. Along with plenty of troubleshooting info on how to respond to questions and things going wrong along the brewing process, it really is a great place to start. Christensen focuses on gallon batches, which makes easy to just pick up and start brewing, especially in cramped quarters, but there are also recipes provided for larger batches as well once you get the procedure down.
I tried the recipes for a couple of old fashioned, historic types in the British and Session ale styles, a “braggot,” which is a mead-beer hybrid, and a “gruit,” which is an ancient Scottish style using fresh herbs rather than hops. All in all, for my first attempt, I think the braggot worked out, making an extremely alcoholic heavy beer, while the gruit, sadly, didn’t work out, but as Christiansen points out, you have to start somewhere!