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Monday, May 16, 2011

Good Reads: "Craft Beers of the Pac NW" and "Beer Craft, Six Packs from Scratch"

Until about two or three years ago, beer books were pretty hit and miss. Then something happened, and now they're mostly hit. What that something was I can't say, but I'm glad it came to pass. Today I have a couple of real winners that get my highest endorsement. One's a guide book, one's a combo intro-to-beer/homebrewing book. Both are long overdue. We go with the home town gal first.

Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest
Lisa Morrison
Timber Press, 208 pages, $18.95

Of the many behaviors of 21st-century humanity, one of the most recent and characteristic is this: they travel for fun. Wherever they go, they go looking for local culture. Baguette, art, and wine in Paris; pyramids, hookahs, and noseless statues in Egypt. So it follows that lots of people visit the Pacific Northwest. They come for a variety of reasons, but many know about beer and some--a now-old poll suggests 7%--come exclusively for the beer. Which guide do they consult to give them the lowdown on which breweries, pubs, and restaurants to visit for the signature beverage of Greater Beervana (which for the purposes of Lisa's book we're extending, EU like, all the way to British Columbia)? Until a month ago, none. A travesty. As someone who regularly fields questions from visitors who want the inside dope, I can attest to the need.

Into the breach comes Lisa Morrison with Craft Beer of the Pacific Northwest. Region guides are strangely quite rare, and because the geographical center of American publishing is 3,000 miles away, the more general beer books tend to give short shrift to the Northwest. Lisa Morrison has been writing about the beer of the region for a decade or more, and she literally knows everyone there is to know. Her book is a selective guide, region by region, of the best breweries and pubs, with little call-outs for local figures or interesting places. Lisa's been judicious about her selections, but I had fun looking at the word count she gave each brewery for clues as to her secret faves. Example: Double Mountain gets two paragraphs, Full Sail one; Upright two, BridgePort one.

I pretty much have only one criticism: why is there no app?? This is a shocking omission; even as the book is being released, it's falling out of date. No problem; that's how it is with guide books. But in the age of digitization, apps are a wonderful fix. Not only would this information be enormously useful as you're tromping around a town--with links to Google maps, the book would become a beer GPS--but it would never go out of date. It's not too late for Timber to make an app--so consider this a very strong appeal to do so.

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Beer Craft: Six Packs from Scratch
William Bostwick and Jessi Rymill
Rodale, 175 pages, $17.99



When a future beer lover discovers beer, she goes through four stages in relatively quick succession: (1) Whoa--I had no idea beer could taste like this. Interesting. (2) Damn, this stuff is pretty good. Tell me again, what's making it taste like lemons? (3) Okay, last week I was really geeking out on that "amber" stuff, but ever since I found [pick one: IPAs, stouts, sours], I have been in heaven. (4) I love beer! How do you homebrew?

Having arrived at stage four, many people launch a precipitous assault on homebrewing, with mixed results. The thing is, it's possible to reach stage four novicehood without knowing very much at all about beer. I've encountered many people in this stage, and I've always been reluctant to inflict a homebrewing book on them--homebrewing guides are at once too technical and too narrow to really edify the stage-four novice. William Bostwick and Jessi Rymill have written a book that is an absolutely perfect solution.

It's ostensibly a homebrewing book, but in the few minutes it takes you to thumb through the first pages, you pick up an enormous amount about beer. You're drawn in by the brightly-colored pages and graphics--which, as both a beer writer and former researcher, I admire for their clarity. Good info, great graphs (Edward Tufte would give them a big thumbs up). Once you do get to the brewing section, the education continues. There are concise, clear, and accurate sections on hops, malt, water, and yeast, brief treatments of several major styles and how to brew them, then more information about things like barrel-aging, sour beers, fruit beers, and so on. Another nice section describes tasting elements of beer, and it concludes with a slightly random but cool piece on branding and beer label design. Even if a person never brewed the beer, this short book--readable in an hour and a handy reference guide--would take them from novice to semi-pro in short order. It's easily the best presentation of basic information I've even seen.

Of course, there is a section about homebrewing, and this too is the best I've ever seen. A while back, it occurred to me that no one should ever brew with extracts. Ever. It further occurred to me that test batches need not be five gallons--one or two would be fine. I was so delighted to see that Bostwick and Rymill had come to the same conclusion. They walk you through a one-gallon, all-grain batch you can brew in your kitchen--no exotic equipment required. The process they describe is actual brewing, not a dumbed-down system that delivers beer but conceals ingredients and processes.


Not everyone is going to bake their own bread, but everyone should have baked a loaf. That's true of beer, too, and this book makes it possible. If people take to it and want to step up to larger batches, they can go buy books by Palmer or Daniels and invest in the equipment they'll need. If people decide it's a little too involved, they'll walk away understanding beer far more deeply and be better tasters and appreciators.

It's a great book, and I'd buy it for anyone who was new to beer and jazzed about it--whether they planned to brew or not.

__________________
Note: I have known and been a fan of Lisa Morrison's for years. Timber Press and Rodale Books sent me review copies of these titles.

2 comments:

Bill Night said...

The thing I loved most about Lisa's book were the simple pub-crawl maps. In this day of information overload, it was nice to see sensible itineraries distilled into something you can take in with a glance.

Now, as for "everyone should have baked a loaf of bread": I am an unrepentant non-homebrewer. Ya don't expect whisky lovers to distill their own; home winemaking, cheesemaking, and coffee roasting are laudable but fairly rare pursuits; I can't think of anyone who makes their own chocolate or cigars. But I like this idea of a 1-gallon, no-special-equipment kitchen brew. That could tip the scale for me.

Jeff Alworth said...

Bill, I admire a person who takes a counter-cultural stand, and framed that way, perhaps you should carry on. Still, you'd probably think it was a cool book--and just in case, you'd have it handy.

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