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Monday, October 19, 2009

Review - World's Best Beers by Ben McFarland

There's something a little cheeky about writing a world guide to beer. The act suggests hubris: that a person of modest age might really have attained the experience to put himself forth as an expert of the caliber to comment on all the world's beers. That is the purview of another Brit, right? And herein is the second layer of hubris; in the post-Jackson age, who really has the cojones to step in and take his place? Well, apparently Ben McFarland has the cheek, because he's put out a book called World's Best Beers: One Thousand Craft Brews from Cask to Glass.

(I will confess to some pique on the matter of Ben and his beer reviews; this is just his second book, and his first passed uncomfotably close to my turf: Good Beer Guide West Coast USA, which came out all of a year ago.)

Well, never mind the cheek and the pique--how did he do?

Not badly, it turns out. The book will be familiar to those who know Michael Jackson's oeuvre: it has the requisite front matter (intro about ingredients, how to appreciate beer, a description of beer styles) and then a survey of beers from around the world. Although it has the appearance of being comprehensive, he didn't create a beer-opedia. Even with 1000 beers, he's trying to be exclusive.

For example, in the USA section, he breaks the country down into West, Central, and East. In the Western section are just 33 breweries (out of hundreds in California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska). And of these breweries, he only lists the brewery's canonical products. So Deschutes gets Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond, Full Sail gets Amber and Session. Sometimes, if he really admires a brewery, it will get three nods. Hair of the Dog gets Adam, Fred, and Rose. Sometimes a brewery only gets one. Ninkasi gets a mention (impressive!), but only Total Domination is listed. There's no info about a brewery, just the beer.

The descriptions, meanwhile, are less precise and evocative, and rather more punky and forceful. Here's Pliny the Elder:
This is the beer all Double IPAs want to be when they grow up. Intoxicating hop oils on the nose, a cacophony of citrus fruit on the palate and a peppery, tang finish that stays longer than the mother-in-law. A lupulin-lover's delight.
But while I find his descriptions of beer generally unenlightening, his selections are good. Here are the Oregon breweries he chooses (he does not include brewpubs, only bottling-breweries): BridgePort, Deschutes, Full Sail, Hair of the Dog, Ninkasi, Rogue, and Terminal Gravity. While the Widmers have a right to feel slighted, in general, this is a totally solid list. I would be happy if anyone who came to Oregon tried only the beers he suggested: they would walk away with a very good sense of the kind of beer we brew.

Because he did well on the beer I know, it gives me confidence that he did well selecting the beer I don't know. One day I will make it to the Czech Republic. I may take his advice and try U Medvidku, a 13% wood-aged beer, when I get there.

I do have a few quibbles. He calls Cascade hops "high-alpha" and says Willamettes are "new." In the style section, he calls "wood-aged beer" a style (when I would prefer it be thought of as a method). At the back of the book is a longish section on food and beer pairings--adequate, perhaps even enlightening to the person new to the concept, but the section feels a bit facile to me.

In general, though, he seems to get the larger points right. I wouldn't have minded if he'd spent some more time on research before sending it to press--$30 is a lot, and you're investing in a full-color, coffee-table book. I expect future editions or variants of this book to emerge that will be a little tighter. Still, the beer world is impressively mutable, and Jackson's research will become obsolete pretty soon. Inevitably, someone was going to write this book. McFarland did all right.
World's Best Beers: One Thousand Craft Brews from Cask to Glass
Sterling Innovation, New York, 2009
288 pages, $30

[Oh, incidentally, since a federal law may mandate that bloggers advise readers about freebies: this was indeed a review copy shipped from the publisher, Sterling.]


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