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Monday, October 04, 2010

Andy Crouch's "Great American Craft Beer"

Great American Craft Beer:
A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Breweries
Andy Crouch

Running Press, $22.95

Imagine that you have recently discovered good beer. Perhaps you've just had something called a "Wee Heavy" at the local pub and were surprised at how different from your expectations it turned out to be. Problem is, every time you go into a pub now, the array of choices baffles you: there seem to be a lot of good beers out there, but not all craft beer is created equally. And the styles! Who can sort them out? Drifting in a sea of too many beers, you wonder, how can I find the beers I'll like? With any luck, this experience is a common one in America. For those folks, Andy Crouch's newly-released Great American Craft Beer is an excellent resource.

It serves as an introductory summary for the novice--and a comprehensive, well-researched one at that. The bulk of the book is given over to recommended beers--more on that in a moment--but Crouch also gives the reader an overview of the information salient to the pursuit of good beer: history, culture, style discussions, and a long section on "enjoying beer" that contains info on serving temp, glassware, cellaring, beer and cuisine and so on. Beer geeks won't discover much they haven't seen before, but it's all collected together nicely for the newbie.

The beer section is especially strong. It is divided a little strangely into larger, somewhat poetic categories, but within these sections are subsections containing standard styles. It's fairly intuitive: to find porters, you go to "Dark and Roasty"; sour ales are collected in "Funky Flavors." And so on.

One of the great difficulties in assembling a book like this is trying to collect together a group of beers in each style that a drinker might reliably be able to find in their local store. Crouch spent months traveling the country to taste regional stand-outs, so each style contains beers you've likely never heard of; fortunately, almost all styles also have familiar local favorites. Crouch is from New England, and his home region is unsurprisingly over-represented--but not by much. Take, oh, how about Winter Warmers as an example: JR Rockers First Snow (SC), Nimbus Old Monkeyshine (AZ), Geary's Hampshire Special Ale (ME), Anchor Our Special Ale (CA), Avery Old Jubilation (CO), and Deschutes Jubelale (OR).

No writer can take 340 slots--just six to a style--and select beers that will satisfy everyone, but Crouch has done a great job of making sure he includes the biggies. Whenever I see these kinds of books, I immediately do a bit of spot-checking. Is Pliny the Elder in the Double IPA category? Check. Hennepin in the saison? Check. Hair of the Dog and Cascade mentioned somewhere (my obscure-to-East-Coast-writers screen)? Check. Was Blue Moon excluded from the witbier category? Check. Crouch has organized his hoppy American beers oddly, and I don't see Sierra Nevada Pale in the pale category, nor do I see either North Coast's Old Rasputin nor Victory's Storm King in the Imperial Stout category--but again, you have to make allowances for personal tastes.

I do have a couple complaints. The book devotes an entire page to descriptions of just two beers each. That's great, but unfortunately, half the column space is devoted to a picture. That leaves out space for precious info. Beyond a description, what we get is the name of the beer, brewery, city of origin, alcohol content, glassware suggestion, and seasonal availability. Nothing about ingredients, IBUs, size of the brewery, brewer's name, gravity specs, or other beer geek data. This stuff can be summarized briefly, and the lack is a shame. (The photos are actually a slight missed opportunity, too. Breweries submitted them, and so in some cases you get a label scan, in others a bottle shot, and only in some to you actually glimpse the beer.)

Bottom line: any person who follows Crouch's advice will be gaining a firm picture of the range of America's best beers. A reader will be to go style to style, find an example, and decide whether its to her liking, safe in the knowledge that the suggested beer is a credible example.

Full, Government-mandated Disclosure: The publisher, Running Press (Michael Jackson's old imprint) kindly sent me a review copy.

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