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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

New Book: The Pocket Beer Guide by Beaumont and Webb

The Pocket Beer Guide
Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb
Sterling Epicure, 320 pages

Over the course of nearly two decades, Michael Jackson published a slim volume called, in slightly different wording, The Pocket Guide to Beer.  It was first released in 1982, which marked almost exactly the moment in history when the world's stock of breweries had reached their nadir.  To pad the guide, he dutifully reviewed all beers, from Grain Belt to Rodenbach.  (Henry Weinhard: "a clean, fairly light body.")  As new editions continued to come out--seven in all, by several different publishers--they got progressively more cheery, if harried.  By the time the last edition came out in 2000, poor MJ probably regretted he'd ever started the thing in the first place.

This year, as a stocking stuffer, you may once again select a copy of The Pocket Beer Guide.  Jackson and Running Press are gone and in their stead are Canadian writer Stephen Beaumont and British writer Tim Webb (though Webb's specialty is Belgium).  They are the team who recently brought us the World Atlas of Beer.  While the relationships are not particularly transparent, Webb and Beaumont (from the press release) "have [also] collaborated with top international contributors."  There are thirty in all, including a few familiar names like Evan Rail, Max Bahnson, Lisa Morrison, Stan Hieronymus, Joe Stange, and John Holl.  It seems both a sane and liver-preserving way to attempt to taste enough beers to recommend 3,000 from around the globe.

Except for its shape (this one is wider than Jackson's), the book follows the established format.  Breweries are summed briefly, and a selection of their beers ranked from ★ ("dependable quality but unexciting") to ★★★★ ("one of the world's great beers, a champion"), with the always slightly mystifying ★★ → ★★★ as a safe punt.  They've even adopted Jackson's incredible verbal economy in putting together each entry, condensed for brevity.  Here's a typical entry:
Placentia, California

Brewer Patrick Rue punned on his name to create his brewery's moniker and quickly earned a devoted following for his oft-quirky ales.  Spicy-yeasty and faintly tart Saison Rue ★★☆ and peppery, pearish Mischief ★★☆ headline the core beers; while Autumn Maple ★★★, brewed with yams and complex with sweet maple, spice, and yam flavors, and lightish, quenching dryly tart Saison de Lente highlight the seasonal offerings.  
I was enjoying reading along, particularly through the Belgium section, where (presumably) Webb exercises enormous restraint issuing stars.  Remembering Stan's wonderful post on how few beers Jackson ever rewarded four stars, I nodded as I saw all the beers that got passed over for this rightly-rare laurel.  (Orval, Cantillon, Boon, De Dolle: nope nope nope nope.) There were exactly four to achieve the trick: Rodenbach Vintage, Blaugies Saison de l'Epeautre, Saison Dupont, and Rochefort 10.  You may think this is low--and I do.  In seven editions, only 19 beers got the highest mark in each one, and six were Belgians.  I'd have included Orval and a gueuze (though it would have killed me to have to select one), but hey, I think Webb erred on the right side of exuberance.

If there's a fault in the book, it's the very thing that probably made it possible.  When Jackson was writing the Pocket Guide, it was idiosyncratic in the way humans are and the ratings were always arguable--but at least they were consistent.  You lose that with multiple writers. 

Because I know the American West Coast so well, I glanced through the sections on California (presumably Jay Brooks' bailiwick) and the Pacific Northwest (Lisa Morrison?).  The brewery numbers are similar--32 California breweries were included, along with 33 from the Northwest (which includes Alaska and Hawaii).  But either California is blessed with a lot more good beer, or Jay and Lisa didn't use the same rating criteria.  In California, three-star beers seem to be the norm; sixteen earned three and a half, and four--the same number as Belgium--got a perfect mark.  Three stars were hard to come by in parts north, and across four states not a single beer was good enough to be considered "a champion."  Just seven got three and a half stars. 

This isn't a fatal flaw, though and I have few other complaints.  The book's greatest strength is its breadth, which while not absolutely complete (rustic African and South American breweries are not included, and emerging regions like India and Southeast Asia are largely skipped) does include Lithuanian farmhouse breweries and a nice description of European breweries outside the usual five.  All in all, a great effort. 

Finally, I have to give Webb (again, I'm assuming) a special award for most amusing, astute, and irreverent review of the year.  It goes to show how much information--and personality--you can pack into a hundred words.  Here's his entry on Westvleteren.
A low-production brewery in West Flanders that has been afflicted by adulation, with the scarcity of its beers being mistaken for magnificence.  The only one that uses whole hops is the skillful, light, rustic Blond ★☆ with its intense floral aroma and just enough grain; Extra 8 is a licorice-edged, strong dubbel that improves grudgingly in the cellar; and Abt 12 ★☆ is a dark, intense barley wine that used to grow with keeping but less so now.  Special releases for a supermarket chain and US importer were unlikely to have been brewed here exclusively.
There are similar gems scattered elsewhere.


  1. Thanks for the review, Jeff. To your point about the consistency of ratings, or lack thereof, it's something of which we are well aware and working on better addressing in next year's edition. (Yes, the book will be an annual release.)

    So far as the ★★ → ★★★ goes, we use that a little differently than did Michael, who employed it to denote half star status. If you look at the "How to Use this Book" section, it explains that the arrow denotes variations in the same beer made during different years, So Cantillon does get four stars after all, for their Lou Pepe Kriek, just not consistently with each and every release.

  2. Jeff, for the early editions of Michael's pocket guide, I wouldn't call coverage of regional breweries such as you mentioned padding. In those years, those breweries were still very much part of the scene, so Michael would have felt obliged to include them. He sometimes gave decent scores to beers that would be overlooked (shall we say) today. In part again it is the relativity of it, but also I think he just liked some of these. Maximus Super, say (a malt liquor from Matt's Premium), or Point Special - this from memory.

    That book definitely had a voice. Haven't read the new one as yet but I am sure it is excellent too.


  3. Not Matt's Premium - that was another beer in the range - but Matt's Brewing, I meant, formerly Saranac Brewing and F.X. Matt & Co. Always had a soft spot for them myself, Genesee Brewing in Rochester too. Maybe you had to be there, but their beers did have a local flavor and went well with regional New York State foods, or so it seemed at the time. A schooner of Genny Cream Ale and beef on a weck, not so bad!