The world of beer, like the parallel worlds of wine and spirits, has become more crowded and interesting in recent years. In 2010, for example, the District of Columbia had three brew pubs, all part of larger chains. Five years later, there are five brew pubs and five breweries, rapidly growing enterprises brimming with entrepreneurial energy. Other large cities in America have found that the rise in good bars and interesting local breweries has been exponential.
Craft brewing has also been entering popular culture. A recent New Yorker cover by Peter de Sève features a grungy server at a hip restaurant offering a 750-milliliter bottle of beer for inspection in the same way that maître d’s have been holding wine for inspection for decades. That cover was the subject of intense debate in the beer world, with people arguing about whether or not beer drinkers had become as snooty as the New Yorker made them out to be.
Well, as the number of breweries and beer bars rises, so, too, does the number of writers trying to explain the increasingly crowded beer landscape. Here, William Bostwick, beer reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, provides an introduction to the beer world of today. You’ll get a good sense of who the leading beer personalities are and a lesser sense of the current debates in the craft brewing industry. But Bostwick’s infatuation with himself turns what could have been an excellent book into an average one.
Although it is billed as “a history of the world,” The Brewer’s Tale is a discussion of seven beer styles, beginning with historical examples and ending with some personal anecdotes. Bostwick is a diligent researcher, and he presents the most familiar stories of beer history. For example, in discussing the history of porter, Bostwick mentions the notorious 1814 accident at London’s Horse Shoe Brewery, where a brewing vessel burst and flooded the streets with hundreds of tons of porter, killing eight women and children who didn’t have time to escape from their basements.
But where Bostwick differs from more diligent beer historians is in his decision to brew a beer for each of the ales he talks about. (He avoids making lagers, which are more complicated to make at home.) If Bostwick were an expert home brewer, like Ray Daniels, Randy Mosher, or Stan Hieronymus, he’d be worth paying attention to; but reading about the author in his kitchen screwing up recipes is about as fascinating as listening to your neighbor complain about why her cakes keep getting burned.
Bostwick wants to offer his personal experiences because he’s in love with the sound of his own voice—like far too many writers today, he thinks he’s more interesting than his subject—and this continuous self-love leads to such digressions as two pages on the wonders of persimmons on sale in San Francisco farmer’s markets.
The deeper problem, however, is that Bostwick is a poor reporter. He traveled a great many miles for this book, visiting much of the United States, England, and even Egypt; but although he met many eminences of the beer world, he gives little sense of what they are like. For example, Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, is so quirky, interesting, and driven that he is the only American craft brewer to be the subject of a New Yorker profile. Bostwick visited Calagione and even traveled with him to Egypt for an episode of Brew Masters, which ran briefly on the Discovery Channel. But Calagione comes across here as colorless and bland. You learn more in The Brewer’s Tale about the flies swarming Calagione’s camera crew than you do about Calagione.
Similarly, Bostwick goes to Boston and interviews Jim Koch, the personable founder of Boston Beer, which sells under the Samuel Adams brand. Koch takes Bostwick to lunch at a nearby Irish bar and regales him with stories of the growth of his brewery, including an infamous failure called WTF that was one of the lowest-rated beers in the history of beer rating. But as presented here, the Koch interview only leads to a single money quote:
Quality isn’t a metaphysical thing—it’s a manufacturing question. Conformance to specifications and intentions. Did you make what you were supposed to make? So yeah, Budweiser is a quality product.