Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A Book At Beertime: 'Brewed Awakening'

Do you really want to know what craft beer is all about?

At a time when the British Beer Blogosphere is engaged in sporadic but intense efforts to decode that seemingly innocuous description, here's a new book that promises to take us 'Behind The Beers And Brewers Leading The World's Craft Brewing Revolution'. Being it's an American book, and seeing how we seem to have imported the term from there, along with some of their fine beer, perhaps the key lies within.

Brewed Awakening is written by Joshua Bernstein, a resident of Brooklyn, NY. This, his first book, is The Ultimate Beer Geek's Journal. Bernstein eschews a chronological narrative in favour of a non-linear exploration of themes and trends around craft beer and brewing in the US today, gathering perspective and insight from the stories of brewers, bar owners and other industry figures representing every facet of the current US brewing scene. What you get is a series of fascinating conversations about beer and brewing which don't draw any conclusions. After all, the story of American Craft Beer is still being written. I could see some of these conversations being carried on elsewhere, over a pint or online.

If you aren't acquainted with the US scene, don't worry. Familiar names and themes pop up all over the book. Commentator Lew Bryson takes up the cudgels on behalf of session-strength beers, our own Englishman In New York Alex Hall educates and opines on cask ale, Ron Pattinson considers revival of styles, even Hardknott Dave gets a name-check, as Brewers' Union Local 180 owner Ted Sobel relates his first experience of David's “warm, flavourful bitters” during a trip to the UK. (Tee hee). Russian River's Vinnie Cilurzo discusses sour beers, Mitch Steele from Stone relates his first experience of Black IPA in the section on hops.

Bernstein covers developments such as concepts of terroir and perceived snobbery in producing 'Estate' beers; the development of organic and gluten-free beer; the nanobrewing phenomenon; the limited-release hoo-hah thing (he's a fan, I still think it's bad for beer)... The breadth of the subject matter is as vast as the country itself, but you never feel overwhelmed. It's an easy story to engage with. Some of it is creepy, though. Remember this? Bernstein knows who made that film, and speaks to him and other fans of beer ageing, and includes information on building your own beer mausoleum. Everybody has a stash, I expect (including me) but this seems a new form of 'extreme'. “Dr.” Bill Sysak from Stone is pictured looking as if he's washing down a liver with fava beans. Throughout the book, Bernstein's themes and trends are illustrated with suggestions of beer to try from across the US and, sometimes, elsewhere.

The cover blurb claims for an international outlook are a little spurious. Of course, you could argue that most of the beer and brewers leading this revolution are in the US, so for international perspective Bernstein appears to have identified brewers outside the US who export to there, and who display a clear American influence in their beers and ethos. Luke Nicholas of Epic in New Zealand, Kjetil Jikiun of Nøgne Ø (pictured in the back room at Mug's Ale House in Brooklyn, I think), gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bergsø, Mexico's Cucapa and the Dieu Du Ciel team in Montreal all get profiled, while batting for Beautiful British Brewing we get, once again, Brewdog.

Typically, the reader learns “most British breweries make boring, thoughtless, insipid and lacklustre beer blablabla raising the bar of beer produced in the UK yadda yadda drinkers not accept what multinationals or lazy brewers term beer gabble gabble zzzzz”. I know Brewdog have an American business to grow, but do they have to do down every other UK brewer in the process? It's more than boring now, it's just bollocks. Still, mustn't get sidetracked...

The book has some memorable soundbites from various interviewees and the author. Here are a few of my favourites...

In America, you still sell beer through T&A” Mike Cadoux, Peak Organic Brewing (on the challenges facing brewers of organic beer)

Craft beer enhances our time together; session beer extends it. Who doesn't want to extend the good times?” Chris Lohring, Notch Brewing (on session-strength beer)

For many serious beer quaffers, can is a four-letter word.” the author (on canning beer)

We're willing to take a knock on the pretentious scale so we can get people to start thinking about beer as an agricultural product again.” Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co (on the idea of terroir in beer and criticism of SN's 'Estate' beers)

Cask's most tireless cheerleader...” the author (describing Alex Hall)

They ask, 'Do you have this? Do you have that?' They just run down a list of what we make. They seem to know nothing about beer. They just want to buy it, so they can sell it on eBay and make $150.” Ben Weiss, The Bruery (on filthy traders and hoarders)

So, a journey in the company of a Beer Geek. I'm never sure if I'm a geek or not. Maybe that's another heated debate to be had. It does seem to me that the Beer Geek vibrates at a different frequency to me, but maybe I'm just a little out of tune right now. Perhaps this book is the start of a trend in beer writing. Maybe we'll see more geeks decoding their changing beer culture. Consider how much the UK scene is changing. Who writes that book*?

Brewed Awakening is a handy size with a nice embossed front cover and a dust jacket that folds out to reveal a beer map on the flip side. The layout, designed to resemble a diary with faux inserts, pics and doodles, is easy to navigate.

Finally, and gratifyingly perhaps, a definition of craft appears to be as elusive in the US as it is here. So the quest must goes on. But in the meantime, if you're interested in the US beer scene, this is well worth picking up. And I'd love to see a similar tome updating today's UK scene. Dredgie? You there?

*Not Roger Protz

'Brewed Awakening: Behind The Beers And Brewers Leading The World's Craft Beer Revolution'

By Joshua M Bernstein

Published by Sterling Epicure

ISBN 9781402778643, RRP £16.99

Available from Amazon.co.uk

(thanks to The GMC Group for the review copy)


EyeChartBrew said...

I've always embraced the "beergeek" nomenclature.

15 years ago, I was driving hours and hours out of my way to try a new or different brewpub, with the very realistic notion in my mind that it could close at a moments notice. It'd be a shame -- nay, tragedy! -- if the beergeeks like myself didn't sample their wares, buy their swag, and hopefully keep them in business. Civic duty, and all that.

10 years ago, I was one of those that was running around town grabbing up each of the limited release beers. "Two bottle limit!? Ha, I'll show you! I know all of the stores selling Stone Vertical Epic and Double Bastard, so I scoff at your bottle limits keeping me from hording the good stuff! Ha ha!"

5 years ago, in the heat of my BeerAdvocate days, I was carrying random nice beers in my carry-on bag, and passing them to other BAs in my travels. Spreading the good vibes "Johnny Appleseed"-style, "advocating craft beer", and generally wallowing in the beergeek community that was most assuredly coming into its own.

3 years ago, after having been tossed off BA.com, and getting some distance from the beergeek community, some of the idiocies within the scene became apparent. Was I that just as rabid, running around the country, hording and trading and generally acting like a twat after his first roll in the hay? I like to think, "No, I was never as bad as the 'kids' these days", but I'm not so sure. After all, all I need to do is turn around, look in the book shelf, and pull out my old beer-stained beer ticker book, with some notes, but mostly just numeric 0-100 scores. Tick tick tick.

Nowadays? Have I truly grown up (and/or grown out) of the beergeek community? Or has the community taken such a dogleg left turn from what I enjoy -- shooting the sh*t with mates, good beer, great laughs, trying new beer, but not scoffing at old stand-bys, etc -- so much so that the scene itself has left me behind?

Probably both, I'd wager.

Nice book review, Simon. But while I suspect that it would have resonated with "the ECB of 5-10 years ago" (see above), I'm not so sure now that I would feel as much kinship with the scene(s) described. I could be wrong.


Sid Boggle said...

Cheers Todd. I made an effort to stop my descent into Pokemon geekism in 2006 when I realised I was sucking friends in the US into tracking down beers for me. I've sort of got myself viewing the Beer Geek as knowledgeable plus enthusiastic, whereas I'm a bit more cynical generally these days.

That idea of the dogleg carries some weight, I think.

Cooking Lager said...

Do you really want to know what craft beer is all about?


Sid Boggle said...

Thanks for stopping by Cookie...

Bailey said...

Not heard about this book. Sounds like an interesting perspective, if nothing else, although I suspect reading about British beer as a sort of peculiar sideshow would irritate me.

I'm sure a definitive overview/live history of the 'craft beer revolution' must be in the pipeline on someone's Macbook.

Sid Boggle said...

British Beer isn't relegated to sideshow as such. It's an American beer writer taking a snapshot of their scene. Foreign beers per se, by and large don't figure in that. I could have got upset over the shorthand of 'English milds and bitters' if it weren't for the fact that most Americans don't have any idea about the state of the beer scene here (most of our 'craft' beer doesn't leave the UK) and Brewdog are intent of re-writing our recent beer history so they're some sort of Beer Messiah. Most Americans seem more fascinated by our pubs than our beer.

I feel I'll be picking some bones out of it for ideas.