Normally I would wait until year-end to write a post about the best books I read in a given calendar year. But having finished reading my third book about beer this year, it seemed appropriate to combine just these three into a separate post.
Yes that is correct, I have read three separate books about beer this year. And beyond just the interest in a subject that I enjoy to partake in, they resurrected a personal interest as well. And it is these three books I would highly recommend to anyone who loves beer and has tasted and appreciates the difference between mass produced “big beer” and craft beer.
To start off, I am not ashamed to say that I have been a lifelong—at least since legal drinking age—beer drinker. And the first book I read this year was about the rise and fall of the King of Beers in the US—Anheuser-Busch—the beer I mostly drank in those early years.
Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder, is a book I first learned about from listening to an NPR book podcast. It tells the story of the humble beginnings of Anheuser-Busch (A-B) and traces the story through the bloodline of six Busch generations and how they transformed the company into the world’s largest brewer. Having been one of the few breweries to survive the 13 years of Prohibition, it interweaves the family brewery story with the famous Clydesdale horses and A-B’s ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and tells how each of the Busch heirs played a part in the success or failure of the company. As the title indicates, the story concludes with the downfall of the empire and the sale of this iconic American brand to a Belgium beer consortium.
While the A-B story focused on the rise and fall of the more than century-old largest brewer by sales volume, the second book I read about beer, Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. by Ken Grossman told a completely different but also entertaining story, one at the forefront of the craft beer trend. This book chronicles the start up of Sierra Nevada in 1980 by co-founder Ken Grossman literally from scratch cobbling together old used equipment and fabricating whatever else he needed. While A-B’s focus was on beer volume, Sierra Nevada’s focus was on brewing a consistent, flavorful beer that because of its popularity, just happened to become a national brand and one of the largest of its kind. This book caught my eye first because Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, their flagship beer, is one of my favorite beers and one of the first craft beers I tried. Having savored the book, I immediately went to their website to make plans to take their Chico, CA brewery tour the next time I was in San Francisco or to visit their second brewery opening in 2014 just south of Asheville, NC.
But after finishing this second beer book, my thirst was not satiated—pun intended—and I wanted to learn more about the craft beer industry in general. The third book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli, is a book that I learned about in reading Grossman’s book. This book told the entire story of the craft beer industry, from the very beginnings of its revolutionary trend in the late 1970’s.
It well chronicled the complete history (with almost 40 pages of annotated citations) from just a few craft microbreweries to what we know as the industry today, weaving the tale through the eyes and stories of the major characters that deserve the credit for what the industry is today. Of particular interest was how their growth occurred and “Big Beer’s” reaction to their growth. Having read the story of big beer through A-B, I felt I was seeing the story from the other side, the little guys, the “David” having to fight for his very existence against the “Goliath” mass-produced beer industry. As I read their progress through the years in different parts of our country, I began to recall my own discovery of craft beer in the 1980’s.
As I read each story, I enjoyed recognizing the beginnings of each microbrew that I have grown to love, Lagunitas, Avery, Brooklyn, Boston Beer, and Anchor. As I was reading about these revolutionary entrepreneurs having their own “epiphany” after tasting craft beer that led them to found their own brewery, I recalled my own epiphany, a memory stored far back in the recesses of my mind.
I can vividly picture it in my mind now. I was sitting with my wife at an outdoor restaurant table in early October on South Street in Philadelphia. I had just taken my first sip of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and my taste buds couldn’t believe their delight in savoring every drop. It was like no beer I had ever tasted before (small wonder it is today the largest US legacy crafty beer). This first taste would prompt me to have many more and on a subsequent visit to Philadelphia, seek out their brewpub location.
In fact, I am most thankful for the concomitant rise of brewpubs because they have become my absolute favorite restaurant to seek out. What better establishment to dine in than one that served their own beer, brewed on site, beer which could not be consumed anywhere else in the world and pair that with the foods I love, burgers, fresh fish, salads, and grilled steaks. I can’t even begin to number how many brewpubs I have been to not just in the US but when I have traveled abroad as well. On a recent trip to Seattle, thanks to my daughter’s help I dined in a microbrewery or brewpub everyday while there (some days twice in one day).
While Sam Adams introduced me to this unique American grown beer, it was Sierra Nevada that became my favorite go to craft beer (and thus my interest in reading Grossman’s book). While I can easily recall my first Sam Adams, I actually have no recollection of my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It was at a time when craft beers were becoming more available and I was eagerly trying them all. But it is a taste that has stuck with me from day 1, whenever that was.
And while reading these books, it amazed me that the recipes that would become so loved and so famous often were happened upon through a trial and error approach to blending just the right ingredients and the right brewing process. It is this process, dear to the heart of any research scientist, that through serendipity can lead to such incredible and enduring flavors.
One last beer I must mention, certainly considered the granddaddy of them all (Albion excepted which is no longer brewed), is Anchor Steam. Many credit Fritz Maytag (descendant of Maytag washer fame) with having played a critical factor in the growth of the craft beer industry, to the point of being referred to as the godfather of craft beer. And besides Boston Beer, it is Anchor that many credit with their own “beer epiphany.” I can’t recall my first Anchor beer but it also holds significance for me, as I was able to tour its Petrero Hill brewery with my oldest son, who happened to live within walking distance of the brewery.
And it was the wonderful brewery aroma we smelled from the front porch of his house in San Francisco that led us to take the tour in 2008.
And it was a picture I took inside this brewery, the same scene featured on the front of this third book that convinced me it too was a must read.