Something Brewing

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BOOKS NOVEMBER 9, 2011

Something Brewing

The Oxford Companion to Beer
edited by Garrett Oliver
Oxford University Press, 920 pp., $65

TO DECRY THE decline of America is to know nothing about beer. No nation in its twilight can shine with such Yakima Glory (Victory Brewing Co., Downington, Pa). The doomsayers who say that all empires must fall forget that we are secure in the grip of the Backwoods Bastard (Founders, Grand Rapids, Mich.). You, reader, may find solace in Cato’s lament of Rome’s fall, but I’ll cast my own lot with Pliny the Elder (Russian River Brewing, Calif.).

I am not being glib. Nor am I drunk. But just as the cocktail captured the delusions of the Jazz Age, so does the rise of the microbrew capture this curious moment in American history: in the wake of the financial crisis (so long, four-figure bottles of Cristal) in the aftermath of two towers and two wars (goodbye, cosmopolitan), in the damp penumbra of China’s ascent, what kind of patriot can think of drinking a Bud Light, brewed by the intra-national conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev?

Lazy hyperbolists in the journalistic trade often use “renaissance” to mean “modest renewal in public interest,” but beer really has enjoyed a renaissance, both in the United States and Europe, where even the oenophilic Italians have discovered the pleasures of brewing. Whereas Prohibition left the United States with just a handful of brewers, many of which were swallowed by postwar corporatization, there are now some 1,700 breweries across the land. The small-scale microbrewery is now being supplanted by the nanobrewery, which may well just be a guy in his basement. It is not a renaissance on the order of da Vinci and Erasmus, but it is something.

And now the movement has a book so fine that it isn’t likely to need another for a millennium or so. The Oxford Companion to Beer is, first of all, so handsome as to border on the pornographic—I half expect that, with its sirenic front-cover photograph of a perfectly-poured pint, bookstores will slap the OCB with one of those opaque plastic covers with which they obscure Miss January on the magazine rack (not that I would know).

The Oxford companion to just about anything (literature, wine, the Bible) is going to be authoritative, and so it is with beer. A veritable Manhattan Project of 166 experts was assembled to write the book’s 1,100 entries. The experts range from Charles W. Bamforth, Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences, University of California at Davis (who says college is a waste?) to Roger Potz, author of 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, who is not to be confused with fellow contributor Joris Pattyn, he of 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die. This makes for some hilarious juxtapositions: the sobering entry for butyric acid (“at concentrations above its beer flavor threshold (2 mg/L), it causes cheesy, rancid, baby vomit, or putrid off-flavors”) is next to one explaining the origins of BYOB, “four letters that warm the hearts of beer lovers everywhere.”

The OCB is like a pub with enough taps to satisfy every variety of drinker. Plenty here is for beer nerds—I don’t know what acidulated malt is, and I don’t much care—but far more isn’t, spanning serious history (“Bacchus,” “Free Mash-Tun Act (1880)”), amusing arcana (“beer weeks,” “last orders”) and profiles of brewers past and present: from the global monster “InBev” to San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company, widely credited with starting the American microbrew movement. You may know something about German beer, but did you know about a Malawian sorghum beer known as chibuku shake-shake? Well, thank me when you’re having a cold one in Lilongwe.

Many of the contributors are themselves brewers, and there is a casual levity throughout the tome that is at odds with an Oxfordian sensibility—strange for a book that strives, and by and large succeeds, in being authoritative. A single sentence on the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, for example, contains the following adjectives: quirky, unique, exotic, unusual. That kind of writing might pass in an Amazon review, but has no place here.

Yet this is a small enough quibble. As is the following: the generally uncritical tone that pervades the volume, as if the authors were more intent on making an advertisement for the beer industry than writing with the kind of seriousness that knows to dole out plaudits with restraint. Beer is implicated so often in world history, from the Sumerians to the American Revolution, that I half-expected to find an entry for “Lusitania, Brewing on.”

And having the aforementioned Professor Bamforth, of the Anheuser-Busch chair, and Keith Villa, the “Master Brewer” of MillerCoors, on the tome’s advisory board, all but guaranteed that the big companies that ruined American beer escape unscathed. The entry for August Busch IV, for example, makes no reference to the woman he allegedly killed in a car accident, nor of the one who died in his mansion from a drug overdose. It prefers to mention only his affiliation with the Democratic Party and his involvement with the “Whassup?” and “Budweiser Frogs” commercials. What is the need for so much hagiography? 

Then again, the beauty of an encyclopedia is that it does not demand a front-to-back reading. Garret Oliver, the editor of this book and one of the rare African-American brewmasters in the country, deserves unqualified praise for what is a huge achievement. His goal was to create a one-stop repository for beer knowledge and he has, by and large, succeeded. I am confident that future editions will correct whatever flaws this first edition contains. Oliver is the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, heading a team responsible for creations like Blunderbuss Old Ale and the Brooklyn Pennant Ale ’55, not to mention the signature lager that can now just as easily be had in Minneapolis as in Manhattan.

That wasn’t always a sure proposition. When, in 1996, Brooklyn Brewery actually opened some of its brewery operations in Brooklyn—it had been brewing upstate for eight years—the New York Daily News (for which I work) hailed the return of brewing to a borough that had once been the home of Rheingold and Schlitz. With its half-dozen employees, Brooklyn Brewery was signaling the return of brewing to New York after two sad, dry decades. At the time, Steve Hindy, the founder of the brewery, told the Daily News that “There’s a lot more to beer than bland, fizzy, mass-produced stuff with million-dollar-image campaigns. It’s not just beautiful women playing volleyball. It’s a fascinating beverage. Micro-breweries recaptured that imaginative, more romantic nature of beer.”

Fifteen years later, the release party for the Oxford Companion to Beer was held at his brewery, which had recently expanded to bring more of its brewing back to New York. There were a few older gentlemen in attendance who probably remembered the taste of Brooklyn-brewed Trommer’s. And there were dapper young literati who, if they ever drank “the champagne of beers,” only did so out of perverse irony. Most everyone was happy and intoxicated. There were no volleyball-playing, bikini-clad beauties in sight. Nobody cared.

Alexander Nazaryan is at work on his first novel. He is on the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News.

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