Category: Writing and Wonder


Great Beer Guide

Michael Jackson: Great Beer Guide (Dorling Kindersley: ISBN 0-7513-0813-7)

So, I had probably best get this out of the way first. This is an old book in beer years. About fifteen years old. Since Michael Jackson has passed away it is also fairly unlikely to get a revised edition – to say the least. So we are talking about a book before the big boom in craft beer in UK, Italy, New Zealand and more in recent years. For a beer ticker bucket list book that is a bit of a kick. Roughly a quarter of the beers recommended no longer exist, along with a good chunk of breweries.

So why am I writing about it?

Because this was my first beer book, and still one of the few “Beer Bucket List” books that I have time for. Why? Well let’s take a look.

First up is actually just the physical properties of the book. A lot of beer ticker books, especially the ones with a large number of recommendations, are utter beasts of books. Heavy, hard to flick through, hard to take anywhere. This is a bare five and a half by six and a half inches, though for that it is nearly two inches deep. The smaller size means I can quickly sling it in a bag if I am off beer hunting. Seriously, why are so few beer ticker books designed to be carried when out hunting beers? It is like they design them against being used for their one purpose!

It’s alphabetic, and easy to flick through to find what you are looking for. A lot of books these days organise by beer style, and I can see why, but when out on the hunt alphabetic is much easier to use. Especially with the vagaries of beer styles that can come up these days.

Second is range. Despite the time it was made, it still manages to cover a wide range of countries and style. Germany, UK, Belgium, and USA dominate, but there are early signs of the Italian and NZ scene, and a whole wealth of other countries dipped into. The beers similarly have huge chunks from traditional and new (as they were then) up and comers, Oddities of gose, pine cones beer, tea lambics, French Biere De Garde, Sam Adams super strong bock beers, USA recreations of Adamsbier and British Honey Ales are shown alongside Hefeweizens, British Bitters, Imperial Stouts, Trappist Quadrupels and uber hopped IPAs.

For someone like me, who was just coming into the beer world, this was like a hand grenade. The size of the range (500 beers) was such that I could not remember all of them when wandering, but the mix of images picked and the short description matching meant that quite often I would see a beer and, a short flick later, confirm it was in the book. So many books these days seem to miss off photos for a lot of their beers, so as to fit more beers in, and that just means I am less likely to recognise them, so it just makes for wasted entries and words.

Here, the images are done of both bottle and beer in a glass, helping give an idea of what to look for in a shop, and give a simple visual impression of the beer itself. I still don’t get why so many books get this wrong, this is basic stuff. An image of the beer itself can get across a lot about the beer which no amount of words can capture. The colour, cloudiness, the size and nature of the head, all captured in one photo.

Even better, the book has a guide at the back of useful addresses and websites for organisations, retailers and festivals. Ways to get your hands on the beers listed in the pages before. Again, this book is about drinking good beer, and it does all it can to make that easy. This section covers a quite impressive range of countries, and though out of date now, was of great use in my early days. Similarly the beer description gives not just country, but region where appropriate, making it easier to plan a beer hunt when on holiday, and it also gives an ideal serving temperature for when you find it, as well as the more expected beer style and abv.

Beyond all that however is just the joy of beer – each description is short, to the point and packed with flavour details, and little bits of trivia about the beers and their brewery. It manages to pack in as much to make you interested as many book’s far longer writings. Everything is punchy and each word used to good effect. When you have so many beers listed, such concise way with words is a brilliant way of making more stick in your memory.

So that is why, of all the beer ticker books, despite its age, I keep coming back to this one. Why I am eternally happy to find one of the ones I have yet to find, marking it off on the pages in ink. Because it shares a love of beer, and it knows how to make it easy to use it to find the said beer and enjoy that beer, a fact so many books overlook, becoming instead just heavy pulp to prop up your coffee table.

Beer Ticking

Now, these days I cannot in good heart recommend this book to newcomers. So many beers don’t exist any more. So many have changed, bought up by big brewery chains and the recipes changed to meet market forces, or more optimistically, so many good new beers and breweries have been birthed since it’s writing.

It is however a book that, if you are going to add to the over saturated glut of beer ticker books on the market, you should look at this first and learn .

Beer Hunter Whisky Chaser

Beer Hunter, Whisky Chaser (Classic Expressions: ISBN 978-1-906000-04-2)

“Before British beer can be enjoyed, experience is required, but the same could be said for sex. In both cases, mistakes are invariably made, but the triumphs make the disasters worthwhile”

Michael Jackson, being quoted by Gavin D. Smith at the start of the thirteenth chapter of this book. A quote that says a lot about beer, people, this book in particular, and Michael Jackson in specific. Also a quote which I was fairly sure would make you lot read on, which is also why I picked it.

I’ve put off reviewing this book for a while, not because of its dedications to the late great Yorkshireman Michael Jackson, though he is greatly missed for his knowledge and writings. No, I took a long time to review this as it is the book that has, for a long time, resulted in me writing less articles than I previously intended. Obviously, a book about one of the great beer and whisky writers was not intended to deter someone from writing about the self same items. So why did it?

Because this book is a selection of articles from some of the greats in the business, and covers so many areas I love – the cultural and food influences of beer, the memories and tales, and they do it far better than I had imagined. So to prevent myself from inadvertently plagiarising I have delayed those articles until I feel I have something new to offer. So, as you can imagine, I am impressed with the writing in this book.

We have the memories and tales of Michael Jackson, a small part of a book that otherwise sets itself the task of looking forwards rather than backwards, with only the introduction and the entry of Carolyn Smagalski concentrating on his life. These moments are short but poignant, setting the scene for the rest of the articles.

My most beloved of the articles can be summed up thematically as to do with the items outside of beer that influence beer, be it Stephen Beaumont’s article which digs into the time and place for different beers, questioning with it the idea of an objective experience of beer outside of that context. The simple test performed of drinking a hoppy ale at different times of the day to show how it differs is a great example of this article’s explorations. From the other side Ian Buxton dissects some of the traditional imagery called to in the Whisky world, and of the rallying call of authenticity, in a way that reminds me of a similar critique of music and authenticity in the pages of Warren Ellis’ Doctor Sleepless. Finally Lucy Saunder’s article on food and beer mixes well painted visions of the quirks of beer cooking past and its place in present time – using these images to educate, amuse, providing plentiful evidence to lead up to the concluding quote from Randy Mosher

“How is it that wine, the beverage that claims primacy at the table, can completely write off soup and salad courses, spicy cuisine and most vegetables, is weak-kneed in the presence of cheese, and can only feebly whisper ‘port’ when the subject of chocolate comes up”

The next set of articles in my mind are those of the tales and histories, life stories that bring the personal to the abstract. From the thematically twinned tales of entrance to the journalism scene tales from John Hansell and F Paul Pacult which reveal some of the fire and passion in the lives behind their words, to the two odd outliers of Dave Broom and Hans Offringa. Dave Broom’s tale is , while only tangentially about the drinking of whisky, a wonderful insight into the oft overlooked area of packing and shipping whisky and the slice of life within it. Even today the tales explains a lot, predominantly the amount of broken bottles found in delivered packages. Hans Offringa on the other hand delivers a wonderful history of a very special cask of whisky, and bringing a feel of mythology into the simple consumption of a dram.

Finally are, to my mind, the weakest articles, not for their content, which are as high quality as any, but because they seem to lack some of the speak of the personal that the others envelop. Julie Johnston, Conrad Seidl, Gavin D Smith and Charles MacLean bring the history of American Beer, German Beer, British Beer and Malt Whisky respectively to life. Of them the two the most familiar, that of British Beer and Malt Whisky, seemed the least of interest to me, most likely due to their familiarity already. The dive into the past of German beer, and hints to the small upsurgence in variety however grabs the attention with promise of little known beers to be found with but a trip, and a journey away from the tourist route, and is the stand out amongst this section. Also within this we have Roger Protz on lagering, another fine article that only suffers for a professional clarity that results in the lack of the immense humane warmness that fills most of the rest of the book, but that is no insult to its quality or accuracy.

So, you may have noticed I have done little critiquing comparatively here. Well, it is because it is hard to, this is a book by some of the best writers in the business, bringing their knowledge, memories, and love to the fore and these elements shine through. I cannot think of a better honour to Michael Jackson’s memory and it is a testament to his influence that this has come to be made with such a feeling of energy and intimacy.

A fine tome, ignore those “X beers to try before you die” and get your hands on this instead, it is infinitely more rewarding for any of us who enjoy to imbibe.

Search Perfect Dram

Iain Banks: Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram (Arrow Books: ISBN: 978-0-09-949027-5)

“Maybe I’m just getting older. Before too long I’ll be one of those wee old guys who wears a bunnet in the car…while looking out for a lay-by with a view of the water so we can get out the camping-chairs and me and the missus can have a nice cup of tea. Goodness knows there are zillions of worse fates, but the prospect still fills me with mild horror”

A quote from the middle of the book, and at that point I had to put the book down for a while, because Iain Banks never got a chance to reach that feared state.

Let me get this out of the way now. This is not going to be, in any way, an unbiased review. Iain Banks is one of my favourite authors, and wrote my favourite series of sci- fi books, the amazingly optimistic and yet so vividly full of human emotion “ Culture” novels. He also passed away earlier this year from cancer. This article is more a testimony to his life than a proper review, though I will give it my best shot.

So, why did it take so long to put this review up? Well one, I had to read the book. Two, before reading this book I had to read Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. Consider Phlebas as it is the first Culture novel and Look To Windward as it is my favourite for the note perfect emotional ending. Though is does need Consider Phelbas to be read first to get the most from it.

So those were my first dedications to Ian Banks, and now I return to the book at hand, and a book closely linked to the interests of this site. Searching for the perfect dram.

However this book is not just about whisky, in fact by page count I think you would find it hard to say it is even mostly about whisky, though whisky is the line running through it holding it all together.

It is more a tale of Scotland, of the places, the people, the Great Wee Roads (GWRs) that Iain Banks enthuses over, the history and of course the whisky. It is written with such friendly prose that you find yourself dragged along with it though, even on topics that would not normally catch your interest. I, for example, have no interest in cars, but even I could enjoy the loving descriptions of the vehicles and the roads that Banks took them down in his travels.

It is that which separates it from most whisky books. Most books are written full of technical knowledge and details of the craft, but with a workmanlike prose. Iain Banks shows his background in fiction writing and manages to infuse every description with life that makes the landscapes and history pop out in front of you, filling the people with life and character. It conveys more in a few words than most books do with a range of glossy photos and praise – somehow the inherent majesty of the landscapes come through crystal clear in the carefully paced prose.

Woven throughout the book are the expected details of any whisky book, the tasting descriptions, the how to of making the spirit, the different expressions, the guide to tasting, guide to pronunciation (which by itself makes the book worth carrying around). These all layered against the increasingly over the top exhorting against the ban of photos within distilleries that occurs throughout the book and other such humanising quirks. All of these details are written in a friendly conversational manner that are easy to read and slip past your eyes without you even realising you are learning as well as enjoying. You find the technical details mixed with tales of just how Bruichladdich ended up with the unlikely setup of Broadband access over on Islay, or an impassioned diatribe against people who rhyme Islay with outlay.

What made this makes such a good book to look at to remember Iain Banks is that it is a book where he shares his views, events of his life and his friends, and more than anywhere else I’ve seen you get a feel for the Iain Banks behind the books. You get his tale of a doorstopping by the Daily Mail after declaring “Drugs, Just say yes”, his views on the then just starting Iraq War (the second) , or his joys in drunken urban climbing , he doesn’t censor himself for fear of putting off a reader that disagrees with him. Even in cases where I do disagree (I for example find Michael Moore annoyingly manipulative in the way he works, even on topics I agree with him, while Iain Banks seems to be a fan) I find his writing enthralling. There is a lovely self effacing nature to his writing which allows tales such as one about the enjoyment of a very unusual Forty Year Old Laphroaig whisky to sit comfortably, as if tales told to friends around a bottle of good single malt.

Due to the mix of elements nearly everyone will find a chapter, at least, where the focus is not on their preferred element. There may not be enough talk of the whisky, or more personal life than you would prefer, or on cars, or whatever. If I had to criticise it, it would be that the search for the perfect dram can seem almost an afterthought at times, and without that linking theme the narrative may seem to wander. However then, and especially now in retrospect, I find it hard to hold these wandering moments of day to day life insight against the book.

So, no I have not done a very critical review today I am afraid, but that was not the point, the point, in Mr Bank’s words, is that

“It’s not just about whisky, because drinking whisky is never about just drinking whisky; we’re social creatures and we tend to drink in a social context, with family, friends or just accomplices. Even if we resort to drinking alone, we drink with memories and ghosts”

And so at a Whisky show shortly after Mr Banks death we raised a toast to his memory with his beloved spirit. Goodbye Mr Banks. You are missed.

100 Belgium Beers

100 Belgian Beers To Try Before You Die: Tim Webb & Joris Pattyn (CAMRA Books: ISBN: 978-1-85249-248-9)

Another beer ticker book, a list of one hundred (or actually just over, but we will get to that later) beers to try. This one I actually have more time for than most. In part because of its focus. Belgium is bloody tiny, and despite the impressive brewery to landmass ratio it makes for a more manageable book than most. At a hundred beers selected you have a good chance of one of the beers tickling your memory if you encounter it on the move, and the thin size and light weight of the book means you can easily slip it in a satchel for double checking on the move. Perfect for when holidaying around Belgium. Similarly the Belgium focus gets around my issue with 300 beers to try before you die, that being that it focuses too heavily on one region for what was meant to be a world covering book.

The book also takes full advantage of this limited focus to give a map detailing the various breweries locations, brewery tour details, US and UK import details, and in the case of tap only beers, indications of where you may be able to find them. It goes out of its way to not only tell you what you should drink, but also the oft forgotten step of telling you how you can drink them as well.

The beers themselves are listed in a one per page style, with some atmospheric photo shots splitting up the pages. There is a lot of white space and images to make it easy on the eye. Despite the smaller size they are still keeping to the easy to read look rather than the stripped down pocket carry look.

However I am dancing around the core issue of any book like this. The beers themselves. The range listed is varied, both geographically and in style with a mix of the well known (Trappist beers, Cantillon) and the less (Walrave). Similarly the old and the new mix with De Struise and beers brewed under contract at De Proef. Now some of you will be thinking, rightly, that those are not that new. However the book, like any book, runs into issue with time since publication (in this case 2008 for my version). A lot of the most recent breweries and beers in Belgium are therefore not covered, but despite that it does cover a good amount of ground.

The inclusion of two writers seems a well chosen number. Their comments on each others picks reveals their preferences and disagreements allowing for more insight into the beer, the biases, and also allows for a wider range of selected beer without compromising the benefit of being able to recognise a reviewer’s style and compare it to your own. There are preferences revealed, towards the more dry and challenging of beers, and away from the more commercial style. A heavy favour for slight sourness and a dislike for excessive spices. Again due to the inclusion of two reviewers we get that benefit without the excessive bias of selection a single reviewer book can get.

It succeeds for me in beer selection in that many beers caught my interest and made me wish to try them for the enjoyment rather than to just tick boxes. From pale ale and lambic mixed beers, beers with figs in the mash, highly hopped Belgium ales, or highly praised abbey ales to compare with the trappists. With the mix of selection and description they made them seem like a joy to collect rather than a chore. A few, tap only beers, promise to be the subject of a hunt if I am ever in the area. The descriptions in the tasting notes benefit from a glossary of terms at the start which allows them to use precise wording without leaving the more casual reader confused. Also they show good balance between reputation, respect and honesty. For example they heap praise on Westvleteren beers, while noting that, in their opinion, they do not rate as greatest in style unlike their high reputation. A good balance without elevating or denigrating unnecessarily, though the Westvleteren example does give a gentle ribbing at the resulting rush for beers from the monastery.

Finally the book benefits from a final section, and a few extra beers listed over the 100 Belgium beers, in a look at Belgium inspired beers from the USA and Italy. A nice note that acknowledges the influence Belgium beers have had around the world and the quality beers that have sprung up from it.

Usually I am not a huge fan of “Beer Ticker” books , but I have ended up with many as gifts and I would consider this one of the better of the style. It is not perfect. I personally would have preferred some of the white space to either be used expanding the notes, or removed and the book shrunk further to allow for even easier carry. However as I hope I have explained above, it does the job that a beer hunting book should do admirably. Provides a list that excites attention, is easy to keep in mind during beer hunting, and has its views and biases accountable and with counterpoint where appropriate.

I would be happy if more X beers to try books followed its example.

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Whisky: Aeneas MacDonald (Canongate Books: ISBN 1 84195 857 3)

There are many books on Whisky out there, from photo filled doorsteps to pocket bibles of hundreds to thousands of whisky tastings.

Yet of them all, this little tome from 1930 is the one that I keep close to my heart.  Its tasting notes are non existent. No photos.  The data is most definitely not up to date.  Yet it, more likely than any other, is to be the one to be slipped into a travel bag for any whisky trip.

Why?

There are many reasons, but the most important is enthusiasm.  The writer shows a poetic love of the dram and its uses, from advice on tasting, searching for quality blends and malts, to use in food.  In all cases he never couches his love or distaste with half felt words.    This is seen from the opening where upon discussing those who drink wine to be fashionable he says

“In finding those qualities of bouquet and body which their textbooks bid them to seek, they are infallible, providing the bottle has been correctly labelled. They will, indeed, discover them before they have tasted the wine”

There is more to this book that such witty barbs, but I will admit they are a good part of the fun.  There is more though, especially in the case of the timing of the writing of the book.  Over 80 years old now the book is still, if only just, within living memory of our culture and is a ground level insight into the changes in the whisky scene over even such a small time.

The list of distilleries within is heartbreaking to a whisky fan in that it talks of many now long silent distillery, often with just the barest mention to hint at what we have lost.  While the talk of now fallen Islay distilleries tug my heart strings, it is the reference to Campbeltown that we see the great fall, with the already dwindling at the time list of distilleries still far above what we have now.  It was this book’s description of Campbeltowns as the “Double basses of the whisky orchestra” that first led me to the region.  Here the book does show one of its flaws, as the distillery list is light on detail to allow covering of all the distilleries and I often wished it had taken more time to explain more about them, if only for posterity.

The book is filled with little comments, that would have been innocuous at the time, but now allow insight into another age of whisky. For even that alone the book is worth it. Some of the advice seems wonderful, but of uncertain use in present day. For example the advice to buy a small cask to fill with whisky and age, topping up and effectively vatting with new whisky as need be is one I would love to try, but I am unsure of sourcing such a thing these days.

The book has a rough history of Whisky, though far from the historians approach, but allows for a scattershot of tales and often wild extrapolations on the potential causes of events.   It should not be treated as an academic document, but still includes many of my favourite tales including the oft repeated one of the gift of two pistols from the laird Abolour to the Glenlivet’s owner due to threats on his life for making his distillery one of the early ones to be legally registered.

Outside of the main text itself the book opens with an investigation into the true identity of the author behind the alias that is as interesting as the main writing itself.  In contrast to the main text it is well sourced and referenced and gives an insight into the reasons and character of the writer which adds greatly to the enjoyment of the text.

As a reference text the book can seem weak, the tales give no hint to their source most of the time, the viewpoints of obvious bias, and oft full of supposition. To view the book on those values is I feel however to miss the point and the joy of the book.

This book is a polemic as much as anything else, a railing against the sullying of whisky with soda, against reducing it to the meagre use as an intoxicant and most importantly a call for whisky drinkers to experiment and educate themselves through experience rather than the words of another. As of such I highly approve.

If, by speaking so highly of it, I have caused a few fans of the fine spirit of Whisky to check this book out I will have considered my time as a blogger well spent. Even aged as it is it still stands as a manifesto to the enjoyment of whisky and should be held high.

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Roger Protz: 300 Beers To Try Before You Die! (CAMRA Books: ISBN: 978-1-85249-273-1)

Ah, the ever cheery do “X” before you die or be eternally a loser books. In this case 300 beers, which I must admit is a much more manageable goal than most of these books set.  In this case the beers are picked by a single author – Roger Protz – who is a highly esteemed beer writer here in the UK.  Size wise it is about right. Too many beer books these days are going to silly numbers and it gets to the point where you would drink beers from the book without even being aware of it. With 300 to pick from you have a good chance that if you see the beer while out and about it may prickle your memory. With having a single person pick the three hundred you get a sense of character as well that is lost in the collaboration written books. You get a feel for the writers likes an dislikes and that helps guide your interpretation of the beer reviews they write to help you guess if you will like them as well.

Looking through this book you can see an, interesting, bias showing through. Of the three hundred beers over a hundred are in England alone.  When you include the rest of Britain it comes in just shy of half. By comparison all of Germany’s, Belgium’s and USA’s combined only just beat out England alone and are less than the Britain total.  As a fan of British beer I will happily say we are good, but we aren’t that good! It is like the British version of Rate Beer (A good site for reference but its rating system leads to bias towards areas of larger user populations which tends to mean USA beers end up ruling the roost in ratings).  The rest of the world gets a pretty short stick of it as well. New Zealand got not a single beer I could see, and Japan’s growing beer scene got Asahi and Yebisu – hardly their best beers.  Part of this can be explained by Protz statement that he tended to pick beers that were able to be imported, as he didn’t want people to have to travel the world to find the beers.  Here the UK bias shows again.  Many of the beers are cask only UK beers, some times available in only a few or in one case, a single, pub in the UK. So when he says imported, I belive he means imported into the UK. There is therefore a wide variety of beers from the UK shown, but when you go outside that they become for the most part quite predictable in their choices.  Beer styles are dominated by their “Home team” with Weisse beers dominated by German beers, Abbey Ales dominated by Belgium, Bitters/Best Bitters and ESB utterly dominated by the UK. Obviously the creators of a style will have a good presence but I would have liked more variety to accept that there are growing beer scenes around the world doing their own takes on the styles.

Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the book, while revised in 2010, was first written back in 2005. A lot of the book seems rooted back there and doesn’t take into account the massive jumps in several countries beer scenes recently.

For all the criticism I am giving this I will say that I was happy to see that, despite being a CAMRA book and thus promoters of predominantly the real ale styles, also showed support for beers such as Meantime who, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t real ale brewers, and also a good range of the  lager styles.  Against his reputation Protz seems perfectly happy to praise beers that do not follow the CAMRA guidelines where they deserve it and that is very much to the books benefit.

Where this book is strong is the writers knowledge of beer history. Looking backwards into the history of beer he shows deft knowledge of the growth and evolution of beer styles, the tales of Brewers lives and and their family pedigree, and the descriptions off the historical breweries architecture.  All this adds a bit of character to what could be quite a dry text.  Also the description of what goes into a beer is often very detailed with information on hops, malts and brewing processes.  Great information for helping people work out what they like, why, and how to look for it in future beers. I have often called for more information like this to be available to drinkers and this book does that very well.   There is information on the colour of the beer in brewers measurements, but at no point does he put a guide to compare it to, meaning that unless you already know the scale you have to work it out by comparing photos, which kind of defeats the point. Similarly he lists IBUs occasionally but often without much context. Unless you are already familiar with the scales they aren’t much help.

Unsurprisingly where the guide really shines is in the Real Ales, especially the Bitters, Best Bitters, Milds, Etc. I will admit my own bias here, in that while I enjoy most beer styles (as regular readers of the blog will know) I do find that the Bitters and Milds are least likely to inspire excitement in me, however I have found many good beers in the style over the years and in the current exploding interest in IPAs, Sours, and Imperial Stouts they are often overlooked. However the book does provide a good look at the range available to these more traditional styles. In fact it is very interesting, In the Bitters and Mild section he shows many beers and breweries I had not heard of or tried.  For most of the others, IPA , Belgium Ales and the like I found little to surprise me, but in the bitters Protz revealed many more obscure beers which may help bring back an interest to the style.

This is the beers strength and weakness. I do get the feeling that by personal preference or publishers intent, Protz would have been more at ease doing a 200 British Beers book, and it is in that and the real ale arena that he reveals the most surprises.  His knowledge is not lacking in other beers, but the list seem much more towards the expected.

So a book with a distinct slant, and with great knowledge of the history and brewing process.  From the beers I have tried on the list I find a mix of beers I love (Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby and Gouden Carolus Classic) and ones I find dull examples of the style (Marstons Old Empire is not a favoured IPA of mine, nor Worthington’s White Shield) however with the benefit of a single writer it allowed me to work out what he liked or didn’t like in particular beers so could get a feel for if I would like the others. The book also tends away from the odd and irregular of the beer world, which I will again admit is the area of the beer world I have quite a bias for.

So overall, as a general book on world beer I find it lacking, however I think as a guide book for someone coming to the UK who wanted a guide to where to find many traditional beers it could be very useful. So a useful and well informed guide, but one that follows a different path to the one I enjoy.   Hopefully from this review I have given you enough information to decide if that holds for you or not.

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Book Review: Beer Nation: The Art and Heart Of Kiwi Beer (Michael Donaldson: Penguin: ISBN: 978-0-143-56800-1)

While I normally stick to reviewing the beer and whisky themselves I recently was given this book over Christmas by my sister and thought it may be a good idea to expand my range and try some book reviews.

This book covers the history of New Zealand beer and does so with quite impressive range, covering everything from macro to nano breweries. It covers the varied characters that make up the brewing team, the legislation, culture, advertising, beer styles, home brewing and more. As a one stop overview of NZ beer it is comprehensive.

The writing style is very informal, with the emphasis being often on interviews and opinions. Generally tales of a brewery are told in relation to the tales of the owners or the brewers which give a very chatty and easy to read style, which is emphasised with a large amount of photographs over the pages. Also I noticed amongst the actual hard numbers one distinct oddity. Under a heading “A Rough Guide To Market Share” with a breakdown of each groups market share we see a source listed as “Author’s guess”. While I appreciate the honesty it does make me wonder for any numbers given where the source is not listed.

This emphasis on the personalities does sometimes lead to the peoples opinions coming through unchallenged. Notably in the chapters on the larger companies you see tales of the owners taking action for increased profit which are opposed by the workforce and the viewpoint given is that of the owner without a counterpoint. This does seem however to be self aware. In once chapter amongst a description of Myers’ varied business dealing you have a quote on his opinion of the working class as “losers” which does more to bring the rest of his quotes into perspective than a whole page of counterpoints could.

So I would not recommend treating this as a textbook style for reference but on the beer itself the knowledge seems spot on. There is breakdown’s of malt and NZ hop styles, yeast characteristics and discussions of the beers themselves which all seem to match what I would expect.

Where this book shines though is its treatment of beer in relation to the surrounding NZ culture. The most fascinating part of the book for me what a discussion of what was called “The Six O Clock Swill”, back when bars could stay open only an hour after the end of the working day. Combined with various pro temperance groups’ lobbying this had a tremendous effect on the beer and the environment of the beer culture of the time which is described in intricate detail.

As someone who keeps an eye on alcohol legislation this section and later ones on current NZ pricing and legislation wars was fascinating and showed the potential unexpected ramifications that should be of interest to anyone in the beer scene today. One stand out moment was a discussion of Speights – a beer I know only by its poor reputation today. The book shows how in early days the brewery’s beers were very different and experimented in a way comparable to the craft scene of today, and shows how many factors over the years led to the far worse beer we have now. One example, the limit of max abv, and the effects it had give more reason why I oppose any legislation that seeks to affect the brewers and make them more likely to brew within a set abv range.

On the craft scene there are several chapters on the smaller brewers from Epic to Yeastie Boys with a lovingly detailed history of each groups start up, struggles and successes. If nothing else this book will give an idea of many more breweries you wish to sample to see if the beers are even half as characterful as their brewers.

There is a chapter on Women in beer,which I applaud, but half way through the chapter it turned to beer and food. Glancing back I realised that this already small chapter was shared between the two subjects which did seem to undercut its attempts slightly. It does however have the important quote “Breweries don’t want to advertise to women…because they don’t want men to think they’re drinking a girls beer”. A problem that reaches far past NZ, or in fact beer.

Overall a fascinating read which I applaud for it’s emphasis on the culture and personalities of the beer world from advertising to the reputations and influence of beer regions. Its writing style is laid back and very easy on the eye. While it does have the issue slant and statistic issues mentioned before it shows a varied and deep range of knowledge as long as you are willing to keep a critical eye. I would whole heartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the NZ beer scene.

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