April 16, 2015

Review of American Sour Beers

I've been sitting on this book for about a year and for one reason or another it has taken this long to pour through the book. That has nothing to do with the quality of the book or my interest in the subject matter, I just had a lot going on and my usual reading activity (cardio days at the gym) didn't happen as often as it should have last year. I am pretty sure everybody who wanted to read this book has read it and formed their own conclusions so maybe this review isn't of much value. Nevertheless, it's getting written and you're either reading it or not.

American Sour Beers by Michal Tonsmeire is a moderately lengthy tome on the brewing of sour beers with a focus on techniques implemented by American craft brewers and American homebrewers. The source material for the book is a collection of material ranging from Tonsmeire's personal communications with brewers to material pilfered from brewing podcasts, books, magazines and websites. Although a significant amount of the content will not be new to anybody who has spent a decent amount of time taking in Tonsmeire's blog and other sour brewing resources, it is conveniently collected in a single place and interwoven with content gleamed from his contacts at breweries in his clear and easily digested writing style. There is a lot to like about the book. There are a few things I did not care for that are most likely the result of the editorial stylings of the Brewer's Publications than Tonsmeire's authorship.

American Sour Beers is a process-driven manual for sour brewing with the bulk of the content dedicated to understanding various processes used by commercial brewers and homebrewers. The book contains plenty of introductory material about sour styles and souring critters but the focus is upon each step of the process from wort production to fermentation to aging and into blending and packaging. The best material in the book is the lengthy section on commercial souring techniques. It highlights many of the predictable players in commercial sours in America but clearly explains the process in a way that makes many of them adaptable to homebrewers (or other commercial brewers). Many American sour brewers adopt heavily from European influences but many identified in the book have designed processes and beers that drift heavily from their origins and have uniquely American identities. It would be easy to look at the multitude of techniques presented and develop a unique combination that could be a house process for any brewery or homebrewer. I feel confident that any homebrewer with a small amount of experience could follow a number of processes presented and produce a nice sour beer.

There are some issues with the book that I feel derive directly from editorial style on the part of the Brewer's Publications. BP likes to produce books that range from the inexperienced homebrewer to the moderately experienced commercial brewer. That is a huge chasm to fill in a single book and the effort of trying to cover material from the very basic to the relatively advanced means breadth wins mightily over depth. Scientific discussion is eschewed for more digestible content which sometimes feels like opinion over objective discussion. BP also likes to cover a broad range of content to fit as much of the BJCP approved style guidelines into the book.

You can see these issues all over American Sour Beers. A considerable amount of space is wasted drawing out introductory material and discussing styles already well-covered in Wild Brews and Brewing with Wheat that could be reduced with generous referrals back to those two books (and encourage their sales) as a healthy portion of that content is cited from those two books. Even if the recipes section there are recipes lifted directly out of Wild Brews.There is rarely deep discussion of any particular subject or process beyond the commercial brewing process and discussion on a scientific or advanced level occurs in few places.

Some sections that desperately need more content, like blending, gets the short shrift to include a misplaced section on 100% brett beers (a new style for the 2014 BJCP guidelines) that show little to no sourness or funk. Pages are wasted learning how to drink beer out of a glass that could have been better spent on some of the other topics. Honestly I could have overlooked much of the usual BP breadth-over-depth style if more time had been allocated to blending. Blending, a huge topic for sour brewing with very little material in print or online, gets just eleven pages. I don't know how the editorial decision was made there.

Overall it is a well written book and a good resource for any sour brewer. I wish it had been better focused with less duplicate content from other BP books but that is what should be expected from BP books and should not reflect too heavily on Tonsmeire. He has done the best job of any of the BP authors to try to write a detailed book around Brewing Publications' terrible editorial vision for their books. This book will undoubtedly take the place of Wild Brews as the go-to manual for sour brewing and Tonsmeire is the right guy to have written this book. If you haven't read this book and brewing sour beer is in your current or future homebrewing then you are doing yourself a disservice not picking up this book.


1 comment:

  1. I agree. Wild brews is still my go-to for reference. ASB reads like a literature review of breweries across the country with small amounts of science intertwined. Would like to have seen more of the latter.

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