July 13, 2015

Book Review: The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth

I'm always suspicious about books with titles like "The ... Bible" and "The Definitive Guide to..." because they are almost never so expansive or so well researched that it deserves its self-ascribed opinion that it is the final word on the subject. (It's a lot like restaurants that slogan themselves "authentic" or "real" because it's usually not. Those are restaurants I'll drive past every time.) So when I gained access to an advance copy of The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth I was concerned that this book would not only not live up to its own name but would deserve to be buried in the desert with all those old Atari E.T. games nobody ever bought. I'm not sure it's the final word on beer but it's a much better book than what I expected. Overall, it would be a pretty good read for anybody looking at the broad sea of craft beer and trying to figure out where to wade in.

"The Beer Bible" is written by Jeff Alworth who is a beer journalist with articles published in several well known beer mags and also writes Beervana, a blog about beer in the Pacific Northwest. Alworth's experience in beer journalism shines through in the text. It is well organized and easy to read (unlike my own writing). That's helpful when you're strolling through a 600+ page book. It's a thick book but it's truly the length one needs to cover the breadth of of content Alworth committed to discuss. You've undoubtedly seen those craft beer guides that are 150 pages and the explanation for each style is a short paragraph. That won't happen here.

The bulk of "The Beer Bible" is an encyclopedia of beer styles with seventy-five pages at the beginning discussing the history of beer and tasting beer and bookended by another fifty pages of discussion about storing and drinking beer. In a sense it is the inverse of various beer drinking books (like Randy Mosher's recent "Tasting Beer" or "Beer for all Seasons") that focus less on the styles and more upon understanding and drinking beer. "The Beer Bible" is really more like a massive expansion of the BJCP guidelines with some added content about beer history and beer cellaring. So it's a great book to help somebody understand what styles are on draft at their local craft bar but not particularly useful for helping that person learn to experience what they ordered. The tasting section is just a handful of pages. So that's why I think the "bible" term is an overreach. I can't see how a book becomes the definitive beer book without more discussion on experiencing beer. I could fairly describe this beer as "The Beer Encyclopedia" or something similar.

Because the bulk of the book is an exploration of beer styles, it's worth discussing it more specifically. The 464 pages dedicated to beer styles covers all the BJCP styles along with a handful of other styles. Each style is given an explanation, a brief history and some interesting tidbits before tossing out some examples of the style. Alworth does a good job of acknowledging the inaccurate but oft repeated mythologies of porter and IPA but leaves behind a few other mis-characterizations of other styles and brewing regions. France probably gets the worst abuse with its entire brewing industry reduced to biere de garde plus ripping off Belgian wit. As a whole, however, it is a solid exposition of styles and probably the best single source of style discussions I've seen published.

Although I think this book is a good resource for a craft beer amateur, I have a serious problem with it. The whole time I read the book I had a feeling of deja vu like I had read all of this before. I had. "The Beer Bible" lends so heavily from several Brewers Publications books that it reads like a massive edit of several of those books together filtered into the BJCP guidelines. The wheat beer section reads like an abbreviated "Brewing with Wheat". It's not just lazy writing; it's exploitative. Sure, these books are cited in the bibliography but that is no excuse for heavily leaning on these other authors' works in such a blatant manner. (I would not be surprised to see the Brewers Association contact their attorneys over it.) That's what's so damn frustrating about this book. It's an easy read and full of good information so I want to recommend it but on the other hand I hate to recommend that kind of work.


Post a Comment