Book review: The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth slips down a treat
Alworth's doorstopper tome offers something for every beer drinker, from newbie to experienced toper, and will deepen their knowledge and enhance their pleasure
It is thought that beer was created when an early human left a damp bowl of grains forgotten in a corner. The grains fermented and mingled with naturally available yeast, a drinkable beverage was produced, and it beat the heck out of chewing on damp bark after a hard day of foraging. It was called gruel-beer, and it was considered pretty good - for the time, which was around 10,000BC.
The Sumerians and Egyptians took things from there, as did Celtic inhabitants of Scotland, people living on the banks of China’s Yellow River, and so on. Essentially, wherever there were abundant grains, there were people; and once people found they could make beer as well as bread from those grains, they were off to the races, civilisation-wise. Beer was easy to make and it made hard work a little easier. Once brewers came to harness the power of the simple recipe of malted grain, water and yeast, and the ways to keep it stable so they could share it beyond the humble home brewery, humanity was awash with choices.
For some, it might be too much choice. The labels, the types and the flavours can be inscrutable; you wonder if it’s appropriate to talk about a wort in public. You don’t want to have to join an Illuminati-like society to understand good beer. You’ll stick to the same thing you’ve been drinking since 1992, thank you, although you have no idea if there are any other brews you might like, let alone explain why you drink it.
Portlander Jeff Alworth is preaching a gospel you can embrace. The Beer Bible, his lively new book, is patterned after Karen MacNeil’s wildly successful The Wine Bible, and is an accessible, if doorstop-sized, history of and theory behind the beers we imbibe today. Like the good textbook you kept long after college, The Beer Bible is divided into easy-to-digest sections, and each chapter is loaded with graphs, charts and little asides that are the mental equivalent of a snack. (Examples: “Hildegard of Bingen, Hop Mama” and “The Science of Foam”.) It’s made to be sipped in small servings, rather than guzzled.
Alworth spent two years travelling and tasting, at more than 50 breweries, to produce The Beer Bible. It’s more than history and chemistry. It’s a comprehensive trip through the intertwined history and culture of beer and humans. Each has influenced the other. Along with the necessary basics regarding how the major kinds of beers are made and why, Alworth shows readers how to decipher a beer label, taste beer like an expert, pair beer with food and serve it in the right glassware. The chapters on the types of beer - ales, wheat beers, lagers and tart/wild ales - unravel the mysteries behind pub menus, so a reader can order with confidence among the lagers, cask ales and India pale ales. Alworth also introduces readers to prominent breweries of each type of beer, and provides “the beers to know” of each.
“Though there’s a huge amount you can learn about beer, the principal experience should be pleasure,” Alworth writes, and his readers will raise a glass to that.
The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth (Workman)
Tribune News Service