In “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s book of advice for writers, she warns against sitting down with the idea of tackling a vast and overwhelming subject such as “a play about the immigrant experience or a history of — oh, say — women.”
The same advice could be given to anyone contemplating a history of — oh, say — beer. It’s a sprawling and potentially overwhelming topic that reaches back in time to the Neanderthals and circles the globe. The only solution is to do what Wall Street Journal beer critic William Bostwick has done, which is to tell his personal world history of beer. He follows his interests, his palate and his own culture (he has much to say about European and American beers, and very little on those from Asia or Africa), but that approach works in his favor. If you’ve ever gone on a pub crawl and wished you had your geekiest, most hops-and-barley-obsessed friend along to choose your beers and explain what makes them worth trying, you’ll love this book, because Bostwick is that guy. His friends even make a few appearances in the narrative, rolling their eyes at his lengthy digressions and wearily — and warily — sipping his latest experimental home brews.
In keeping with the maker culture we live in today, Bostwick wisely structures “The Brewer’s Tale” around the makers, starting with the Babylonians, then moving on to shamans, monks, farmers, patriots, industrialists and so on. In every chapter he describes the ancient methods once used to brew beer and the reasons behind them — the beer-spoiling length of a voyage to India, say, or an effort to ward off the plague — and then he attempts a modern re-creation of an old recipe. Bostwick admits to being a careless home brewer, keeping no records and throwing in handfuls of strange but historically accurate ingredients. The results aren’t always wonderful — his Thanksgiving guests took a polite sip of his pumpkin beer and opened a bottle of wine — but his adventurous spirit is what makes him such a good guide.
He takes us on a spin through Egyptian drinking history, introducing us to a 5,000-year-old recipe for sorghum and grape beer flavored with herbs, and a thick and soupy beer that would have had to be filtered with a straw. After that come hallucinogenic brews made with such ingredients as henbane, nightshade and magic mushrooms, and then it’s on to Trappist ales. Those 15th-century monastic brewers created a style of beer that is still sought after today, and, in fact, the same holds true for every major beer-making tradition he describes. What this means is that, with a little effort, you can go to a liquor store and track down an appropriate beer to sip with every chapter, imbibing history along with a clear-eyed explanation as to what, specifically, makes each one so distinctively pleasing.
In his chapter on monks, Bostwick recommends Sierra Nevada’s Ovila series, although the most dedicated Trappist ale drinkers make the trek to Belgium for an allotment of Westvleteren XII, which is widely considered the world’s best beer. As you sip, you’ll get a lively description of the wonders of Belgian yeast and the unexpected banana and clove flavors exuded under just the right conditions.
Pick up a Logsdon saison-style brew from Oregon, and you’ll taste a casual, seasonal style of pre-industrial farmhouse beer made from grain scraps left over after the harvest. Open a good English porter and travel with Bostwick back to the old days when chickens roosted in the brewhouse and “dung when it comes drops right in the ale.” (Don’t put your glass down yet. Porters represented a shift away from barnyard brewing and ushered in a new age of better, safer beer.) And pull an IPA out of the fridge for the chapter on the challenges of transporting beer from England to India and the bright, bitter ale that was invented as a result. Believe it or not, Bostwick might even forgive you for cracking open a Budweiser while he tours a modern industrial brewery. He reports that more than a few respected brewmasters have conceded that “Bud ain’t all bad.”
There are no perfect beers (except, perhaps, Westvleteren XII) and no perfect books, including this one. Publishers like to advertise nonfiction “histories of everything” as being potent brews of history, science, religion, lore and so on, and as a result authors are compelled to throw in a little of each to satisfy a publicist’s checklist. Early passages on Greek, Roman and European history are dry and obligatory, but you are not obliged to read them. And descriptions of brewery tours are as pedestrian as the tours themselves must have been: Bostwick summarizes Yelp reviews, describes parking lots and otherwise shares more press-junket tedium than any storyteller should.
But he’s an amiable writer and the very best sort of literary drinking buddy. Bostwick will explain why you like Cascade hops (it’s the “spritzy grapefruit blossom nose”) and why you should never pass up an opportunity to sample a beer made with Maris Otter barley. We can’t all go drinking with the beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, but reading “The Brewer’s Tale” is the next best thing.
THE BREWER’S TALE
A History of the World
According to Beer
By William Bostwick
Norton. 283 pp. $26.95