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Book Learning: Volume 1

Beer knowledge isn’t only acquired on the street – sometimes, it requires some book learning.   With that in mind, we’ve decided to start this feature, in which we sporadically review new releases.  Let us know what you think!

Craft Beer for the Homebrewer: Recipes from America’s Top Brewmasters, by Michael Agnew, with Billy Broas, Denny Conn, Matthew Schaefer, & Jordan Wiklund: Voyageur Press.

Try a few beers from friends and you’ll quickly recognize that there is no one paradigmatic American homebrewer.   No, you’ve got everything from the novice doing mini-batches of all-extract kits to pseudo-pros mashing in a home-milled grain bill for a barrel-aged sour.  The best homebrew books recognize the gradation and choose a specific target audience.  

Craft Beer for the Homebrewer does a great job in that respect, constantly reinforcing its appropriateness for the intermediate brewer.   First and foremost, there’s little in the way of introduction: no dumbed-down overview of brewing, no sweeping narrative of the American craft movement, no big production about ingredients or homebrew shops.  It’s assumed that the reader knows this already.   But it avoids delving too deeply into technical specs, like step mashes, parti-gyle, saccharification rests, etc.  The straightforward recipes are extract with all-grain option, a nice way for readers to revisit a batch once they’ve made the transition.

All of this goes without mentioning the most notable aspect of the book: it’s focused only on clones.  So many homebrewers look to online forums for recipes to recreate their favorite beers.  Here, the authors have gone straight to the breweries themselves for their secrets.   In order to simplify things, the authors then tailored the recipes to a single, standard procedure (steep grains, 60 min boil, etc) with a few exceptions noted prominently.  Perhaps this isn’t the most exact way to brew, but it does make it easier to try multiple recipes, especially for the mid-range brewer.  Besides, the authors explicitly instruct the reader to tweak the recipes to fit specific skills and system.

The recipes themselves feature a wide array of specialty malts and boutique hops, which you’d expect given the breweries’ input.  No approximations or guessing at hop schedules here.  The book covers both big players (Lagunitas, The Bruery, Avery, Allagash) and smaller outfits (looking at you, Stone Cellar Brewpub of Appleton, WI).  In general, the authors avoid the most cloned recipes – ahem, Pliny – but they’re not afraid of popular beers altogether.  Not only will you be able to recreate hits like Avery Maharaja, Rogue Dead Guy, and Troegs Nugget Nectar, but you can try your hand at Dave’s BrewFarm Matacabras, La Cumbre Malpais Stout, and Funkwerks Saison.  

All of this is laid out in a straightforward, easy to navigate format.   Recipes are organized into six sections by style, ranging from three lagers up to eleven “other ales”.  Each beer occupies a spread: beer summary on left (a few of the descriptions could be beefed up) and easy to read recipe on the right.  The brewery profiles occupy spreads following their recipes.  Although some of the information is from websites, the brewery primers give accurate pictures of whose beer you’re brewing.  Unsurprisingly, these profiles are most useful for smaller regional breweries.

Overall, Craft Beer is a handy tool for intermediate brewers to test out a certified clone recipe as well as their chops.

Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland, by Anna Blessing: Midway Books

Anna Blessing’s book is a paean to the upper Midwest’s craft community.  She acknowledges that it can’t hope to be comprehensive  – “In the year I spent working on this book, a new brewery was opening somewhere in the country every day” – but it does give a sense of just how lucky Great Lakers are.  Transplants from the region will no doubt love the book, with its high praise for the beers and brewers back home.  But that alone wouldn’t make this a good book.  The real test is whether it will appeal to readers from other parts of the country. 

From the outset, signs are good.  Blessing arranges the 20 breweries profiled chronologically, which provides some context for the region’s craft movement.  August Schell kicks things off, having been founded in 1860, and Moody Tongue, founded 2013, wraps things up.  In between, you can get a sense of the craft beer timeline, with first-, second-, and third-wave breweries clustered together.

The profiles hit the standard brewery stats – annual output, brewmaster, distribution, etc – but go well beyond to give a pinpoint sense of character.  “Everything about Three Floyds is intense”, she writes. “The idea for 5 Rabbit came from a simple idea: If Latin America is so culturally rich, why were its beers so tasteless and bland?”  She has a knack for distilling the essence of a brewery, a useful skill in a book that spares only 10 to 12 pages per profile, including large format photos.

Speaking of the photos, it’s a credit to this book that the shots are varied enough to maintain interest.  Anyone who’s been on a handful of brewery tours knows that the nuts and bolts of a brewery generally look the same.  But Blessing keeps it fresh by mixing together photos of the owners and brewers in situ, logos and branding, a few fresh pour glamor shots, and a few images of brewery iconography – think Jolly Pumpkin and barrels, Three Floyds and Dark Lord banners, Surly and brewery Todd Haug’s tats.

The final elements of each profile are the sidebars.  The first, Get a Pint, lists a few bars that reliably offer the brewery’s wares.  I love this feature, as it both gives credit to the locals that help peddle the product and clues readers in on where to find the good stuff.  The second, Brewer’s Playlist, is a bit goofy, but a handful of songs can give you a good impression of the folks behind the beer.  There’s a lot of metal, of course, but the deviations are notable: Two Brothers are a bit hippy-ish, while Short’s skews indie.  Not the most critical information, but it’s a whimsical note that ultimately adds to the picture.

Blessing doesn’t shy away from issues, either.  She addresses the craft-vs-crafty debate that arose in recent years when the Brewers Association defined craft in such a way that excluded Schell, among others; Schell’s response is quoted at length.   And she nods to Larry Bell’s reputation for outspokenness in a section called “Being Larry”.  That type of candor is rare in a book designed to extol above all else.

Locally Brewed succeeds in its goal to introduce you to the people behind the beers coming out of the Great Lakes.  It’s a loving portrait, to be sure, and definitely inspires a certain amount of envy from a region that has a much younger craft brewing history.  (Who knows, maybe we should have a book…)  But above all else, it makes you want to seek out these breweries.

Note: Both books were review copies supplied by the publisher.

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