And now for something completely different.
In recent decades, beer has gone through a renaissance with the boom of the craft beer movement. Until recently, most Americans were likely familiar with only a handful of beer styles and beer brands. Today, however, craft beer can be found everywhere and once intimidating styles like the hop-forward India Pale Ale (IPA) are ubiquitous. The beauty of this renaissance is that it has not only produced new, forward-thinking artisan businesses, but has created a renewed interest in the past. Dead and dying styles have been resuscitated and local, old guard breweries have returned to prominence. Craft beer has emerged everywhere. When in the Czech Republic, a guide on a beer tour told me his favorite beer was a not Czech powerhouse like Pilsner Urquell or Budvar, but Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Pale Ale from California. I saw craft stalwarts like Stone Brewing Co. and Firestone-Walker Brewing Co. across the continent. In fact foreign craft breweries have even begun cracking the American markert, like Denmark’s Mikkeller (which has a San Diego taproom) and To Øl, Japan’s Echigo Beer Co., Mexico’s Cervecería de Colima, and Iceland’s Einstök Beer Co.
While the appetite for quality beer has been increasing, I find that not everyone appreciates the history of the beverage. Many IPA fanatics don’t know that the name IPA comes from the central role of hops in preserving beer for the British army stationed in India in the nineteenth century. Likewise, many are unaware that the enormously popular pilsner is named for a region in the present-day Czech Republic, Plzeň, with unique groundwater that enabled the brewing of crystal clear, light beers. Knowing the origins of beer is not a requirement to enjoy it, but I find that the more you know about the history and production of what you are drinking, the better you appreciate it. The story of beer is part of it’s draw for me, and in what I hope is the first of several beer related entries, I thought it would be apt to point you to a place to begin a journey into the history of beer: William Bostwick’s The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer.
Bostwick is a freelance beer writer who has written for a variety of publications including the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Bon Appetit. More importantly Bostwick is the author of a fantastic and beginner-friendly book on home brewing, Beer Craft (2011). Part of why I chose The Brewer’s Tale is because Bostwick does fantastic job writing a book that is appealing to both beer novices and seasoned veterans. The general purpose of Bostwick’s book is to trace the history of beer through the lens of different historical “brewers” like the Babylonian cook, the Gothic shaman, the Belgian monk, the French farmer, and the German immigrant to the United States. Really though, Bostwick’s intention is to illustrate how these influences have manifested themselves in modern craft beer. To accomplish this, each chapter is focused on a single style (or a few related styles) of beer. While discussing the style and the historical period it emerged from, Bostwick also weaves in interviews with American craft brewers from some of the nation’s top operations, like California’s Sierra Nevada, Delaware’s Dogfish Head, Massachusetts’ Boston Beer Co., Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, and London’s Fuller’s Brewery. Each chapter culminates in Bostwick attempting to home brew the style in the chapter, sometimes successfully, other times disastrously.
Without spoiling everything in the book, the basic narrative arch Bostwick establishes is the transition of beer from a beverage of necessity to one of luxury. In Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, beer was used as payment for services and omnipresent in peasant and artisan households. Beer was safer than water and contained nutrition that was critical to these ancient diets. The beverage was so important, deities emerged around it, most famously the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi (now the name of a well-known Oregon brewery). Beer’s popularity waned during the period of Greek and Roman dominance, where it was seen as the drink of barbarians. However, beer’s appeal was always that it is a man-made product. As such, it persisted among the “barbarians,” who in turn passed it down to their Northern and Eastern European ancestors. Whereas wine fermentation happens naturally, beer has to be manufactured by processing and manipulating a variety of ingredients. For those who do not know, all beers contain four key ingredients: water, malted grain, yeast, and hops. Grain will not simply ferment into beer, it needs to be roasted and mixed into hot water, creating a solution called “wort.” Think “beer tea.” The hops, a cone-shaped plant packed with flavorful natural oils are also added and introduce preservative qualities into the beer. From there yeast is introduced which feeds off the sugars released by the grains, creating alcohol and flavor in the process. As Bostwick puts it, wine is a “gift from the gods.” Beer is a “technology.”
Once moving to beer’s re-emergence in Europe, Bostick charts it’s evolution throughout the Middle Ages, Early-Modern Period, and the Industrial Revolution. It is in this final period, where beer moves from a nutrient dense necessity to a luxury good intended to be consumed in beer gardens and bars across the world. Initially, the appeal to beer was not it’s intoxicating potential, but it’s role in providing nutrition and safe hydration. Beers are filled with nutrients and sugars, providing much needed calories to laborers (and beer guts to the well-fed modern consumer). European monk’s brewed beer to help fund their monasteries, but also to help them get through periods of fasting. Until the nineteenth century, most beers were dark and heavy, the exception being those brewed in Bavaria under the the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 which only allowed malt, hops, and water to used to craft beer (yeast was at this point not an understood part of the brewing process). Otto von Bismarck required nationwide adoption of Reinheitsgebot when Germany was unified in 1871, which has been a hallmark of German beer ever since. With industrialization came new technologies that allowed for the creation of lighter beers and modern glassware to showcase these new golden beverages. The rise of the light lager elbowed out other styles, many of which declined significantly or altogether disappeared. In truly American fashion, beer manufacturers attempted to make lighter and lighter beers to meet the wants of a thirsty public. Beer had been extremely popular in the United States and taverns played the same role in Colonial America that the salon played in Revolutionary France. In fact beer consumption was higher in 1790 than it is today, per capita. However, the agricultural landscape of the Americas made brewing clones of British, Belgian, and German beer impossible. Pumpkins, molasses, and corn were often used in brewing. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, these American brews were a thing of the past. Household names like Pabst, Busch, Schlitz, and Hamms emerged and became world famous. However, innovation came with a price. As breweries grew, manufacturers began to take shortcuts with ingredients, adding chemicals and replacing malted barley with less expensive, less flavorful grains like rice. Shipping and cooling advanced, allowing beer to quickly and safely be moved across the world – but it also meant that beer consumption shifted increasingly away from beer gardens, public houses, and bars and into the home, stripping beer of it’s key social function.
Bostwick emphasizes that the most important damage that emerged from the mass industrialization of beer was not quality, but an alienation of the brewer from the brewing process. In fact, in factory settings, there often was no “brewer,” but rather an assembly line and cluster of low-wage workers. The art of beer production lost its artist and it’s quality suffered mightily. Prohibition in 1920 was the ultimate nail in the coffin for American brewers. All but the biggest breweries shuttered their doors. Those that survived were mostly consumed by the biggest brands like Anheuser-Busch and Coors. Home brewing remained illegal and America earned its reputations of mass-produced, inferior quality swill. In fact home brewing remained illegal until 1978 when the ban was finally lifted by Jimmy Carter. It was only then that the first wave of craft breweries emerged in the United States, plunging into uncharted territory. Most did not survive long. Notable exceptions however, were Sierra Nevada Brewing (1978), Anchor Brewing (1979) Boston Beer Company (1984) which held on, eventually prospering. These brewers began to make an incremental dent on the American palate. Today everyone knows Sam Adam Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada’s verdant-clad Pale Ale. I bet you’ve seen Anchor’s Steam Beer too – it’s in nearly every grocery store. These institutions paved the way for major craft beer booms in the 1990s and late 2000s. We are still riding that wave today. The brewers have returned – but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
In the conclusion of The Brewer’s Tale, Bostwick reminds us that just because craft beer is visible in the U.S., that doesn’t translate to market share. Craft beer is still a drop in the bucket in terms of yearly consumption. Only about 5% of beer consumed is made in craft breweries. Bud and Coors still dominate the market. I don’t necessarily see that drastically changing. Craft breweries are all around the country (and the world), but they tend to thrive regionally. California, Oregon, and Washington are brewing hubs, as are northern states in the midwest like Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Chicago area. Other parts of the U.S. are still tough sledding for breweries. I spoke with the owners of a Florida-based brewery on a work trip and the brewer lamented the difficulty in getting locals to pay more for beer and try new styles when “they could just buy a Bud Light.” Ironically, however, this is where I think craft beer has made the biggest impact. Step one is getting people to try new beers and rethink their perception of the beverage. Beer might cut across social classes and cultures, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be bland. It’s taken decades but reliable craft brews from some of the most veteran craft brewers have changed America’s taste buds. In fact, responding to these changes the giants have had to adapt by making faux craft brews like Blue Moon, Shock Top, and Pyramid or even buying successful craft breweries like Chicago’s Goose Island and L.A.’s Golden Road. I would argue that craft consumption also opened the door for storied foreign breweries to increase their presence in the American market. Munich’s breweries and the Trappist ales of Belgium are more akin to American craft beer than they are Budweiser or Coors Light, both in quality and spirit and have begun selling as such. Equally important has been the role craft brewers have had in making beer a social beverage once again. Breweries don’t just brew beer, they are gathering places for people to talk and enjoy one another’s company. They are community hubs and help support local chefs, coffee vendors, artists, and a host of other local craftsmen. Brewers are often accessible and talk shop with customers, I’ve learned a ton from just picking the brains of brewers and brewtenders. Craft breweries are making beer something worth studying once again by dredging up old recipes, creating new ones, and shaping the cultural, social, and socio-economic landscapes around them. Beer has even been at the forefront of recent social movements, San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing Co. has sponsored the “Black is Beautiful” campaign to fight racial injustice, Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing Co. begun the “All Together” campaign to assist in COVID-19 recovery, and Sierra Nevada launched the “Resilience” campaign to help Calfiornia rebuild from forest fires.
If you are interested in beginning a beer journey or if you want to increase your own beer knowledge, I highly recommend The Brewer’s Tale. It’s a light read and written in a simple, engaging way. If you are someone with a more academic edge, you will likely find yourself wanting more. We [scholars] are not Bostwick’s intended audience, something I always have to tell myself when reading books by journalists on pop topics. This said, Bostwick provides a selected list in the back of the book to the more academic and historical texts he used to inform his work, which is very useful. I’ve ordered a few of them and look forward to widening my own understanding of the history of beer making.
When reading The Brewer’s Tale, I highly recommend “drinking along” with the text. You really get a sensation that you are drinking history when being able to taste what the author is describing. Some of the beers Bostwick takes on are not widely available, but most are. Even if the exact beer Bostwick refers to is not available, there are close enough analogues to get the right effect. I will include a list chapter by chapter of my drinking list should you be interested in doing the same!
Name: Stone IPA
Brewery: Stone Brewing/Escondido, CA, USA
Style: IPA – American
Description: Start with a legend. I think the best way to start your beer journey is leading with a craft beer mainstay to see how palates have changed and how we got to what we think of as “modern beer.” Stone is hoppy and aggressive, far removed from most of the other beers on the list. Honestly though, start with your favorite, easily accessible craft brew. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, New Belgium’s Fat Tire, Green Flash’s Soul Style, Oskar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale, or an Allagash White Ale are all great choices.
Chapter 1: The Babylonian
Name: Midas Touch
Brewery: Dogfish Head Craft brewery/Milton, DE, USA
Style: Historical Beer – Other
Description: Part of Dogfish Head’s series of beers created based on ancient historical and archaeological research. This brew is based on material found in a 2700 year-old tomb in Turkey (an alleged to be the tomb of “King Midas”). Sweet, falling somewhere between a beer and wine. If you are unable to find this, I recommend a mead or honey beer. The meads from Moonlight Meadery are widely available, as are Polish honey beers (Perła is the most common).
Chapter 2: The Shaman
Name: Death & Taxes
Brewery: Moonlight Brewing Company/Santa Rosa, CA, USA
Style: Lager – Dark
Description: The only mass available beer from Moonlight Brewing Company which is featured in this chapter. A dark lager, very different from what most think of when they hear “lager.” This was by far the hardest chapter to shop for as highly herbed beers are challenging to find. Alternatives to this might be Uinta’s Baba (Black Lager) or in a pinch a Köstritzer. If you are in Southern California, Mountain Meadow, an herbed beer by Bootlegger’s Brewery in Fullerton is fairly available from their taproom.
Chapter 3: The Monk
Name: Westmalle Trappist Dubbel
Brewery: Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle/Malle, Belgium
Style: Belgian Dubbel
Description: While the Westvleteren VII discussed in the chapter is damn near impossible to get, the Westmalle Dubbel is an excellent substitute that comes from the same region and is the same style. Other abbey ales like Chimay, Delirium Tremens, and Duval are fine substitutes, but a true Trappist beer is the way to go here. This can be found at most BevMo/Total Wine stores.
Name: Ovila Dubbel
Brewery: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co./Chico, CA, USA
Style: Belgian Dubbel
Description: Sierra Nevada’s Dubbel collaborating with the rebuilding Catholic monastery discussed in the chapter. This isn’t incredibly hard to get, but I would call it “uncommon.” You may need to check if it can be ordered for you if not available. If you can’t get this, go for an American craft beer Belgian Dubbel of some kind to taste against Westmalle. For SoCal folks, Mischief from The Bruery is a good choice, but there will be tons at any quality beer shop to choose from. San Marcos’ Lost Abbey has lots of good choices as well.
Chapter 4: The Farmer
Name: Saison Dupont
Brewery: Brasserie Dupont/Tourpes, Belgium
Style: Farmhouse Ale – Saison
Description: In my opinion, the gold standard for saisons. One of my favorite beers. Perhaps not the absolute best in the world, but very good and easy to acquire. If you are looking to try an American iteration, Allagash Brewing’s Saison from Maine is a good store option. SoCal locals should seek out the offerings at The Bruery in Anaheim or Gunwhale Ales in Costa Mesa.
Name: Oude Gueuze Cuvée René
Brewery: Brouwerij Lindemans/Vlezenbeek, Belgium
Style: Lambic – Gueze
Description: Though Brouwerij Lindemans is best known for its fruited lambics, this offering is representative of the style discussed in the chapter. It’s tart, so be ready for that! Probably the most widely available traditional lambic on the market and very good.
Chapter 5: The Industrialist
Name: London Porter
Brewery: Fuller’s Brewery/London, England
Style: Porter – English
Description: An excellent example of a traditional English porter. While the Irish iterations are far more common (Guinness or Murphy’s would be O.K. as replacements), I recommend trying the English version to be in line with the contents of the chapter. Fuller’s other beers are excellent representations of historic English beer as well, I highly recommend their London Pride. Heck, try their ESB (Extra Special Bitter) while you are at it.
Name: India Ale
Brewery: Samuel Smith/Tadcaster, England
Style: IPA – English
Description: This beer is a good representation of an English IPA – milder and less hoppy than its American counterpart. I actually quite enjoy English IPAs, but I’m not a hop chaser like many other craft beer drinkers. Easy to acquire – almost always available in single bottles.
Chapter 6: The Patriot
Name: Winter Ale
Brewery: Alaskan Brewing Company/Juneau, AK
Style: Old Ale
Description: My goal here was to find easily accessible beers that captured the “spirit” of Colonial America’s beers. While some breweries have made recipes from the period, they are tough to get. Alaskan’s Winter Ale is made with spruce tips, a very common seasoning for beer in the colonies and does the job. Plus, it’s more palatable and reasonably common. Ironically, it comes about as far from New England as one can get in the U.S.
Name: Punkin Ale
Brewery: Dogfish Head Craft brewery/Milton, DE, USA
Style: Pumpkin/Yam Beer
Description: Another creation from Dogfish Head’s brewer who loves making historical brews. An odd beer, it won’t taste like anything you have had before and is based on colonial recipes for pumpkin beer. Not pumpkin flavored beer, beer made from pumpkins! Drinking this will reinforce many of Bostwick’s points made in the chapter.
Chapter 7: The Immigrant
Name: Lagerbier Hell
Brewery: Augustiner Bräu-München/Munich, Germany
Style: Lager – Helles
Description: My favorite of the mainstay Munich brewery helles lagers. A bit pricier and harder to find than some of the others, so Hofbräu Helles Lager is a fine stand in, but grab this if you can. An excellent example of what the German immigrants coming to the U.S. would have known. I selected three beers for this section because they are light and worth a side by side!
Name: Pilsner Urquell
Brewery: Plzeňský Prazdroj/Plzeň, Czech Republic
Style: Pilsner – Czech
Description: The world’s first pilsner, still brewed where it was first created in 1842. I have a deep fondness for this beer and went to the brewery during my travels. It’s what I compare all Czech-style pilsners to – grassy hop taste with a clean finish. It’s the beer that created the American pilsner craze. Plus, it’s easy to get!
Name: Pabst Blue Ribbon
Brewery: Pabst Brewing Company/Los Angeles, CA, USA
Style: Lager – American
Description: Yes, I am recommending a Pabst. Not because it is great, but because it is heavily referenced in the chapter and good to use as a tasting comparison to Pilsner Urquell and Augustiner. Initially Pabst was bigger and more dominant than Anheuser-Busch. The first beer to sell 1,000,000 barrels in a year!
Chapter 8: The Advertiser
Name: Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager
Brewery: Boston Beer Company/Boston, MA, USA
Style: Lager – Vienna
Description: One of the original craft beers, Sam Adams represents a move toward brewer-centric advertising and branding. It is part of the focus of this chapter. Though Sam Adams hardly feels like a craft beer today, the mark it has left is important. Honestly, it’s a good beer too. Plus, it’s a Vienna lager, a beer style with a fascinating history that’s traveled and morphed as it’s found new homes in the Americas.
Brewery: Saint Archer Brewing Company/San Diego, CA, USA
Style: Lager – Helles
Description: In good conscience, I cannot recommend Bud Light, Coors Light, or Miller Lite, which are the focal points of this chapter and at the center of Bostwick’s argument about the degeneration of American beer. I drank a Coors Light for this portion and I wanted to die – don’t do that to yourself. However, since this chapter is focused on advertising power, I suggest Saint Archer’s Gold, a low calorie light lager with redeeming qualities, whose success has also hinged on aggressive marketing and appeals to a mass American audience. They’ve partnered with several major American sports and are readily available in supermarkets across the U.S. Though it certainly isn’t a “favorite,” Gold is a great, easy drinking afternoon beer that’s light on calories and I’d actually drink.
Name: Old Rasputin
Brewery: North Coast Brewing Company/Fort Bragg, CA, USA
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Description: For the finale, I would encourage you to try something craft related outside of your normal preferences. I specifically chose Old Rasputin because, in my opinion, it’s a beer that perfectly captures old world history and new world ingenuity. Stouts also don’t tend to be my “go to.” It’s also something most readers could get a hold of – and it’s damn good. If you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting this beer, take this opportunity to do so. If you have, try something new!
One thought on “The Brewer’s Tale”
Thank you, Calen, for sharing your considerable expertise on this topic. Your book review and drinking guide helped us travel through time and space in a moment when we really need inspiration and imagination. They have provided me with a useful method for systematically engaging the complex and varied universe of this most essential beverage. I’ll be referencing this every time I drink a beer!