Because the craft beer industry is growing so rapidly – up and down California, across the nation and, especially, here in the Sacramento area – the information that comes at us can seem daunting.
Keeping track of all the new breweries and brew pubs is one thing. But there’s so much about beer to understand and appreciate. There are new styles, old styles, lost styles, resurrected styles, maybe even a few misguided styles. There are all kinds of hops and yeasts to figure out and enjoy.
Whether you’re a bona fide beer geek, are studying to be a cicerone or simply want to know why your coolest friends always seem to be heading to a brewery taproom with their kids and dogs in tow, there’s a big new book that will enlighten and entertain you for 600-plus pages.
There are plenty of good beer books out there, but none is as thorough, wide-reaching and accessible as “The Beer Bible” by Jeff Alworth (Workman, $19.95, 644 pages). Its publication is a big deal because, it turns out, the more you know about beer, brewing and the history, geography and culture of beer, the more likely you are to become a devoted beer lover. It’s a simple formula: More knowledgeable consumers will buy more good beer.
You can read this new tome cover to cover, browse any chapter in no particular order or open it up from time to time as a reference. If the bible concept sounds familiar, it’s because the publisher is also behind “The Wine Bible” by Karen MacNeil, considered essential reading since its publication 15 years ago.
So impressed was I by Alworth’s ability to research, organize, synthesize and explain the vast topic of beer that I was eager to speak with him about the project, four years in the making. We spoke Monday by phone for close to an hour.
We talked about beer vacations (if he could recommend just three cities to visit, go to Brussels, Munich and Prague), bad beer history (that story you heard about IPAs first becoming popular in India: wrong) and how it’s perfectly OK to not be wowed by every beer style going (those great Euro beer cultures unashamedly limit their beer preferences).
Among my favorite parts of the book was the section about how “weird” Germany’s brewing history is (including oddball ingredients such as laurel and ivy, along with chimney soot and something called henbane, which apparently “could lead to insanity.”)
There are also helpful sections on food/beer pairings and, as we touched on last week with Pangaea’s Rob Archie, Alworth deals with the variety of glassware and the basics of pouring beer (“every style looks good with at least a skiff of foam and a finger or two is a good mark to shoot for”).
But because the book is so extensive, I opted to zero in on one topic for our interview: American beer. And more specifically, what that means, how it evolved and what the future holds.
When I asked Alworth what he thinks will succeed India pale ales, by far the most popular category in U.S. craft beer, he pretty much put the kibosh on my question. Only beer insiders ask that kind of thing, he replied. Fair enough.
He wasn’t scolding me. The affable Alworth went on to make an important point: There doesn’t have to be a next trend. We’ve hit on something pretty amazing in hoppy beers, including many pale ales and even some lagers. They can be balanced and refined or big, bold and over-the-top bitter.
I did not realize that many other countries, including those steeped in centuries of beer history, are clamoring for American IPAs.
“It’s easily the most important development since pilsners, and the United States is leading the way in this renaissance. It’s a trend that will continue,” said Alworth.
“One of the difficulties is that IPAs are also among the most perishable. The thing we love about hoppy American ales – that vivid, fresh hop thing – that stuff doesn’t last. Those are volatile oils and they’re super perishable.”
While many of us are trying new things and exploring sours, barrel-aged creations and experimental styles, it’s OK to settle in on a favorite – an American palate, if you will.
“This style of brewing is the classical American style. What happens, as a beer culture becomes more mature and sophisticated, is they develop a flavor profile that is unique to that country,” Alworth told me.
Which leads us to the topic of next week’s Beer Run: If American IPAs are coveted overseas and those vibrant hop characteristics tend to fade quickly, why aren’t American craft breweries opening operations in Europe? They are.