You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

I think about beer a lot.  If you visit here with any frequency that will come as little surprise, but I am also somewhat academic in my love of beer.  Years of formal training as a historian have led me to dive into a topic’s historical underpinnings more so than the average bear.

9780156033596When I came across Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer I was excited because here was a historical text dealing exclusively with beer.  Other good books—Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America in particular—deal with the larger issues of alcohol in American history, including beer, but fail to really focus on the golden liquid.

As it is a story about American beer it starts in the nineteenth century as German immigrants came to the U.S. and founded breweries.  The names are familiar right off the bat: Best, Pabst, and Busch.  The story of American beer is really about the titans of the industry for the first one hundred years or so.  These men and the breweries that bore their names were the shepherds of what constituted American beer into the 1970s.

It is amazing how precarious the situation was for many of these brewers as they grew from regional brands into the largest breweries in the world.  That is something to think about for a moment.  American beer before the craft beer renaissance was much maligned by every other beer culture in the world for producing pale swill that barely qualified as beer.  Yet, it was American companies who were pushing the boundaries of technology and technique more than anyone else to expand beer’s reach.  Granted, the pushing of boundaries was all about domination of markets.

Ogle is exhaustive in her look at the rise of the major brewers through the 1950s, but the book falls somewhat short in describing the rise of the craft beer movement starting in the 1970s.  It is nice to see Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company get credit for being one of the first to pioneer what meant to be a craft beer maker.  Other California craft brewers Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing Company are also profiled while Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams, gets a lot of attention.

However, this felt like a Clif Notes or highlights version of the story of the craft beer movement in the U.S.  There is so much to the story of craft beer in the U.S. that to focus on a few of the well-known examples feels like a cop out.  Again, it is American brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to beer whether it’s the crazy genius of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery or the fact that it seems like every street corner of the Front Range in Colorado is home to a new brewery.  Small purveyors are revitalizing what had been a moribund industry and, in any cases, revitalizing the communities in which they choose to operate.  This is no small part of the story about craft beer in the United States.  The small purveyors are really about being part of a place.  I like to think about it like terroir, the French concept of a “sense of place,” for beer which is not something you hear of very often.  However, these brewers are producing beers that define or are defined by the places in which they are made.  It’s a result of all the factors that go into a small brewer that is not possible when scaled to something like an AB-InBev or other macro-monstrosity.

What would be interesting would be an update on the book as the major U.S. breweries have entered into ownership or partnerships with foreign breweries, leaving the craft beer makers as the only “American” brewers left standing anymore.

Regardless of my quibbles with the book’s treatment of the recent craft beer movement there is much to recommend Ambitious Brew.  To understand how we got to this moment in time, it is necessary to understand how American beer came to be.

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2 responses to “You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

  1. Hi: Just ran across this (while, heh, looking for something else). There is a new book out that focuses ONLY on the history of the craft beer revolution: The Audacity of Hops by Tom Acitelli. I thought his book was terrific!

    As for mine: yes, there are only two chapters about the craft beer moment/movement, as is fitting in a book that covers some 200 years. I treated the craft movement as yet another chapter (no pun intended) in a long, long story of beer, Americans, social conflict, and the pursuit of opportunity.

    Anyone who writes a long narrative history such as mine has to make choices about what to include, what to omit. The two chapters I devoted to craft beer focused ENTIRELY on the broad picture and the leading edge. I intentionally left it to others to dig deeper into other beermakers, such as Sam.

    So: I think you’ll find what you were hoping for in Tom’s book. And so sorry mine was a disappointment in that regard. But as I always say: It’s a big world and there’s plenty of room for everyone to write a book of their own.

    • No doubt, taking on a two hundred year history is a complex challenge. However, I feel like the chapters on the craft beer movement of the past three decades or so lacked a lot of the nuance and detail that was given to the rise of the major breweries prior to prohibition.

      It’s a common narrative that I really find lacking because it reads like “in the beginning there were some pioneers and then Jim Koch came along. End of story.” While I do not doubt Jim Koch’s place in the craft beer pantheon there is a lot more to the story than the crafty marketers from the Boston Beer Company.

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