Stephen Beaumont: The Beer and Food Companion; Jeff Alworth: The Beer Bible; Mark Dredge: The Best Beer in the World; all seasoned writers, writers whose work I have always enjoyed.
I’ve reviewed a few books over the years. Some stand out — JM O’Neill’s Duffy is Dead for the NME back in the late 1980s, a wonderful tale set in an old Irish boozer in Stoke Newington and worth sending a search party out for.
Others not so — in 1989 I reviewed Iris Murdoch’s A Message to the Planet for Time Out. I’d never read her before (and haven’t since) and found the book tedious and dull; I wrote a review and it never got published. God I shudder at it still.
There are been others down through the years, most recently Shakespeare’s Local for the Telegraph (butchered by a sub with a degree in serial killing).
So that’s the qualifications over with, what about these books?
Beaumont’s is coffee-table in its design, plenty of gorgeous photos of beers, bars and dishes (typical of publisher Jacqui Small’s approach to design), though coffee-table does seem to imply lots more visuals than words — in this case, coffee-table does the book a disservice. There are plenty of words, good words, mesmerising chains of words.
Stephen Beaumont is one of the most incisive, elegant and satisfying writers on beer and food in the English language; in fact as I progressed through the book it reminded me of the thrill I received when reading Jackson. I feel like I’m learning something, but not in the ‘I’m a beervangelist’ mono-mania approach that ‘beer educators’ employ; this is journalism that happens to be about beer and food.
I like the way Beaumont approaches style, which he defines by general flavour traits such as bitter or sweet, light or robust; for instance in ‘very dark or roasty ales’ (which gets the sub-heading ‘satisfying’), we have London Porter, Porter, Baltic Porter etc.
As I wrote above, travel is the link that binds these books together and Beaumont has travelled about the world searching for beers to drink and bars to experience — an approach I think is essential to understanding global beer. Sure you can stay at home and tap this and rate that and open up a parcel from a swap-buddy on the other side of the world but I would suggest you travel and experience the beers of the world in all their various subtleties.
This is what Mark Dredge has done for his third book in two years. From conversations with him a couple of years ago I knew that this book was the one he most wanted to write, a globe-trotting travelogue that would experience some of the world’s most acclaimed beers in their natural habitat. So he has a brewpub crawl in Portland (an activity I can thoroughly recommended having spent a hot Thursday doing that in June), drinks Snow in China, gets fresh and cheap beer in Vietnam, Oktoberfests in Blumenau — you get the idea. There’s even something on home-brewing.
The book is a mixture of feature length narrative along with guides to drink in various places around the world; I found myself flicking through the guides and then getting embedded in the stories, which show Dredge at his best.
His style is very personal, as he places himself at the centre of the action; this gives the text a dynamic drive. I like it a lot. Though one caveat (something I’d mentioned with the choice of title in Shakespeare’s Local, given that there was no proof the Bard had even been to the George) — I initially felt that the ending is a bit of a cop-out given the title of the book, but on reading it again I’m not so sure.
The Beer Bible is dense, there’s a lot of text. Photos are black-and-white and have a faded look, almost rustic, antique even. It’s an encyclopaedic guide to dozens and dozens of kinds of beer, from Bocks to bitters to Zoigl to steam.
There’s history, the brewing process, tasting notes, beer and food and notes on cellaring and storing beer. However, what gives this book its lustrous appeal is Alworth’s writing, his knowledge, his erudition, which like Dredge and Beaumont’s has come from travelling around the world and tasting and talking about beers in their home territory.
This is a book that I feel I learn something new every time I dip into its pages, and like Beaumont’s there’s a feel of excitement that I used to get from first readings of Jackson.
We might be more used to the world of beer now but reading about Alt or IPA from a fresh perspective is like watching Citizen Kane or the Godfather l and ll again and learning something new. I love the feel of the paper and I love all those words. This is a book I shall be taking on my travels.
There you are three books, all different in their approach but all linked by travel and of course that tap on the window that beer brings to one’s life; excellent writing, in different ways and plenty of beer to bring on that essential itch in the throat and rumble in the tumble of the stomach.