Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: The Complete Beer Course

Another month, another beer book. This is one of those books that make the must read lists for beer readers. At some point, reading another book is a series of diminishing returns on knowledge. Each book only adds a bit more information while it takes more hours of investment. When a book is a classic or a must read, it often covers territory that a reader has read more than a few times. It has to bring something different.

In the case of The Complete Beer Course, there is a coverage of styles with a short history along with a few beer to try for every style wrapped in the idea of beer class. In twelve classes, Bernstein will take you through enough beer to call yourself an expert. The conceit of the tasting class works well with the first class taking up the standard information given to all of us trying to become beer nerds.  There is the usual stuff around history of beer, beer process and some information on the ingredients. Of course, how to taste and serve beer are in there as well. How is it different?

What this book does well, is in the tone. There are a lot of puns and groans that make material that would otherwise be dry and boring into a bearable reading experience. Some of us will find this approach amusing and entertaining and others will not care for the less 'technical' approach. Beer is democratic and education was intended to democratic. To teach a class is to take an approach that will work best for the greatest number of students. I feel the balance struck here is quite good.

From a Canadian perspective, I was surprised to see how many breweries and brews were here hailing from my land when this book is definitely aimed at educating Americans. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised given what I know is true about the Canadian brewing experience and drinking as a Canadian. McAuslan, Dieu du ciel, Charlevoix, Hopfenstark, Central City, Russell, Mill Street and Spearhead all make an appearance. There are a few others but these are the ones in the International beer style section.

The style sections are fine. I'm having a hard time assessing these sections due to overexposure of this information. His humour is what kept me going through these sections. The bonus sections that are not part of the standard curriculum of nerdification are the brewery profiles, a deeper discussion on topics normally skimmed (water, increasing bitterness techniques and inventions, Belgian light beers and how old styles are revived for example) and the whole section on cellaring and pairing beers. Some of the information will not age well but for someone taking the plunge right now, this would give them enough to talk the and walk the walk and sound intelligent. I have only had about 1/3 of the named beers but had a beer in every style except for two (Kentucky Common, American Style Barley Wine) but I would consider myself well versed in styles. Only one of them is actually a named style but I'm putting down the Kentucky Common so that I don't forget it.

After the review, here is what bits and pieces turned my crank and got me thinking.

p.98 mentions a grodziskie which I had only heard in passing. It is an oak-smoked wheat low alcohol beer with a lot of hops but little aroma. It is an historic Polish beer. Think of a smoky wheat beer with a possible little bit of sour from the wheat depending on whom you talk to. I would love to try it either as a home brew or pro interpretation.

Two beer alterations include adding milk to stout porter (p.188) and adding an espresso shot to Guinness Draught (Dry Irish Stout) (p.183). Of course, after reading this, I saw a post on Alan McLeod's blog on mixing beers. These two recipes got me to thinking. While I like the idea of beer cocktails, there is always a bit of chagrin due to my reliance on intentionality of the brewer when judging a beer. In other words, the brewers didn't intend it this way. In a weird postmodern way, Alan's puts it that 'the experience of the drinker is the only experience in relation to any given glass of zymergistic goodness that matters. Brewer's intentions be damned'. The drinker determines the beer and by extension how it tastes best and not the brewer.

I've long wanted to write about postmodernism, philosophy and food. The book is pushing me towards getting that down. Anyways, this is a good book to learn about styles and the North American contribution to stretching them. If you like the tone, then this is definitely a good book.

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