Drinking on the Last Frontier: Pouring over a good book

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Soldotna enjoyed another extremely successful Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival last month. The fourth production of this outstanding annual event was another sellout, with 1,200 paying attendees and at least a hundred unfortunate latecomers turned away at the gate.

There were more breweries than ever in attendance, including HooDoo Brewing Co. from Fairbanks and 49th State Brewing Co. from Healy. 49th State celebrated its first ever appearance by taking home the People’s Choice trophy for Best Beer with its 12 Quadruple Belgian-style Strong Ale, while Kenai River Brewing Co. won the People’s Choice for Best Brewery for the second year in a row. Additionally, the festival raised lots of money for local charities here on the peninsula. Kudos to the Soldotna Rotary on another superb festival.

It’s been awhile since I have written anything about any new beer books, and several have been released fairly recently. In fact, it seems that books on the subject of craft beer and brewing are being released with ever-increasing frequency, which I take to be an excellent sign of the public’s growing interest in good beer. So let’s talk about a half dozen interesting new volumes.

As some of the oldest craft breweries out there begin to celebrate their 25th or even 30th anniversaries, we are beginning to see the release of histories and autobiographical accounts, looking back to the earliest days of American craft brewing. Two recent books stand out from the pack in this area. The first is “Beyond the Pale,” written by Ken Grossman, the legendary founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Grossman is tremendously respected in the craft brewing world as one of the heroic “first generation” of brewers, folks who had to build their breweries from scratch, usually with their own hands, from castoff dairy equipment. His account of the early trials and tribulations of Sierra Nevada is well written and fascinating.

The second book is “The Craft Beer Revolution” by Steve Hindy, one of the founders of the Brooklyn Brewery. It’s a no-holds-barred and often hilarious account of the different sort of challenges faced by that “second generation” craft brewery. It’s totally different in tone, but just as fascinating as Grossman’s account.

The next three books are ones that I would classify as general beer guides — books designed to appeal to the typical craft beer lover, or even to introduce the neophyte to craft beer. The first is patterned after the well-known Haynes auto manuals, only this one is entitled “Beer: 7,000 BC onwards (all flavors).” Published in the UK, it has a distinctly British bent, is lavishly illustrated and presents a nice overview of both homebrewing and commercial craft beers. It would make a great gift for someone just getting into drinking better beer.

“Beerology” is written by Mirella Amato, one of only seven certified master cicerones in the world. Like many craft beer guides, it’s primarily organized around the various beer styles, with descriptions of how each style tastes. The author does address some unusual areas, with sections on beer cocktails and hosting a beer tasting or beer dinner. Well written and nicely illustrated, it’s another good introductory work.

If “Beerology” follows the traditional beer book format, “Beer: What to Drink Next” by Michael Larson takes a radical new approach. It attempts to create what the author calls The “Beer Select-O-Pedia,” a sort of periodic table of beer styles, based on their similar characteristics and region of origin. The idea is that if the reader has a style of beer that he or she likes, this book will easily enable them to select other styles that share similar flavor characteristics. The book is extremely colorful, with each style section including not only a picture of that beer and three commercial examples of the style, but also a full-page graphic representing visually several style characteristics. This book appeals to the beer geek in me on a visceral level and I applaud the author for taking a different approach, rather than just writing another book centered on beer styles.

Finally, there’s “Beer and Food” by Mark Dredge. Until recently, good books on pairing beer with food were few and far between, but over the last couple of years several excellent ones have been released, and this book will certainly join the top tier. It has two large sections, each addressing a different side of the equation.

One section covers the various beer styles with descriptions of several classic beers in each style, and then makes suggestions regarding what food to pair with them. The other section takes the opposite approach, listing numerous cuisines from around the U.S. and the world, describing classic dishes from those cuisines, and then suggesting beers that would pair well with them. So whether you’re starting with the food or starting with the beer, this book has something to offer.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have authored “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska,” available via Amazon.

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