By John Holl
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Right here, right now is the best time in the history of mankind to be a beer drinker. America now has more breweries than at any time since prohibition, and globally, beer culture is thriving and constantly innovating. Drinkers can order beer brewed with local yeast or infused with moondust. However, beer drinkers are also faced with uneven quality and misinformation about flavors. And the industry itself is suffering from growing pains, beset by problems such as unequal access to taps, skewed pricing, and sexism.
Drawing on history, economics, and interviews with industry insiders, John Holl provides a complete guide to beer today, allowing readers to think critically about the best beverage in the world. Full of entertaining anecdotes and surprising opinions, Drink Beer, Think Beer is a must-read for beer lovers, from casual enthusiasts to die-hard hop heads.
“A bottle of beer contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.”
FOUR DECADES AGO, A FEW PIONEERS TOOK RISKS WITH BEER. Thanks to them, and to the consumers who wanted choice and thus supported their efforts, a brewing culture exists in America today that not only creates and supports local drinking communities but has launched a global phenomenon. More breweries currently operate in the United States than at any other time in our country’s history. Barring an extinction-level event, the number should continue to rise for the foreseeable future. More breweries mean more beers, and more opportunities both to travel for a pint and to drink local. The industry’s growth also means more experimentation with the world’s second-most popular beverage (coffee has beer beat) and therefore more options—and more confusion—every time you step into a bar.
While it’s a great time to be a beer drinker, the sheer volume of available choices can be overwhelming, even to the most experienced beer enthusiast. (Trust me.) For folks who are only moderately plugged into what’s happening in the world of water, malt, hops, and yeast, it often seems easiest to default to familiar choices from large breweries that make their products approachable and relatable, thanks to heavy advertising and ubiquitous placement on shelves and taps.
That said, in the same way that many folks are rediscovering the importance of eating food produced locally, knowing where that food comes from, and getting adventurous when cooking at home, a similar principle holds true for beer. We can settle for the status quo, or we can branch out and experiment. When it comes to flavors in beer, everything is on the table: exotic fruits and vegetables, proteins, wood, herbs, and even a few things too gross to mention this early in the book (hint: yes, some brewers use animal organs and other animal parts in beer). A bit of time and a little education can open up a whole new world of beer for even the most casual of drinkers. Finding flavors that suit a mood, situation, or individual palate makes beer a uniquely personal adventure, just like discovering a favorite dish at a restaurant.
In no small part because of this experimentation, breweries have become destinations. You’d be hard pressed to find a general travel guidebook that doesn’t mention at least one. Couples and friends build vacations around brewery visits, and enthusiasts will rise very early in the morning and line up outside a brewery to buy a limited batch of beer, as if it were an iPhone. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s complex in Mills River, North Carolina, has earned the nickname Malt Disney World, because of the awe and childlike glee its gleaming facilities bring out in adults. Brewers are treated like rock stars. Fans queue up at festivals for the chance to have a beer poured by their heroes, for a selfie, for a fist bump.
I’m one of those fans (just maybe not the fist-bump part). I’m someone who enjoys a well-made pint, who gets lost in the appearance of an amber-colored IPA, watching bubbles soar with purpose from the bottom of a glass to a ceiling of foam. The kind of drinker who gets wide-eyed and happy with the first sniff of sweet, strong brown liquor rising from a barrel-aged imperial stout. I’ll scratch my head trying to figure out the very specific flavor that comes and goes on the back of my taste buds—hot pepper, thyme, coffee—and will excitedly talk flavor and nuance with fellow enthusiasts until last call.
But I’m also a journalist. I started working in newsrooms at the age of sixteen as an intern for a local public television station that aired a nightly newscast. From there I moved on to newspapers, including eight years at the New York Times, where I spent a good chunk of my career covering crime and politics (often the same thing). Each day brought a new story, new people to interview, new cities to explore. That was what I most enjoyed about the job: I woke up each morning knowing I was going to work, but not what my assignment would be. (Now that I’m covering beer, getting up in the morning can be more difficult, depending on the night before.)
Three months before my twenty-first birthday my friend, Marc Cregan, gave me a subscription to a beer-of-the-month club. Every month six bottles arrived; I’d chill them down and try to drink them. Typically they were bottles from New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company, and because I respected this friend and his tastes, I was committed to giving each of them a shot. Dismayed, I inevitably admitted defeat in the presence of the hop bombs or other boozy concoctions and dumped them down the drain. But I was already intrigued about beer. I grew up in a house where my dad drank Heineken while the rest of the family downed Bud, or fondly reminisced about the days when Newark, New Jersey, breweries like Ballantine and Pabst were ascendant.
On the day I turned twenty-one, I walked into my local brewery. There was (and still is) a brewpub in my college town that had (and still has) an English pub feel, a popular theme with many breweries in the nineties. There, at the Gaslight Brewery in South Orange, I ordered a beer that went by three letters—IPA—and choked it down. The bartender—a man named Jeff Levine who would later become a friend—tried not to laugh as I forced myself to finish it. Against my better judgment I ordered another.
This time I asked about the beer, and Jeff gave me a brief lesson in hops. Pine. Grapefruit. Those are familiar aromas and flavors, yes? They are supposed to be in the beer. The bitterness is part of the experience, he told me.
I left feeling buoyed by my new knowledge, and ready to learn more. As I started traveling for the newspaper I worked for, I found myself searching out a local brewery wherever I landed. Often in those days it was a brewpub, and I’d wind up there without fail for dinner or a nightcap. I did this for three reasons:
1. Brewpubs had better food and beer than the lobby bar of whatever Holiday Inn I was staying at.
2. Local places gave me a more accurate feeling about the vibe of the town or city, adding important nuance to whatever human tragedy I was there to write about.
3. I could keep learning about beer.
I was purely learning as a fan back then. It took years before I felt comfortable writing as an “authority” on the subject. Soon enough I had graduated from covering crime and politics and transitioned to writing about beer. I started by working for small print operations like Ale Street News and Celebrator Beer News, monthly papers that covered the East and West Coasts respectively and were run by industry veterans and staffed by longtime freelancers. I learned about the nuance of local beer reporting, and the proper ways to write about beer flavors. I became a news editor at Ale Street and loved the alt-weekly vibe of the coverage: getting into odd corners of the industry, interviewing still-obscure brewers, trying to spot trends among the dozens of press releases that arrived daily. In 2009 I was hired as associate editor of the short-lived national publication Beer Connoisseur Magazine. While there I profiled beer-industry figures like the heads of Samuel Adams and Dogfish Head, and broadened my coverage and reviews to include international beer. In 2013 I was named editor of All About Beer Magazine. Founded in 1979, it’s the country’s oldest beer publication. I spent nearly five very happy and productive years reinventing the magazine’s pages and collaborating with talented writers to craft in-depth and illuminating stories, all while working with some of the finest people I’ve ever had the privilege of calling colleagues. I also traveled the world, writing and reporting from five continents and nearly every state. In 2017 I was named senior editor of Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, where I continue to cover the beer industry as well as home brewing, the hobby and passion that really kicked off today’s beer renaissance.
Along the way I’ve hosted or cohosted several beer-themed podcasts and covered the industry for publications like the Washington Post and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. I’ve even written a few other books, including the American Craft Beer Cookbook, which celebrates pairing good beer with good food.
These days, as a journalist who covers beer full-time, I have the privilege of often being front and center for truly remarkable events and conversations throughout the brewing industry. My access—along with a healthy curiosity, exhaustive travel, and research trips around the world and around the corner, coupled with my duty to share what I’ve learned from professionals, fellow drinkers, and quite a few history books—has led to the book in your hands.
BEER IS MORE THAN A COMBINATION OF INGREDIENTS IN A PINT glass. There’s a whole orbit of other elements around that glass to acknowledge, appreciate, and understand. Beer has an economic impact. It’s a social convention. There are family ties to beer, fond (or not) memories of what your parents and grandparents drank. Conversations with colleagues about humorous (or not) commercials that the larger breweries have plunked into the Super Bowl. A nonstop blur of billboards along our highways, neon signs in tavern windows, jingles on the radio. And more often than not, that one friend or cousin who talks only about beer when you get together.
Beer is the story of progress and hard work. It’s farmers working the land for ingredients. It’s activists fighting to keep water sources pure. Though you may not have learned about beer in your history class, it plays a bit part, though a vital one, in world history, from the Pilgrims, who arrived on the Mayflower with beer as their potable water, to the Industrial Revolution, when technological advancements in refrigeration made it easier to transport and store beer. Beer has even seeped into politics and university classes. It’s no longer confined to its own industry.
Thanks to a strong American influence, a global beer renaissance is in process. Countries with long, proud brewing traditions are following the Yankee lead and innovating on classic styles and recipes.
In America and abroad, it’s impossible to escape beer in popular culture. Tom T. Hall twanged his way through a song about how it helps him unwind and feel mellow. Red Solo cups are the vessel of choice for kegged beer at a weekend cookout. Laverne and Shirley remain the pop-culture patron saints of everyone who works along a bottling line, and once-fictional brands like Duff can now be consumed by visitors to the Simpsons area at the Universal theme parks. Oh yeah!
In truth, although it is a great time to be a beer drinker, it’s also a confusing time. There are poorly made beers, misinformation about flavors, and perhaps too much choice. For every public relations company and industry association smiling and shooting sunshine, there’s a dark side that involves pay-for-play with accounts, access to ingredients denied, unsafe working conditions, and undercurrents of racism and sexism in an industry that seems to still favor white males above all others.
To drink beer is easy. Pour, put to mouth, swallow. To think about beer is much harder. It’s a social beverage that has long brought people together, from friends gathering after work to blow off steam, to revolutionaries planning war. For a growing number of others, it’s an integral part of life that extends to online chat rooms, vacations revolving around breweries, and a never-ending quest to taste only the rare beers—the “whales”—that exist in the smallest of quantities. Although fun for some (and certainly profitable for certain breweries), this kind of beer-drinking-as-sport hasn’t done the larger industry any favors. A few drinkers of wine or spirits will turn their noses up at the very thought of beer, refusing to take the beverage seriously. Honestly, who can blame them?
The brewing industry just before and certainly after Prohibition gave us mainly one style of beer. Think of it as beer-flavored beer—generic, easy drinking, and generally lacking in discernible flavor. For all it was to some, it was less to others. Beer, inexpensive and ubiquitous, was considered low-class or even trashy.
Following Prohibition, wine asserted itself at the fine-dining table. And spirits became associated with high-end good times via cocktails. People who still look down on beer despite how far it has come since the 1970s may do so because of a long-stale social stigma, a bad drinking experience in college, the overwhelming bitterness of some styles, or maybe they’re just buying into the marketing against it. If you know someone who falls into this category, it’s time to start changing their mind: the days of beer-flavored beer are behind us.
Despite being around for several millennia, beer finally seems to be coming into its own. Science helps brewers make better beer. Technology assists farmers to grow barley and grains more efficiently and to develop new varieties of hops. Laboratories learn more about yeast with each passing month, capturing and cultivating different strains to add new flavors to beer. Some labs are working to grow strains of wild yeast that have been plucked from specific zip codes, meaning that you can literally drink a local beer.
Now, after a rocket-like ride to this moment in time, it’s hard to ignore the endless waves of beer—both good and bad—that shape the everyday drinking experience for tried and true fans, as well as for folks slowly coming around to the taste of beer. Nearly seven thousand breweries currently operate in America. A few are probably located in your neighborhood. More are on the way.
Beer doesn’t come in only one flavor, and we’ve certainly moved beyond the options that simply “taste like beer.” Thanks to the seemingly endless supply of flavors, I firmly believe that beer pairs better with every type of food than any other alcohol. Yes, even wine. Restaurants seem to agree; beer in 750-ml bottles or on draft has found its way onto fine-dining menus countrywide, and high-end beer is replacing or joining the long-standing generic lagers at taco trucks, burger joints, and greasy spoons, creating a more rounded culinary experience.
Just as modern technology has changed how we make beer, social media has launched us into a global pub that never closes, and where everyone, it seems, has an equal voice. Entire websites and virtual communities exist to talk about, review, dissect, gossip about, trade, and obsess over beer. From the sometimes snarky and opinionated Beer Advocate (which spawned a magazine and multiple festivals) to the more analytical and uppity RateBeer (now partly owned by the venture-capital arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev) to the ubiquitous Untappd (a mobile-phone app that allows drinkers to “check in” to a beer), finding like-minded barstool philosophers, unsolicited advice, or sympathetic gadflies is as close as your fingertips.
Beer isn’t binary. It’s continuously evolving, and as such is the topic of countless debates over what beer is and isn’t, and what it can be. Once it was an accepted fact that a beer with a skunky aroma (you’ve had a Heineken at some point, yes?) was flawed, the victim of sunlight negatively impacting hops through the glass. But now some brewers are pushing back; they think (correctly) that hints of a lightstruck aroma might actually help improve certain beer styles, like a saison.
All the new breweries that opened and all the new flavors released to the marketplace needed a way to stand apart from the pack, to establish themselves as separate from the historical norms. Thus, for the better part of two decades, the word craft was attached to beer to imply some kind of gravitas: a higher quality than mass-produced beverages from large corporations. Now those giant companies, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, are buying smaller breweries and adding them to already robust portfolios. This phenomenon has emboldened the makers of Budweiser (and other brews) to use the word craft liberally. As a result, the smaller brands have gone in search of a new moniker.
But at the end of the day it’s all still beer. It is what people gather over at pubs. What they use to toast both success and loss. To celebrate victories, or to imbibe as a means of escape. It’s what we curse in the morning after too many pints. It’s so much more than just a liquid. As a friend correctly pointed out to me one night after several rounds, beer is an addendum to life. And the more we acknowledge, appreciate, and understand about beer, its history, and its social place in our world, the more fulfilling a drinking experience we’ll have.
IN THE FOUR DECADES SINCE THE FIRST POST-PROHIBITION BREWERY opened, the industry learned to run before it knew how to crawl, and now it’s going so fast that few stop to think about the ramifications of such a quick evolution. Progress for the sake of progress is rarely good, and beer is in danger of losing its way, its soul, its importance, and its identity as separate from other alcoholic beverages. Overcommercialization, a push to accommodate humans’ natural inclination for sweeter tastes, and a deliberate willingness to chase the next shiny thing have led some brewers to forge uncharted paths, guiding drinkers, typically the younger ones, away from beer’s roots. In response, there’s another faction of beer drinkers—we can call them purists, but they are basically seasoned drinkers who have been at this for a while—who shout at the youngsters that the new beer styles they are drinking are essentially the emperor without clothes.
I believe that beer can be romantic, that the relationship between glass and drinker is special—from the mere smell of a well-made beer popping with pleasant aromas, to the feel of a snifter of barleywine in your hand while cozied up at a bar or ensconced in your favorite chair with a good book on a winter’s night, to the satisfying finish that leaves you full and perhaps a little contentedly intoxicated. The sound of a corked beer being opened is a happy one, as is the clank of glasses among friends toasting a special occasion.
For everything that’s special about beer, we’re at the point where it becomes something less. People go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts out of habit and convenience, not necessarily because they have a deep love of the product. It’s just what you do, and the coffee or pastries those companies turn out perform the job well enough. Certain beers fit that mold—for instance, Bud Light—but just because they exist and are popular, is that where our attention should be? I don’t think so. So many high-quality beers are being made (and so many to suit the tastes of every drinker) that there’s no longer a need to settle. You can spend an entire year drinking a different IPA each day without scratching the surface of all the IPAs that are out there. Or you can drink the same beer regularly, like a Belgian-style tripel, and probably discover something subtly distinctive each time. Drinking beer doesn’t need to be top of mind each time you take a sip, but each beer should be enjoyable, not just for your taste buds but also for your mood.
SO WHAT IS THIS BOOK? UNLIKE MANY INTRODUCTIONS TO THE topic, it is not solely focused on the sensory experience of drinking beer. I believe that the sensory element is important, that everyone who eats or drinks anything should consider the processes, the flavors, the sensations with each bite and sip. Doing so leads to a fuller involvement, especially if we’re in the habit of eating and drinking merely for fuel rather than for pleasure. But over the last sixteen years of writing about beer, what I’ve become obsessed with is the peripheral: the experience not only of the beer itself, but of all that goes into its creation, and where it takes us both personally and together.
This book aims to talk about the fact that having a beer isn’t quite as simple as just having a beer. Dozens of factors influence your beer decision before you even order and take that first taste. In the pages that follow I’m excited to pull back the curtain on those things: from how the first modern beer pioneers shaped the flavors of the beers we drink today, to the way advertising continues to play a pivotal role in sales.
I’ve walked the aisles of beer shops and grocery stores looking at labels and logos, and I’ve seen how the right color, design, and placement move certain beers. I’ve sat at countless bars and watched the aesthetics of drinking—from logo design to the shape of tap handles to different glassware—work its magic. I’ve attended parties where I’ve observed social pressures placed on someone to drink a beverage that will convey a certain message. We all experience these events, but we rarely stop to think about them.
To fully understand and appreciate beer, we also need to consider the raw ingredients—not just as they arrive at the brewery or appear in a final recipe, but how they are grown, farmed, processed, and ultimately taste, both on their own and in terms of how they impact other flavors. Even a modest understanding of ingredients leads to a better drinking experience. The same is true for knowing the basics of beer service, health impacts, and stigmas. Being a well-informed beer drinker doesn’t mean being a snob. I’ve spent a career drinking excellent beers (some dreadful ones, too) and learning from the pros. Firsthand I’ve witnessed certain childish and troubling aspects of the industry—the way some breweries treat women or minorities, or how they knowingly serve substandard beers. But I’ve also seen the very best of humanity and kindness thanks to this remarkable beverage.
The brewing industry is on full display daily at the thousands of breweries and brewpubs across America. There, you can witness not only the science and the process of beer-making and serving but also your neighbors and like-minded beer-drinking folks from out of town. Each pint ordered at one of the newer-generation breweries helps a small business and its local community.
Ideas are discussed and formed over beer, new passions unearthed, and new friends met. If you include beer as a part of your travel plans, you’re likely to make discoveries that otherwise never would have appeared on your radar. Trust me, this is the experience talking. I’ve walked hop fields during harvest, and cleaned kegs at my local brewery. I’ve homebrewed with friends and helped on batches with the pros. I’ve logged thousands of hours on barstools and standing among stainless steel fermenters with a notebook in hand—all because I love my job and want to understand the subject better.
SHERLOCK, THE RECENT MASTERPIECE TELEVISION SERIES, INTRODUCED many to the concept of a “mind palace”: a place where the famed detective would go to retrieve all manner of information that had been locked away in his brain. As you progress through these pages, I’m occasionally going to ask you to visit the “mind pub.” It’s the bar that exists only in your head and should be the perfect (to you) representation of all you want from a drinking establishment. Everything from the decor to the music to the location is up to you. It doesn’t even have to be an actual pub. All I ask is that there are at least a few taps on the wall and some glassware available.
Beer, like life, is ever evolving, and each day brings new findings, new flavors, new people. What I’ve learned and hope to communicate is that beer is more than just the contents of a glass. I believe that the greater our understanding and appreciation for what is happening outside the glass, the better the impact on what’s in it.
Let’s settle into a pint and discuss what makes beer so great.
THE MODERN BEER RENAISSANCE
EVERY TIME YOU BUY A PINT OR PURCHASE A SIX-PACK YOU’RE choosing a side in a war.
In this “us versus them” conflict, the “us” is typically smaller breweries, who proclaim themselves dedicated to the craft of beer-making. “Them” are the global and massive breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Miller, or Molson Coors, who, so the story goes, care more about profits than consumers or taste.
But even within Team Small Brewery there is constant competition for the finite amount of tap-handle space. The winners are chosen by consumer dollars, and the tactics can be extremely dirty.
In many ways, modern brewing is shaped by this big guy/little guy conflict. Understanding how we got to this point requires a look back at the history of brewing in America. Although this country was founded on beer, we’ve had a complicated relationship with it from day one.
WHEN I SAY AMERICA WAS FOUNDED ON BEER, THAT’S NOT AS MUCH of a hyperbole as you might think. William Bradford, a settler who sailed over on the Mayflower, wrote in his diary in 1622 that the decision to land at Plymouth, despite an original plan to continue farther south, was made due to a supply problem.
“We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer,” he wrote. And so the hearty souls disembarked and got down to the business of brewing… and forging a new settlement.
This is nothing new for beer. Historians tell us that as far back as 15,000 BCE, in China and the Middle East, nomadic tribes began to settle only when the wild grasses they grew became permanent crops, allowing them a stable place to grow, harvest, and live. Although the results were quite different from the beers we’d know today, when those newly cultivated grains were mixed with water and then attracted the natural yeast in the air, the result was a grain-based alcoholic beverage. Many of the original brewers believed that the ensuing intoxication was the work of the gods, specifically in Sumeria, where the brewing goddess, Ninkasi, was routinely and rightly praised. Access to the drink (along with a geography that regularly provided food) helped form some of the world’s first settlements.
From these humble origins we can quickly jump ahead through time, through the rise and fall of civilizations, past where ingredients like hops were discovered and became part of beer, where recipes were developed, where brewing became a profession and beer a national identity, and finally arrive back in the United States. During the American Revolution, the founders of the country regularly met in taverns to drink cider and ale as they planned to rebel against the monarchy and create the United States as we know it today.
- "Holl's good-natured and useful handbook offers helpful tips for the novice drinker, and topics of debate for beer connoisseurs. This is an excellent look at contemporary beer making, marketing, and consumption."—Publishers Weekly
- "Informative overview of the economic and cultural transformations surrounding the world of beer...The book is clearly written and...will appeal to neophyte beer drinkers and foodies."—Kirkus
- "Few people on the planet have spent more time thinking and drinking beer, and as a leading journalist covering the beer industry John Holl has already done much to shape our thinking about the subject. In this must-read book, Holl distills his wisdom and shares everything he's learned."—Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible
"John Holl doesn't just offer an ideal primer on beer--he tells you why you should care about it in the first place, with good humor and insight gained from years of experience. For those who haven't had the pleasure of bellying up to the bar with one of beer's brightest, this is the next best thing."
—Daniel Hartis, editor of All About Beer Magazine
- "If you think craft beer is too geeky, too precious, and deeply in need of a reality check...John Holl is way ahead of you. You're ready; buy this book."—Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey
- "John Holl's wonderfully informative yet remarkably fun, approachable, and relatable prose is truly for anyone who enjoys beer-from casual drinkers to full-on beer nerds and everyone in between. Holl hits all the major points for a seriously useful crash-course in glorious beer geekdom. Drink, think, and cheers!"—Lauren Buzzeo, Managing Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine
- "In his latest book, John Holl invites discerning drinkers to join him in a frank conversation about craft brewing's recent successes and future challenges. Brevity and pithiness are two of its biggest strengths, and the fact that it covers so much ground means you'll finish the last page with, as promised, plenty to think about. I'd pair it with an Old Ale, a style well suited for sipping and contemplation."—Ben Keene, editorial director of Beer Advocate
"Holl's book is a kaleidoscopic look at beer, the making of beer, the drinking of beer, and the culture that has evolved with the craft beer industry. In the act of telling his story, he unveils all the mysterious language of the alchemists who frequent brew pubs across America."
"Drink Beer, Think Beer - released early this month - is a broad and intelligent overview of the current trends, good and bad, that drive the industry of the world's second most popular beverage."
—Marin Independent Journal
"A lovely, quick read that will benefit anyone aspiring to be more critical about their beer drinking."
- "Craft beer as a trend, industry, and culture is relatively new. But beer as a beverage has been around since the Agricultural Revolution. In Drink Beer, Think Beer John Holl attempts to uncover where beer came from and how modern brewers are experimenting with the beverage"—Hop Culture, Best Beer Books for Fall 2018
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Basic Books