The best book on the best American beer
Here's your summer beach read: Andy Crouch's "Great American Craft Beer"
Friends and colleagues with more sense than I apparently possess are fleeing what my writer pal John Ratliff once memorably called "the wet serape that is Austin in the summertime" for cooler locales Maine, Michigan, Colorado and the like where they cheerily park themselves in or near a body of water with a good book and a good beer.
My reading preference is a good book about beer, and I've got one for you: "Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Brewers" by Andy Crouch (Running Press, $22.95). Crouch is a Cambridge, Mass., freelance writer whose work has appeared in a half-dozen or more beer publications. More important, he's a fine guide through the whole world of beer — its history, the brewing process, describing a proper atmosphere for tastings, style-specific glassware, the art of a proper pour and chef's menus for beer dinners. There's a whole section just for fruit beers. And if you're wondering what's the difference between a farmhouse ale and a saison, he can clear that up for you, too: There isn't any.
This thing is timely: A lot of us believe the best beers in the world are being made in the U.S. right now. At a time when overall beer sales are down, craft brewers actually reported dollar sales up 12 percent in the first half of 2010, the Brewers Association said this month. There have been more than 300 new craft breweries across the fruited plain in the past four yeas. And a welcomely disproportionate number of them are in Austin. Yay.
But you want to hear about the more than 300 beers, specifically the Texas beers (complete with color photos). He mentions five Texas breweries: Southern Star of Conroe, Franconia out of McKinney, Houston's St. Arnold and, closer to home, Live Oak and Real Ale. Here's Crouch's description of Live Oak's HefeWeizen, which ought to be enough to make the brewery's Chip McElroy feel entitled to take the day off:
"With its dull and luminous yellow-orange color and sizable and tightly carbonated white head, Live Oak's HefeWeizen is a looker. This Texas original booms with a massive aroma of bananas, phenolic pepperiness, light creamy qualities and mimics the German style. The medium-bodied beer starts with a burst of Juicy Fruit gum-like banana qualities, aided by a tight carbonation bite, light wheat notes, a touch of bubble gum and a mild toasted malt balance. Far from a thin or artificial-tasting hefeweizen, it appears to derive a lot of its character from the ingredients and not just from the yeast. A slight acidic tang in the finish is refreshing in this very pleasant offering, which is reminiscent of the classic German style."
OK, so you can quibble with some of the repetition — did we mention the carbonation is tight? — but this guy is really, really tasting the beer. And he's not alone in praising this particular beauty — Beer Advocate gives it an A.
Crouch also aims to expand beer drinkers' horizons while not turning them into bores, and he seeks to gently rein in the extreme beer trend, which recently took a grotesque turn when stunt brewery extraordinaire Brew Dog made a 55 percent alcohol "beer" with the bottles stuffed in shoat or squirrel roadkill. You read that right. Only 12 bottles were released and, no, at $780 they did not send me a sample. Not to be outdone, a Dutch brewer announced he had made a beer with 60 percent alcohol. Crouch calls this an "alcohol arms race." Sure, these things made headlines, but they're just not beer. Neither is the sublime Sam Adams Utopia which, at a relatively wimpy 27 percent, is more like port or cognac.
But I am by no means a purist; I like bold, adventurous, style-challenging beers a whole lot. Maybe too much. My palate has been napalmed by hops. My lawnmower beer is barley wine. I once distractedly drank a Dogfish Head 120 and thought it was a 90. I brush my teeth with Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA. Which is why I started to feel, as I read this passage, that Crouch was writing about, um, me:
"As you begin to learn more about craft beer, the temptation will inevitably arise to fall prey to some of the bad habits of beer geeks. Here are a few easy rules to help you avoid this unfortunate fate. First off, don't worship exclusively at the altar of big, boozy and hoppy beers. While big can be beautiful, it's not always better when it comes to beer. The development of the extreme beer phenomenon has led to a quiet and gradual shift in the collective palates of beer drinkers, as brewers seek to capture some of the attention paid to these unusual beers. Though some hard-core beer geeks go crazy for unbalanced hop, malt and alcohol bombs, their rise in popularity has caused a loss of perspective. The truest skill a brewery can display is in the creation of a subtle, gentle beer, in which beauty and complexity flourish without destroying your palate for the next round."
OK, yeah, so that's me. Guilty. When I head out to ye olde public house, start with a Bear Republic Racer 5 and close out with a Stone Ruination, my taste buds have been battered senseless, in no condition to assess — much less enjoy — something more delicate and less slap-your-mama like a St. Arnold Lawnmower.
Is that a beer writer failure? You tell me. It's a fact that those lighter styles, particularly lagers, are much more difficult to brew than brawny beers. There's no place to hide a mistake. But though I admire the craft, the artistry, I'll have something more substantial, thank you. Does anybody out there have any pointers for stepping back from the extreme beer brink? Is this a cry for help? Maybe I should I stop and get something nice and crisp on the way home tonight.
On the other hand, Aug. 16-22 is Hop Week at the Flying Saucer ...