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Drink Your History: "The Audacity of Hops"

Eitan Kensky, August 14, 2013 -   

Cambridge Brewing Company is a brewpub in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I came here because their Belgian-style IPA, The Audacity of Hops (1.75 BAR) shares a name with the book I’m reviewing, Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Like me, Acitelli lives in Cambridge, but I assume that the name is a coincidence. This is a liberal city, a place where people are wont to make Barack Obama puns, though they’re as likely to complain that the Barack Obama pun hasn’t lived up to expectations.

It’s a perfect name for both the book and the beer. The drink’s intense hoppy bitterness hits you immediately, almost as if it were trying to shock and awe (wrong president; sorry) your palate into obeying its rules. There are notes of citrus and a complexity of flavor that weren’t initially expected. I’m not going to argue with the rating; 1.75 BAR sounds right. But it was a remarkable how much more textured it was and how much more it developed than the last beer I’d had at a brewpub, The Cape Ann Brewing Company’s Sunrise Saison (-.2 BAR). That’s a beer that tastes well but goes nowhere. Its initial sweetness quickly becomes cloying. The Audacity of Hops isn’t a great beer, but it is one that shows that its brewers are interested in maximizing their ingredients.  

Likewise, “The Audacity of Hops” is a perfect name for the book because hops built the American craft beer industry. American craft brewers embraced hops and exploited hops in ways that no one had ever tried before. American craft beer tastes the way it does because an American variety of hops, the Cascade, tastes so rich and has so many floral notes.

This is both a set of facts that BeerGraphs readers know and a deceptively audacious way to pose an historical argument. By making hops the center of his story, Acitelli makes flavor the center of his story and even the center of what makes craft beer. Acitelli dives into the debates that tore apart the craft beer industry: debates about size, about money, about contract brewing, phantom crafts, and about corporate control.

He also ties the history of craft beer into the larger history of American food trends, and the broader socioeconomic factors that created life in the second half of the 20th century, viz.: the interstate highway system that created national industries and killed regional brewers, de-industrialization, the rise of finance capital, and, now, re-urbanization and the emphasis on the local.

Yet with the exception of connecting craft beer to broader food trends, all of this is secondary in Acitelli’s narrative. Acitelli’s history of craft beer is the history of the pursuit of flavor.

In Acitelli’s telling, the darkest period of American craft brewing, the period when the first microbrew bubble popped (cf. Eno’s great post), was darkest because flavor and quality mattered less than market share. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s only an overly moralistic interpretation that obscures the macroeconomic forces that brewers can’t control. Either way, Acitelli’s story of men -- and the heroes of the book are 99% men -- discovering that beer can taste good and then deciding to brew something even better, is always engaging, and sometimes even inspiring. You may find yourself seriously thinking about homebrewing for the first time.

But as you can likely tell from the last few paragraphs, the book’s biggest problem is that it takes on too much. Acitelli’s book is excellent, well-written, impressive, and also dense. The book is overloaded with information and characters. Acitelli extensively foreshadows eventual controversies and significant developments, but holding everything in your mind at once can be dizzying. Definitions muddle. What distinguishes a second wave craft beer from a third? Is this still the third wave (as it is with coffee), or have we entered the fourth, or a fifth? Are these chronological waves, or are they defined by the means of production? The definition shifts over the course of the book.

Likewise, the narrative is disjointed. Chapters are broken down into a series of micro-essays. For four pages we’re in Brooklyn; in the next four, we’re in Sonoma; then suddenly, we’re reading about the creation of Zymurgy. Acitelli is trying to capture the simultaneous development of the industry, the fact that people on the West Coast, on the East Coast, and in Colorado were all working and innovating at the same time. It’s an admirable effort, but the overall effect is that it’s hard to read the book as one extended narrative.

The best way to enjoy The Audacity of Hops and to get the most out of the book is to read it slowly and to pair its chapters and sub-chapters with beer. Drink your history. Find a beer that Acitelli describes or discusses and drink it while you read the relevant pages. Then stop reading and try similar beers. Get used to the class and what sets it apart. Some of the beers and breweries Acitelli lovingly describes no longer exist, but you can find something similar. Other beers he discusses are not only still available, they were probably some of the first craft beers you ever had. You may even be staying away from them because the company is now too large and because there are so many new beers to try. Take this opportunity to try them again.

Here are a few suggested pairings, with notes:

1. Anchor Brewing Company, Anchor Steam Beer (2.39 BAR), and pp. 3-34. American craft beer starts when Fritz Maytag buys San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in 1965. Anchor was not a good beer in the early 1960s, but it tasted different, nothing like the big American brewers. It pointed to other possibilities. Maytag, who came from a wealthy family, decided to invest in the brewery and to improve the product. At the time, distribution was local and Anchor was more likely to be found at a crunchy, vegetarian cafe than at your local bar.

2. Anchor Brewing Company, Liberty Ale (.35), and pp. 35-39, “The Most Influential Beer.” It’s fitting that the first beer to embrace Cascade hops scores so poorly on BeerGraph’s rankings. Liberty Ale was more bitter than Miller Lite, but it’s nowhere near as bitter as some contemporary IPAs. The ranking documents how much our palates have changed.

3. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Pale Ale (5.06) and everything in the book about Jack McAuliffe. Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company was the first microbrewery. He renovated an old warehouse in Sonoma and scrounged for equipment. He worked long hours and never made enough money to pay himself a living wage. But people used to make pilgrimages to try the beer, and he inspired many of the most important brewers, including Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman. Depending on what part of his life story you want to emphasize, McAuliffe is either the Alice Waters of craft brewing or its J. D. Salinger.

4. Boston Beer Company, Samuel Adams Boston Lager (2.83) and pp. 100-143 Jim Koch’s big innovation was to make a clean beer. Most Americans drank lagers, but craft brewers were focused on ales. These were cloudier and more inconsistent than the mass market beers, and Koch realized that they were turning off potential customers. His goal was to make a stable product. To get there, he turned to a practice called “contract brewing.” Essentially, the Boston Beer Company contracted a regional brewery to produce the beer from their recipe and to their specifications. The practice was -- and is -- controversial, but it unquestionably enabled craft brewing to scale-up and secure large distribution. Brewers no longer had to invest in their own brewing equipment, at least not to the same extent.

Remember, here, that Acitelli’s narrative is about flavor. He’s more sympathetic to contract brewing -- and even to “phantom crafts,” things the look like craft beer but are really made by the big brewers, e.g. Blue Moon -- than other beer historians and critics because purity of brewing is less important to him than purity of taste. Sam Adams made better tasting lager available to more people. To Acitelli, the Boston Beer Company is like Ben & Jerry’s: it’s fully a corporation, but one trying to show that corporations can make tangible improvements to things like taste and flavor.

I’ll stop here because part of the fun of reading The Audacity of Hops this way is deciding what beers to pair with the chapters. I’ll also stop here because my pairings and criticisms of Acitelli’s book will become less and less interesting to the average beer drinker. I’ll start to write things like,

5. Cambridge Brewing Company, The Audacity of Hops and pp. 226-229. Here Acitelli describes the opening of the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To Acitelli, the Brooklyn Brewery and the company’s community outreach were, “a stop on the literal and psychological route of the renaissance that the borough of two million was about to undergo.” This isn’t the only time Acitelli links the construction of a brewery or brewpub with the revitalization of an urban neighborhood. While it’s sometimes true, it’s also a conclusion we should resist. The largest reasons for Williamsburg’s gentrification were its proximity to Manhattan and relative affordability. Cambridge Brewing Company opened in Kendall Square in 1989 -- which doesn’t mean we should give it any credit in the explosion of the Massachusetts technology industry.   

But I have to emphasize that I only offer that criticism because Acitelli’s book is a thoughtful and serious work of history. It’s an excellent chronicle of the rise of the craft beer industry, told through the men who founded breweries and the men who wrote about beer. It’s the kind of book that you’ll enjoy whether you already know a lot about the subject or if you’re only starting to learn more. Just read it slowly, maybe with a friend, making frequent trips to the local bar for “research.”

Follow Eitan on twitter at @elkensky. Send complaints.

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