The Brewer's Tale: Reviewed

Alex Remington, July 27, 2015

“A guy walks into a bar. It’s the oldest setup there is. But what happens next?”

That’s the opening to William Bostwick’s 2014 book, “The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer,” and it demonstrates many of the book’s qualities: its pleasantly familiar subject matter, its ingratiating tone, its frequent leaden humor, its cliché-ridden prose. Bostwick is a homebrewer and beer critic for The Wall Street Journal, but he writes more as a fan than a journalist or historian.

That’s not a fatal flaw: while he is no great prose stylist, he has a lot of engaging stories to tell. The book is mixture of memoir and history, ordered thematically rather than chronologically, in a style that’s clearly inspired by Michael Pollan.

“Every instant has its own perfect beer, then it’s gone,” says Ron Jeffries, the brewmaster at Jolly Pumpkin. “That’s the fleeting art of the brewmaster.” That is why the hero of Bostwick’s story is the brewer, the artist of the ephemeral who trusts that his work today will yield satisfying results weeks later. Bostwick tells his story through eight avatars, archetypal brewers who embody different phases in the development of the drink. He then periodically interrupts himself as he narrates his own homebrewing attempts to recreate history.

The first avatar is the Babylonian. Beer is as ancient as civilization: among the most important inventions of the Agricultural Revolution, beer sustained farmers and other workers for literally thousands of years, a far safer beverage than groundwater, which was frequently contaminated. Before the discovery of hops, some of the earliest beers were effectively just liquefied bread: Sumerians made a type of honey cake called bappir, then they would boil the crumbs in water and wait for wild yeast to ferment the sugars. Both bread and beer have come a long way since then, evolving as circumstance demands.

His second avatar is the Shaman: this is the brewer who searches not for nutrition, but for intoxication. Beer spent centuries as a pagan libation, served at Viking meadhalls and Celtic rituals, where communal drunkenness was a cherished aspect of communal cohesion.

The third avatar is the Monk, who redirected beer’s potency to more Godly ends, finding sublimity in the development of sweet ales. The fourth is the Farmer, the rustic inventors of the saison and lambic styles, who explored the possibilities of funky wild yeasts, making beers with anything at hand. “Farmhouse brewing means being lazy,” says Josh Cronin, a beekeeper and brewer at Rogue Farms. “Using what’s in season, using what you have.”

Then, the history of beer turned corporate. The fifth avatar is the Industrialist, like the London brewers who found a way to commercialize porters and pales and ship them halfway around the world, on transcontinental voyages to India and shorter journeys to the imperial court of the Russian tsar. Their efforts popularized pale malts, inspiring German brewers to create marzens and Czechs to create pilsners.

The sixth is the Patriot: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both had breweries on their estates, and America quickly became a land of taverns: the making of a good beer was quite literally a patriotic act.

Seventh is the Immigrant, the Germans who came to cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis and created massively successful breweries, popularizing lagers in America. And finally, the eighth is the Advertiser, the phenomenally successful executive who marketed and sold Wonder Bread and Miller Lite — which, just like bappir and Sumerian beer, are very nearly the same thing. Still, following the collapse of American brewing during and immediately after Prohibition, this marketing effort helped to build back the American beer market.

Bostwick’s avatars are more allusive than persuasive. He is not trying to build a grand theory of beer, nor anything so grandiose as “a history of the world according to beer”; he’s offering a breezy retelling of the major touchstones of beer’s evolution. The book is a popular history, not an academic argument. His attempt to weave his own experience into the history is not totally successful; while his homebrewing can help to bring the history to life, too often it distracts from the real story.

Likewise, his styling can often be clunky and hard to read: “The residue on which that beer was based caked urns found buried with the world’s first musical instrument, a birdbone flute.” It can also be needlessly portentous: “The fateful bar visit that sparked this journey was overwhelming, but nothing compared to the array of beers I regularly see today, only a few years later.”

But it is still a charming series of stories, told by a man who clearly loves his subject. Scarcely 250 pages, the book reads extremely quickly; you could finish it on a single flight from coast to coast. However, that may not be the best way to read it. As Eitan Kensky suggested in a review for a different book, “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.”

I am quite sure that Bostwick would not disagree.