Book Review: The World Atlas of Beer

Take two preeminent beer writers, have them collaborate on a book and expectations will be high. In the case of The World Atlas of Beer, the writers in questions are Canada’s own Stephen Beaumont and Britain’s Tim Webb. These two gentlemen have plenty of experience covering national beer scenes, but gave themselves an even bigger project with this book – create a snapshot of beer around the world as of right now. The usual suspects are described in detail (Belgium, Germany, England, the United States), but they also explore the up and coming beer countries like Sweden and Brazil.

In many ways, The World Atlas of Beer feels like a travel book meets coffee table book. Every chapter ends with a little box called “When You Are There” filled with tips about what to expect when you visit a country (eg. ordering at the bar vs. server, cost of beer, if restaurants will serve good beer). As with any atlas, the book is loaded with maps, filled with where breweries are located in a country or geographic region. In some cases, the maps also try to plot out the growth and innovation of craft beer in certain regions, which is a nice visual complement to the text. It does a great job of highlighting some of the lesser known beers in each country and is not just a recap of the usual suspects. (That being said, the beer highlights in the American sections are a little uninspired but that could be because I have a greater knowledge based on geographic proximity.) It doesn’t really matter whether or not a beer is easy to find, which is evident by the fact that the Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Brut and Le Trou du Diable Dulcis Succubus are the first two beers mentioned in the Quebec and East Coast section – not exactly the easiest beers to find in La Belle Province. At the same time, the beer picks are a nice mix between the highly coveted beer geek picks and beers that don’t often get the credit they deserve (the Full Sail Session Lager is one random example that comes to mind).

The book is not solely about the geography of beer in terms of where styles originated and what is happening now. There are also pages on beer and food, pouring beer, the brewing process and the problems of trying to define “craft beer.” These are cursory glimpses at subjects that could take up much larger space, but serve as an introduction for people not as well versed in the various aspects of beer and beer culture. The mini-essay on defining craft beer is one of the surprising moments in the book, as it succinctly describes problems in trying to lump all these great breweries around the world in a term like microbrewery or craft beer. Other opinionated digressions pop up sporadically throughout the book (the part on CAMRA is also quite excellent) and help add some punch to the text.

While the book is obviously very well researched and written, the design and look feels a little dated. It felt like I had already seen several iterations of the same layout, so I grabbed a couple of books of my shelf (Beer: An Illustrated History by Brian Glover and Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion) as a comparison. In this first comparison, the World Atlas is to the right of the book by Glover:

And in this one the Michael Jackson book is on the left:

My point is basically that they could have done a bit more visually. It looks staid and aged, which is a shame because it does a disservice to the content. You don’t want your book to look dated on its release, because it’s only downhill from there.

A book like this can really only be equivalent to a survey course for first year students. The scope is too large to really cover any one aspect with the depth it requires. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Ontario, Finland or Italy, you’ll probably have a moment of, “I can’t believe they didn’t mention Beer X!” The writers can’t do much more than give a glimpse of the beer culture in any country or else have the book balloon to an unreasonable size. When you’re writing a book about the global beer culture at a certain moment, it is almost guaranteed to be a little out of date by the time it finally goes to printing. I’m not trying to take anything away from the work that went into the book, just trying to give a sense of the way it works. The authors seem to have a sense of this as well, which is why a good deal is made of emerging brewing countries like Brazil and the giant unknowns of what will come from China and India in the coming years.

A good amount of my time reading The World Atlas of Beer was during the morning, sitting at the kitchen table with breakfast and coffee. (It’s a little too bulky for the commute or bedtime reading.) Even though it was pretty early, just reading the book started up cravings for beer. There are some flaws with the book, but it made me wish I was in a pub in England or cafe in Belgium, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying a local beer. It inspires me to travel to these countries and get a first-hand sense for how the beer culture is evolving around the globe, which is exactly what a book like this should do. If you’ve yet to drop hints to friends and family about what you might like for Christmas, add this book to your list.

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