Book Review: The Audacity of Hops

the-audacity-of-hops-tom-acitelliBeer history, much like the history for almost any other subject, can be equally fascinating or mind numbingly boring. Often it is personal preference – clearly some people enjoy digging back in time to find out what styles may have tasted like in 1800s, while others (ie. me) find this tedious work. Trying to talk about what a “historical” porter would be like is kind of moot, because it would be almost impossible due to technological advances for anyone to brew that beer now. What interests me is all the reasons (social, economic, industrial, etc) that have changed beer over time and had influence upon the beverage we all care so much about. So let’s just sum up this intro by saying that I was wary of how Tom Acitelli would make the American craft beer revolution an interesting read in The Audacity of Hops (and string it out for 350 pages).

Luckily, he has succeeded for the most part in making a book that strikes a nice balance of being very information based while still being readable and interesting. Dividing the book up into relatively short chapters that jump around the country really helps keep the book moving. It is never allowed to drag for too long on one person or brewery before seeing what is happening at some other part of the country. The author doesn’t impart too much of himself in the writing, but keeps things light with the right amount of anecdotes to provide levity and humour to the text. There are moments when it drags on a little (the 80s weren’t a particularly interesting time for craft beer – basically breweries opened in new places), but overall it is an interesting read for anyone curious about the rise of American craft beer through the last fifty years.

One thing the book got me thinking about was how the narrative of the craft beer movement has been shaped and how readily it has been accepted. It’s like the saying, “History is written by the victors.” The main people we talk about when discussing the start of craft beer are people like Fritz Maytag, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman and Charlie Papazian. These are also people who have gone on to be at the forefront of relatively large breweries (with the exception of Papazian who has had a hand in publishing and various associations, plus a little thing called the Great American Beer Festival). It is not surprising that they have become the faces of the early years of craft beer because they have also had some of the greatest successes. I started to wonder how much they have been able to shape the narrative of craft beer through the constant retelling of the history of their organizations.

Any of the above names are far more common than Jack McAuliffe and his New Albion brewery, the first craft brewery started in the modern era. It tasted from 1976-82 and influenced a lot of people in the industry, but it is harder to understand the effect of a brewery that no longer exists and whose beers have not entered like collective consciousness like an Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale or Sam Adams Boston Lager. People like Jim Koch, who are still going around the world and continually reinforcing the Boston Beer Company origin story, get to write their own histories because they have existed for so long and managed to grow into large craft breweries. The sources for the book include interviews with many of the subjects or the books they have written. Not to knock the author on his research methods, but it would have been nice to see some criticism or analysis done on the narratives that these breweries present.

Not to keep harping on Jim Koch and the Boston Beer Company, but it provides a good example of a time when  The Audacity of Hops stuck to the usual origin story and failed to dig deeper. Koch was interview for the book so it is no surprise that we get a recounting of the history of the brewery and the Boston Lager. He takes centre stage, while co-founder Rhonda Kallman (who people may remember from the Beer Wars documentary) is portrayed as more of Koch’s assistant than a business partner. Kallman later does get credit as the “leader of the industry’s most productive sales force” (pg 270), but it was one of moments that rang a little hollow. As the face of the Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch and his history drives their narrative. It just becomes harder to except everything in the book as truth when it seems to be regurgitating the marketing of large breweries.

The most interesting part of the book is the section on the 90s that examines what happens when a number of breweries went public. (Hint: it mirrored the tech bubble.) While the industry has been fairly stable this century, it was fascinating to learn of the hard times that craft beer went through. A number of breweries closed because they went big too soon and there wasn’t enough demand to match their new capacity. These difficult years are almost never talked about and Ontario breweries would be smart to learn from the mistakes that the States made fifteen to twenty years ago. (For more, read the excellent post “Fun With Numbers: Doom and Gloom Edition” over at St. John’s Wort. Good stuff from Jordan.)

The Audacity of Hops is worth reading just for this section, but the book has a lot to offer as a whole. It would be a great pick for a beer book club because there are a lot of different discussion points that arise. The author has also done a great job writing a book that can be enjoyed equally by people with different levels of beer knowledge. Finally, it also contains an awesome picture of Michael Jackson from the 70s that makes me laugh every time I look at it – it’s worth buying the book just for that reason.

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