Two things made me vividly aware of the crud that can accumulate on beer containers, especially in the rims of cans. One was my first Portland job, at the Washington Ave. 7-Eleven. One of my tasks was to stock the beer cooler, which I often did alongside Munjoy Hill legend Bobby Lipps. We’d sling cases of Budweiser and Miller Lite and stack six-packs on the door shelves almost as quickly as they were grabbed after 12:30 on a Saturday night. At quitting time, I’d look at my gunk-darkened hands and wonder why I didn’t wear gloves.
The other cautionary tale is about the microorganisms that can grow on beer containers: the Stephen King story “Gray Matter,” in which, as a result of a contaminated can of beer, a man turns into a massive wad of slime. One of the best beer stories I’ve ever come across.
I like reading about beer, so I thought I’d share my favorite books on the subject. No fiction here, but some good storytelling, and perhaps a cruddy can or two.
British writer Pete Brown’s beer stories rise above all others. Brown’s books are part travel-memoir and part amateur sociology, from the point of view of an average bloke. He explores beer cultures all around the world, talks about the role beer plays in people’s lives and how it’s shaped by a country’s institutions (e.g., its pubs and breweries) and its laws.
Brown’s most recent beer book, 2017’s Miracle Brew, is divided into four sections based upon the four basic ingredients in beer (can you name them?). He travels to the centers of production of these ingredients and reports his observations, offering a bit of history along the way.
In an earlier book, Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer,Brown documented his discoveries and misadventures in Australia, Japan, the Czech Republic, Spain, Denmark, Germany, and his home base of England. My favorite passage is his description of the scene when he tells some Czech beer drinkers how their counterparts in the U.S. and England often get into drunken brawls. The Czechs — who drink more beer, per capita, than anyone in the world — are known for their pacifist culture. They perform a mock fight for Brown, imitating two drunk guys trying to slug one another and failing miserably to make contact. Drinking beer and fighting? How is that even possible?, they wonder.
If beer history is more your bag, I recommend three books: Ambitious Brew, by Maureen Ogle; Crafty Bastards, by Lauren Clark; and Bitter Brew, by William Knoedelseder.
Ambitious Brew, a history of beer in America, helps put our nation’s relationship with beer and its brewers and institutions in perspective. The machinations of the big breweries in the 1950s and ’60s are fascinating, and Ogle tells the compelling story of how obsessive competition between these corporate giants led them to create the watery mainstream brews we’ve come to know as “American beer.”
Crafty Bastards covers some of the same ground, but focuses on New England, with an emphasis in its latter half on the rise of craft breweries. Published in 2014, as the second wave of microbreweries was crashing the gates, Clark’s book occasionally veers from history to promotion, but it’s well worth a read.
Bitter Brew, as its subtitle explains, is about “The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s King of Beers.” Knoedelseder works from interviews with the Busch family and employees to detail the crazy inter-clan politics and backstabbing at what became the biggest beer company on earth. It reads like an American version of the story of the Tudors, minus the beheadings and with more lager.
For a well thought-out and comprehensive reference book, I turn to Tasting Beer (2nd Edition), by noted beer authority Randy Mosher. Sure, there’s tons of beer info online, but if you want cool charts, a little history, and beer recommendations all in one tome, this is it.
The Great State of Maine Beer Book, by Will Anderson, has long been out of print, but used copies are findable. Anderson, who died in 2015, was a Portlander. His book, published in 1996, highlights the promise of then-budding microbreweries like Geary’s, Shipyard and Gritty McDuff’s in profiles that now seem quaint. The bulk of the book is a collection of memorabilia (or breweriana) from the history of beer in Maine, short and sporadic as it was. This has been a “dry” state for much of its history, and one without large numbers of German or Czech immigrants, who established the lion’s share of breweries in the U.S. Historically speaking, Maine missed the beer boat, but Anderson spins it as a booze cruise.