When you think about it, a graphic novel about the history of beer in all its forms is long overdue.
Already, there exist historical graphic novels of every sort, from the hyper-personal (see: Persepolis) to generalized histories of the modern world, the universe, and even the Constitution of the United States and Gettysburg. And those last two efforts mentioned specifically pertain to the forthcoming The Comic Book Story of Beer (Ten Speed Press, available for pre-order now for September), as the artist behind all three is one and the same.
Author Jonathan Hennessey, a Framingham-raised illustrator who went from working on Hollywood films (see: Rushmore) to comics, teamed up with childhood friend and Cape Cod-grown brewer Mike Smith after he led Hennessey on a tour of Mayflower Brewing in Plymouth during his time there. Smith had previously worked for years at Harpoon in Boston as a lead brewer (he even authored one of the brewery’s vaunted 100 Barrel Series lines).
Hennessey became enraptured by Smith’s beer history knowledge and acute storytelling abilities, involving all manner of beer trivia, factoids, and a deep understanding of beer’s place in the story of human civilization. He thought, “We have a graphic novel here.”
Beer and comics feel very compatible as a topic and a teaching tool.
JH: I would say that beer has always been the drink of the people, in most times of the world and most places of the world, and visual storytelling, be it medieval tapestries and down to cave paintings, has always been the art form of the people. So the drink and the art form of the people have just been waiting to be introduced, and this book puts the two of them together.
Mike, how did you get into beer?
MS: I had an appreciation for beer and had a science background, and got into homebrewing in [the] early ’90s when information was still hard to find on it. This was the early days of craft beer. But everything kind of clicked. Beer doesn’t come from a store; it comes from human beings making it, so I just really started exploring different kinds of beers, which led to an apprenticeship at a brewpub in Austin [and later] a job cleaning kegs in Harpoon in Boston after moving back home. I became one of the lead brewers there and moved on to Mayflower Brewing in Plymouth, where Jonathan came in for a tour of the brewery, and that’s the spark that led to this book.
Jonathan, what were your first thoughts when you began considering this as a graphic history book?
JH: I loved the idea that someone could take something as common and beloved as beer and, for the reluctant learner of history, use that as a portal in to appreciate the full story of where beer comes from, what it’s done for humanity, where it’s going, and get this great sense of our place in the world through that.
What’s something you learned about beer from researching and publishing this project?
JH: I had a little of a sense of how old beer was, but not how ancient it is. Its development in trade has really given a lot to loosen the chokehold that the elites have always had on the common people. In medieval times, the nobility and the Church had a chokehold on the potential of the average human being. You couldn’t sell things one place to another because there would be charges and tolls for bridges, roads, etc. And very early on, it was a fact that when beer was developed enough with [the] introduction of hops, when you could actually sell it somewhere and not just drink it where it was made, there was a group of Germanic businessman who asserted [the] control of trade, took to the seas to bring beer and other products all over every ports where they could reach, and that began to upset the power structure that had held people down for millennia and led to progressive[ness] and liberalism that literally informed the French and American revolution, and the strength and freedom a person has today in their ability to harness their full potential.
MS: One of the ways I like to talk about it is, the story of beer and the story of civilization are completely intertwined from the very very beginning; two sides of the same story. One of the oldest samples of writing in the world is actually a beer recipe. And now the history of beer is getting repeated with all these new breweries pushing the boundaries with what beer is right now.
Beer is freedom. You heard it here, folks.
THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF BEER. NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER AT THECOMICBOOKSTORYOFBEER.COM
Dan is a freelance journalist and has written for publications including Vice, Esquire, the Daily Beast, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, MEL, Leafly, Thrillist, and DigBoston.