For nearly 20 years, since around the time that I began enjoying beer, I have been repeating the same couple of factoids about the stuff. One is that because of a limited amount of surface area exposure, beer in a much bigger container will hold, even taste, better than the same beer in a smaller bottle. It wasn’t much, but that tidbit made it somewhat less embarrassing that my father kept several forties in the refrigerator at all times; he always claimed that the preferred size bottle of my favorite rappers was more flavorful, and to my amazement, he was correct.
I learned that truth about container size, as well as other slices of knowledge I use to enlighten and annoy people at parties, from a book that a friend of my family bought me in high school. Since then I have imbibed innumerable pops, and I probably know more than most people about the topic due to editing this newspaper—an early booster of superior beers, I will proudly note—but I still don’t know nearly enough. And so it was a blessing to discover this new ode to suds by accomplished beer writer Pete Brown: Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer.
There’s an amazingly vast history bubbling; Brown’s tagline is broad: “Beer is the third most popular drink on the planet, yet few people know the full story behind its four ingredients.” But the beautiful and dirty details, as well as deeply researched history, comes woven throughout every chapter as the author travels from past centuries on into various nooks of the modern brew world, the whole time drinking it all in. For all the universally fascinating scenes, like Brown getting the full pedagogical treatment about water from a host of experts arranged by Guinness in Dublin, there are also moments that will prove definitely tedious for relative pedestrians. Nevertheless, while Brown holds readers’ hands through a few biochemistry classes, Miracle Brew isn’t presented any more scientifically, or textbook, than it has to.
In explaining the brilliance and background of barley, yeast, water, and hops—on their own as well as in sweet tandem—the author shows that he can craft a hoppy sentence to accompany the stimulated mouthful of ingredients in play: “Yeast needs sugar to produce alcohol. In grapes and other fruit, this sugar is relatively accessible from a microscopic predator’s point of view, and their orgy of consumption and reproduction gives us wine, or cider.” Such smooth delivery and memorable lines make for a must-read in this microgenre about micro brews, at least according to the bartenders and snobs whom I have shown it to over the past month while perusing it.
Wondering where Brown’s new contribution to the canon will connect with your knowledge? There’s a section early on in Miracle Brew that serves as a litmus test; if you’re something like the author’s increasingly beer-curious friends, then you’ll want to grab a copy plus catch the author on his brewery tour through the region.
There’s been a change in my non-beery friends… Every year, we have a summer barbecue and a Christmas party where we ask people to bring anything they want except beer, and we try to clear my cellar. Ten years ago I would have to grudgingly go out and buy some mainstream lager because most people wouldn’t touch the range of golden ales, best bitters, pale ales, porters and stouts I put out. Seven years ago, they were happily drinking those beers, even asking questions about them. For the past five years, those same drinkers have looked at the range of beers I’ve been sent, sniffed, and said, ‘Haven’t you got anything with Citra hops? Or Nelson Sauvin?’
Get your copy of Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer.
THE PETE BROWN “MIRACLE BREW” BOOK TOUR. MON 10.23 AT HARPOON BREWERY, BOSTON.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.