Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer
Harvest Books (Harcourt): 2006
The short history of American brewing is:
American brewing peaked in 1873, when there were 4,131 breweries. By 1978, the industry’s low point, forty-one brewers operated eighty-nine plants. Today breweries number nearly 1,500.
The accepted wisdom has been that
Big Brewers scorned honest beer in favor of water swill brewed from cheap corn and rice. The Big Brewers added insult to injury by using crass commercial, linked mostly to professional sporting events, to sell their foul brew to working-class people.
Maureen Ogle is a historian who had written previous books on the history of Key West and ... plumbing in America! She began to question this history of beer.
As I dug through archives and and old trade journals, I discovered that almost every aspect of that oft-told tale of skulduggery, greed, and woe was false [emphasis mine] and that the truth was considerably more interesting and complex.
The result was Ambitious Brew. As Ogle has pointed out (at her entertaining blog), a historian tells a story weaved from facts gleaned from research. The narrative is an essential partner of the scholarship.
Late summer, 1844. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory. Phillip Best elbowed his way among plank walkways jammed with barrels, boxes, pushcarts, and people. He was headed for the canal, or the "Water power," as the locals called it, a mile-long millrace powered by a tree-trunk-and-gravel dam on the Milwaukee River. Plank docks punctuated its tumbling flow and small manufactories—a few mills, a handful of smithies and wheelwrights, a tannery or two—lined its length. <...> He had been in the United Sates only a few weeks, and Milwaukee's bustle marked a sharp contrast to the drowsy German village where he and his three brothers had worked for their father, Jacob, Sr., a brewer and vintner.
It's a wonderfully evocative opening that draws you in, hooked. Along the way, Ogle punctures many myth-balloons, doing what a real historian does: researching the record.
You can see Ogle in action, the skeptical historian, during a panel discussion included on a DVD of the beer industry documentary Beer Wars, released earlier this year. Watching her question the statements of the brewers and beer experts on the panel, one is viscerally reminded how male dominated the beer industry —and the 'craft beer' industry— was and is. She gives 'em hell ... gently.
12 'Beer' Books for Christmas: This is another in a a series of 12 recommendations for beer-themed books —one per day, until the Winter Solstice, 21 December.
This is not a Top 12 list. It's my list of 12 books, personal delights. On Christmas Day: put your feet up, pour yourself a good beer, and read a good book. Better yet: give a friend the gift of a beer and a book. The entire list here.