Draught Diversions Book Review: Drink Beer, Think Beer by John Holl

Title: Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint
Author: John Holl
Publication Date: September 2018
Publisher: Basic Books

Beer is in a golden age, and that doesn’t just refer to the color of the beer itself. It is a liquid that many can and do take for granted. But considering it is the #2 beverage in the world, coffee understandably being #1, beer is something worth pondering. Something worth considering, something that should be more than simply a drink. Beer can be a delicious experience where a full glass can be the intersection of art and science. Preeminent beer writer John Holl argues cogently, eloquently, and passionately that beer is something worthy of deep consideration in his book, Drink Beer, Think Beer.

Publisher’s Landing Page: Basic Books for the book:

From an award-winning journalist and beer expert, a thoughtful and witty guide to understanding and enjoying beer.

America now has more breweries than at any time since prohibition, and globally, beer culture is thriving and constantly innovating. Drinkers can order beer brewed with local yeast or infused with moondust. However, beer drinkers are also faced with uneven quality and misinformation about flavors. And the industry itself is suffering from growing pains, beset by problems such as unequal access to taps, skewed pricing, and sexism.

Full of entertaining anecdotes and surprising opinions, Drink Beer, Think Beer is a must-read for beer lovers, from casual enthusiasts to die-hard hop heads.

John Holl’s name may be familiar to regular readers of The Tap Takeover, I’ve mentioned his podcasts (Steal This Beer and Craft Beer and Brewing) and chances are if you are reading my blog, you’ve got *some* passing knowledge of beer journalism and social media. In short, John Holl is one of the authoritative voices in the Beer Community having authored a few other books about beer, in addition to this new one.

John gives a broad history of beer in America before focusing more squarely on the California boom of brewing. Here, John spotlights Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion (of which I was only barely aware) and Sierra Nevada, and specifically Sierra Nevada’s iconic Pale Ale. John also touches upon the current craze of brewery only beers releases of 16oz canned 4 packs.

The title of the book is really simple, but that belies the layers of complexity involved in the final product we hold in our hand. Perhaps the most enlightening elements of the book are the features on the four main ingredients: Water, Hops, Yeast, and Grain (usually barley). What is the water source of the beer? We all take water for granted, but without the water – and more importantly quality water – beer wouldn’t exist. Where were the hops grown? Hops, are of course, covered in detail, but aren’t elevated above the three other components which include the grain and the magical, living yeast. What kind of malt is used? How was the yeast propagated? Through these details about the ingredients, and the importance of their quality, John touches upon some breweries and their beers. These are things we can think about when we order, purchase, and drink our beer. Personally, my thoughts about malt and how I convey those thoughts in my reviews here are thrown into a new light. I’ll be thinking about it in more detail.

Beyond the ingredients, we can ponder the vessel/glass in which we drink the beer as well as the draft lines through which the beer travels before arriving in our glasses. Drink Beer, Think Beer exemplifies a good philosophy for life, don’t take everything for granted. Think about the things we consume, either with our guts or our brains. Whether it is a nuanced barleywine, a thick, barrel-aged stout, or a straight-forward pilsner in a clean, appropriately styled glass (as Holl eloquently points out). We should also put down our phones, be present and in the moment; enjoy the liquid we are drinking. I know I’m often guilty of rushing to check my beer into untappd. As John says in the book, from page 192:

”When we slow down—and I include myself in this category—and allow an experience to happen naturally, organically, without worrying about the next social media moment, amazing things can happen. A deeper appreciate can blossom, happy memories can be aroused, new thoughts can develop.”

Some space in the book is devoted to marketing and some points he raises regarding beer names, I agree with wholeheartedly. Beer names that denigrate women or a particularly offensively named brown ale are the kinds of beers that, he suggests, can be mere attention grabbers. I’ve avoided an unfortunate swath of beers based on their offensive names alone myself. Holl’s overreaching point here, as it is throughout the book, is that the quality of the beer should be paramount. A catchy name shouldn’t be the sole reason for buying and drinking a beer.

One of the most striking elements of the book is that authoritative voice John brings to the book. He manages to come across as welcoming the reader, where some “authoritative” voices can come across too full of themselves and unapproachable. His writing style is inviting, clear, precise, and smart. A great combination to talk about a beverage that can be quite complex.

The current beer landscape is very diverse, with local breweries being a viable option for many. Holl cogently argues that the same quality standards should be in place regardless of brewery size and that a subpar liquid should never be served to a customer. He also wisely argues that we, the beer drinker, need to hold brewers, breweries, bartenders – basically every person who is involved in the process of getting the beer to us as the drinker – accountable for their quality. After all, if we don’t tell breweries the truth about their product, they may continue to make a subpar product and that would be a loss for brewer and drinker alike.

I went into this book thinking I possessed a decent amount of knowledge about beer. To wit, by no means do I consider myself an expert, but I wouldn’t have started a blog devoted to beer last year if I couldn’t write with some level of knowledge on the subject and felt comfortable with my ability to convey that knowledge and passion. Some of what I read in Drink Beer, Think Beer was known to me, but there was ample information that was new, as well. Even the stuff that I already knew proved enjoyable and enlightening reading because of Holl’s enthusiastic and clear voice and the way he makes me look at many things about beer I took for granted. I also was drawn to the book because John Holl is a voice I’ve come to trust regarding beer and the beer community, I follow the guy on social media and listen to the two podcasts on which he is featured.  Despite that, Holl’s enthusiasm and intelligence for beer, and how he conveyed it in Drink Beer, Think Beer my expectations for the book were exceeded.

To restate my opening sentiments, but in John’s words (Page 217):

“…this is an amazing time to be a beer drinker, and with our support, smart criticism, and enthusiasm for a proud tradition, better days will prevail.”

Bottom line: as a “seasoned” beer drinker with more than passing knowledge of beer history/culture, I found much to enjoy. Drink Beer, Think Beer is also a great book for folks who are curious about beer and have only passing knowledge about the subject. Holl gets a great deal of information across with precision and in a relatively short amount of space. The book is just over 200 pages of the primary text, not including Epilogue, Acknowledgements, Bibliography/Recommended Reading, and Index. With Christmas just a month away, Holl’s indispensable tome would be a perfect gift to wrap and place in a stocking or under the tree.

Excerpt: https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/john-holl/drink-beer-think-beer/9780465095513/#module-whats-inside

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