This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible (2015, Workman Publishing) doesn’t represent a terribly new idea, but that isn’t to say it’s not still very good. There are a lot of books these days about beer, and most of them are pretty good and have a ton of information, more than the novice craft beer drinker really needs. Unfortunately they have a lot of overlap, and each one only distinguishes itself by a few unique features. Whichever one you pick up first is likely to be sufficient, and such is the case with Alworth’s tome. That all sounds like I’m down on this book. Not at all. I’ve just seen (and own) others like it.
The Beer Bible starts out with the expected throat-clearing, comprised of a brief history of beer, a basic explanation of the brewing process, and guidance on how best to taste beer to get the most out of it. Then begins the largest section of the book, which is devoted to beer styles. Alworth works through a semi-exhaustive list of beer styles, explaining for each the style’s origin, unique brewing processes, tasting notes, and established commercial examples of each. He also spends time talking about the geographical regions some of these styles come from, and the brewing and drinking cultures unique to those regions. Finally, there is a chapter titled Enjoying Beer, which explains how to serve and store beer, pair it with food, and how to find and order beer in different countries (a more nuanced and varied process than you might think). The book concludes with a small but helpful collection of appendices.
Alworth sets his book apart with two defining qualities–good prose and helpful, non-trivial asides. There are a lot of people who know a lot about beer. What allows some of them to pen helpful books for beer drinkers is their ability to craft that knowledge into pleasant, approachable writing. Describing a brewing process well is one thing, but describing something as abstract and ephemeral and potentially esoteric as the way a beer tastes once you really know how to tease all those flavors out? That’s another challenge altogether. How do you describe the funky, musty, horse stall flavors of an aged gueuze in such a way that it doesn’t sound repulsive to a beginner? Alworth does this well. As for the non-trivial asides, that is a bigger accomplishment than it sounds like. The new wave of beer books are well-designed, visually pleasing volumes with lots of graphics, pictures, and blockquoted asides, and The Beer Bible is no exception. In many of those books these asides are somewhat pointless anecdotes or trivia or serve more as expounded pullquotes from the rest of the text. In The Beer Bible they actually provide some useful information, often answering (or anticipating) questions readers might have from the current page. This is a victory of design and efficiency.
Though it only takes up about a dozen pages, the section on pub etiquette around the world is tremendously helpful. Figuring out (or guessing) how to correctly navigate the nuances and intricacies of bars around the world (or right here at home) is tricky and, if you have social anxiety issues like I do, very nerveracking. Do you sit down or wait to be seated? Do you order at the bar or from a server, and do you pay as you go or accrue a tab? Do you tip? How much? How do you ask for the bill? Most of these details change from country to country, and Alworth takes the guesswork out of it for us awkward types by explaining the unspoken rules. The book might be worth the price to me just for that.
Alworth is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and his book is a solid contribution to the avid beer lover’s library, even if its form and content are not entirely original. The novice with a hunger (thirst?) for more knowledge about her favorite libation could do far worse than starting with The Beer Bible, and seasoned aficionados are likely to find some new information as well. Cheers.