Friday, April 27, 2007

Booknote: Ambitious Brew

Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. New York: Harcourt, 2006. ISBN: 0-15-101012-9.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: History, U.S. History, Beer and brewers

Ms. Ogle tells the story of American beer from the first German immigrants to today's renaissance of microbrews. The book's strength for me is that it is more than a history of beer. The book gives a broad picture of American history and culture from the 1800s to today. Busch, Pabst, Best, and the other great entrepreneurs are shown along with other not so well known folks who still played key roles in the evolution of beer. I found it interesting that today many people complain that the large breweries (this usually means Anheuser-Busch) produce a bland and boring beer. While I personally do agree that the larger mass produced stuff is, to say the least, boring, Ogle makes an interesting point. That point is that people's palates over time evolved in order to prefer the bland beer that people complain about. Then again, you also have to look at the numbers, and Anheuser Busch is the major seller of beer in the United States. They must be doing something right if people buy it. To me, that was fascinating how Ogle looks at social movements and how people's tastes for beer changed over time. From temperance to prohibition to diet fads, they all helped to shape how Americans view and tasted beer. In that journey, we get to see the history of the United States as well.

Though the pace of the book is a bit slow at times, overall I highly recommend it. It is not just a book about beer. It is a history of the men who made and continue to make beer in America from the big families most people know to smaller folks. Not all succeeded; some failed miserably, and yet even those left their mark or made some contribution. I learned a lot of new things, and I have a bit more of an appreciation for American beer. I will say that I still prefer the smaller ones when possible, but I won't turn you down if you offer me a Bud. By the way, the story behind the name Budweiser itself is enough to make you want to read the book. If you must known, I favor Samuel Adams, and I just discovered Leinenkugel (what can I say, I am a simple guy). However, as some readers of mine already know, I am more of a wine drinker, but I also enjoy the occasional bourbon, rum, and tequila. But hey, in the end, it's all good, and I am always willing to try new things. So, go read Ms. Ogle's book, and remember to raise your favorite glass of brew to the great dreamers who made it possible. Just do it in moderation please.

Similar books, or books I have read that I think others may enjoy if they like this one:

  • Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses. My note is here. It does have a chapter on beer.
  • Kyle Jarrard, Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit. Find my note here. This book is just a pleasure to read. Very smooth and relaxed prose. Interesting too.
  • Josh Peter, Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies, and Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour. I know, this has nothing to do with beer or liquor per se, but if you enjoy popular histories, you may enjoy this one. Find my note for it here.
And finally, while we are discussing beer, I came across this report on how the beer industry contributes the the U.S. economy (press release; find the report at the Beer Serves America website). Actually, Ogle looks at that issue given that historically beer companies used that argument to cement their position. It did not help them much when prohibition came around, but the nation discovered, the hard way, that prohibition was not a very good idea.

A hat tip for the report to Docuticker.

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