Beer Books
a critical view



Beer books, like most everything else connected with brewing, are a bit of an obsession with me. For some, gambling or sex might be the greatest temptation of the internet. I'm a bit sadder; I can't resist internet bookshops.

Generous type that I am, I'm planning to pass on my experiences - both good and bad - to anyone who's interested. I'll be honest: many books drive me to near apoplexy. I hope that this page will function as some sort of therapy and stave off my inevitable thrombie for a few more years.

My own mental and physical health is my only motivation. My views are not intended to offend, belittle or in any way personally attack the authors. My comments are directed solely at the contents of their books.


Beer: the Story of the Pint
Bamberg - Die wahre Hauptstadt des Bieres
Stout (Classic Beer Style Series)
A Century of British Brewers plus
Statistical Handbook

Beer: the Story of the Pint, by Martyn Cornell, 2003

Beer history, or more specifically, the history of beer styles, is a topic almost guaranteed to excite me in a negative way. Martyn Cornell is one of the few authors whose work I can safely read.

There has been much written about the development of British beer in the 18th century and 19th centuries. Almost all of it misguided, at best. The same fantasies, errors and misinterpretations have been endlessly repeated by authors who couldn't be arsed to do any primary research themselves. Martyn Cornell is an exception.

A glance at the Bibilography (13 pages) tells you that he's not neglected his research. Even something as simple as the Timeline in the prefix, stands out with its unusually accurate summary of beer's most important moments.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to the three classic British styles: Porter, Pale Ale and Mild Ale. And Burton, the 20th century's forgotten beer. Black Beer, WW I's draconian restrictions and even the rise of lager are all covered well. His careful look at the vtial Obadiah Poundage text on the origin of Porter is in sharp contrast to the general copying of early 19th century confusion about its meaning.

The Chapter entitled "Gone for a Burton" is packed with detail about the dramatic drop in gravities during the first half of the 20th century. It highlights just how much the Bitters, Milds and Stouts of today differ from their Edwardian ancestors. The text is packed with examples quoting the precise gravity of various beers at different dates. These hard figures are a wonderful tool for demonstrating the transformations that took place, but are not easily come by. To get the volume of facts he uses must have taken an enormous amount of research.

One of my favourite sections is the appendix: A Short and Entirely Unreliable History of Beer. It's essentially a list of myths that regularly appear in print. That stories based on pure fiction should crop up so regularly (some in almost every book on the subject) says something about the state of beer writing. Something not very complimentary.

I don't agree with all of Cornell's arguments 100%. Is AK really shorthand for "Ankel Koyt" (single Koyt) deriving from a late medieval low countries beer? I'm not convinced. But do I have a better explanation? Not really. (The origin of AK is a long-standing obsession of mine. My father's initials were AK. The standard bitter of Holes in Newark - where I had my first job - was called AK.) But I've also seen beers on old price lists called AAK or AKA. What the hell do they mean?

At least his theories are generally based on a foundation of fact. There's a big difference between arguing over interpretation and arguing over the facts themselves.

But that's a minor quibble. Martyn Cornell so nimbly avoids the usual pitfalls and talks so much sense that I can heartily recommend this book as a concise history of British beer. And I wouldn't say that about many other works.

Beer: the Story of the Pint
Martyn Cornell
Headline Publishing
ISBN 0 7553 1164 7

Bamberg - Die wahre Hauptstadt des Bieres, by Christion Fiedler, 2004

If you' re talking about Germany, it's hard to argue with Fiedler's assertion in the title that Bamberg is the true capital city of beer. His book documents all the city's breweries since 1817 with a passion and dedication to detail that exemplifies the very best in local history.

He starts off by running through the important features of the Bamberg brewing industry over the last 200 years. The social, economic and even spirirtual (monks were amongst the earliest brewers) aspects of beer in the town are all discussed. But it's the remainder of the book that really fascinates.

Every brewery active after 1817 - all 71 of them - has its own chapter. All the important details are presented - when founded, when closed (the saddest entry) and the current use of the site. All sorts of breweriana illustrate the text, but most poignant are the photographs of the enterprises in their prime. The confident gaze of the owners, workers and customers inevutably provokes the thought "if only they knew what the future held, they wouldn't be looking that ".

Wonderfully researched and packed with the highest quality beer porn, anyone who has been gripped by Franconia's unique beer culture will love this book. I certainly do.

Bamberg - Die wahre Hauptstadt des Bieres
Christion Fiedler
ISBN 3 00 013723 8

Stout (Classic Beer Style Series), by Michael J. Lewis, 1995

The Classic Beer Style Series is a noble attempt to document the world's classic types. Its volumes have covered the most widespread British, German and Belgian styles. Designed with the homebrewer in mind, they discuss recipes and brewing techniques along with the history and characteristics ogf each beer.

I own most of the series and there isn't one from which I have picked up some useful snippets of information. Even Michael Lewis's "Stout", which at times had me frothing at the mouth.

The book is divided into six chapters: 1. Introduction, 2. The Origin of Stouts, 3. Commercial Brewing of Stouts, 4. A Taste of Stout, 5. Our Survey of Stout Brewers, 6. Brewing Stouts at Home. It would love to report that they were all of equal merit, but that is sadly not the case.

The good bits
Let's start with the positive. As you might expect from an academic with decades of experience in teaching brewing science, the author is very strong on the technical aspects. The chapter on commercial brewing has some interesting detail about London and Dublin water. The description of the brewing process, though effectively limited to a description of Guinness in Dublin, also provides some useful insights.

The most interesting original material comes from the survey responses of breweries from around the world in Chapter 5. The survey covers the following topics: raw materials, mashing practices, kettle boiling, fermentation and conditioning, package and dispense, physical and chemical analysis. Nowhere else have I ever seen such detailed information about commercial brewing practices from. The breweries who responded are a very diverse bunch both in size and geographical location: SAB (South Africa), Banks (Barbados), Carlton (Australia), Castlemaine (Australia), Desnoe abd Geddes (Jamaica), Kirin (Japan), Beamish & Crawford (Ireland), Asia-Pacific Breweries (Singapore), Hales Ales, Marin Brewing and Pike Place (all USA). For me, the book is worth buying for this chapter alone.

As an unashamed numbers junkie, the tables of analyses of various stouts (detailing OG, ABV, colour, calories) are also fascinating. They cover both modern and historical beers. It's difficult to complain about the quality and quantity of raw information packed into the 171 pages.

The less good bits
What had me chewing the carpet were the discussions of the history, characteristics and stylistic variations of stout. The opinions expressed on these topics range from the bizarre to the ridiculous.

Chapter 2. The Origin of Stouts
Lewis is convinced that stouts have always been black:
“the idea that stouts were not black beers, as today, again begs the question, Who says so? The implication is that such beers were somehow impossible. But this cannot be. . . . Coffee roasting and grain roasting are exactly parallel technologies and it wouldn't surprise me if some clever brewer hadn't thought to compete with coffee by using roasted grains.” (p.7)
This is a wonderful piece of revisionism, arbitrarily moving the invention of patent malt back a century, without any hard evidence and purely for the convenience of the author. Its main purpose is to rewrite history in such a way so as to allow Stout to be a black beer, predating porter and quite distinct from it. Let's consider the reasons why it's total crap:
  • That the first stouts weren't black is sort of given away by their original name: Brown Stout.
  • Until around 1800, when brewers started to use pale malt in Porter, it was a 100% brown malt brew and there was no need for anything extra to colour it.
  • The roasting of grains - patent malt - was, as the name hints, a new idea when it was invented in 1817. That's why a patent was granted. There were very specific circumstances - the prohibition in 1816 of any colouring agent in beer other than malt - which led to the invention of patent malt. Brewers desperately needed an alternative colouring material.
Though he acknowledges Stout's origin in London, Lewis seems to be under the illusion that most English breweries copied the style from Ireland. He asserts on page 22:
“Although I earlier argued the case for stout preceding porter, there is clear evidence that commercial brewing of stout in England grew out of the wide popularity of porter in London and elsewhere. The ever increasing importation of Guinness to the English market during the mid- to late nineteenth century surely drove many English brewers to emulate the Irish style. For the most part, however, the stouts made in England and Scotland during this time were not dry like Irish stout but sweet, many containing portions of milk sugar”
Let me get this straight, the popularity of Guinness prompted English brewers to make a stout, but they made it in a totally different style? “People seem to like that Guinness. I know - I'll brew a stout totally unlike it. It''s bound to sell sell like hot cakes.” they must have thought. The reality was somewhat different. Throughout the 1800's most English brewers produced a range of three or four poters and stouts. Were these all imitating Guinness?

Here's a typical example of a brewery's range of draught beers:

Bradley & Co, Soho Brewery Sheffield 1870
Mild X Ale
Mild XX Ale
Mild XXX Ale
Mild XXXX Ale
No.3 Australian Strong Ale
Pale India Ale
Stout Porter
XX Stout Porter
Strong Brown Stout

Guinness, like Bass, was a premium bottled product, sold in pubs tied to other breweries. This situation existed up until at least WW I, as this article demonstrates. Sweet stout, a low-gravity beer laced with unfermentable lactose, didn't appear until Edwardian times. Even then, English brewers continued to make London-style draught stouts, which were part of the standard range in pubs. London breweries were brewing one, and sometimes two, draught Stouts until at least WW II. In 1936 Barclay Perkins brewed a Porter and seven different Stouts, at strengths varying from 4.4% to 9% ABV. If he had bothered to do even the most rudimentary research he wouldn't come up with such total crap. Strangely enough, I would expect someone writing a book on the subject to have consulted some original documents. The brewing logs of three of the great London Porter/Stout breweries - Whitbread, Barclay Perkins, Truman, Hanbury and Buxton - survive for the period 1805 - 1970. More than enough hard facts for anyone who can be arsed to look for them. But why bother when guesswork and third-hand stories will do.

Lewis seems unaware that, in the period he refers to, Guinness Extra Stout was completely different to the beer that bears the same name today. In 1896 it had a gravity of 1070º, now it's around 1042º. Despite the fact that these figures are in the book (pages 35 and 121).

The plain crazy

Chapter 4. A Taste of Stout
Here it becomes clear why Lewis was determined to make early London Stouts, in defiance of the known facts, black. This is how he categorises a Stout on page 66:
“to conclude, it was not difficult for us to decide that a stout is simply a black beer called a stout by the brewer who made it.”
Now there's a useful definition! I'll expand later on precisely why it's of no use to anyone. I first want to observe that the only distinctive feature of a Stout, in his opinion, is its black colour. No wonder he was so keen on making the early London beers black - if they hadn't been, then they wouldn't have been Stouts.

Why does he propose such a vague formula? Ostensibly, it is the result of a systematic tasting of stouts by a panel. Analysis of the flavour profiles produced by the tastings failed to show any discernible patterns which would identify subtypes. So, that's it proved then. There's only one type of stout. How stupid I've been all these years thinking that Draught Guinness and Courage Russian Stout were different subtypes!

But hang on a moment, this doesn't agree with my own, admittedly subjective, observations. I am able to identify patterns in the characteristics of Stouts and even - god forbid - substyles. Why was Lewis unable to find them? Some comments earlier in the book hint at the reasons. P.33:
“I'm a lumper and my tasting experience tells me some stouts are sweet tasting (including some milk, cream and oatmeal stouts) and others are not (dry stouts). Further classification does not help me much”
A cynic will be tempted to think that he didn't identify any substyles because he started his experiment convinced of that fact. Subconsciously constructing experiments so that they produce the result you want or expect is a known phenomenon. A closer examination of Lewis's tastings reveal why they were never going to provide evidence of subtypes.

23 beers were tasted, broken down by these regions of origin: USA 10, Australia 4, Jamaica 1, UK 7, Japan 1. The following subtypes were claimed by the names of the beers: Stout 11, Oatmeal 3, Cream 2, Imperial 2, Porter 2, Extra 1, Triple 1, Black Beer 1.

Does a huge flaw start to become apparent? The sample size of 23 is way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. With no more than 3 examples of any single subtype, it's farcical to claim to have proved their non-existence.

Yet the ridiculously small number of beers analysed isn't my biggest problem with the experiment. The concept behind it - to find universally applicable definitions - is even more ludicrous. What has been the result? A statement classifying Stout that could scarcely be more vague, yet which still manages to exclude the original beers in the style! It demonstrates perfectly the intrinsic futility of the endeavour.

There is one set of figures Lewis employs which do show a definte pattern grouping beers together. It doesn't come from his own tastings, but from information provided by Guinness. This data - and Lewis's dismissal of it - illustrated to me what was wrong with his whole approach. It's an analysis of the properties of the draught Irish stouts. They aren't identified, but I think that we can safely assume they are Guinness, Murphy's and Beamish. He recognises the similarities, but remarks (p.81):
“Since these three stouts compete head to head in the same market for the same consumers, some similarities among them might well be anticipated.”
He doesn't realise it, but he's stumbled upon the only meaningful method of classifying beers - based on their context.

Let me explain what I mean by this. There are several factors which influence the nature of beers in a particular place at a particular time - taxation, legislation, local tastes, raw materials, climate.These factors are not constant over time and location. Thus a style, for example Stout, cannot be expected to be the same everywhere in the worlld.

Here's a good example. Carnegie Porter was first brewed in Sweden as an imitation of a British Imperial Stout. It must have originally been at least 8% alcohol. In the 20th century the strict and sometimes bizarre alcohol legislation in Sweden forced it down to 5.6%. Rather than just drop the beer, the brewer made a spirited attempt to retain as much Imperial Stout character as was possible. Now if you compare it to Courage Russian Stout, there are some pretty obvious major differences, yet it is not wholly dissimilar.

Using Lewis's approach, this would demonstrate the meaningless of the category Imperial Stout. I see it in a completely different way: it highlights the inadequacy of seeking single a definition to cover beers existing in very different legal and social environments. lf we admit that the characteristics of a style will change over time and that this change will be driven by local circumstances, then the heterogenous nature of stouts today should not come as any surprise. Porter and Stout were the first international styles and have been brewed outside the UK (for example, in the USA) for more than 200 years. Is it reasonable to expect that a modern American Stout would display the same features as either an 18th century London Stout or a modern Irish Stout?. Of course not. No more than we would anticipate the accent of a Londoner to be the same as that of a New Yorker or a Dubliner. Yet it doesn't mean that they aren't all speaking English.

Taking “context” into account - limiting definitions to a particular time and place - then it is possible to identify subtypes, as Lewis himself was able to do with draught Irish Stouts. Taking a random sample of widely differing types of Stout from around the world and trying to find clear patterns is so obviously stupid, that you wonder why anyone would want do it. If he hadn't rewritten history, Lewis would have been forced to coin an even looser definition, namely that “Stout is a black or brown beer called a Stout”.

In a way, I'm surprised that there are any beer styles at all in Lewis's world. His methodology, if strictly applied, would lead to just pale, amber, brown and black beer. Universally applicable but - for both consumers and brewers - totally useless classifications.

The length and detail with which he describes his extremely unscientific and pointless experiment (23 pages compared to just 32 on the whole history of Stout) are a clear indication of how important the topic of non-style is to him. You might expect a book dedicated to Stout to describe its many variations, rather than taking so much trouble to prove that they don't exist.

Despite my reservations about some chapters, this is still a useful book. It's great strength is the sheer volume of information in contains. This compensates for the dodgy analysis of the author. But the historical sections are pure fantasy with no basis in fact. It would be funny if it weren't for the fact that people use this book as a serious reference work. Try not to be too distractred by some of his more dubious arguments and use the data to draw your own conclusions.

Stout (Classic Beer Style Series)
Michael J. Lewis
Brewers Publications,U.S
ISBN 0-937381-44-6

A Century of British Brewers plus 1890 to 2004, by Norman Barber, 2005

Some books are for reading, some for browsing, but the most thumbed volumes in my collection are purely for reference. My Century of British Brewers is showing definite signs of wear.

The concept - listing every brewery active in the UK between 1890 and 2004 - is a very simple one. But how much research must have gone into its compilation? It makes assembling the Good Beer Guide appear a primary school project.

Like the Good Beer Guide, each county has a chapter, which is subdivided by town or village. For each brewery you get the official name, address, date founded and, sadly, in most cases who bought it and when they closed it down. The sheer number of breweries some towns possessed is mind-boggling - more than a hundred for a small city such as Nottingham.

Almost as useful as the information about breweries closed before our parents were born, is the documenting of the the comings and goings of our generation's microbreweries. Without a full set of good beer guides (and the patience to pore through them all) how easy would it be to learn the history of Westcrown, Dempsey's or Trough?

It's a work that earns my wholehearted respect and admiration. And that has been pretty useful for some of my more obscure investigations into the history of British brewing. So it isn't the most visually impressive work you'll ever see. That's irrelevant. It's the quantity and quality of information that matters and both are excellent. A few black and white images of defunct breweries break up the blocks of text a little. That one illustration (in page 106) is of the only brewery I've ever worked in makes the book that little bit extra special for me.

To sum up: a book I couldn't imagine living without. Thank you Norman Barber, Mike Brown and Ken Smith.

A Century of British Brewers plus 1890 to 2004
Norman Barber (edited by Mike Brown and Ken Smith)
Brewery History Society
ISBN 1 873966 11 3

Statistical Handbook: a compilation of drinks industry statistics, ed. Andy Tighe

One of the best presents I ever received was a copy of the 1928 Brewers´Almamnack. Packed with statistics, conversion tables and government legislation regarding the licensed trade, there´s hardly a week passes when I don´t consult it at least once. The British Beer & Pub Association's Statistical Handbook is its successor and an equally vital source of reference.

I know I´m a bit of a saddo when it comes to facts and figures. So it´s little surprise that I love this slim volume so much. Though the total amount of text it contains would probably fit onto a single sheet of A4. But who cares? What´s important in a work like this are the numbers. And there are plenty of those.

Highlights for me?
  • The table giving the average OG of UK beer for every year in the 20th century (it´s quite remarkable how many decades it hovered at almost exactly the 1037° level).
  • Learning the surprise recipient of most British beer exports to Europe (The republic of Ireland)
  • The summary of beer across Europe that gives average beer strength in all the countries of the EU.
  • The table detailing the number of on- and off-licences in the UK. Which one would you guess had been increasing and which declining? I bet you get it wrong. In the last few decades the number of full on-licences has risen while the number of offies has fallen.
  • Seeing in hard figures the sudden decline of the tied house system: from 63% of all pubs in 1981 to just 11.5% in 2001.
A casual reader, with a general interest in beer, won´t find much to amuse them. But that´s not the book´s intention. It´s a statistical referance work and a very good one. I like statistics with a little depth and breadth. Ones that cover long periods in great detail. Which is exactly what you get here.

Anyone seriously studying British beer needs to be acquainted with this material. Especially if they have any pretensions to writing on the topic with authority. Here are the facts upon which arguments can be built.

Not a coffee table book, nor something to lazily read on a beach. But a volume that will be receiving almost as much of my attention as that 1928 Brewers´Almanack.

Statistical Handbook: a compilation of drinks industry statistics
edited by Andy Tighe
(published annually)
Brewing Publications Ltd.
ISSN 1475-3545

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