With this month's release of Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Breweries by Andy Crouch, it appears food and beverage guidebooks can officially no longer be simply the Frommer's guide to a specific ingestible (beer, wine, restaurant dishes). They must address, according to the book's introduction, “a wide library of subjects, including beer, food, travel and history.” They must include recipes. They must focus on the novice and more advanced connoisseur alike.
What's not clear is whether that vast topic quick-fire approach works. On the one hand, these kinds of 5-minute discussions of broad topics can be the perfect companion for those moments when you'd rather be Tweeting the beach picnic play-by-play than reading a book. And yet this is a craft beer guidebook, where pointing out the flavor notes in that Long Trail Double Bag Altbier (“caramel and toasted malt notes… earthy and grassy hop notes”) is entirely the point. And so to begin this book by summarizing the global 10,000+ year history, religious and political influences, technological advances and modern economic impact of a topic as vast as beer in what appears to be less than 2,000 words just seems so beyond possible we can only ask: Why even try? Or perhaps we'd just rather hear more about those (interesting) issues in relation to individual styles like those Altbiers in Crouch's thorough review section.
We actually find the reviews quite useful, despite what other reviewers may have said was lacking. We agree with Crouch that with the sheer quantity of American craft beer, including all the greats is impossible. As a critic, Crouch has done a thorough job.
Nor do we think the author is to blame that the book's voice bounces from various points of view (the book's editor should have put an end to that). Most of the book is written in the third person, such as those first few sections on beer history. But a paragraph in the section on the beer making process curiously begins in the first person (“I always find that when I know a little more about a subject…”), then suddenly shifts into second person (“When you learn about its core ingredients, for example….”) and back to third person in the next paragraph (“At its base, beer is an alcoholic beverage made from a mixture of water and malted grain…”). It's confusing.
So is the layout of the book. The final chapter, “Enjoying Beer,” includes notes on how to buy, store and age beer. As well as what kind of glassware to use, why to smell that oatmeal stout before you sip, and how to pair beer with food (pizza with maltier beers, for instance). All great to know, but they're things we wish we'd heard about before tracking down that Fatty Boombalatty from Wisconsin that's praised (for more than its name) in the review section. And while the recipes (some using beer as an ingredient, others simply to pair with beer) at the end of that chapter sound lovely — an Alaskan Smoked porter chili, Dungeness crab cakes with smoked paprika butter sauce — the reason for including them is as curious as those introductory chapter beer history Tweets.
And so with Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Breweries, we suggest flipping straight to the pages dedicated to “Lush and Fruity” beers (a sub-section on “Peach, Apricot, And Tangerine Beer”) or cherry beers. You know, the guidebook part.