Book Reviews

Drinks-related books to add to the stack on your bedside table.

Beer Books: The Oxford Companion to Beer and Chicago by the Pint

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It's no secret that beer, particularly craft beer, inspires fanatical interest. Two recently published books: The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver, and Chicago by the Pint: A Craft Beer History of the Windy City by Denese Neu, exemplify the obsession. From lengthy, well researched essays about every element of beer and beer production, to little known facts to impress your Chicago brew loving bar mate, these books have it all.

The Oxford Companion to Beer

Garret Oliver, a leading expert on traditional brewing and the Brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, spent five years editing The Oxford Companion to Beer. It's a sturdy book—more than 1,000 entries written by beer experts document the technical elements, history, beer pioneers, regional specifics, and social and political implications of a beverage that has been around for centuries.

It should be noted that this is a reference book. Definitions abound. There's cross-referencing of articles (As an example: "See also FERMENTATION" is posted at the end of the entry for Kräusening, a German term for the addition of actively fermenting wort as an inoculation to induce fermentation). There are appendices, conversion tables, and an index. "It isn't detailed enough" will not be a complaint here. The devil, however, always lurks in the details. There are some complaints in the beer community about missing or misused sources, or an accounting of facts that seem incomplete or inaccurate. But The Oxford Companion to Beer is, if anything, an academic book. It's a book every student devoted to the study of beer and beermaking should own. It's the book Garrett Oliver and other modern beer experts would have loved to use as reference as they studied their way into those expert positions. This book will be updated and released in new editions. Maybe the mistakes will be fixed, or perhaps the discussion will be spun into new encyclopedic entries. Either way, The Oxford Companion to Beer is the definitive reference tome for the modern beer movement.

Chicago by the Pint: A Craft Beer History of the Windy City

Chicago by the Pint describes itself as a "bar stool reader of historic vignettes." It's a slim book, a little larger than pocket sized but still easily slipped in a messenger bag or lost in an oversized purse. The cover bends easily back, which I don't imagine the publisher considered when designing the book, but is a lovely feature, especially since the book's vignettes are intended to be read during a visit to one of Chicago's craft breweries, while drinking a signature beer.

Author Denese Neu calls herself a "urban social scientist" which means that this book is heavily focused on historic Chicago—prohibition, bootlegging, and the weighty history and lore behind some of the city's craft breweries. To say that this is a niche book might be an understatement. Chicago in a Pint demands that you be familiar with the craft brew scene, the social history of Chicago, and the architecture of the city.

The introduction claims that if "you are looking for the history of Chicago's current breweries, you are in the wrong place." Yet the book is composed of profiles of more than a dozen breweries, all with recent opening dates. Perhaps what Neu means is that you won't get a lot of information about rockstar brewers, awards won, or organic hops. What you will get is tidbits like this: Honker's Ale, one of Goose Island's widely distributed beers, is not named after the truck drivers who would honk when arriving at seedy Goose Island. Instead, it is "simply a reference to the seasonal flocks of geese that pass through Chicago during their migrations." You know that guy who sits at the bar and always a factoid to share? This book is perfect for him.

About the author: Anne Zimmerman is a writer in San Francisco Her first book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, was published in 2011. You can read more about her work here or here. Follow her on Twitter at @poeticappetite.

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