Did you know that the Czech Republic leads the world in per capita beer consumption at 38 gallons annually? Would you be surprised to learn that Mexico is the world’s largest beer exporter, with 75 percent of its exports going to the United States?
These are just two of the interesting facts waiting to be discovered in the “National Geographic Atlas of Beer,” by Nancy Hoalst-Pullen and Mark W. Patterson (National Geographic, $40), one of several new books chronicling the nation’s current love affair with beer.
The “Atlas of Beer” is a beautiful hard-bound coffee-table book, loaded with maps, informative infographics and the stunning photography for which National Geographic is known. Its pages explore the worldwide geography of beer, digging into the beer history, culture and travel destinations in each of six regions — Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Australia and Oceania, and Africa.
A general introduction gives a bare-bones primer on beer basics, including the beverage’s ancient origins, ingredients, brewing process and proper service. From there, the regional sections zoom in for a closer look at particular areas, including a broad rundown of culture, history and a listing of the most important festivals. A timeline charts important moments in the development of each region’s brewing and drinking culture.
The regions are further broken down into countries. Here you’ll find lists of the most popular styles, maps of all the breweries, beer statistics and informative sidebars on topics ranging from the development of Trappist breweries in Belgium to the method of chewing corn to make the indigenous drink chicha in Argentina. Beer travelers will love the listings of the best beer destinations.
I found the short section on Africa to be especially interesting, as that continent’s beer culture is essentially unknown to most North American beer drinkers. It details the unique beer scenes of South Africa and Tanzania, including descriptions of little known indigenous beer styles, such as Tanzanian mbege (banana beer) or South African umquombothi — a funky/sour brew with the texture of a light porridge or yogurt drink.
One after another
After three decades of striving for ever bigger and bolder brews, the American beer scene has begun a pendulum swing in the opposite direction. The trend toward lower alcohol and less intense flavors is well chronicled in Jennifer Talley’s new book, “Session Beers” (Brewers Publications, $19.95).
So what is a “session beer?” In Talley’s estimation it is a beer with less than 5 percent alcohol by volume — although this criterion is flexible, depending on the beer’s overall profile. A session beer should be light and without aggressive flavors, but still flavorful enough to keep your interest. As the Germans are fond of saying, “The first beer should invite a third.”
Having spent the bulk of her brewing career making beer in Utah, where draft beer cannot exceed 4 percent alcohol, Talley is well qualified to tackle this subject. She does so with a verve and depth of detail that is informative and entertaining, but sometimes goes beyond the needs of the average beer drinker, appealing more to advanced home brewers, professional brewers and bar or taproom managers.
She begins with a whirlwind roundup of small-beer stories and styles covering the bitters of England, the pale ales and wheat beers of Belgium, as well as German lagers and ales. She details the development of the ubiquitous North American light lager and describes how modern brewers are reviving extinct historical styles, such as Belgian witbier and the tart German ales Berliner weisse and Gose.
Finally, Talley takes on the current push by American brewers to “session everything,” taking familiar styles like India pale ale (IPA) and lowering the alcohol for a more quaffable pint.
From there Talley moves into more technical territory, covering the difficulties of brewing a good session beer — there is nothing to hide your mistakes, and balance is key. The book delves into problems like finding the right balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness in beers of such light status.
The section on drinking session beer covers blood alcohol limits, serving sizes and curation of a session beer tap list. Finally a chapter on the cost of doing business outlines the pros and cons of brewing session beers in a commercial brewery.
“Session Beers” includes several recipes for excellent commercial examples of session beers scaled to both commercial and home-brew batch sizes.
The classic German lager
An important piece in the move toward more sessionable beers is a resurgence in the popularity of lager styles. This trend was on clear display in the Twin Cities this year as several Minnesota breweries turned out locally brewed versions of classic German lager styles and at least one released a standard American-style lager.
In his book “Lager” (Voyageur Press, $25.00), Dave Carpenter has compiled a good compendium of all things lager. If you’re a brewer seeking a detailed technical guide for brewing lagers, then look elsewhere. But if you want an informative and fun-to-read overview of the history, brewing and enjoyment of lager beers, this is your book.
The development of lager from the accidental hybridization of two yeast species to eventual world dominance is a sweeping tale that Carpenter weaves beautifully. Of particular importance were events in Bavaria in the 14th and 15th centuries, where poor beer quality led to the institution of restrictions on ingredients and brewing practices, including a 1553 ban on summer brewing.
The resultant aging of beer in ice-cooled caves put selective pressure on yeast that encouraged the formation of cold-fermenting strains that are responsible for lager beer’s crisp, clean profile.
Carpenter’s chapter on tasting beer is good for its focus on the particulars of tasting lager. He covers the basic how-to of tasting beer, but goes on to explain the unique attributes brought about by cold fermentation. The low fermentation temperatures of lager yeast inhibits the production of fruity and spicy fermentation by-products, putting the emphasis on malt and hops. But yeast is not without impact. Carpenter helps drinkers recognize the pomme fruit and sulfur character that might be present in lager beer.
Carpenter’s survey of lager styles is particularly good, especially for those to whom the word “lager” is synonymous with bland, mass-market beers. He covers all of the world’s lager styles from American light beer to doppelbock. His entries include detailed style descriptions, the relevant stats for color, alcohol and bitterness ranges, and recommendations of standout examples.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. Reach him at email@example.com.