If one were to make a list of cities that were important to the history of the brewing industry in the U.S., Milwaukee would certainly be near the top. In fact, Wisconsin as a whole has a storied relationship with beer both past and present. That story is the subject of “The Drink That Made Wisconsin Famous: Beer and Brewing in the Badger State” by historian Doug Hoverson (University of Minnesota Press, $49.95).
Hoverson is known to local beer fans as the author of “Land of Amber Waters,” a comprehensive history of beer and brewing in Minnesota. His latest offering on Wisconsin is a massive tome — 741 painstakingly researched pages with a heft that will make you wish it had handles to help carry it. But that’s what it takes to cover beer in the Dairy State with the kind of detail Hoverson has delivered.
The dates and names required for such a survey are there, but this isn’t a dry and tedious history book. A skilled writer, Hoverson’s retelling is compelling and easy to read. The book is chock full of historical photos and pictures of Wisconsin breweriana (things with beer or brewery names on it, for collectors) that transport the reader back to the times and places described.
He begins with the early pioneer breweries, the first of which opened in Mineral Point, Wis., in 1835. As the story weaves its way through to the present, Hoverson gives insights into the social and business trends that made and broke the industry both in Wisconsin and nationally — German immigration, the World Wars, the temperance movement and Prohibition, and the rise of the craft beer movement.
Interesting sidebars bring greater depth to the story, covering information such as the history of beer signs and the importance of the Milwaukee brewing industry in the early labor movement. There is a good piece on the connected industries that rose and fell with changes in the industry, such as malting, ice-making, wagon building and cooperages.
The final 380 pages are a comprehensive encyclopedia of every brewery and brewpub in the state, from first to last at the time of the book’s completion. The list is organized alphabetically by town. Each entry includes dates of operation, name and ownership changes, along with descriptions and interesting stories gleaned from Hoverson’s intensive research.
“A Brief History of Lager,” by British writer Mark Dredge (Kyle Books, $19.99) begins, “This is the story of how a beer brewed in a cold cellar somewhere in Bavaria became the world’s favorite drink.”
Lagers are indeed the world’s favorite beers. Despite the rise of craft beer, pale lagers account for the vast majority of beer consumed internationally. When asked about beer, most people will picture a glass of the fizzy yellow stuff. But the world of lager and its history is much richer than the lightness of those beers suggests.
Dredge does a good job of clarifying exactly what a lager beer is and what differentiates it from an ale — that would be yeast species, fermentation temperature and storage time post-fermentation. I was particularly impressed by his examination of the Bavarian purity law of 1516, known as the “Reinheitsgebot,” that stipulated beer could only be made from barley, hops and water. The impact of this law is often blown out of proportion, but Dredge explains that it was simply an insignificant part of a much larger set of regulations that applied only to the small area of southern Germany known as Bavaria.
Dredge begins his historical exploration by citing references showing that what we now call lager brewing was known and practiced in Bavaria as early as the 14th century. He makes clear that those early lagers weren’t the crystal-clear and crisp beers we know today. They were likely brown and smoky.
He goes on to relate important moments in the development of lager. He describes how technological advances such as refrigeration and the isolation of pure yeast strains improved the quality and consistency of these beers. He does a great job of explaining why American brewers began using corn and rice in their lager beers and how lager brewing became big business in the U.S.
“Drink Better Beer,” by Joshua M. Bernstein (Sterling Epicure, $24.95) bills itself as a “master class in the new era of brewing.” Bernstein assembles the collective knowledge of brewers, bar and store owners and master cicerones to guide drinkers through a second beer revolution, in which brewers are “pushing the boundaries on aroma, taste and ingredients.”
Those led by the title to expect a how-to guide to appreciating the sensory smorgasbord of this new frontier may be disappointed. The piece on the tasting process, for instance, is only a simple, four bullet-point list: look, smell, taste, pay attention.
What “Drink Better Beer” does offer is an entertaining and informative meander through the trends that define the current world of beer. Rather than offer specific pairing tips, the section on matching beer to food takes the reader on a trip through the evolution of menus, the move away from beer dinners to small-plate pairing events and musings on creating simple pairings at home. The section on glassware explores the demise of the shaker pint in favor of other glass designs both old and new without getting too specific about what beer to put in what glass.
There are some good how-to sections, though. Among them is a helpful guide to cleaning glassware, as well as specific pointers on what to look for in a good beer store or bar and advice on when to send a beer back. Drinking destination sidebars offer tips on where to drink good beer, both nationally and internationally.
Bernstein does a good job at exploring current social trends in beer, such as the growing effort to make the industry more inclusive. A profile of J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, the diversity ambassador of the Brewers Association, looks at the national education efforts of that organization. Another article showcases minority-owned stores, bars and breweries, including La Doña Cervecería in Minneapolis.
“Lush: A Season by Season Celebration of Craft Beer and Produce,” by Jacquelyn Dodd (Agate Publishing, $30) is a good one to check out if cooking with beer is your thing. This beautifully designed cookbook offers seasonal recipes that go beyond the basic stews, batters and beer-can chicken. Recipes range from appetizers and sides to entrees, desserts and sauces, all with beer as an ingredient.
There is no meat in this book. The recipes focus entirely on produce, and they’re divided up by season. Each section begins with descriptions of common seasonal vegetables and beers. Recipes for winter include mouthwatering delights such as butternut squash and roasted garlic-Gruyère gratin made with a malty winter ale, and stout-braised leeks with a lemon-Parmigiano-Reggiano vinaigrette. I can personally vouch for the tastiness of the leeks.
The easy to follow recipes are accompanied by eye-popping pictures that make you want to cook.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.