Beers across America: guiding lights to help find the finest pints and craft breweries
Added: Saturday, June 15th 2013
In 1987, a Washington DC-based freelance journalist and speechwriter named Jack Erickson published the first comprehensive guidebook for people who not only wanted to drink American craft beer, but visit the breweries, too. Star Spangled Beer: A Guide to America's New Microbreweries and Brewpubs devoted one third of its 155 pages to directories of American micro-breweries and brewpubs, and another 14 pages to the new breweries of Canada.
With hindsight, it’s easy to find the book quaint: Only 11 beer styles! Imagine California with just seven micros! Or Colorado with only two! But Erickson understood that the American beer renaissance had momentum: that it was a national movement with distinctive regional expressions, and that fans might see local beer as a focus of travel and breweries as destinations. He speculated on the eventual reach of craft beer:
A major city such as Boston, Atlanta, Washington or Chicago may support only one or two micro-breweries, but could be the home for several brewpubs. Popular tourist states such as Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arizona, Washington and Oregon could support many brewpubs. But the largest potential for brewpubs is in populous states like California, Florida and New York.
Erickson was prescient when it came to future craft beer hotspots, but he underestimated the expansion to come. Within a few years, he had given up the effort to update Star Spangled Beer, and had assigned the country’s craft breweries to two separate volumes: Brewery Adventures in the Wild West (1991, covering 143 U.S. and Canadian breweries) and Brewery Adventures in the Big East (1994, covering 110 U.S.-only breweries).
Other writers continued the nation-wide approach in bigger books with shorter entries. Steve Johnson, author of the On Tap newsletter, compiled a national guidebook of the same name regularly from 1991 to 1994. Marty Nachel released Beer Across America in 1995, the same year that Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky published the Beer Travelers Guide, focused on the country’s bars, taverns, brewpubs and “other oases serving fine beers.”
In time, two things broke the single-book format: growing brewery numbers made any sort of national guide to American craft breweries unwieldy — or at least, not the sort of thing you could tuck in your backpack or glove compartment. And the Internet happened. The print world had to offer something different.
Lew Bryson (pictured above), author of the first beer guidebook to focus on an individual state, owns all the major national survey books on American beer. But his model while writing his Pennsylvania Breweries was a quirky local book, Bars Of Reading and Berks, by Suds Kroge and Dregs Donnigan. Behind the protective pen names were two high school teachers, David Wardrop and Bob Weirich, who wrote up the watering holes of Reading and Berks County, PA, in the 1970s and 80s. Suds and Dregs enjoyed some celebrity, with an appearance on the Tonight Show, and a profile in The New Yorker by food-loving humourist Calvin Trillin.
“The thing that inspired me was not that they had done it, it was how they managed to encapsulate a bar in about 50 words, and really capture the whole atmosphere,” Bryson says. “It was amusing—it was funny as hell. That really inspired me to do more than just ‘This is the bar. This is the brewery. This is when they were founded.’ I wanted to do narrative.”
So, rather than scale down the tabular format of the national books to fit his home state, Bryson scaled up the story-telling approach of Suds and Dregs. Pennsylvania Breweries, published in 1998, evoked beer and bar culture. Bryson gave plenty of attention to new brewpubs and breweries, while tipping his hat to the heritage breweries. He also clearly relished the atmosphere and the patrons at the old taverns and distinctive hotel bars, insider knowledge that readers appreciated.
In 1998, the Internet was in its infancy, but it became clear that basic information about breweries and brewpubs that had once been challenging to find—address, opening hours, beer lists—no longer required special access.
“When my book came out, we were already starting to get stuff on the Internet,” recalls Bryson. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that first edition of mine had suggestions about how to use websites. But that’s all it was, long tabular information, nothing about whether the place was any good. I wanted to avoid the formulaic approach.”
Pennsylvania Breweries, today in its fourth edition, was the first beer guide for Stackpole Books, and the founder publication for a franchise of sorts that now includes eight books—covering 10 states—with four more coming out shortly.
Stackpole acquisitions editor Kyle Weaver has overseen the whole Breweries series. Initially in charge of the publisher’s Pennsylvania-themed books, Weaver worked with Bryson on Pennsylvania Breweries.
“It occurred to me that it would be really nice to do a series for other states on this subject, since it was so popular,” says Weaver. “Lew and I got together to see if he’d be interested, Stackpole agreed, and we went on with New York Breweries in 2003 (we’re currently working on second edition). That kind of launched the series.”
With Bryson on board, the Breweries series expanded to cover Virginia, Maryland and Delaware in a single volume, then New Jersey with Mark Haynie as co-author. Weaver realised he had a winning approach that could expand to other states. “Obviously, Lew couldn’t do every single book,” he adds, “so I started looking into other authors. I decided I should find a resident author for each state.”
Local knowledge was important. So too, for an emerging brand, was a consistent approach that consumers could rely on. Even though Weaver wanted to nurture each author’s individual voice, the early commitment to narrative remains. “I think the best kind of approach is to have the voice of someone sitting beside you at the pub.”
A Matter of Scale
In their attempts to woo and educate the growing cohort of specialty beer seekers, some writers have stuck with the national survey approach, but become selective, steering enthusiasts to the best breweries, brewpubs and beer bars across the county. Readers love the lists, and establishments love the accolades, so a well-chosen collection will always be a good read for the armchair beer geek or the twitcher on the move. But a compilation of America’s 50 top beer destinations is of little use to the enthusiast hoping to locate welcoming beer stops en route during a family vacation.
For an audience in search of a thorough guide to the breweries of a particular area, the state was the most sensible unit. Obviously, the geographical scale is pretty manageable. And since our alcohol laws are largely in the hands of state legislatures, the breweries in a given state have a culture in common that goes beyond local history: all share a legal framework when it comes to things like opening hours, distribution networks, permitted alcohol strength, or retail restrictions (blue laws).
Brewing guilds organise around like interests, again mostly at the state level. Forty-five states have guilds, and these organizations have a powerful incentive to promoting their member breweries. The guilds are finding allies in state tourism bodies who at long last have come to appreciate that breweries can be magnets for visitors, as surely as a state’s monuments, battlefields or museums.
Today, 26 states are the subjects of in-depth beer guides. Most get a whole guide to themselves: others are grouped with close neighbors (New England, The Pacific Northwest), and one—California—has had to be covered in two halves (and the only guide to Southern California breweries is out of print). Remote Hawaii and Alaska have books devoted to their states’ breweries. Indiana, for some reason, has four guides dedicated to its breweries, all published within only two years. Three more states will soon be covered.
By contrast, 21 states have never been the subjects of a guide: as you would guess, these are the states that have come late to craft brewing or have a strong anti-alcohol tradition. But a few of those also have growing beer cultures, as well as thriving tourism economies that could get a further boost from beer.
How to Write a Beer Guide
Famed travel guides—Michelin or Frommer—have armies of reviewers visiting and revisiting the destinations they recommend or pan in books that are revised annually. By contrast, beer travel guides are usually the work of one person —perhaps two, most often a spouse — researched on weekend road trips and time stolen from day jobs.
Research for a guidebook has to be done in a short enough span of time that it is up-to-date, even allowing for the inevitable months the manuscript spends in the publisher’s hands. Fieldwork is generally compressed into a period of under a year, and usually as short as three to four months. The shorter the research phase, the more current the information at submission — and the more gruelling the schedule for the writer.
Ken Weaver, author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, planned trips with his wife, Anneliese Schmidt, who served as the second palate and the book’s photographer. The pair visited 140 breweries in four and a half months. “Once we had grouped things geographically, it made a lot of sense,” Weaver remembers. “We’d do a lot of reconnaissance and put a Google map together on our phones, a checklist of the things we needed to get to, and do it on a weekend, maybe add a Monday or a Friday. Go, get pictures, take notes, then I’d write when we got back home.”
As the territory grows larger, the planning becomes more complicated. When Lisa Morrison was asked by Timber Press to cover Oregon, Washington and British Columbia (a culturally logical, but practically challenging trio) for her book Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, she thought hard about logistics.
“I had less than a year to get everywhere I needed to go, and with real-life work to do, too,” Morrison recalls. “There were some places I could get to easily, but in the interior of British Columbia, I had one shot to get everything I needed. I can’t just get out to Penticton, British Columbia, or Salmon Arm — it’s not an easy trek from Portland!”
But when it comes to logistics, the greatest challenges face Bill Howell, whose beer beat — Alaska — is so vast that he’s researching and self-publishing Beer on the Last Frontier in three separate volumes.
“[For Volume I], I started with the Kenai Peninsula (since I live there) but even that volume required a three hour drive and a 90 minute flight to visit Kodiak Island,” Howell reported. “Volume II’s dozen breweries are at least all on the road system, but it will still require several visits to Anchorage (150 mile drive each way), plus at least one trip to Fairbanks (a two day drive each way). Volume III will mean a flight to Juneau, then ferry rides from there to Haines, Sitka and Skagway. Travel is seldom easy up here. People just don’t grasp the sheer size of Alaska.”
Most writers would envy the schedule followed by Robin Shepard — at least for his first guide, Wisconsin’s Best Breweries and Brewpubs. With a regular job at the university in Madison, Shepard felt free “to let my hobby run amok.” He spent three years in research. “I treated it a little like a scavenger hunt,” he says. “I wanted to go to all of them. I visited all of them a second time, then before the book was published, I went back a third time.”
His publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, liked the book, and gave him Illinois to cover, but with a 12 month clock. “It was a bit of a forced march,” he says. “I’m not complaining, but there were times when my labour of love started to feel more like a job.”
But after all the effort comes great rewards, right? Not really. The cost of the research is usually borne by the author. John Holl, author of two Stackpole guides (and recently named editor of this magazine) observed that writing a guide is a great opportunity for somebody who wants to get published and have a first book with their name on it. But economically, it’s not much more than a break-even proposition once you take into account the out-of-pocket costs associated with the travel.
Include the Basics?
Whether the territory is large or small, the author has to figure out how much knowledge to assume on the part of the reader. Almost all guides contain some Beer 101 material: “the front few pages nobody reads,” as Ken Weaver wryly put it. But if the intended audience includes everyone from the curious history buff to the beer dabbler to the confirmed beer geek, there has to be something for all of them.
Most books contain a basic discussion of beer styles, in the dreaded front pages or peppered through the guide in sidebars. Beer history, whether ancient (the Sumerians, yet again) or modern (George Washington’s porter), is another fixture. Basic brewing steps and diagrams are useful to the newbie who wants to make sense of brewery tour after brewery tour, and a glossary of terms completes the essentials.
More creatively, many authors add value by connecting beer destinations in convenient day trips or local walks. Morrison mapped out pub crawls within a mile’s distance of favourite destinations. “It’s a good way to fit in a few more locations,” she says. “They might not have the best stories, or they might be relatively new, but they’re still places to check out. If you’re in the area, heck, you might as well walk three blocks and try them out.”
Beer Lover’s New England by Norman Miller includes sections on beer and food pairing and beer recipes. The book is one of three in publisher Globe Pequot’s Beer Lover’s Series: with four more guides in preparation, perhaps this publisher might make cuisine a signature piece of their series?
Overall, though, food gets scant attention. Since brewpubs are really restaurants with brewing systems, this is strange — and either means that brewpub menus are too changeable for accurate inclusion, or that writers would have to find fresh ways to describe, yet again, nachos, wood-fired pizza and wings.
A number of volumes focus instead on local cuisine to look out for outside the brewpubs. Alongside “do not miss” sidebars, these entries can help broaden the readers’ visits beyond beer.
Why a Book?
Given the proliferation of electronic media and the expense of conventional publishing, why write a guidebook at all? Why not leave it up to Siri?
All the authors agreed that the longer form of a book allowed them to tell the sort of stories that aren’t the norm on-line. Morrison searches for what she calls beer’s “terroir,” which she sees as a blend of characters, culture and place. Weaver described his viewpoint as “a hedonistic approach, a drinking-based focus.”
Writers of these guides attempt to be as comprehensive as possible; that means showing up in person at every brewery and brewpub if possible, and investing the time to ferret out the unexpected. “When we walked in, we had information we had researched from the local archives, but you never knew what tidbit you could find to build a story around,” noted Maryanne Nasiatka, co-author with her husband, Paul Ruschmann, of Michigan Breweries.
Ruschmann recalled a moment of serendipity that appealed to his love of history: “In northeast Michigan, at a town called Oscoda, they had an Air Force base which had closed. It had been one of the major employers. We knew that coming in. We sat down to talk to the brewer — the brewer had been in the Air Force and he told us some literal war stories. Wandering around the bar area afterwards, and there was a photograph taken of him when he was piloting a B-52 in Viet Nam.”
For many writers, the interest in history runs as deep as their fondness for beer, and a number of the guidebooks, including Douglas Wissing’s Indiana: One Pint at a Time, have been published by state historical societies.
“From my perspective, this book was the history of Indiana through the bottom of a beer glass,” says Wissing, for whom writing about middle-American history alternates with assignments covering wars in Central Asia. “You can see all of the main periods of Indiana history played out through the breweries. The way I like to think about it is, first, the history, and then the living culture that comes out of those deep historical roots.” In Indiana, the history he uncovered encompassed the brewing records of a utopian religious community and waves of early German settlers, with the living culture being the 35 craft breweries whose stories occupy the travel-oriented half of the book.
Ken Weaver offered another take on why the guidebooks are still needed in an electronic age. “I work for RateBeer, and I know that you need a certain critical mass of data to get any useful information. If you’re hitting places that have few ratings, you never quite get a full, focused overview. I love what RateBeer can do. But having an overarching voice and discerning palate — or two palates in our case — gives a view of a region that you can’t get from a crowd-sourced database.”
Besides, those e-devices can let you down. Who wants to run out of bars at the very point when you’re looking for a great bar of another kind?
The most optimistic estimate from authors of the shelf life of a beer guidebook was about five years. Breweries and brewpubs falter and close, and the confused tourist with an out-of-date book is left standing in front of an empty storefront where he expected to find lunch and a pint.
But more encouragingly, new breweries open. Taken together, this means a revision of a guidebook after a few years is more like a complete re-write.
Morrison hopes that good stories and strong writing can extend the lifetime of her book. “I didn’t want my guide to be outdated by the time it hit the shelves, so that’s why the stories are there: good stories are evergreen,” she said.
Writers monitor pending changes in alcohol legislation that stand to alter beer culture — and their books — dramatically. Ruschmann and Nasiatka noted that laws in Michigan have made micro-breweries with tasting rooms a more profitable business model than brewpubs, with a corresponding growth in micros.
Robin Shepard completed research on his third guide, on Minnesota, then put it on ice. “I had that book done a year before we released it, but we stopped it because Minnesota passed its pint law and we knew there would be a whole bunch of small breweries opening,” he explained. “It just exploded, from a couple of dozen brewpubs to over 35.”
As craft breweries continue their dramatic growth, the state may no longer be the most reasonable geographical unit for an in-depth guidebook. Noting the growth of good beer destinations in specific areas of Pennsylvania since his latest edition, Lew Bryson mused “The beer bars that have opened just in southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia since then — you could almost do a book just on them.”
A number of regions and metropolitan areas now warrant separate publications for their breweries and beer culture. Modest books exist on San Diego, Charlotte and Seattle; Greater Portland, with 70 or so breweries, has easily twice the number of breweries of many states that are considered to have healthy beer cultures.
It would be a shame if beer writing became so atomised that our guidebooks had to funnel down to the city level, which seems to divorce brewing culture from the larger landscape of historical, cultural, legal and even geological factors that shape our beer. But thirsty travellers want to read about and find distinctive destinations, new breweries keep appearing, and writers will scramble to put their stories into a meaningful context.
Author’s bio: Julie Johnson is co-owner and contributing editor at All About Beer Magazine.
Beer on the Last Frontier—Vol 1: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries by Bill Howell.
Self published (2012), Soft cover, $5.99, 93 pp
The Northern California Craft Beer Guide by Ken Weaver
Cameron+Company (2012), Soft cover, $21.95, 306 pp
Beer Lover’s Colorado by Lee Williams
Globe Pequot (2012), Soft cover, $19.95, 240 pp
By Ed Sealover
The History Press (2011), Soft cover, $21.99, 224 pp
The Hawaii Beer Book: Bars, Breweries & Beer Cuisine
By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Watermark Publishing (2007), Soft cover, $15.95, 184 pp
University of Wisconsin Press (2003), Soft cover, $24.95, 336 pp
Stackpole Books (2011), Soft cover, $16.95, 144 pp
Hoosier Beer: Tapping into Indiana Brewing History
By Bob Ostrander and Derrick Morris
The History Press (2011), Soft cover, $21.99, 256 pp
By Rita T. Kohn and Kris Arnold
Quarry Books (2010), Soft cover, $19.95, 288 pp
By Douglas Wissing
Indiana Historical Society (2010), Soft cover
Stackpole Books (2012), Soft cover, $19.95, 192 pp
Stackpole Books (2006), Soft cover, 256 pages, $16.95
University of Wisconsin Press (2011), Soft cover, $24.95, 336 pp
Stackpole Books,$16.95, 176 pages
New York Breweries
By Lew Bryson
Stackpole Books (2003, 2nd edition by Don Cazentre and Lew Bryson, available 2014), Soft cover, Price: $16.95, 251 pp
North Carolina Craft Beer & Breweries
By Eric Lars Myers
John F. Blair (2012), Soft cover, $16.95, 304 pp
By Rick Armon
Stackpole Books (2011), Soft cover, $19.95, 192 pp
Beer Lover’s Oregon
By Logan Thompson
Globe Pequot (2013), Soft cover, $19.95, 264 pp
Oregon Brew Tour: Craft Beers...Microbrews, Nanobrews, Festivals, & Homebrew Info
By Bob Ledford and Debra Ledford
Ledford Publishing (2011), Soft cover, $19.95, 504 pp
By Lew Bryson
Stackpole Books (2010, 4th edition), Soft cover, $19.95, 304 pp
By Travis E. Poling and Paul W. Hightower
Maverick Publishing Co. (2009), Soft cover, $12.95, 80 pp
University of Wisconsin Press (2001), Soft cover, $24.95, 328 pp
Beer Lover’s New England
By Norman Miller
Globe Pequot (2012), Soft cover, $19.95, 288 pp
Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Breweries
By Lew Bryson
Stackpole Books (2005), Soft cover, $16.95, 144 pp
Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest: A Beer Lover's Guide to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia
By Lisa Morrison
Timber Press (2011), Soft cover, $18.95, 2011, 208 pp
California Breweries North
Stackpole Books (release date: August 1, 2013), Soft cover, $19.95, 320 pp
Beer Lover's Southern California
Globe Pequot (available 2013/2014)
By Dan Rabin
Stackpole Books (available 2014)
By Gerard Walen
Stackpole Books (available 2014)
Research underway by Robin Shephard
Beer Lover’s New York
Globe Pequot (available 2013/2014)
North and South Carolina
Beer Lover's The Carolinas
Globe Pequot (available 2013/2014)
By Brian Yaeger
Stackpole Books (available 2014)
Beer Lover’s Washington
By Logan Thompson
Globe Pequot (release date: September, 2013), Soft cover, $19.95, 256 pp. www.allaboutbeer.com
The new edition of All About Beer will be available on news stands in July.