Whirlwind tour of the world's best beers
Added: Sunday, December 3rd 2017
Pocket Beer Book 3rd edition, Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99)
This is a bibulous tour de force. The skill of the authors has been to create a chain of fellow beer scribes in both northern and southern hemispheres who report regularly on new breweries in order that each edition is as up-to-date as possible in a beer world that changes at breathtaking speed.
The result is an impressive coverage of craft beer, not only in the familiar countries of Belgium, Britain and the United States but also in such once-unlikely places as Latvia, Colombia, China. Cambodia and Mozambique – to name just a few of the countries covered.
Wherever grain and hops are grown or imported, it seems beer is being produced in abundance these days and consumed with enormous enthusiasm.
The guide follows in the giant footsteps of the late Michael Jackson, revered for the many editions of his Pocket Beer Book. But the Beaumont/Webb enterprise is different – and not just because the world of beer has changed almost out of all recognition since Jackson was writing.
Jackson was a pioneer, who opened our eyes to the great beers and styles available and in particular he put Belgian beer on the map.
But he was not a campaigner. If anything, he shied away from controversy. In his Beer Companion, a short section on the two versions of Budweiser, American and Czech, avoids any suggestion there has been a long-running legal battle between the two companies. They are presented as two beers that happen to share the same name.
Tim Webb is cut from different cloth. He is a campaigner from the early days of CAMRA and is famous for calling a spade a garden implement dripping with blood. I recall the barbs he aimed at Bass when the British giant closed its famous “union” fermenting rooms in Burton-on-Trent.
With Stephen, he has turned his beady eye in the pocket book on what American calls Big Beer – the gorillas that produce parodies of good beer and are gobbling up smaller craft producers in order to dominate this growing sector. The authors divide the beer world in to factory and craft or “dull versus interesting”. They pinpoint the alarming fact that just one goliath, AB InBev, having swallowed SABMiller, now accounts for 30 per cent of all the beer produced worldwide and 50 per cent of all the profits derived from brewing. It’s enough to make you choke on your Rice Krispies or American Budweiser – the difference is minimal.
While it’s a pocket book, it’s easily accessible. The design is clean and simple, with many full-colour images, and – given the size – the type size is highly readable, a boon for those of us who peer through a glass darkly. The first section is a useful rundown of beer styles, old and new, and includes such rare beers as koduluö from Estonia and kaimiškas from neighbouring Lithuania. And it’s good to see the authors’ spotlighting the growing trend of barrel-ageing, which is bringing many scintillating new flavours to beer.
Tim and Stephen cast a dyspeptic eye on some modern innovations. They make the point that, as many modern interpretations of IPA drip with citrus fruit as a result of using American hops, there seems little point in intensifying the characteristic by adding orange, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, mango and pineapple juices.
They – rightly in my view – are especially critical of many so-called sour beers that are a parody of the magnificent lambic beers of Belgium. There is a world of difference between a true lambic made by spontaneous fermentation and “sours” produced with a squirt of bacteria.
The main body of the book is a country-by-country review of the beer scenes there. As well as a wealth of entries there are sections called Iconic Breweries, Can’t Miss Breweries, and Breweries to Watch. This gives the authors the scope to include tried-and-trusted producers such as Westmalle, Cantillon and Rodenbach in Belgium in the iconic section, De Ranke, Dolle and Drie Fonteinen as “can’t miss” brewers and such new wave entrants as Brussels Beer Project.
The total of beers listed is 2,000 and they come from more than 60 countries. The beauty and skill of the book is that the authors and their team have combined to offer beers to suit all tastes, for drinkers with a wealth of experience and those starting out on the beer voyage of discovery.
There are many exhilarating beers today that are packed not only with hops and alcohol but with every known herb and spice an apothecary can offer. But such beers are not to everyone’s taste and I was delighted to find in the English section a special place for Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, a no nonsense beer that is a symphony of malt and hop aromas and flavours, and a joy to drink.
And this book is a joy to read. Hats off to Beaumont and Webb.