One of the recent frequently asked questions has been about books I recommend to learn about the world of beer, so I'm going to experiment with a virtual beer book club in which we would read the same book together and discuss specific chapters of the book online. I selected "The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer" by William Bostwick (also the author of the book "Beer Craft") as our book because it's an interesting and educational read that I've been recommending to others.
A few weeks later, William and I serendipitously connected through our mutual friend, which led to this interview.
What is it about beer that led you to become a beer connoisseur? Tell us about how you got started.
I started as a gardener, actually. I wasn’t following beer trends, or chasing down new releases, but the craft movement was inescapable at the time — especially in Brooklyn, where I was living — so I discovered a lot of really interesting flavors I never knew could come from beer. And as an amateur horticulturalist, and since I loved using plants in my art, and crafting and cooking with what I grew, I wanted to know the botanical basis for what I was tasting in beer. That got me started homebrewing, which (along with my tiny Brooklyn apartment) inspired my first book, Beer Craft And as I brewed more and learned more — and drank more — I wanted to learn more.
Why did you organize the chapters of your book the way you did? Tell us about your journey with beer.
Well, it made sense to start at the beginning, with the birth of of agriculture, and grain-based foods. It was a nice coincidence that this chapter also introduced Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head, who were not only a big part of the start of the craft beer movement, but also an early influence on my own beer experience. My then-girlfriend’s dad had an incongruous taste for Midas Touch and Bud Lite, and it was one of the first truly transcendent beers I tried. The Midas Touch, I mean.
Who/where/when would you feature if you are to add the 9th chapter in your book?
I think it’d be interesting to go back to the beginning, with grain. Malt has been one of the last elements of beer to, let’s say, “de-industrialize,” with the recent growth of micro-maltsters and heritage grains. I’d love to explore more the nuances of barley breeding, farming, and malting, and dig further into unconventional grains, and wild grains and grasses, since new evidence is coming out that humans were making bread (and maybe beer) earlier than when we consider the “agricultural revolution.” I’m actually collaborating with Sam at Dogfish Head on a project about this — stay tuned!
How has your experience of writing this book influenced you?
It’s made drinking beer a lot more fun. The biggest recommendation I have for curious drinkers is to learn how to homebrew. Whether you make historical recipes or not, going back to the ingredients is the best way to learn about what you’re tasting. I’m still a passionate gardener, and even more fascinated now by all the things I can grow, forage, and ferment.
In Chapter 2, you explored hallucinogenic beers as well as roles beer plays in a variety of settings from rituals to social bonding. What roles does beer play in your daily life? Do you see shamanistic aspects in today's beer world?
These are really interesting questions, and kind of two sides of the same, er, beer coaster, in my mind. Here’s what I mean: Since its beginnings, and especially now, beer has been a powerful social tool. Simply put, it brings people together. The bar has always been a “third place” — that home away from home, office without a boss, temple without a priest, where we can go to exist in a rare limbo state, both alone and with others, both relaxed and engaged, to contemplate and to connect. The ritual of beer drinking, to me, is the ritual of the bar, meeting new friends and old over shared pints. However beer used to have a much deeper power: individual transportation. I don’t want to overstate this — indeed, alcohol’s ability to intoxicate is an unavoidable and fascinating influence on many aspects of society and culture, but I don’t mean to suggest that all beers were used as drugs. Still, it’s clear that some were drunk specifically to induce trance-like states more potent, or at least more significant than a mere beer buzz. I think about this in broader terms, though, and see that power to transport the drinker today in beer’s ability to conjure places, people, memories, and ideas with its flavors. This is a personal, inner journey — not really a social one — and can take some effort. Sure, there are days when I just want to grab a pint and watch the ballgame. But other times I’d rather dive deeper into the glass. That’s when I look for the shaman: those brewers whose ingredients, styles, inspirations, and flavors do more than loosen tongues and mellow minds. They can be hard to find today, but no one said climbing the guru’s mountain was easy. As I learned visiting Moonlight, the journey is all part of the trip.
Here's the last question; How are you currently living a "beer-paired life"?
I still have a column in the Wall Street Journal, and I work at a brewery here in San Francisco called Woods (@woodsbeer), where I get to make a lot of the wild-crafted, herbal, and locally grown/inspired beers I tend to enjoy the most. But more importantly, I get to share them with our customers — pairing beer with people, I guess.
If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend checking out The Brewer's Tale to learn about the world of beer. If you are curious about the world of home brewing, check out his other book, Beer Craft. Willam would greatly appreciate your reviews!