alcohol Books

Craft Beer's Tome: We Make Beer By Sean Lewis

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 Rob Samuelson

When we order a beer at a bar, we don't think too hard. What are we really drinking? Do we know the ingredients? How does the recipe affect our reaction? Who made these choices? Is our choice based on brand loyalty? What creates brand loyalty? Do we only like certain beer styles? Why?

If it creates a pleasant sensation on our tongues and in our brains, we'll go for it. This is a neurological process we only approach peripherally. It's not our primary concern. These questions don't go through our heads with every order. Rather, they're in the background, shading our decisions and giving us the impetus to make a choice based on gut feeling.

This has little to do with the cognitive effects alcohol has on us. It's more about a lack of perspective. The world surrounding the craft beer industry, from the beer geeks trying every new product from small breweries across the nation, to the artisans at those myriad businesses who devise and execute every aspect of the beer-making process, has been an attempt to get people to think more about what they like and why they like it, rather than settling for one of two consistent-if-unmemorable options made by multinational conglomerations.

This is the subject of author Sean Lewis's new book, We Make Beer. Lewis, a former BeerAdvocate contributor, makes a cross-country trip to a slew of craft breweries, from the biggest like Chico, California's Sierra Nevada Brewing to the itty bitty scrappers getting their feet wet like Blue Hills Brewing Company in Canton, Massachusetts, where he had once worked as an intern under brewmaster Andris Veidis. In the process, he describes the ins and outs of how beer gets made, how the companies form, grow, and sometimes collapse, and he gets to some deeper ideas about small business in America by highlighting one of its most currently vibrant examples.

The moments when Lewis interviews brewmasters and company heads about the big picture questions are when the book shines. A thematic through line becomes apparent with every person. These people are all about working their tails off to form a community. They work long and strange hours to create a sense of place for their neighbors, a gathering spot where locals can develop a sense of pride in where they're from and a feeling of togetherness in whatever problems come their way.

One anecdote about Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company founder Steve Gorrill highlights this phenomena well. Last year, Gorrill became ill and collapsed at his Maine brewery. Tests showed he had a stroke caused by a brain tumor. Money was tight because he had not gone the route of pure moneymaking in his brewing business. More of an eccentric, he tinkered and made his beers to whatever whims came to mind. He had a great local business going, but Sheepscot was not a nationally recognized brand like, say, New Belgium. Their goals were different. This caused problems with medical bills as Gorrill's tumor was removed and treated with chemotherapy and radiation and had to basically relearn to speak following the stroke. This made him unable to properly train the volunteers who wanted to help him continue his regular brewing pace. But these problems were helped by the community Gorrill had begun, when his wife received an envelope filled with $500 to help with medical expenses. Gorrill is recovering and has a good longterm prognosis, which will likely keep him serving his locals for a long time still.

But that community sentiment follows these craft brewers in their business dealings, as well. Time and again, Lewis writes about these people helping each other, bartering ingredients when one place runs low for whatever reason, offering advice for new recipes, hanging out at beer competitions, and generally being friends. This is not the competition between rivals, but more like a pair of teammates working toward the same goal and pushing each other, through their personal achievements, to accomplish collective success. They look at giants like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Miller as the competition, but each other as buddies. They're not trying to one-up each other because they see beer as a market where variety is an irrefutable good. Knocking each other off would be a net negative.

It is the moments when Lewis delves into the beer-making process that things get a bit tough to follow. He provides a helpful glossary, but these descriptions get jargon-y and more for the already initiated. For those looking for insight into how to get going on their own brewing, it could be an invaluable learning source, but anyone inclined toward pure storytelling might find themselves a bit lost at this foreign process.

More invaluable is the volume of beer suggestions Lewis makes. His critical writing on the taste elements display an author with a strong ability to convey gastronomical experiences. He makes a case for the difference of each beer. He takes an evenhanded approach to the current trend in making hops the signifier of good beer by suggesting that couldn't be further from the truth and that “hopheads” are limiting themselves with their quasi-religious devotion to one style.

Lewis knows what he's talking about and he creates a narrative about the American dream of doing what makes you happy and being successful at it. The brewers he encounters provide a service for their communities, each other, and the country as a whole by working exceptionally hard to offer relaxation and enjoyment. The finer things in life are worth working hard for.

You can now find We Make Beer at all major booksellers.

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