Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book Review: Vienna Lager

 A few months ago I bought "Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer" by Andreas Krennmair and have thoroughly enjoyed dipping and and out of the book for inspiration and plans for the upcoming winter lager brewing season. It was on the basis of having enjoyed it so much that I ordered his latest book, "Vienna Lager", from Amazon within moments of him announcing it's release on Twitter.

A few days later it dropped through the door (figuratively speaking), and just last night I finished it. Sure it is not a weighty tomb, but I have read it in snatches as life allows, even so, a month is pretty good going by my standards these days.

What we have here is the life and story not just of the Vienna Lager style, but also a deep dive into the life of it's creator, Anton Dreher - he who went wandering around British breweries with Gabriel Sedlmayr, filching samples with Bondesque contraptions as they went. Scion of a family of innkeepers and brewers, Dreher built the largest brewing company on mainland Europe in the 19th century, at its height boasting 4 breweries, one each in Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and Italy.

Andreas then follows Vienna Lager on its journey from its Austrian homeland to the New World, as it became an established part of the German brewing world in both the US and Mexico, and thence onward to its acceptance within craft beer.

While being focused on Dreher and Vienna Lager in particular, the book gives the reader an insight into the massive changes wrought on the European brewing industry in the second half of the 19th century. Not only are we talking about the introduction of three of the most influential beer styles, but also the introduction of English malting techniques that allowed maltsters to create consistent pale malt, and thus the world was set on the path of pale lager domination.

Andreas' book is full of fascinating technical detail, the kind of thing that very much appeals to the technical writer in me. At the same time he succeeds to keeping the technical details accessible and not overwhelming. An added bonus for homebrewers, and possibly commercial brewers looking to re-create history, is a selection of recipes for Vienna lager through the ages, naturally the early ones of just Vienna malt and Saaz hops appeal to me most of all, and perhaps this winter will finally see me take the plunge into decoction mashing.

What Andreas has done here is write the definitive guide to Dreher and his Vienna Lager, and made a valuable contribution to knowledge of the development of pale lager in general. It is an excellent read, go and buy it, now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Book Review: Historical Brewing Techniques

At the beginning of this year I resolved to get back to reading as much as possible.

In the carefree days of not being a dad I would read something like 2 or 3 books every month, but with Fin and Bertie wreaking havoc on all things in chez Reece, that dropped off dramatically. Sorry if it makes me a total failure of an Enlightenment man but there were days when crashing in bed was just about all I could manage.

Anyway, I resolved to read at least 1 book each month, and have so far kept to that plan, with a combination of fiction by new-to-me writers, beer writing by the likes of Pete Brown, and in "Historical Brewing Techniques" by Lars Marius Garshol the latest book by a blogger whose writing I have enjoyed for quite some time.


One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Lars' blog posts from his trips to various parts of the Baltic world to brew with farmhouse brewers has been that they go beyond the formulaic "I went here, we brewed this, it tasted like this". Not only do you get a sense of the beer, its brewing, and its tasting, you get a very real sense of the people making the beer, their culture, their sitz im leben, and you see how intimate the beer is to their existence.

That sense of anthropology, history, linguistics, and even mythology is infused throughout the book making it much more a book about people than a drink. To really understand farmhouse ale from the Baltic world and Russia, you need to understand the people and the world they live in, and that is infinitely more interesting to me than tasting notes.

One thing that really struck home, mainly because lately I have found myself somewhat jaded with the goings on of the craft beer world and its obsession with the emperor's new clothes of "innovation", was Lars' drawing a distinct line between craft beer and farmhouse ales. Just because a brewery uses kveik to ferment their umpteenth IPA doesn't tie them to the farmhouse tradition.

Also as a homebrewer it was great to see the simplicity, even rusticity, of the farmhouse brewers' setups. There are times when I feel a little down on my own setup, usually when listening to a friend describe their latest, greatest piece of homebrewing technology, as if squeezing an extra gravity point from the malt, or hitting a rest temperature to within hundredths of a degree, actually makes all that much difference to the flavour of the beer.

Throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the vitality of brewing in the development of human civilisation, and in the farmhouse tradition described, in the Nordic and Baltic worlds in particular. It is not a stretch of the imagination to realise that the farmers and warriors we call Vikings very likely used the same methods and ingredients over a thousand years ago.

This wonderful book is probably the best "beer" book I have read in many years, I use inverted commas there quite deliberately as it is not a simple "beer" book by any stretch of the imagination. It is a guide to a world that is dying out, almost gone, and one that tells a far longer story of humanity than industrial brewing could ever hope to.

If you haven't already, go and buy this book, it is worth every penny.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Let's Make Some Beer

I have homebrewed now since 2008, when my started with a very homely, cobbled together, 'brew  kit', back in Prague. As is in my nature, I have read, and read, and read books on homebrewing, from introductory texts to tomes of technical data about the various stages of the mashing process. I never tire of reading about brewing and gleaning new ideas, thus I got a copy of 'Make Some Beer' by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, the founders of the Brooklyn Brew Shop.


Subtitled 'Small-batch Recipes from Brooklyn to Bamberg' the book has about 35 recipes, inspired by breweries around the world, as well as ideas for food to pair with the beers. The recipes themselves are designed to make a single gallon of homebrew, and there are scaled up versions for those doing 5 gallon batches. The recipes are clearly written out, with clear instructions for performing the various stages of the brewing process. However, there are no technical details such as original gravity, calculated IBUs, and other useful numbers.

Rather than being a dry collection of homebrew recipes, anecdotes are littered throughout the book, providing back stories to each of the recipes, and giving the reader a sense of the writers' personality.

Overall, 'Make Some Beer' is a well written, diverse collection of interesting recipes and stories. While it may lack some of the technical details of other homebrew books, it is an easy resource to dip into when looking for an idea for a recipe, and I look forward to scaling some of the recipes up to my own small batch size of 2.5 gallons.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Into the Woods

Last night saw a rather large thunderstorm roll over the Charlottesville area. Being something of a non-fan of Thor smacking Mj?lnir against his anvil, I took refuge in my beer cellar, sat myself down on an unopened case of beer, and began to read. My material for this delve into sanctuary? Evan Rail's latest Kindle eBook, "Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest".


Without wanting to steal Evan's thunder, because each and every one of you needs to go and buy this work, this is all about my favourite Czech brewery, and the brewery that if I never drank another beer from any other brewery I would still have a rich and flavourful beer life, Kout na ?umavě. If i remember rightly, and there is a fair old beery fog to claw my way through, it was Evan himself who first recommended I head up to U slovanské lipy to try Kout's beer, and what occurred was simply obsession with first mouthful, both for the pub, which was a right Czech dive (aka the perfect pub), and the beer. There were many more nights spent in U slovanské lipy with Evan, Max, Rob, Boak and Bailey, Mrs V, and a raft of other folks that I insisted on dragging up there to try the beer, usually finished off with a malé 18° tmavé...

One thing that really comes through in Evan's prose is his sheer passion for the brewery, its history, and their products. You can't help but get the feeling that Evan thoroughly enjoyed writing this book, such passion for the subject makes the book an absolute delight to read. I may have mentioned this in my review of Evan's last eBook, but reading his work is almost like being sat in the pub with him, talking about beer, from that perspective it is clear to me that Evan is a writer with a clear, authentic, and unforced, voice.

The book also recounts a tale about an American writer wanting information for an article about the tmavé style, which brought a smile to my face, because said writer was Nathan Zeender, and the article in question included my tmavé recipe. Such a small, and friendly, beer writing world we live in. For those with long memories, Nathan joined Jason and I at Devils Backbone the first time we brewed Morana.

There are plenty of other episodes recounted in the book, each revolving around that wonderful, almost anachronistic brewery in the wilds of Bohemia, but to find out what they are, you need to pop over to Amazon and spend literally a few bucks (seriously, $2.99 for a work of this quality is insanely cheap), and don't wait for a thunderstorm to read it. Find your favourite pub, that serves your favourite beer, and listen to the voice you will recognise instantly.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Anything But Utter Nonsense

A few weeks ago I got an email from an old drinking buddy, attached to said email was his new book. The drinking buddy was Max, perhaps better known as Pivní Filosof, and the book, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, co-written with Alan from A Good Beer Blog, and referencing one of my favourite authors.


With fewer than a hundred pages, I thought it wouldn't take that long to read it, but life has a way of getting in the way of pleasures like reading, and thus I only finished it yesterday morning. As the subtitle suggests, this a rant about the way 'craft' beer is perceived by its fans and the snake oil salespeople that peddle its myths, lies, and videotapes.

Couched within a series of conversations between the authors, in various drinking contexts, the book looks at many of the themes that surround the 'craft' beer industry; pricing, beer culture, the definition of 'craft', and various other instantly recognisable motifs. There is a supporting cast of well known bloggers, including a quick mention for Fuggled (on page 72), as Max and Alan bar, and continent, hop.

I found myself nodding in agreement often, as the authors round on the daftness that surrounds 'craft' beer, especially the banality of a sizeable portion of its fans and acolytes, in particular the difference between tasting beer and drinking it. While I like a flight in a new brewery, it really only serves one purpose, to help me choose a pint to drink afterwards. Probably my favourite episode in the book is the kidnapping of an archetypal 'craft' beer geek, and the de-programming of his craft sanitised mind.

Having had the pleasure of drinking with Max, reading the book reminded me of sitting in places like Pivovarsky klub, Zly ?asy, and U Radnice (where he, I, Evan Rail, and Rob finished off a keg of Primátor Stout), and speaking with him, which was always fun.

The book is engaging, raucous, and overall a good read. It identifies many of the issues that I have with the current state of much of the 'craft' brewing industry, and associated hangers on. If you feel uneasy with much of the conversation around the beer industry, then The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is essential reading.

Monday, February 18, 2013

In Praise of Hangovers

I guess everyone has their favourite writers, whose works you read on the strength of what you have already read. Whenever Iain Banks has a new novel coming out, I know I will buy it and devour it in a few days, I have his latest book 'The Hemingses of Monticello'. My list of 'must-always read writers' includes Umberto Eco, Nick Hornby and Douglas Coupland. Also on that list is a chap I am very honoured to be able to call my friend, Evan Rail, and it is with a great sense of remiss that I have only recently got round to taking the 45 minutes or so it takes to read his latest Kindle single, In Praise of Hangovers (random thought - if it takes about 33 minutes to read something is it a Kindle LP?).


'In Praise of Hangovers' is a look at the aspect of the drinking world which is common to all drinkers, whether lovers of lager, ale, wine or spirits. Each and every one of us has, at some point, woken up with a splitting headache, a mouth that feels like fur and an unquenchable thirst, not to mention the intention never to drink again, or at least not until the pub opens.

Evan manages to thread together history, science, mythology, anecdote and some wonderful metaphors of the hangover experience in his 30 odd pages - if you don't how the pain of the hangover headache relates to Lev Trotsky then take a quick dash to Wikipedia to find out how that particular revolutionary met his end. There were several occasions when I found myself chuckling away at some point or other that was instantly recognisable in my own hangover experience, though I would add Irn Bru to the list of approved morning after pick me ups.

Like Evan's previous Kindle single, Why Beer Matters, this is a really enjoyable read, and one that I whole heartedly recommend you pop over to Amazon and buy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Beer Matters

Living in Prague, there were many times when I could be found propping up one of the bars at Pivovarsky klub. Often the choice depended on who was working in which bar, and if there was any space at that particular bar. Usually the main reason for my being in PK was to meet with friends, though of course the beer was also important - I could have met my friends in any of Prague's wonderful watering holes, but it was PK I preferred above all others. PK was also where I did most of my drinking with Evan Rail, author of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic and all round top notch person. To say I miss sitting in PK with Evan would be like saying a fish misses the sea once it has been caught.


Yesterday, Evan emailed me a copy of his new booklet, "Why Beer Matters", which is available through Amazon's Kindle Store, so when I got home from work I sat down with it and had a read. The booklet only takes about half an hour to read, though I imagine I will dip in and out of it often. One of the central themes of Evan's thesis is that beer matters because of it's essential egalitarian nature, that it is a drink enjoyed by the haughty as much as the hoi polloi.

I am not going to go into a thorough review here, other to say that at many points while reading, I was nodding my head, mumbling agreement and generally wishing we'd been having this discussion sat in PK. What I will say though, is that if you love beer and the beer world, click on the link and buy the book, it is worth every penny.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Wisdom of St James from the Gate



There are few beers on earth as iconic as Guinness, few brands as well defined and even a source of national pride, few families as remarkable. In three phrases you basically have the premise of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Search for God and Guinness.

Guinness was the first legal beer I ever drank, in the lounge bar of a hotel near my home back in the north of Scotland, and is still a beer I turn to when I am not sure what to drink - being a beer geek has the disadvantage sometimes of leaving one uncertain as to what to drink in a pub. As a result of my early drinking years enjoying Guinness in Oirish pubs in Birmingham, I have become a devotee of stout in general.

Being a beer geek means I had to remember that I am not Mansfield's target audience, so I had to put myself in the shoes of some of my more religious friends convinced of the evils of alcohol. Mansfield does a good job of showing how beer has been part and parcel of human culture for millennia, and even part of church life from the very beginning of the faith, through to the Reformation, the Puritans and how many of the great men of faith that we revere such as Luther, Calvin, St Patrick and Jonathan Edwards held a positive view of beer, thus showing that Christian prohibitionism stands outside the historic and biblical approach to alcohol.

Much of the Guinness story though I didn't know. Mansfield's treatment of the leading characters in the development of the beer and the business are sympathetic and give the reader a good insight not in to just what each of them did, but also their motives for doing so. One thing that in particular gripped me was the story of how the company backed Dr Lumsden in his efforts to improve the every day lives of the Guinness workers and their families, by improving access to health care, raising the standards of housing, providing education and even starting the first branch of the St John's Ambulance in Ireland.

A couple of minor gripes aside, a slightly patronising tone when dealing with ancient source material which isn't the Bible, and claiming radar to have been invented prior to World War I (yes, I know of the work of Hulsmeyer and Tesla in the early part of the 20th century, but radar as a method of working out the distance away of objects as well as their presence didn't come until later). But these really are very minor gripes.

Regardless of your religious point of view, Mansfield's book is an interesting read and one which proves the old adage that with great wealth comes great responsibility, or as St James would put it "faith without works is dead".

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hops and Glory - Beer Book of the Year!

On Monday, when checking one of my various email accounts I noticed a message from Amazon.ca saying that my copy of Pete Brown's "Hops and Glory" had finally shipped, after several delays and what have you. Imagine then my joyful surprise when the DHL man rang the doorbell on Tuesday morning and handed me a package containing the long awaited book. Let me just say that I hate, literally hate, being unemployed - I hate not contributing to the household, hate not doing something vaguely useful, hate the feeling of uselessness, but when the book you have been waiting for arrives then I guess the chance to read it undisturbed is a good thing, and sure enough 22 hours later it was finished.

It was through my good friend Jay, who is coming to CVille this weekend, that I became aware of Pete Brown. Jay gave me his copy of "Three Sheets to the Wind" and I got repeated strange looks on the metro in Prague for chuckling out loud at points. So I was really looking forward to "Hops and Glory".

For those few people living in the outer reaches of the universe, "Hops and Glory" is about India Pale Ale, and Pete's journey taking a cask of a specially made beer from Burton-on-Trent to India by ship, around the Cape of Good Hope. The book thus is part travelogue, part history, part beery geekdom, and eminently readable. Pete has a talent for letting the reader in on his inner feelings, so much so that you can clearly imagine headed toward the equator on a sail boat - or perhaps it was just my seething jealousy?

In the chapters about the history of the British in India and the characters that sailed from our tiny islands to the far flung corners of the earth it is impossible not to feel a certain amount of pride - quickly followed by a healthy dash of liberal guilt for the unseemly side of Empire. In discussing though the racism that became part and parcel of the Raj in the latter years of the 19th century, I think it is important to remember that this was the era when blind nationalism became the rage throughout Europe and not just a British thing.

The chapters about the actual making of an original IPA recipe were of course fascinating for my inner beer geek, especially given that the American version is fast becoming one of my favourite styles over here, hence the picture at the bottom of this post. I find myself very much agreeing with Pete that American IPAs could use a healthier dollop of malt to balance out the hoppiness, thankfully the Northern Lights in the picture does have a nice marmeladey sweetness to back up the citrusy hops. Completely incidently I have been drinking a fair bit of Bass Pale Ale recently, a beer which I actually quite enjoy - one of the upshots of reading the book is wishing that I had enough cash to rescue Bass from the grip of A-B InBev and restore it to its former glory (even though it is a perfectly drinkable pale ale as it is).

I really don't want to give too much away about the actual contents of the book, but I would encourage you to rush out, if you haven't already, and buy it. If you are one of my American readers then visit Amazon.ca and get it from Canada, you really won't be disappointed.

Well done Pete in writing a simply superb book.

Just a little side note, it was kind of weird at first seeing the names of people who follow, have commented on this blog and even that I have sat and drunk with being mentioned, but I guess the beer world is like that and I for one thoroughly enjoy being a small part of it.

Beyond January

Dry January is over, but my beer fast continues. Well, it continues until Friday. As a general rule I only drink at the weekend, thus my win...

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