The tagline promises this book will tell us “All that’s left to know about the world’s most celebrated adult beverage.”
Based on the number of beer books I’ve read over the years, there can’t be much. But somehow writer Jeff Cioletti fills over 370 pages with this wisdom. The tagline is a bit of a misnomer — Beer FAQ is part of a FAQ series, which is sort of an upscale “for Dummies” series, published by Backbeat Books. There are FAQ books on soccer, on Seinfeld, and on A Chorus Line. Now there is one on beer.
Cioletti’s book is a bit of a rambler, super-dense with everything there is to say about beermaking, regional styles, and the history of brewing. Craft brewers and the big guys are both given equal time, and there are even sections on beer festivals, beer glassware, and even top beer bars around the world. There’s a section on how beer distribution works. There’s even a chapter on movies in which beer features prominently.
Now I can’t imagine that “What movies can I watch where they drink beer?” is a question asked with any kind of regularity, but if it’s something you’ve been wondering about, well, Cioletti’s got a pretty decent list for you to check out. You can read all about it in between enquiries into the evolution of beer packaging and diversions into discussions of Scandinavian brewmaking.
B- / $15 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Now that I’ve got my first homebrew under my belt, what’s next? Perhaps a spin through the Home Brew Recipe Bible: An Incredible Array of 101 Craft Beer Recipes, From Classic Styles to Experimental Wilds, will spur some ideas?
Chris Colby’s tome isn’t so much a bible as it is an encyclopedia, a straightforward cookbook for producing over 100 different beer styles, one after the other. I can’t seem to think of any type of beer that isn’t fully covered in the book, with Colby delving into such obscurities as black IPA, eisbock, and gueuze. Sours and oddball brews like sweet potato bitter and peanut butter porter are also included.
It’s not a book for the novice. While some of the recipes are starter brews, Colby quickly takes you into more advanced territory — and those looking for hand-holding, babysitting, or pictorial instructions simply won’t find them here. For seasoned homebrewers who want a growler-full of recipes all in one place, however, this is a great addition to the library.
A- / $19 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
If you missed the meteoric rise of Japanese whisky over the last 15 years, I hate to tell you this, but it’s too late to catch up. The very best of Japanese whiskies are simply no longer available, replaced by lower-end shadows of their former selves. If you can find a top shelf Japanese bottling, the price will be simply astronomical. And unlike in bourbon country, where capacity is dramatically on the rise, there’s not much end in sight for Japanese whisky shortages.
So, while you drown your sorrows in rotgut, you can at least read about what you missed, courtesy of Dominic Roskrow’s Whisky Japan, wherein he charts the mysterious beginnings and meteoric rise of late of Japanese whisky before delving into the good stuff: detailed reports on every distillery in the country (well, all 13 of them), writeups on dozens of specific bottlings, and listings of essential bars to visit in Japan — and world bars that have solid stocks of Japanese juice. Roskrow’s thin tasting notes and his reliance on unhelpful flavor wheel graphics are the sole weak spot in an otherwise standout tome.
Roskrow’s book works well as a companion to Drinking Japan, which is referenced several times throughout, though the hardcover design of Whisky Japan means you won’t be toting it with you to Tokyo. The larger format though does permit Roskrow to showcase absolutely gorgeous photography — of the places he takes you and the whiskies themselves — turning the book into an aspirational piece that will work well on any fan’s coffee table.
A- / $35 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Look, our forefathers were not the most temperate bunch, and writer Steve Grasse endeavors to lay bare their improprieties in this rollicking exploration into the origins — literally — of American drinking culture.
This is a book about drinking like none other I’ve seen, unless you’re the type of guy that likes to tipple on, say, Cock Ale (a mix of beer, sherry, and chicken broth). But apparently it was big in the pre-U.S. colonies, not just because it was so delicious, but because it was an aphrodisiac, too.
Nearly every page of Colonial Spirits has some fun fact or eye-raiser that will keep you engaged and intrigued, whether it’s Ben Franklin’s own list of euphemisms for drunkenness (over 100 of them — of which I’m adopting “top heavy”) or a recipe for making dandelion wine. What is Ass’s Milk? Well, read the book to find out. Sure, not all the stories and diversions are as interesting as the vignette on curative beverages for common Colonial illnesses, but hey, neither are all the stories from American history.
Will you be whipping up any of the myriad concoctions in Colonial Spirits to serve your guests? Well, probably not for New Year’s Eve, but perhaps for the Fourth of July you’ll want to break out one of Martha Washington’s punch recipes, no? OK, President’s Day?
B+ / $14 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
With Drinks: A User’s Guide, writer Adam McDowell offers a primer on just about everything with alcohol in it. Highly skimmable but fairly surface-level from start to finish, the book is a melange of simple advice about drinking (don’t drink the wine at a wedding, go for spirits instead), angry instructions (don’t drink vodka), and (spanning most of the book) primers on every category of booze there is.
The expected areas are covered — explaining the different types of whiskey, a look at how gin is made, how various beer styles differ — as are some unexpected ones, including a primer on sake styles and a section on absinthe. The book is also littered with cocktail recipes, some classic, some newer, but all worthwhile additions to any repertoire.
That said, hardcore cocktail enthusiasts aren’t likely to find much new material to draw from in the book — and some of the sections (like the one on Scotch) barely skim the surface. That’s probably to be expected in a book that tries to wedge every category of booze into under 250 pages — in fact, we regularly see that kind of space devoted to a single type of spirit — but McDowell is to be commended for covering so much ground in such stylish — and opinionated — fashion. It is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint.
B / $13 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Chris McMillian is one of the proprietors of New Orleans’ Museum of the American Cocktail, and with this book, he and writer Elizabeth M. Williams take a walking tour through the city and through time, to showcase where New Orleans’ essential libations came from.
The book pulls no punches because it doesn’t throw any. It’s a straightforward, textbook-like history of NoLa cocktailing that places all its classic libations and establishments at the head of the class. The history of the Ramos gin fizz, the Sazerac, and the Hurricane are all laid out with the excitement of an encyclopedia entry. (Though there’s no love for — or mention of — the Grasshopper.)
What’s worse is that the sad current state of cocktails like the Hurricane is never even hinted at, and an excited New Orleans first-timer could be completely forgiven if he went to Pat O’Brien’s with the expectation that he would be drinking something akin to one of the two recipes for the Hurricane provided in the book. (He would actually be drinking little more than a sort of alcoholic Kool-Aid.)
The Hurricane aside, Lift Your Spirits lacks any real excitement — excitement which you’ll find on every corner in this storied city. I can’t fault Williams and McMillian on the facts — they’ve unearthed them all — it’s the writing that just lands with a thud, perhaps because the subject they are covering is simply too near and dear.
I’ve long heard stories that for New Orleans natives, pride runs exceptionally deep, to the point where a negative word is never uttered about local establishments no matter what — particularly the major landmarks. I had dismissed that as conjecture and rumor, but Life Your Spirits doesn’t really do anything to dispel that theory. I guess it’s right there in the title, after all: This is meant to be a celebratory history of NoLa cocktails, not a particularly insightful one.
B- / $20 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Fred Minnick may be best known for wearing an ascot, but he also happens to know whiskey, particularly bourbon. With Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, Minnick takes us on a lively and wholly unpedantic history of bourbondom, particularly as it relates to its homeland of Kentucky.
You will learn a lot about bourbon by reading Minnick’s book. You will come to understand the ins and outs of pre-Prohibition whiskey terminology as well as post-Prohibition retrenchment. Minnick spends a huge amount of time on Prohibition itself, explaining the arcane world of “medicinal spirits” and various Temperance Leagues.
While heavily laden with sidebars, the book is relatively fluff-free, so don’t expect pages of cocktail recipes or other page-fillers that detract from the mission of Minnick: To tell you where bourbon came from, and where it’s going next. That answer is left for an ominous few pages in the end, where Minnick notes, in so many words, that what goes up must so very often come down again.
Well written and never boring (which can be a problem with more pedantic whiskey-related material), this is a fun treatise on the history of America’s original spirit.
A- / $14 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]