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Session #115: Beer Bookish

The 115th Session, is hosted this month by Joan Villar-i-Martí, who writes Blog Birraire. For his topic, he’s chosen The Role of Beer Books, to sum up the topic says. “I believe the importance of books for the beer culture makes them worthy of another Session.”

Here’s his full description of the topic:

The discussion at hand is “The Role of Beer Books”. Participants can talk about that first book that caught their attention, which brought them to get interested in beer; or maybe about books that helped developing their local beer scene. There’s also the bad role of books that regrettably misinform readers because their authors did not do their work properly. There are many different ways to tackle this topic.

The Session has been about books before just once, and it was about those that hadn’t already been written. I believe that their importance for the beer culture makes books worthy for another Session.

My two primary beer bookshelves today.

For me, I have to go back before I thought about beer books, and thought about just books. I loved books for as long as I can remember. I read voraciously as a child. They were a great escape from issues I had with my home life, and particularly a psychotic, alcoholic stepfather. I loved classic adventure stories — like the Howard Pyle Robin Hood, the Swiss Family Robinson and Around the World in 80 Days — but really would read just about anything. My favorite aunt (a great aunt, actually) was very encouraging about reading. She was an unusual woman, and had a degree in chemistry from Syracuse University, which was not common in the late 1910s or early 20s. She sadly never really put it too good use, but she read constantly, and usually had several books she would be reading simultaneously. She would leave them bookmarked in each room, and would read the book left in whatever room she happened to be in. I don’t know how she did it, but it was her pattern my whole life, so she had obviously worked it out so it was easy for her. About once a month, our school handed out a flier from the Scholastic Book Club, and she had graciously agreed to buy any books I wanted. To be fair they were almost always under a buck, but it was an amazing gift.

One of the last things my biological father gave me before he was out of the picture was a multivolume children’s illustrated encyclopedia. That was my introduction to the world of reference books. And I’m still obsessed with them to this day. As much as I love stories, I love non-fiction even more. There was a quote I always loved, by Desiderius Erasmus. “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” When I joined the military, and was on my own for the first time as a young adult, that was how I lived my life. After basic training and then my MOS school in Virginia, my permanent duty station was in New York City, where I played in an Army Band from 1978 through the fall of 1980. We got paid on the 1st and 15th of each month. Since I had no rent, no utilities to pay, no insurance premiums and my used car was paid for, my paycheck was almost all disposable. After setting some aside for college each month, the rest went to books, music and video games. Every paycheck, we’d pick a new Atari 2600 cartridge and then the rest was spent on interesting books and albums (remember this was before the age of the CD or digital music).

It was during this period of time I bought a bartender’s book of cocktails. In the back of the book there was an appendix that included four reasons to drink for each day of the year. It was that book that piqued my interest in collecting dates. It’s what led to there being a Brookston Almanac (, though it was actually first online as The Daily Globe around 1995. And until recently, I had more books on calendar systems, almanacs, timelines and collections of dates than I did beer books.

But the first true beer book I bought was detailed in an earlier Session, Session #46: An Unexpected Discovery, and it was Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer. I first arrived in New York City in the spring of that year, and began exploring the city, especially jazz clubs, museums and the theater. There was a great USO office in Times Square, and we could usually pick up leftover theater or movie tickets there for free.

We also visited bars, lots of them. Somebody told us to go to McSorley’s, and it was certainly fun. But what emerged as a favorite was a bar in the East Village, Brewsky’s Beer Bar. It was a little hole-in-the-wall on 7th Avenue, but it had, for its day, a great selection of imported beers. I think the owner was Ukranian, or something like that, and there were a lot of beers from central and eastern Europe. There were dozens of similar-tasting lagers and pilsners with enchanting labels I couldn’t read. But it was the darker beers that really stood out, simply because they were so different from what I’d grown up drinking. For example, I recall Dortmunder Union vividly as a beer with distinct flavors unlike any other I’d ever tried.

I liked most of what I tried, though at the time I was drawn to the few English ales I tried, I think because they tasted so much different to me than what I was used to drinking. I was certainly hooked. I already had a somewhat obsessive love affair going with beer, but to find out that it was so much richer and more varied than I’d realized was something of an epiphany.

I longed to know more about what I was tasting, but there was scant little information available. Happily, that changed one day during one of my post-payday trips to a bookstore, I happened upon Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, which had been recently published. I almost didn’t pick it up, because the garish gold and green cover had a large Miller ad in the center. But then I spied the red triangle from Bass and flipped through it. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot. Finally, I had some context to what I’d been drinking lately and was able to organize my head around the various tastes I’d been trying so chaotically.

Looking back, it seems odd that there was so little available information on beer and, compared with today, how truly ignorant I was. And it wasn’t just me. Practically everybody I knew had little or no idea about beer. The regional and national breweries at the time made no effort to educate consumers. The other beer books I was able to find at the time made little attempt to codify or explain anything. There were plenty of breweriana books, books on collecting cans, things like that. Or trivia-themed, Abel’s Book of Beer (which has been mentioned online recently), a few by Will Anderson, etc. But Jackson’s book talked about the beer itself, what was in the bottle rather than what was on the label. That was pretty cool at the time.

Since then, of course, I’ve amassed quite a few more beer books, which I started picking up while working on my first book in 1991. Below is the original shelf I set aside for beer books.

And outgrew that one and added another next to it, but that’s now too full and place for a third will have to be found soon.

And here’s some stragglers, and a few often-consulted books, piling up until a third shelf can be found.

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