Ben Franklin is reputed to have said, “Beer is proof that God loves us.” Probably apocryphal in its attribution, the bumper-sticker classic captures the fun-loving passion with which many people approach the planet’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Now, beer’s faithful have their bible. The Oxford Companion to Beer, a formidable 920-page volume, chronicles the drink’s history, from its birth more than 5,000 years ago in the grasslands of ancient Iraq to the modern craft-beer movement.
Published last month and already in its fourth printing, the A to Z encyclopedia delves into the science, styles, regional customs, advertising campaigns, companies and personalities behind the suds. Editor Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery in New York, who compiled more than 1,100 entries from 166 experts, spoke with The Globe.
We’ve seen thousands of microbreweries froth up like the foam on a dark pint of Guinness. Is this the Golden Age?
The craft-brewing movement is not, in fact, a fad or a trend. It’s actually a return to normalcy. The weird part was when we had essentially one kind of beer in the United States, a country of 300 million people. And your country didn’t really have that many more kinds of beer either. It grows out of a British movement in the mid-to-late 1970s, people mostly from California going over to England, seeing the sorts of beers they were making and coming back and saying. “Wow, where’s our beer?”
You’re a brewmaster and have lectured on the subject to more than 700 audiences. Did you learn anything surprising while compiling this book?
I had heard about the kinds of things people used to put in beer going back to the Middle Ages. But there was a brewer of the porter beer style in London asked to make a speech to Parliament about adulteration in beer. What he basically said was, “Yes, we are putting intoxicating drugs in the porter and the reason we’re doing it is if we use so much malt that it would produce the intoxication the customer wants, we wouldn’t have any profits. Therefore we have to use drugs.” We tend to think of the good old days in a certain way, that things were purer. But in fact whether it’s craft beer or a mass-market beer, it’s a lot purer today in almost every way than it probably has ever been.
I liked the entry on ale-wives, about the historical role women had in ensuring men were never without a pint. The phenomenon gave rise to female brewers in ale houses. Is it surprising, given that beer is such a male-dominated culture now?
In Europe in the early days, beer-making gave women a form of financial independence. Often men would try to promulgate laws to control how much women were brewing and how much independence they were getting from it. As beer moved from a cottage industry to a corporate business, women were pretty much pushed out of the way. In the United States, at least, many of the advertisements you’ll see on television are off-putting, misogynist and not very attractive to most women I know. So, it’s not that surprising that a lot of women would think that they don’t like beer and that beer doesn’t like them.
Are there other popular misconceptions?
A common one is that people tend to think beers that are lighter in colour are lighter in alcohol and that darker beers are heavier in alcohol. Although there are a lot of myths that have some kernel of truth to them, there is not even the slightest amount of truth to that. At least in traditional beer, the reason for the colour has to do with whether the grains have been roasted or caramelized or not.
Can you share a few favourite watering holes?
As you can imagine, I have a pretty huge number. In New York City, I particularly love the Blind Tiger. Up in Toronto, I have had a great time at barVolo. Beerbistro, too, is very nice, especially for the food-pairing aspects. But we now have beer bars in Sao Paulo, Brazil, like Melograno. You have beer bars in Tokyo, like Club Popeye. You have beer bars in places like Rome. There’s actually a restaurant in Rome called Bir & Fud. So what you see now is a worldwide craft movement.
I was surprised to learn Italy has more craft breweries than beer-proud Canada. I guess they’re exporting all that insipid pinot grigio to foreign markets while drinking more satisfying beverages at home.
It’s fascinating to think why it’s so much stronger in Italy than in so many other places. I have a theory, which I can’t prove. In Italy, when you’re a young person going out for the evening and want a beer, your parents and your grandparents are in the same place where you are. They don’t really have a youth culture as we understand it. When they go to a craft-beer bar, I think they know their whole family is not going to be there.
With all the jargon on beer labels about dry-hopping and the like, is beer in danger of alienating consumers with wine-like pretense?
If you went to Italy or France and gave them the idea that wine was for the aristocracy, they would think you’d lost your mind. Everybody drinks wine all the time. They’re not fancy about it. Both beer and wine were always high and low. They were drinks of the everyday people and meant for the most refined tables.
When no one’s looking, would you drink a mass-market brand?
I don’t care for the flavour profile of your standard mass-market lager. I think if I was stuck in a train station, Michelob Bock, which is from Anheuser-Busch, is a perfectly drinkable beer. Hoegaarden, which is sold all over the world, is very tasty. We can get it now at Yankee Stadium. I think that’s what you’re going to see more and more, the slow decline of the relatively flavour-free mass-market beer and the large brewers starting to differentiate their flavours into areas that until recently had been considered the area only of craft brewers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.