In my first blog, I discussed the one beer book you have to read (John Holl’s Drink Beer, Think Beer). This time, we take a look at a beer book we should read, but can’t: Bob Brown’s 1932 masterwork: Let There Be Beer! The book has been out of publication for decades, and finding a copy is no easy task. I’ve had my eyes open for two years sifting through old books at flea markets, browsing online, questioning fellow bibliophiles for leads. No luck on a single, affordable copy. Luckily, excerpts exist from the original book review by the New York Times and other sources.
Brown deserves a book of his own. [Side/snide note: he has one. Craig Saper’s 2016 The Amazing Adventures of Bob Brown: A Real Life Zelig Who Wrote His Way through the 20th Century. However, I read it in preparation for this blog, so you don’t have to. Enough said.] Brown is a fascinating figure who crossed paths with luminaries, artists, revolutionaries, expatriates, Hollywood-types and many of the most colorful people throughout the 20th century as he wandered the globe eating, drinking, writing and inventing. His unique fascination and dedication to beer make him the most important type of authority: one who has practiced the craft. And by craft, I mean he drank a lot of beer.
Let There Be Beer! is a multifaceted work dedicated to fellow beer aficionado, H.L. Mencken. While the United States suffered through prohibition, Bob Brown shipped across the pond and enjoyed the thriving beer scene across Europe. Brown advocates the virtues of beer as a self-help “cure”, provides records of his own beer drinking including charts of brands, beer styles, festivals and pub crawls. He shares toasts, drinking jokes, and famous beer bouts collected in his travels. Brown uses his own beer drinking adventures as anecdotal evidence of the life-enriching qualities of beer.
"The reader feels as if he or she is sitting next to Bob as he describes all the aspects of beer (from an informed personal perspective), from brewing traditions, the pubs where it is served, national drinking customs, and the taste, texture, look, and smell of different beers." (Saper 196)
And he discusses the traditions, customs and etiquette of beer drinking with important advice like, “It is always proper and polite to wipe the mouth after drinking, using only three-fifths of the fingers, never the whole five…”. The book is written in a style defined by one book reviewer as “the vigor of a glass of good beer” (Sayer 196). Certainly the exclamation point in the title -- a bold move from someone as excited to talk about beer as they are to imbibe--seems to match that “vigor.” The 1932 NY Times review offers this quotation on Brown’s beer sensibility:
"Good beer must taste 'round, clean, full mouthed and keen.' All five senses are required in tasting its quality. To the sight, it must ring clear as a bell, it must snap in the ear, feel pleasantly sticky between the fingers, smell fresh and tempting, and taste heavenly. The foam must be sprightly, upstanding and crackling..."
A description so vivid and tactile that I couldn’t help but pair it with a beer of my own. I have chosen for the occasion the Pre-Prohibition Vienna Lager by Eppig Brewing (San Diego, CA). True to Eppig’s approach, it is a classic style “clear as a bell” and with a “snap.” A thing of beauty, and thoroughly enjoyed as I read through the available excerpts on Brown’s book.
Brown recognizes the artistry of brewing and the convivial nature of beer drinking. His jovial personality is evident even in the fragmented selections of text available. Each chapter of Let There Be Beer! can be read as a toast to whatever beer-related path Brown has decided to stroll (stumble?) down next. He dedicates the book to the King of Beer, Gambrinus, with his edict: “Let there be Beer!--and there was Beer.” And he imagines a Statue of Liberty like sculpture holding up a beer glass in salute to the then impending end of Prohibition. A more welcome beacon to immigrants and the working class Americans than her “hollow torch.” His humor, style and various perspectives match the diversity and richness of the world of beer he was celebrating.
Brown even presages beer drinking apps such as Untapp’d with the suggestion: “Some gadget should be invented for the absent-minded beer drinker to accurately register his daily beer-fall...a beerometer perhaps” (Sayer 197). Which reminds me, I need to check in this Vienna Lager from Eppig.
By all accounts, Bob Brown was a character and a half. Exactly the type of patron I’d like to have join me at a bar for a few pints and stories. Brown’s writing was in no way limited to beer. He wrote pulp fiction, Hollywood films, cookbooks, poetry and travelogues as well as inventing and other creative endeavors. Some of his works can be found, but for now all but a few copies of Let There Be Beer! exist out there for the curious. My quest for his pièce de résistance continues. Some day, with any luck, I will stumble upon it in a pile of old, dusty books. And shortly after, I will head to the nearest brewery to order up a beer and enjoy a long awaited conversation with Mr. Brown.