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The One Book on Beer You've Got to Read

If you are only going to read one book about beer, that one book should be John Holl’s Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint (Basic Books, 2018). John Holl is that rare personality: a know-it-all who is neither pedantic nor tedious. In fact, he seems to be exactly the type of person you’d welcome to join your table, to your backyard BBQ, or find yourself in conversation with at a local brewery. From reading his book, listening to his podcast, and following his social media platforms, all indications are that John Holl is the consummate nice guy, replete with bowtie. The kind of guy with whom you’d genuinely enjoy sharing a pint.

Early in his book, Holl lays out his credentials: they are lengthy and impressive. But he doesn’t need to. It’s enough that he’s a beer enthusiast himself. It’s enough that he understands that beer is “a social convention” which is “continuously evolving”. It’s enough that his writing style is conversational, not didactic—he’s your beer nerd friend that has so much to share, but also understands that you may not want to hear it all at once. Like a great beer, you want to enjoy it. And his overarching goal with the book: to help the beer drinker best enjoy what they have in hand.

If it can be said that I am a beer snob—and it can and has been said—then it’s accurate to say that I am an even bigger book snob. I have found most publications focused on beer are of the “hunt and peck” variety. Textbook-ish. Want to know a little more about pilsners? Flip to that section of the book and study up. Fall is coming? Flip to the right spot to remind yourself about Oktoberfest and German purity laws. But cover to cover reading? No. And for a simple reason, there’s no story unfolding. My goal with this blog is to find those works that help tell the story of beer, the stories around beer, and the stories because of beer. And there’s no better place to start than with Holl’s Drink Beer, Think Beer. Because the magic of Holl’s writing is that he is, among other things, a wonderful storyteller.

In my first few minutes of reading, Holl’s conversational style helped me settle into the book. As seemed appropriate, I had a glass of a local favorite next to me on the patio table: Mother Earth’s Cali Creamin’. If ever a better beer for reading has been brewed, I am still searching for it. Low bitterness, medium bodied with Madagascar Vanilla to give it the essence of sweetness. Strangely both creamy and crisp, sweetish but not sweet. (Truth be told, I enjoyed a glass while writing the first draft of this article as well). In those first few pages, Holl invites the reader to imagine his or her Mind Pub, “the bar that exists only in your head and should be the perfect (to you) representation of all you want from a drinking establishment.” Throughout the book, Holl engages his readers by having them return to their Mind Pub to consider their own relation to the unfolding story. It’s a technique that works remarkably well to re-engage the reader in history laden sections.

Woven between historical background, industry spotlights, insider insights and a growing wish list of beers, Holl gives us nuggets of his intellect. My favorite of which is his claim that “Knowledge is the great adventure, and beer is an excellent Sherpa.” As easy as it might be to pull this metaphor down, my Cali Creamin’ induced reading let me just enjoy it, like a little unexpected hoppiness in a lager. Shouldn’t work, but it does. And Holl’s vast experience and wisdom is often balanced with a common sense turn of phrase: “Tasting beer is not complicated, folks. Pick up the glass, sip, and repeat until it is time to order another or go home. Simple enough, right?” Throughout the book, Holl reminds us that “Beer is personal. It elicits thoughts and emotions in each drinker,” and that it is also social. It brings people together—friends and would be friends alike.

While guiding us through a who’s who of the brewing revolution, Holl gives us tips for proper glassware, how to “taste” a beer, and what counts as “good beer.” He gives the most accessible explanation of craft versus independent I’ve come across. Likewise, he reminds us not to get caught up in the branding: “We need to support good brewing and good brewing only.” Big or small, old or new, recognized brand or not all take a backseat to quality. It’s a must read for anyone who has decided that beer has become more than a beverage. If good beer has become a passion for you, then John Holl’s work is the one book you must read.

Holl writes, “When you hold a glass of beer in our hand, it’s a promise of good things to come, or an escape.” The same can be said of each time you open up his book to read a little further into the story of beer. John Holl’s podcast Drink Beer, Think Beer is available wherever you find podcasts.

Booktapp’d score: a perfect 5/5--a Shawshank Book!


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