25 Books to Read Before You Die

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Saturday, December 18th, 2004


Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America

by Ken Wells

A review by Doug Brown

More travelogue than sociology, Travels with Barley is a fun, easy read for fans and casual acquaintances of what may be the world's oldest beverage. Wells spends most of the book traveling down the Mississippi River looking for the "Perfect Beer Joint," with a few side trips along the way. By Wells's own admission, his definition of the Perfect Beer Joint is largely shaped by his Louisiana small town upbringing; the story about a 110-pound alligator snapping turtle biting a can of beer in half at Elmo's Bar and Grocery is a classic "beer joint moment." The Perfect Beer Joint can't be bright or clean, it can't only serve craft beers, it needs to attract a primarily working class clientele, and it needs to include a Beer Goddess element. This is not my personal Perfect Beer Joint search image (although there's nothing wrong with a Beer Goddess or two), but so what. We meet a cast of characters along the journey that are interesting and varied.

Wells does not share the beer snobs' snubbing of the big breweries, and Budweiser features throughout like an old friend. He tours the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and later visits the largest hop farm in America, which is owned by A-B. Wells dismisses the argument that Bud has such a large market share because it rams advertising down the public's throat. The simple truth is if people didn't like it, they wouldn't drink it. One element of Bud's marketing does take some well-deserved hits, though: the phrase "beechwood aged." It conjures images of stacked beechwood casks in dusty cellars, which is not the case. Bud is aged in large stainless steel vessels. Boiled and sterilized beechwood chips are put in the tanks to help clarify the beer of cloudy yeast. The chips impart no flavor to the beer; they actually remove unwanted flavor. Some brewers have used aluminum chips for the same purpose, but as Portland beer celebrity Fred Eckhardt wrote, "they've always had the good sense not to label such beer as 'aluminum aged.'" The use of rice in brewing Bud is also discussed. Anheuser-Busch is the largest single consumer of rice in America; 15% of domestic rice production ends up in A-B beers.

The chapter on yeast is particularly interesting to beer geeks (like me). Ale yeasts prefer warmer temperatures, and float up near the top of the brew. Lager yeasts like cooler temperatures, andsettle down near the bottom. For various reasons, lager yeasts eat more of the sugars in barley (or rice), so fewer sugars are left over in lagers than ales.Thus lagers tend to be smoother and less complex in flavor than ales. Even in lagers, though, barley doesn't surrender all of its sugars. To make light beer, an enzyme is added to make the barley yield more of its sugar, so the end product has fewer sugars (and thus fewer calories). While the common impression is that barley and hops provide beer's flavor, and the yeast is just there to make alcohol, Travels with Barley makes a good case for different strains of yeast imparting different flavors to beer. As a result, there is something of an unofficial black market on yeasts among homebrewers, as folks try to isolate and clone-purify yeasts from name-brand beers. There are also now legitimate businesses that provide yeast strains to brewers.

Wells's last side trip is to a place which earns the lofty nickname "Beervana": our fair city, Portland, OR. By his count, there are seventy-one breweries and brewpubs in Oregon, with twenty-six inside Portland's city limits. In comparison, Munich only has a half-dozen, and Milwaukee, WI, has about the same. Nationally, craft beer accounts for less than 5% of beer consumption; in Portland, however, almost half the beer sold is craft brews. Portlanders may raise an eyebrow at the "beer joint" with which Wells begins the Portland chapter: Mary's Club. Yes, Mary's, the strip club that most Portlanders walk quickly past, and those who enter usually aren't looking for beer (beer seekers usually go around the corner to the Tugboat brewpub, which shares restrooms with Mary's). But given his Perfect Beer Joint criteria, Mary's is just the sort of place Wells has roamed the country searching for. He later visits the Oregon Brewers' Festival and gets wonderfully tipsy at a tasting with the press corps. Then he heads across the river to share a beer moment with a dog named Calvin at the canine-friendly Lucky Lab brewpub.

Travels with Barley is an enjoyable journey, and Wells a companionable storyteller. Even if you aren't a beer geek, the book is a fun bit of Americana; the sections covering the history of beer in America are particularly interesting. If you know any beer fans, this would be a good gift idea to keep in mind. Travels with Barley earns an appreciative hoist of the pint glass from this reader.

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