‘The Secrets of Master Brewers’ taps into national brewing cultures, traditions

By Tom Morgan

Photo: Alworth’s ‘The Secrets of Master Brewers’ offers insight into national brewing processes

Avid homebrewers like myself are always on the lookout for books that offer original insights into the brewing process, as well as new and innovative ways to think about brewing as a practice. Jeff Alworth’s new book, “The Secrets of Master Brewers: Techniques, Traditions, and Homebrew Recipes for 26 of the World’s Classic Beer Styles,” clearly delivers on both points.

Alworth lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing about beer for 20 years; over that time, he has gathered information from brewers around the globe, much of which has been distilled into the insights he offers in this book. I’ve been following Alworth’s blog, Beervana, for almost 10 years now, and in the interest of full disclosure, one reason for my excitement regarding his new book is that I get mentioned in it, a point I will return to shortly.

The book is organized by traits and practices of national beer cultures. As Alworth details, there is a “pervasive cultural orientation to brewing, a kind of invisible hand that seems to guide breweries.” This orientation is a product of a “national (or sometimes regional) way of thinking about beer.” In putting readers and homebrewers into “the mind of those brewers,” Alworth’s book is “designed not to teach you how to clone a particular famous beer but to understand an entire approach to brewing in that beer’s tradition.” As he offers toward the end of the book, “all the great brewing countries have a distinctive approach that does not resemble the approach of even neighboring countries. Like cuisines, brewing traditions tend to stay within national borders.”

Thus, understanding that British brewing traditionally focuses on balance and control, using a depth of malt flavor to build their beers along with expressive, often fruity yeast esters, provides insight into national ways of thinking that clarify how British brewers imagine the brewing process. Add to this a knowledge of the methods and practices that British brewers employ, like parti-gyle brewing, the use of invert sugar but never beet sugar, and the importance of cask ales allows readers and homebrewers alike to see the way that British brewers approach the brewing process with a particular cultural framework in mind, one that can help us understand what makes British beer taste, well, British. The same can be said of German brewing traditions, influenced by the “highly controlled pragmatic Bavarian approach” of the Reinheitsgebot coupled with the “flamboyant, daring, and just plain weird ale-brewing approach” that has brought the world altbier, gose, and berliner weisse. When you add the open fermentation that often accompanies weissbier production, you start to get a sense of the way German brewing practices embody an ethos particular to that country.

The book is organized around sections detailing the distinct national brewing traditions: British, German, Czech, Belgian, French and Italian, American, and Brewing Wild. While the last section of the book is more process-based than nation-based, though Belgium is the first country that will come to mind, this is in part because wild and sour brewing have, of late, become important factors in numerous national brewing cultures, notably American and Italian. Each style features knowledge from a particular brewer along with short sections on understanding that style in relation to its particular brewing tradition. Following the recipe, Alworth also provides suggestions for how to continue to experiment with that style to best understand these different brewing traditions. The blend of professional knowledge applied to a homebrewing context means that readers get insight into decoction brewing, for example, both as it fits German brewing practices and how it can be best performed on a homebrewing scale.

My mention comes in the American tradition section, specifically in the Brewing with Corn chapter. I know what you’re thinking: “Ugh. Corn. Bad.” I know, because I once thought the same thing. But Alworth’s blog inspired me to start experimenting with significant portions of corn in my beers, mirroring early American brewing practices that existed well before American macro lager brewing made corn a bad word. My results convinced several members of my homebrew club to experiment with corn, as well. We took a standard recipe, selected different yeasts, and fermented our individual versions. I took a 12 pack of the results and mailed it to Alworth. This is the mention I get in the book. So in many ways, this reference is really a testament to the value of Alworth’s insights as a beer writer, as it offers proof to his influence on my own brewing practice, specifically in regards to the role corn plays as an important part of American brewing history.

This, then, is the invisible hand. Like the American obsession with hops, the other significant component of our national brewing history, it shapes and colors our understanding of beer, whether we are consciously aware of that influence or not. It is the focus on the importance of national culture in the production of beer that is the greatest strength of this book, not only for the insight into creating these beers, but for the way that learning to think outside our own expectations and assumptions regarding beer can allow us to better understand—and enjoy—the beer that is in front of us. All hail the invisible hand.

 

For more information on Jeff Alworth and his book, please visit JeffAlworth.com.

 

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Tom Morgan
Reach DCP freelance writer Tom Morgan at TomMorgan@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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