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A cross-country beer trek

October 26, 2008 | 12:04 pm


To celebrate a kind of quiet, bookish Oktoberfest, I picked up "Red, White and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey" by Brian Yaeger. The author drove around the country to visit 14 breweries -- and to sample their wares, of course.

The book affably chronicles the histories of regional American beers, including Leinenkugel, Shiner Bock and Bell's. Yaeger begins, appropriately, with Pennsylvania's Yuengling, the nation's oldest operating brewery. In the late 1800s, when Yuengling was getting started, local breweries were common: 4,100 breweries were in operation (more than exist today, even counting tiny brewpubs).

Instead of tracing how the business of beermaking has changed -- with the emergence of Anheuser-Busch, the devastation of prohibition, the later evolution of microbrews -- Yaeger gets small slices of the big picture as he talks to the current owners and managers. He draws the histories of the family businesses behind the beer, each with their own ups and downs. Only Dixie was affected by Hurricane Katrina; only New Belgium Brewing, the makers of Fat Tire, have set a world record for biggest bike parade.

Over and over, he asks what the future might be. Will these family businesses stay family businesses? Will they become more corporatized?

This calls to mind Steve Almond's "Candyfreak," in which he traveled around America to get a taste of local candy bars, even as candymakers struggled in a hostile business climate. But it's not quite "Candyfreak" -- why, after the jump.

Almond's book was characterized by passion: an outsized love of chocolate coupled with a recently broken heart. Yaeger, who throws in a personal anecdote here and there, never seems to have much at stake. Why he picked these breweries and not others is unclear; other than a distaste for the "big three" major breweries, he doesn't demonstrate what the survival of these breweries means.

Most tragically, where Almond could write pages about the sublime deliciousness of a newly discovered candy, Yaeger barely describes the beer. "I got a tall glass of the Black Forest and enjoyed it on the second-story patio...," he writes; "I took a big sip of Geary's Pale Ale, then nodded for more..." and "Never having sampled their wares before, I plowed through them all. The winelike Saison had a pleasant zing." That's about as detailed as he gets -- "pleasant zing." He doesn't evoke what the beers look like, smell like or taste like, allowing names like "stout" and "ale" to substitute for sensory description. He doesn't write about buzz or drunkeness or hangovers, other than to mention that after drinking too much, he sleeps late. The beer-i-ness of the book is missing, and this lack of sensual detail makes a good portion of the story fall flat.

Indeed, what the narrative lacks in vivid description it makes up for in bad beer puns.

There isn't a sense that traveling the country means much, either. How do the differences in landscape shape the choices made by the breweries? How does watching the landscape change affect the author? When, at the end, he moves to San Francisco because it has more breweries than his hometown Los Angeles, there is no why. He knew about L.A.'s few breweries when he began -- if he learned something in his travels, he doesn't share it.

Instead of being an odyssey, the book is just a decent collage of oral histories of small businesses. Maybe what it needs is a new label.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by mattdente via Flickr