Just outside my office door are shelves holding 50 linear feet of books on beer. Not everyone needs that many, of course. These titles culled from my collection include a beer book for (almost) everyone on your holiday gift list.
The first author on this list is the late English journalist Michael Jackson, who practically invented the field of beer writing in the early '70s. A few years ago, Jackson, originally a newspaperman, recalled in an interview: "I was up against not so much editorial resistance as total lack of interest. The reaction was 'Beer, who would want to read about that?' You know: 'It's only beer.' But I said, "Look, we've just spent an hour in the pub arguing about beer. Why do you think our readers are any less interested than we are?' "
Jackson was prolific, but for a comprehensive reference work, choose his Beer Companion (Running Press, 1997). The more recent Ultimate Beer is prettier to look at, but the Companion covers the history and modern production of more than 50 styles of beer from around the world. Someday this book will be out of date, but the writing will always be fluent and enjoyable. From Aass Amber to Zunft Kölsch, this is the place to start.
The beer landscape has evolved since Jackson's death. No single author has given us a broad survey book to replace his, but a team of 44 has published what will turn out to be a perfect snapshot of world beer culture in 2010. In 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die (Universe, 2010), English writer Adrian Tierney-Jones coordinated an international collection of experts, each of whom contributed a few essays on what he or she felt to be the world's best beers today. "Before you die" lists are always entertaining, and this compendium is refreshingly international in its reach.
Garrett Oliver is the well regarded brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and the most passionate advocate for beer's place alongside fine food. The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer With Real Food (Ecco, 2003) isn't a cookbook, it's a celebration of flavor: a round-the-world tour of breweries and beers, with an emphasis on food and beer pairings. Oliver maintains that beer is a friendlier companion to many foods that are notoriously difficult to pair with wines—and he illustrates the point with accounts of culinary showdowns where he and a sommelier each select beverages to serve with a range of courses, with beer usually winning. The book concludes with an appendix that recommends appropriate beers for nearly 200 specific foods. Burritos? Foie gras? Smoked eel? The right beer is here.
Beer isn't just romance and tradition: It's a big business, and it can be a dirty one. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch, a family-run business for more than a century and the biggest brewing company in the world, fell into the hands of InBev, a Belgian/ Brazilian conglomerate. Distracted by the Great Recession, the public hardly noticed as various players, some of them members of the Busch family, facilitated the takeover. Julie Macintosh, a financial journalist who covered the story for the Financial Times, published the detailed account in Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Icon (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). The story has relevance not only for the brewing industry but more broadly for American businesses in a global economy.
The sale of A-B is dramatic, but not unique in an industry peopled with larger-than-life characters. A number of histories of American beer have been attempted by beer enthusiasts, but Maureen Ogle brought a professional historian's rigor to her research for Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (Harcourt, 2007). Although beer was part of American society from colonial days, Ogle concentrates on the influx of 19th-century German immigrants who transformed our drinking preferences and created the world's dominant beer style. Their legacy endured temperance, Prohibition, world wars and national consolidation, and—despite the attention we lavish on craft beer—American lager is arguably the most influential beer ever brewed.
If you decide to make a contribution to beer history, brewing your own beer can be rewarding from the very first batch, but also challenging enough to keep its millions of practitioners engaged as they perfect their skills. John J. Palmer's How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time (Brewers Publications, 2006) covers the basics for the novice brewer in easy-to-follow language and guides more experienced home brewers through intermediate and advanced techniques.
To finish, a ripping yarn of adventure on the high seas ... with beer. English writer Pete Brown was familiar with the oft-told story of the origin of India pale ale, a potent beer created at Burton-on-Trent and preserved with enough alcohol and hops to withstand the sea voyage to outposts of the Empire. In Hops and Glory, One Man's Search for the Beer that Built the British Empire (Macmillan, 2009), Brown set out to carry a specially brewed barrel of IPA on an 18,000-mile journey from the English Midlands to Calcutta, re-creating the original sea voyages. Along the way, he encounters pirates, prostitutes, seasickness, the fall of an empire, dark nights of Pete Brown's soul—in short, this is much more than "just a beer book," and exactly the thing for that long Christmas afternoon.