For the 115th Session Joan Villar-i-Martí at Birraire has asked us to consider the role of beer books.
Breaking News: you can drink and enjoy beer without ever reading a word about it, except perhaps what’s written on the label.
For us, books are hugely important, because somehow we’ve ended up as (small h, kind-of, amateur) historians. We had no idea five or six years ago how many books about beer and pubs had been written, and how obscure the specific subjects they cover. Without books, we wouldn’t know what mild tasted like before World War I, how many spittoons there were in a typical Bolton pub in 1937, or was head brewer at Usher’s of Trowbridge in 1966. (G.H. Leek.)
But that’s us and our needs, let’s face it, are slightly different to most beer drinkers, even the very keen ones, many of whom would (and did) agree with this most recent expression of a common sentiment:
Brewing is not a competition. Have fun, drink beer, by all means discuss but please don't obsess, it's beating the fun out of beer.
— Summer Wine Brewery (@SWBrewery) August 28, 2016
As we’ve written one and are working on another, we’d love beer books to be essential and important to the business of drinking beer, but the fact is, they’re not.
Reading beer books might even diminish your enjoyment. You’re using the wrong glass, you’re pouring it wrong, that beer you think you like is actually bad, this beer that tastes disgusting is actually great, that’s not really an IPA, oh yes it is the scholarship on that subject has moved on a lot in the last few years and its important to bear in mind the impermanent nature of beer styles.
And so on.
For a certain type of person, though, they can enhance the enjoyment.
A list book (to try before you die) can motivate you to try new things and help you cope with the paralysing wall of choice. Beer and food pairing guides, though not our thing, are like bumper fun activity books for grown-ups — the basis of a nice evening focusing intently on something other than work. Narrative histories are perfect for trivia vampires. Home brewing guides have an obvious use, but are also often better at history and culture than books that have that as their primary aim. Regional guide books do one thing when fresh, and morph into invaluable historical data when old, after a decade or so as merely out-of-date crap.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s no better way to kill an awkward 30 minute wait in a pub than with a dog-eared volume from the premises’ own shelves. When a pub has beer books, we instinctively like it more — it sends a signal.
So, no, beer books aren’t vital, but they’re not daft or parasitic either. If you want to read them, read them; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.