BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole

Cover: The Little Book of Craft Beer.

Is there any point in another beginners’ guide to beer, especially one that is, by its own admission, ‘Little’, and pointedly lightweight?

That we felt moved to buy a copy (via Ama­zon for £8.45; RRP £10) sug­gests that there is some­thing in the propo­si­tion that sets it apart from oth­er such vol­umes. That some­thing is, in large part, the voice of the author, which is one we hap­pen to appre­ci­ate a great deal. Melis­sa Cole is a vis­i­ble, high­ly vocal pres­ence on the beer scene, notable as much for her refusal to let inci­dents of sex­ism pass with­out com­ment as for carv­ing out of a mid­dle ground between day­time TV fluff and extreme beer nerdi­ness.

In line with that tightrope act this book has not so much hid­den depths as art­ful­ly con­cealed ones. Though she makes a point of say­ing in the very open­ing lines that this book is not for expe­ri­enced beer geeks, it is clear that Cole her­self is sit­ting on a vast mine of expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge. The great­est chal­lenge for knowl­edge­able writ­ers is resist­ing the urge to drop it all, every­thing they’ve learned, in a great tor­rent – to bat­ter the read­er into sub­mis­sion with facts, dense detail and foot­notes. Cole is spar­ing with the sci­ence and his­to­ry but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there – it’s just boiled down to the absolute­ly plainest, briefest of Eng­lish, and bal­anced with humor­ous asides and per­son­al anec­dotes.

It’s hard for us to read this from any­thing like a beginner’s per­spec­tive but there are a cou­ple of places where we sus­pect those efforts at clar­i­ty and joc­u­lar­i­ty might land as patro­n­is­ing, depend­ing on the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the read­er. And, at times, the lan­guage tips from plain into some­thing like baby-talk, while for our tastes, even giv­en the light­ness of tone, there are too many excla­ma­tion marks. But, over­all, it suc­ceeds in achiev­ing the infor­mal­i­ty and approach­a­bil­i­ty for which it shoots.

It’s hard to see how the oblig­a­tory descrip­tions of the basic ingre­di­ents of beer, the broad fam­i­lies of yeast, the his­to­ries of major styles, and even the effects of age­ing Orval, could be any more deft­ly han­dled with­out becom­ing intim­i­dat­ing­ly dense. The dif­fi­cul­ty of defin­ing craft beer is acknowl­edged but wise­ly side-stepped, while the issue of big brew­ery takeovers is han­dled eco­nom­i­cal­ly with a cou­ple of sen­tences seed­ed here and there through­out the text. This book won’t tell you Every­thing You Need to Know About Beer but it will help you under­stand which top­ics might be com­ing up if you progress to Advanced Stage (Mod­ule 2).

Page spread from the book with one of Stuart Hardie's illustrations.

The sense of friend­ly low den­si­ty car­ries through into the design which has sim­pli­fied illus­tra­tions by Stu­art Hardie rather than stan­dard pack-shots of cans and bot­tles, and wide open sans serif text, all sur­round­ed by acres of white space. If you mea­sure the val­ue of a book by words per square inch you might feel swiz­zed but, bear­ing in mind the book’s pur­pose, it works to make each beer review page a sin­gle digestible nugget. Per­haps at times it can feel a bit like The Lady­bird Book of Beer but… Does that sound so bad, actu­al­ly?

Those beer reviews, which form the meat of the book, are brief, and there aren’t many of them. Again, if reviews-per-pound is your met­ric, then treat your­self to Adri­an Tierney-Jones’s con­stant­ly updat­ed 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die. On the oth­er hand, if you want an achiev­able list of beers – one hun­dred or so in total – select­ed by Cole to be rea­son­ably read­i­ly avail­able and to cov­er all the cor­ners of the style map in the most effi­cient man­ner pos­si­ble, then The Lit­tle Book is a bet­ter choice. There were plen­ty of beers we’d nev­er tried or even heard of and, to our par­tic­u­lar delight, even a cou­ple of sug­ges­tions for inter­est­ing low-alco­hol beers. Brew­Dog is notable by its omis­sion, and Cole indulges her­self by includ­ing (with full dis­clo­sure) two beers she had a hand in brew­ing, but there’s no rea­son to doubt her asser­tion in the intro­duc­tion that she would “nev­er, ever mis­lead oth­ers into try­ing some­thing I didn’t per­son­al­ly rate”. The absence of hyper-hip brew­eries such as Cloud­wa­ter (not named) is explained by their reluc­tance to brew the same beer twice – what’s the point in writ­ing about a prod­uct that no begin­ner has a rea­son­able chance of find­ing in the shops?

The oth­er key thread through the book is a series of sim­ple recipes for meals and beer cock­tails. We’re scep­ti­cal of the idea that beer is real­ly much use in cook­ing, per­haps even more trou­ble than its worth, but any doubts we had on that front were soothed by the intro­duc­tion:

My phi­los­o­phy about cook­ing with beer is that I don’t use a beer just because; it has to lend some­thing to the dish… I don’t sub­scribe to just using beer because your recipe needs a liq­uid.

The recipes are brief, easy, thought­ful and fun, and there only a few so can eas­i­ly be ignored if that kind of thing doesn’t excite you. For many begin­ners, though, it can be an effec­tive hook, and sends a cer­tain sig­nal about the kind of beer cul­ture this book seeks to pro­mote: point­ed­ly un-macho, un-blokey, un-lad­dish. Which is not to say that the tone is twee or exces­sive­ly prop­er. Fre­quent ref­er­ences are made through­out to extend­ed drink­ing ses­sions and the pow­er of beer, cru­cial to its appeal, in induc­ing drunk­en­ness. Which is to say that fem­i­nism is demon­strat­ed in this book rather than pro­claimed; it is not a book about women in beer, or pure­ly tar­get­ed at women.

If this isn’t an essen­tial book for every beer geek’s shelf, it is cer­tain­ly an excel­lent one for them to give to friends and rel­a­tives with whom they want to share their pas­sion. That’s what we’ll be doing with our copy.

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole”

  1. I once wrote copy for a fair­ly fluffy com­mis­sion only to dis­cov­er on pub­li­ca­tion that the edi­tor had punched it up with the lib­er­al appli­ca­tion of excla­ma­tion marks. It’s like sud­den­ly dis­cov­er­ing your job requires you to wear clown trousers and a spin­ning bow tie.

    1. There are two types of edi­tor: those who add excla­ma­tion marks, and those who take them out.” Me, just now

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