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).
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.