Published in January 2012, this essay on the place of beer in contemporary culture and personal experience is an excellent example of new impulses in the realm of beer writing. Moving beyond tasting notes and informed by history, travel, and more than a few pints, Why Beer Matters is not so much an argument to establish the importance of beer as the title suggests, but rather a friendly discourse on a number of topics pertaining to our beloved potation, and why it seems to appeal to so many people, and mean so much to some.
Evan Rail is an American writer and journalist who lives in Prague, and is the author of Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic, 2006 (now out of print). He writes about travel, food, and drink for the New York Times and other publications. Why Beer Matters was his first Kindle single, which has been followed by others (soon to be considered on this blog), and his work is beginning to show how some contemporary beer writers are trying to move beyond categories that have confined their writing in previous decades and consider longer forms, essays, and even fiction.
Why Beer Matters discusses some of the reasons that may contribute to the current resurgence of interest in beer, and particularly in what has come to be known as craft brewing. Evan (I am going to resist the urge to call him Mr. Rail since I don’t write for the New York Times) considers beer’s relationship with time and place, and contrasts the relationship of beer with that of wine to these entities. “What strikes me as special” he writes, “is the ability of brewers today to do just what artists of the Renaissance wanted: to reach for and achieve the glory of previous eras.” Beer is not dependent on vintage the way wine is, and can be recreated more closely by the informed brewer than wine, which is dependent on the unpredictable nature of each year’s harvest. In considering time and place, he also describes how beer’s nature may be closer than wine to the here and now: in many countries, beer is primarily a draft beverage, with special or seasonal beers unavailable to those not in the right place and the right time. With exceptions that prove the rule, most beer is meant to be enjoyed fresh and shortly after it leaves the brewery (if it does at all).
Again contrasting beer with wine, Evan describes beer’s appeal as more democratic in terms of cost and in the degree in which enthusiasts feel free to express their opinions about it, citing the popularity of Ratebeer.com as an example of the tendency of beer-drinkers to not rely on expert advice in the manner of the oenophile.
Before closing the essay with the excuse that it’s time for him to head to the pub, Evan presents the paradox that confronts the contemporary beer enthusiast: while on the one hand describing the benefits that have come to brewers and drinkers alike from a closer examination of what goes into beer and how it is made, on the other hand the very nature of beer drinking invites an attitude of relaxation and not looking too closely into things.
Evan illustrates his ideas with several stories or examples from his experiences in Germany and the Czech Republic, including a fascinating (to this home brewer anyway) account of the search for a recipe for the Polish smoked-wheat beer Grodziskie and an amusing anecdote about Paulaner’s Salvator. His writing is excellent – imaginative and engaging throughout, with a richness of expression that belies the expectations many have for beer writers. Clearly he cares deeply about his subject.