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Book Review: The Short Course in Beer by Lynn Hoffman

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Lynn Hoffman almost lost me at 'beer started the Crusades.' It was an implication on page two of his new book, The Short Course In Beer. But later on he writes, "If brewers brag about their source of water, it should suggest to the consumer that maybe they don’t have much else to brag about." A Coors slam! All is forgiven.

You've got to realize right off that this book is not an in-depth guide to brewing or beer history or homebrewing guide. It has some of those elements, to be sure, but the book is really just a primer for people who are new to the world of beer, those guys and gals still stuck on 'industrial' beers who are beginning to realize there's more out there. It covers very basic information, from beer's ingredients to the brewing process — even discussing why head disappears in a pint of beer. It introduces the novice to things like beer styles and proper glassware and reviews the jargon of craft beer drinkers. In eight chapters it covers quite a bit of ground. Hoffman lives up to the title he placed on his tome, so kudos to him.

For those who already know the joys of beer this is not a book that will need to be kept on the shelf for reference. But, as noted above, it's not intended for that crowd. So I tried to read the book as an amateur beer geek. Would this be useful to me? If I were to engage in a conversation with someone who'd read this book, would they be able to understand and even add to the conversation? My answer would be yes. After reading this book I'd be interested in finding out more about beer.

The first three chapters felt mostly like an extended blog rant about the lecherous aspect of drinking and extended discussions of Dionysus and Bacchus and other old alcohol(ic) gods. After that, it improves. His descriptions of beer styles and the like seemed mostly accurate. His tasting directions seemed useful. The brief account of how the 'industrial' brewers came into being was useful, too. I especially liked his moniker for yeast: "sugar mushrooms." That one will stick with me, I know.

The writing seems bloated and, well, pointless and rambling at times. I think that can be mostly overlooked, though, for he did convey the love brewers and craft beer drinkers have for beer — and also the conflict they endure as they walk the line between innovation and tradition. He also conveys the disdain most have for the big industrial brewers. Like it or not, that is a part of the craft beer movement (note comments above about the Coors insult).

Here's a few examples of beer thinking contained in the book that I truly enjoyed:

  • "Show your kids what moderation looks like and you’ll never have to tell them."
  • "Prohibitionists are trying to take their lack of culture and their joylessness out on the rest of us."
  • "One drink is a twelve-ounce bottle of beer and one beer an hour is, with food, a fairly civilized pace of consumption. One might even call it moderate."

He dares to quantify moderation, "one beer per hour." You've got to love that. Hoffman interjects humor throughout the book but at what seems to be odd places to me. It's an attempt to make the book accessible to all and unoffensive, I guess. I think the sophomoric humor diluted his stance on the value of craft beer. I don't think our senses of humor are in harmony, so I'll just leave that bit alone for now. I'm sure many will appreciate it. If you're from Philadelphia, I'm sure you'll enjoy the book. He does seem partial to that city.

In his Appendix D, Hoffman makes this comment about Charlie Papazian's book, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing: "The style is very chummy in a post-frathouse kind of way that some people find very difficult to read and that others find relaxing." That pretty well sums up Hoffman's book, too. By the way, his recommended reading list contains some in-depth beer books that are worth reading.  Be alerted, too, that the book contains links to Hoffman's pending website, shortcourseinbeer.com.  The site is not quite operative yet, but Mr Hoffman will have it so as soon as possible. Keep checking for it.

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About Gray Hunter

  • It’s sad that most people’s opinion on beer is determined by Bud, Coors, and Heineken. Of course, that means more good microbrews for the wiser of us. Cheers.

  • Gray Hunter

    Agreed, Mark. Homebrewing rules!