Craft beer has certainly developed and changed since it first became a “thing” back in the late 70s and early 80s – and it has stories to tell.
Sitting down with friends and flights is a pleasure not just because of the delicious beverages, but because sharing food and drink encourages other kinds of sharing as well. Beer has always been a drink of camaraderie. According to Carlos Gomez-Corona et al, drinking craft beer “is oriented towards special and ritualized moments.” Beer writer William Bostwick, reflecting on his experience sharing beers and hearing stories, recalls that to medieval Vikings, a “beer keeper” was a storyteller. Drinking beer, with its nuanced flavours and local character, is an activity that encourages reflection, sharing, laughing, and – yes – storytelling.
We tell stories while sitting down with a good craft beer. But what about the stories that beer can tell us? The tales of beer’s history, from ancient times to 1980s startups to modern diversity efforts, are fascinating and yet still largely absent from the public eye. So here are some non-fiction book recommendations for the beer-curious.
Please note that most of these are narrative reads, meaning that they are not beer resources like encyclopedias or homebrewing books. I can recommend Garrett Oliver’s The Oxford Companion to Beer and Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing if you’re looking for something along those lines. But if you’re ready to curl up on the couch with a book, this list is for you. Make sure to grab your favourite BC brew before sitting down to read one of these!
Local or Regional Craft Beer Histories
If you’re reading this blog post, you’ve probably read – or at least heard of – Joe Wiebe’s Craft Beer Revolution, which provides a brief history of BC craft brewing and a thorough review of most craft breweries in the province. If you haven’t yet checked out that book, I highly recommend it! However, here are a few more suggestions for readable histories of beer and brewing in North America.
Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana (2013) by Peter Dunlop
As Dunlop explains, he wrote this book because Portland, Oregon has “one of the most vibrant beer cultures in the world” (119). Dunlop’s story begins with German immigrant brewers in mid-nineteenth-century Portland and then traces the growth of the industry through the next century and a half. Sadly, BC’s Frank Appleton doesn’t get a mention in the accounts of the famed Deschutes Brewery (Appleton assisted in setting them up). However, this is a very readable history of Portland craft beer that is supported by evidence and clearly organized. Time for a road trip to Oregon!
Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada (2000) by Ian Coutts.
Given its publication date of 2000, this book won’t help you if you want a recent account of Canadian craft brewing. However, it gives a very helpful overview of brewing in Canada – from French Canadian brewers in the seventeenth century until the slowly growing craft beer movement at the turn of the millennium. The book is packed with photographs of various brewers, beers, and beer paraphernalia and advertisements, making it visually engaging. It’s breezy, easy to read, and a perfect beach read.
Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat (2020) by Scott Messenger.
Outside of its borders, Alberta isn’t particularly well-known for its craft beer scene. However, some of its breweries, such as Big Rock, have influenced Canadian craft brewing as a whole. And Alberta is, of course, one of the biggest resources for beer’s main ingredient: barley. Messenger provides a tour of craft beer in Alberta – the early pioneers, the law and policy changes, and how Alberta’s unique culture helped shape the industry. There aren’t any pictures, but it’s chock-full of interviews with craft brewers and brewery owners from around the province, giving it a very conversational tone. That sense of ease and informality is reinforced by the book’s opening and closing narratives: a Calgary craft brewery crawl enjoyed by Messenger and his friends.
Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business (2018) by Josh Noel.
This winner of the Best Book award by the North American Guild of Beer Writers was a page-turner. Beer journalist Josh Noel knows how to keep a reader’s attention. This fascinating account takes us behind the scenes of one of the most shocking announcements in the craft beer world: the sale of one of America’s oldest, most respected craft breweries to Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch InBev). The story, however, is much more complicated than the “selling out” moniker would indicate. The story of Goose Island Brewing shows what is really required to make a craft brewery profitable, and why so many breweries either fold or sell to a corporation. You’ll finish this book with a new perspective on craft beer.
Personal Reflections on Beer, Brewing, and Tasting
This is a genre I’ve always enjoyed: the more personal narrative about beer. These books are part travelogue, part journal, part history, part guidance. There are few (if any) pictures, but they are highly readable and often thought-provoking. If you’d like a pleasure book to accompany an IPA on the patio, check these out.
The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer (2014) by William Bostwick.
The subtitle of this book may mislead some readers into thinking this is actually some kind of historical volume. It is not. However, it is a wonderful read. Bostwick takes us through different beer styles, exploring their histories and intertwining those reflections with his own travel and brewing experiences. Sometimes you feel like you’re reading his travel diaries, sometimes like you’re reviewing a National Geographic article about brewing history. Bostwick’s writing is elegant and often poetic in the way it recasts the experience of smelling and drinking beer. And if you’re an aspiring homebrewer, I highly recommend his book Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer, which offers a simplified and approachable guide to homebrewing for the newbie.
Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint (2018) by John Holl.
In this book, beer judge and beer writer John Holl gives us his insider view of the craft beer industry in the United States. In addition to some brief and breezy histories of early craft breweries, Holl also discusses the history of beer’s ingredients and offers guidance for effectively tasting and experiencing beer yourself. One of his later chapters addresses how the beer industry has confronted entrenched problems with racial and gender diversity. The book ends with a suggested reading list and list of resources. Overall, it’s a compact and readable introduction to craft beer in the US.
My Beer Year: Adventures with Hop Farmers, Craft Brewers, Chefs, Beer Sommeliers, and Fanatical Drinkers as a Beer Master in Training (2016) by Lucy Burningham.
This book chronicles Burningham’s journey to earn the title of Certified Cicerone, one of the most challenging and comprehensive beer-related certifications out there (it’s like a sommelier for beer). In between being a spouse and a mother, Burningham pursues beer knowledge in all its forms, and across the globe. This book is interesting and entertaining, but it may – I warn you – inspire readers to look into the Cicerone program themselves!
Beer Histories – Academic and Semi-Academic
This is a pretty big category, so narrowing it down is tricky. Any decent history of beer and brewing will be supported by robust evidence, but not all are considered academic publications. Only the first five of these recommended books are conventionally academic, emerging mostly from the fields of history, sociology, and anthropology. Having said that, all of these reads provide evidence-based accounts of beer history from different perspectives. Whether you are interested in evidence of brewing in ancient Sumeria or modern Norway or are investigating inclusion and diversity in the craft beer industry, there is something for you in this list!
- Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (2004) by Richard Unger
- Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (1996) by Judith Bennett
- A History of Beer and Brewing (2003) by Ian Hornsey
- Beer and Racism: How Beer Became White, Why it Matters, and the Movements to Change it (2020) edited by Nathaniel Chapman and David Brunsma
- Beer and Society: How We Make Beer and Beer Makes Us (2022) by Eli Revelle Yano Wilson and Asa B. Stone.
- Beer: The Story of the Pint (2003) by Martyn Cornell
- Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink (2014) by Steve Hindy
- A Woman’s Place is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs (2021) by Tara Nurin
- Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing (2020) by Lars Marius Garshol
As a beer researcher, I’ve contributed to this body of work as well, with my book Craft Beer Culture and Modern Medievalism (2019) and the academic collection Beer and Brewing in Medieval Culture and Contemporary Medievalism (2022), which I co-edited with John Geck and Rosemary O’Neill. I’m currently working on a public-facing history of Vancouver’s craft beer industry, pre-Prohibition and post-1980.
Craft beer is a drink deeply tied to the local and the personal, so learning about its history and its culture helps us understand our own community a bit more. If you’re a craft beer fan, you are probably interested in what makes this drink so amazing. The books above will get you started on a very enjoyable research project – so grab a pint and get ready to read!