Travels With Barley

A Journey Through Beer Culture In America

by Ken Wells

Travels With Barley

Hardcover, 304 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Book Summary

An upbeat tour of beer manufacture and consumption in America, written by a Pulitzer Prize finalist, journeys along the Mississippi River and visits such sites as a Delaware brewery with designs to make a fifty-proof variety, the Anheuser-Busch plant in St. Louis, and the world of California beer-yeast rustlers. 30,000 first printing. First serial, The Wall Street Journal.

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Excerpt: Travels With Barley

Travels With Barley

Introduction: Why Beer, Why Me?

They who drink beer will think beer.

— Washington Irving

I was eleven years old, sitting on the front porch steps next to my father on a summer's day, when I took my first sip of beer, Pa holding the can for me so I wouldn't get carried away. Maybe he knew something. It was a Falstaff and it was warm. We lived in a hot, sweltering place in Louisiana's Cajun Delta way below New Orleans. A cold thing cracked open didn't stay cold long down there.

I didn't care. I took a big swig anyway.

Pa drank Falstaff because, cold, it wasn't all that bad, and because it was cheap, and mostly because Falstaff sponsored the Major League Baseball Game of the Week every Saturday afternoon on television. I was one of six brothers, and all old enough to talk were rabid baseball fans. We'd just gotten our first TV, a piece of heavy dark furniture with big, yellow-trimmed plastic knobs and a tiny screen in the middle. Out where we lived in the country, the reception was iffy. But if somebody went outside and twisted the antenna in just the right direction toward the station in New Orleans while somebody inside watched and yelled when the picture came into focus, we could catch a mildly snowy black-and-white broadcast of the game.

Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean did the play-by-play. We liked them both but Dizzy Dean was particularly important because a) he would sing "The Wabash Cannon Ball," one of my dad's favorite songs, during the Seventh Inning Stretch, and b) my grandfather Wells had briefly played semipro ball against a young Dizzy and his brother Paul back in Arkansas, where my dad, grandfather, and the Deans all were from.

Pa's way of thinking was that Falstaff wasn't just sponsoring the ball game — it was helping out Arkansas folk that we practically knew. (This is how Arkansas people thought, and I couldn't see anything wrong with it.) Pa would now and then go for a Pabst Blue Ribbon and, when he had a little extra money, Miller High Life in a bottle. But he was loyal to Falstaff till the competition and the money men eventually drove the company into the ground.

At first, I didn't know quite what to think about my swig of beer — mostly it startled me. In retrospect, I'm sure the jolt I felt was actually the foamy, mildly bitter pop of hops in the back of my mouth. But beer vapors ran up my nose and my ears turned red and my scalp tingled and chills ran down my spine. What little I knew of sin, this seemed like it.

Though I didn't become a regular beer drinker until I entered college, I've been a Beer Guy at heart ever since that moment — that's kind of how it is with Beer People. To this day, in fact, most of my friends are Beer People, too.

Now, I admit there is a question as to what exactly a Beer Person is and stands for, and it was one of the questions that got me pondering when a Wall Street Journal colleague first suggested that, far beyond writing an article or two, I should look into writing an entire book about beer. With a publisher keenly interested, this was something that obviously required deep and unconventional thinking, especially after checking the landscape and finding it already littered with beer books. Most of them are about beer tasting; some are about beer history; some about the beer industry or beer marketing or beer barons or some aspect thereof. As subjects, all are worthy, as are many of the books that have sprung from them, yet none of these subjects individually interested me as a writer. But it did occur to me that there might be a more eclectic way to look at beer that included elements of all of the above but strove to get inside the passion that I first brushed up against in that beer jolt I got as a kid. For lack of a better term, I proposed a look at beer culture in America, which I saw as inextricably tied up with Beer People.

If you tell people you're writing a book, their first question is usually, "What's it about?" But as I moved around the country in the reporting of this project, running into lots and lots of Beer People of all persuasions, I often got a quick second question: "Why you?"

It took a while to realize that what the Beer People were really asking was whether I was one of them. What were my beer credentials? Beer People, I learned, can be something of a fractious lot amongst themselves but they tend to be protective of the object of their passion with perceived outsiders. So I would tell the Beer Folk about drinking beer at my daddy's knee and that, though I've had my flirtations with single-malt whisky and wine, it's still hard to think of anything (printable here) better than a cold beer on a warm day at the ballpark or the beach. I also had to confess that I came to this book with no more beer knowledge or tasting experience than that of your average enthusiastic amateur but also with few biases, save perhaps a distaste for light beer, though I cast no judgment upon those who drink it. I was not when I began this book, nor am I now, a Beer Snob. I grew up with people who knew of only three categories of bad beer: warm beer, flat beer, and, worst, no beer at all. Beyond that, the salutary effects of cheap beer during the penury of graduate school left me too grateful to mock inoffensive mass market brew, or the taste predilections of the great middle-class beer masses that I so long shared. Face it: a guy who drank 99-cent six-packs of Buckhorn should never get too carried away with himself.

True, I was thrilled to get introduced to a previously unknown universe of European beers when I took my obligatory summer backpacking tour across Europe right out of college in 1971. Later, in the early 1990s, when I served as a roving Wall Street Journal correspondent in London, I even came to appreciate that style of beer known as British bitter, figuring any beer that was good enough for Dickens and Samuel Johnson was good enough for me. And having now spent well more than a year totally steeped in beer, which has mandated a fair amount of incidental beer sampling in various parts of the country, I have by necessity and osmosis gained both knowledge and experience.

There are roughly 3,400 brands of beer, domestic and imported, available in the U.S. market and I'd hazard that I've tried a respectable 15 percent of them. And I'm positive in a blind tasting I could tell the difference between Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA, Smuttynose Portsmouth Lager, and Budweiser, but the appreciation of one doesn't require me to vilify the others. I've learned that all represent a huge if disparate commitment to quality.

What I did bring to this book was a reporter's sensibility and a notion, after copious research, best expressed as a metaphor — that a huge River of Beer runs through America, smack through the heart of American commerce and through the hearts, minds, and passions of the nation's estimated 84 million beer drinkers. If you doubt this, consider that the beer industry, with retail sales of almost $75 billion a year, is bigger than the music and movie industries, bigger than cell phones, cable television, and mining. Beer's extended contribution to the economy — essentially Beer Nation's gross national product or GNP — is $144 billion. That's larger than the gross state products of twenty-four of the fifty states and the GNPs of scores of countries, including other B-named nations, Belarus, Bolivia, and Bulgaria among them.

But beer in America is more than a business; it is a business inextricably woven into our history. George Washington brewed beer at Mount Vernon before the Revolutionary War and strongly rebuked the Continental Congress during the war for scrimping on beer rations (a quart a day) for his soldiers. Ben Franklin also brewed beer and was said to love it as much as Homer Simpson does.

For generations, beer has also been America's great middlebrow social elixir, an inseparable companion to the sporting and spectator life, the portal to first intoxication, the workingman's Valium, and a leavening staple of the college experience. It is the only adult beverage, if you're perfectly honest, that goes with pizza. It is a business, as my dad's fixation with Falstaff shows, underpinned by a wide streak of loyalty. Such loyalty is often won not simply on taste but often by marketing — not just clever advertising but alliances with sports, and the teams and stars that turn sport into celebrity.

America didn't invent beer but we have grabbed it, shaken it, homogenized it, refined it, and made it our own. We are home to the world's largest brewing company, Anheuser-Busch Cos., and the world's largest single-site brewery, the Adolph Coors Co. plant at Golden, Colorado. The Czechs, Irish, Germans, and Austrians may drink more beer per capita than do we Yanks but America as of this writing was still the world's largest beer market, bigger even than China and its 1.3 billion potential beer swillers. Americans in 2002 (the latest statistics available) consumed 6.35 billion gallons of beer, or 31.3 gallons for every single person of legal drinking age. That's seven times the combined volume of beer's rivals, spirits and wine.

And for the past twenty-five years, driven by a sense of innovation last seen in Silicon Valley before the tech bust, we have sprouted a robust and competitive craft brew movement, a loose alliance of so-called microbreweries, brewpubs, and moderate-sized regional brewers dedicated to repopulating America's beer landscape with thousands of new beer choices. Though it pains the European Beer Snobs to hear it, that movement has made America the seat of what Michael Jackson, the noted British beer expert, told me was "the most interesting beer scene in the world."

And lately, some craft brewers, bored with simply trying to make "better beer" than mainstream beer companies, have begun to fly the flag of the Extreme Beer Movement. What else could you call beer brewed from a 2,700-year-old recipe reverse-engineered from dregs sifted from the bottom of drinking vessels in a royal tomb in Turkey? Or beer made not to be "freshness-dated" but made purposely to be put away for a few years in oak or sherry casks, decanted into ornate bottles, and sold as a rival to cognac? Or blended like good Scotch whisky and marketed with a name like Train Wreck O' Flavors?

And what else but Extreme Beer could you call Jim Koch's Millennium Utopias? Koch (pronounced Cook), founder of the Boston Beer Co. and the Samuel Adams label, brought the beer in at a staggering 24 percent alcohol by volume (most beer is about 5 percent). The 2001 bottling wasn't just by far the strongest beer of record ever made — it was the equivalent of a moon shot in the beer world.

The Russians haven't launched an alcohol by volume race to get beyond the moon but Sam Calagione, an Extreme Brewer and founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, has, his 2002 World Wide Stout achieving 23.6 percent ABV.

He's not done. Koch's not, either. Many Beer People are watching this the way baseball fans watched the Dodgers-Yankees rivalry in the 1950s.

That said, one of two beers sold in America is an Anheuser-Busch product — Bud Light recently moving past its brother Budweiser as the number-one-selling beer in the U.S. In fact, about 38 percent of all beer sold in America is low-calorie light beer — astonishing for a style that didn't break into the national consciousness until Miller Brewing Co. popularized it beginning in 1975. Anheuser-Busch, Miller (bought by South African Breweries in 2002 and renamed SAB Miller), and Adolph Coors, the Big Three, claim about 80 percent of all U.S. beer sales. Accounting for the rest: once mighty Pabst, now a contract brewer of relic beers, such as Schlitz and Falstaff, with an odd cult following; a few regional standouts like Yuengling Brewery, High Falls Brewing Co., and Latrobe Brewing Co.; a growing raft of craft brewers; and, most notably by volume, imports such as Corona and Heineken.

Our British-born founders may have given us their notions of liberty and democracy but the earthy ales they brought with them ultimately couldn't hold on here. German immigrants like the Busches, Pabsts, Schlitzes, Hamms, and Millers capitalized on America, the melting pot, preferring its beer somewhat on the light, cold, and frothy side. Lager, the pale, golden, easy-to-drink beer style epitomized here by Budweiser, didn't get to America until the 1840s and didn't take off until the 1870s, aided by scientific advances, notably mechanical refrigeration and pasteurization, that made beer a highly transportable, less perishable commodity. Lager hasn't looked back since.

In truth, the American mainstream taste for pale lager isn't out of kilter with the rest of the world: 95 percent of the beer consumed worldwide is also lager (though much of it fuller-bodied than American mass-produced lager). This divining of the national beer palate, coupled with the invention of beer mass marketing, itself a billion-dollar business these days, has enriched brewing dynasties like the Busches and the Coorses and vast numbers of others up- and downstream — hops and barley growers, distributors, bottle-makers, tavern owners, and advertising agencies, to name a few.

Beyond all that has sprouted a fanatical legion of homebrewers, nowadays in unprecedented numbers, who, wired together by the Internet, have turned basements all over America into finely tuned mini-microbreweries and are reinventing the very notion of what beer is or should be.

Thus, we are a beer paradox: a world beer superpower aslosh in a sea of hot-selling, middle-of-the-road lagers pushed by talking frogs, catfighting bar chicks, and Clydesdale horses, while at the margins, craft brewers and ardent hobbyists turn out beers that now rival almost anything the vaunted Germans, Belgians, Czechs, and Brits have to offer. Craft brewers represent much of the creative heart of American beer — yet they have only 3.4 percent of the beer market. In between, we make billionaires of the Mexican family that makes Corona, the unparalleled import success story of all time; we make beer that we now put away in cellars for five years, to be aged like fine wine and whiskey, and sell it for $35 a bottle; and on the ramparts, where beer passion splashes into pop culture, we marvel at the energy and vision of the Maryland entrepreneur who has dedicated much of his time to one day launching...Beer TV.

Oh, and would it surprise you that beer — good ole American-as-apple-pie beer — so aggressively and adroitly protects its interests in Washington that it is considered by many to be one of America's top ten most powerful lobbying groups?

This paradox, with its built-in tensions and contradictions, its converging and diverging passions, its entrepreneurs and characters, seemed best explored by journey. So that's what I have attempted to do, setting off on both a literal and figurative voyage on the River of Beer, traveling through the precincts of the beer makers, sellers, drinkers, and thinkers, trying to gain insight into the forces that drive the mighty River onward.

The narrative heart of this book is a car trip I took, following the Mississippi River the length of our mighty beer-drinking country, in a quest to find the mythical Perfect Beer Joint — a quest that I might admit, if pressed, was part pretext to gain a view of America through the prism of a beer glass. Since all great rivers have their tributaries and backwaters, I knew it would be impossible to stop at every port or scenic wayside. So this book in no way attempts to be an atlas of the American beer experience nor, except coincidentally, a pub or brewery guide, but rather a selective (and thus subjective) look at what makes beer in America interesting today.

By way of affording the reader partial insight into my thinking: the state of Big Beer was impossible to avoid; Extreme Beer gave me a compellingly fresh way to look at the maturing craft brew industry. On the other hand the people who spend their lives collecting beer cans and what is loosely called breweriana certainly reside on the periphery of the beer world. But I decided early on they didn't fit in this book. That said, as soon as I got a whiff of the very notion of beer yeast smuggling and beer yeast rustling, I was hooked. And I concluded that the pivotal role of the Beer Goddess in modern beer retailing has been woefully underexploited in beer literature.

The River of Beer beckons. Here's what I discovered.

Copyright © 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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