Jul 30, 2014

Book Review “Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer”

I’m not what one would call a voracious reader. I used to be — not any more. Well, that is unless I really get excited about a subject and, frankly, how can I not become more than a little enthusiastic about a book on beer, especially on a topic with which I’m not all too familiar..

From the authors of the awesome Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog (if you’re not visiting this duo on a regular basis, shame on you) comes Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer, a casual and rather brief history of British beer.

Now, as an American whose pretty well versed in the history of our own craft scene, I’m not really all that up to spec on the trials and tribulations that our British counterparts have gone through with their own beery history. I, like many U.S. citizens I’m sure, was/are under the assumption that Britain has always had a strong brewing tradition — one steeped in legacies and legend. After reading Brew Brittania I realized that they faced the same issues that American craft brewers have faced through the years, just a few decades sooner than this side of the pond.

Fickle local tastes, big brewing conglomerates, trends, fads, cult followings, even fanaticism… you name it, it was all part of not just the recent surges of BrewDog or Meantime or The Kernel, but of those breweries struggling to survive in the 60s and 70s. That time period really does mirror what has been going on in the U.S. the past five to ten years.

It’s a fascinating telling of British brewing history written in a casual, digestible manner. There are plenty of quotes from founding members of CAMRA and earlier preservative societies — I can only imagine some of the stories not told in this book. As an American, born and bred, however, and not all too familiar with British colloquialisms, I found the casual speech and references to locations difficult to follow at times. Then again, I’m probably not the target audience for the publication.

As with any historical publication, there are going to be references to previous works, quotes and other footnotes of the like. And, man, does this book have them and there’s really nothing wrong with that as I find it interesting to explore those items as well. My problem with the footnotes has more to do with the presentation — they are all listed in the back of the book as opposed to below the content of the page. It becomes a chore to refer to references after the first chapter, flipping from the front to the back of the book on a fairly frequent occasion. Perhaps I’m just lazy, but there’s got to be a better presentation than this.

That complaint aside, I really found Brew Britannia an enjoyable and informative read. Much like their blog posts, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, keep things convivial and flowing. The history of CAMRA, the rise of craft breweries and the overarching story of British Beer is one of ups and downs. And much like the recently released Audacity of Hops (which does its best to summarize American beer history), this particular book is also not an exhaustive compendium, but it’s an important piece in the library of global beer history.