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More Books on Belgian Beer (and More)

I mentioned reading Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews a while back, and noted that I wanted to read about the other Belgian styles of beer, covered in other books in the same series. Well, I wish I’d gotten to them sooner, but I have finally gotten to Stan Hieronymous’ famous Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them, and Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. Both books are really good, though the latter is slimmer than the former.

I don’t have a great deal to say about them, in part because I simply inhaled them whole over the last week or so. (I actually read all of Hieronymous’ book during our trip to Japan last weekend, and plowed through the Markowski in my rare spare moments during the past week, but they are both excellent books.

One thing I can say is that I appreciate the relatively lower number of recipes in each book. I prefer time to be spent on explaining how a beer style is formed, or how it has changed over time (Markowski’s especially vivid in explaining this) than recipes. If someone really wants to clone this or that Chimay or Rochefort or Saison, there’s always the Internet — which is bursting with recipes (and critiques of recipes). For me, it was more useful to have some idea what the heck a Biere de Garde is, or why Trappist beers are different from Abbey beers and what Americans are doing with the Abbey Beer concept.

I have to say that in some ways, reading these books after reading Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing was a good idea: Mosher’s book is visionary, wild, imaginative, and encouraging in terms of experimentation. But these books on Belgian brewing help one develop a sense of what experiments have already been carried out, and how well they worked out (or failed to work out). But one thing all of the books: Mosher’s, Hieronymous’, Markowski’s, and Sparrow’s–have in common is their effect on me. If I had more time and space and resources, I’d be organizing a solera (a barrel for some friends and myself to fill up with proto-lambic beer to be soured, partially-decanted and then refilled over the years); I’d be brewing a biere de garde this afternoon and a Saison tomorrow; I’d be experimenting with a bunch of different approaches to the Abbey style. And I’d be making juniper-infused rye beer, a sort of modernized sahti (like Mosher describes), with a few crazy tweaks of my own (like Mosher models for his reader time and again).

Of course, my resources are limited, space is limited, and I’m not up for brewing anything that is going to have to sit for months on end. All that said, I now know more than I did, and I have a few more things in my repertory of approaches to try. I figure that’s an excellent thing.

And since I’ve mentioned Mosher’s book before, but never reviewed it (or Ray Daniel’s Designing Great Beers), I should say a few things about them both here, before I forget to do so.

Mosher’s Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass. Basically, Mosher is a visionary genius, a madman, and pretty much the kind of homebrewer I want to be when I (in brewing terms) “grow up.” He experiments, and models for readers how to experiment, with ingredients, approaches, and more. He resurrects the ghosts of beers past and nudges them till they whisper inspirations into your ear, if not into the depths of your heart. Mike Tonsmeire (The Mad Fermentationist) has said a lot of the things I’d want to say in a longer review — I recommend his — but what I want to reiterate is how passionate, visionary, and fun this book is. While I recommend you also watch out for the errors (not all appear on the errata sheet, according to Tonsmeire), I wasn’t really reading the book for the recipes so much as for inspiring and wild ideas, and Mosher has that in spades. Also, I think it’s fun and witty enough that a non-brewer could enjoy reading a lot of it, even if some of the more technical stuff (like gravity readings and procedure-related stuff) might go flying past overhead.

Daniel’s Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles is one of those books that, again, is great for setting a fundamental basis. Even if your interest is in the madcap, the marginal, the forgotten–even if you’re interested in being the best damned gruit-brewer in your town–there’s still a load of information here that you’ll be able to soak up and use. The book is great for making you aware of extant styles and the rules that underpin them, something you need to know even if, inspired by Mosher, you are hellbent on breaking every last one of those rules. There’s a lot of great information, and some very interesting analysis of prize-winning brews. Again, a book I can highly recommend.

Indeed, the only brewing book I have that feels somewhat superfluous is Charlie Papazian’s The Homebrewer’s Companion. There is good stuff in there, but a lot of it I happened to pick up online before reading it in this book. There are a lot of recipes, but I’m not sure how many of them appeal to me personally. I’m sure that for some people it’s a fine supplement to his earlier book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (the 3rd edition of which was indeed my first brewing book and which is also a very inspiring book: its catchphrase, “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew” is so true and so reassuring that it’s been turned into a mantra-like acronym, RDWHAHB, among brewers online). But while I have picked up a few interesting tips and ideas from The Homebrewer’s Companion, I haven’t found it as useful as Papazian’s earlier book. And indeed, I don’t much look at either of Papazian’s books anymore: once you pass a certain level of knowing what you’re doing, they seem to just become less useful.

There is one brewing book that is more frustrating to me: Ken Schramm’s wonderful The Compleat Meadmaker, which I reviewed here. But my frustration in that case mainly stems from having a few ideas I’d like to try, while not feeling quite certain that I can actually start in on making a mead that won’t be ready to drink for another six months, year, or two years.

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