This is a review of Pete Brown’s latest book, Miracle Brew, that appeared in the TLS. Rereading my words now, I realise that I have not communicated by enthusiasm for the book strongly enough. It’s really a wonderful book. Every page contained something I didn’t know. It’s a strong year for booze books but Miracle Brew is definitely a candidate for booze book of the year. Also amazed that the TLS left in my joke about the Burton Snatch.
I like beer. I like reading about it, I write about it, I sometimes even drink the stuff but when I heard about Pete Brown’s latest, a detailed examination of beer’s constituent parts: barley, water, hops and yeast, I thought it sounded a bit technical. Perhaps aware that the book might be not be an easy sell, Brown ramps up the enthusiasm level from the first page. At times he writes like a cross between Brian Cox and Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show, brilliant!!
But the book also has a strong narrative thread. It’s nothing less than a history of beer from a primitive drink made by chewing grain to release sugar, to the introduction of hops from the Low Countries, Pasteur’s work on yeasts, and the present day craft beer boom. Brown’s argument is that despite its humble image, beer is one of the pinnacles of civilisation. Extracting fermentable sugar from barley is a process so complicated that it could not have been invented accidentally but nobody knows when it was discovered. In contrast wine is simply crushed grapes.
Water, yeast and barley have just as much effect on the taste of the beer as the more glamorous hops. “Hops are just lipstick on beer. Barley is its soul” as one brewer says. We learn that water from the Liffey has never been used for brewing Guinness and a ‘Burton snatch’ refers to the sulphurous taste from Burton water not something that you go looking for after too many pints of Bass.
The book is full of facts to amaze your friends at the pub: the common fruit fly drinks alcohol to poison the larvae of parasitic wasps that would otherwise eat it from the inside. My favourite chapter is the one on yeast not least because I learned that lager yeasts cannot survive in the human stomach therefore have a less volatile reaction on your digestive system than ale yeasts. Bitter makes you fart, lager does not. For this we have to thank Emil Christian Hansen who isolated the lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, at the Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark.
This is the joy of Brown’s book, he manages to make you appreciate the magic of beer even in its most everyday form. Anyone who has ever drunk homebrew knows how hard it is to get right. That bottle of Pilsner Urquell is a miracle of human ingenuity. Isn’t beer brilliant?