Book review: Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge

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Craft Beer World

Mark Dredge

Dog ‘n’ Bone

pp 208 (hardcover)

Craft Beer World may be billed as ‘a guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man’, but it isn’t just a ‘beers to drink before you die’ book. Well, it is, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s also part introduction to beer, part style-guide, part editorial on what ‘craft beer’ is, and part food and beer guide.

The most refreshing aspect of the book is its pragmatic approach to beer styles and definitions. Instead of irritably correcting us on our misinformed opinion of what exactly porters, milds or IPAs are, Mark Dredge acknowledges that entire categories of beer are based on old ideas and misnomers, and that so much of what is being brewed right now is in a league of its own with few established classics because of how new some styles are. He doesn’t make the entire history of brewing easy to absorb in one sitting (no one can), but he does a stand-up job of making it easier to understand.

More impressively, Mark Dredge also makes a gallant effort to nail down his idea of what ‘craft beer’ is to satisfy English speakers across the world and comes out the other side unscathed. Whilst those of us who know Mark from his excellent blog will know that he is English, the book is written in US English to the sake of broad appeal. This is fine, even if some phrases or spellings jar with his clearly British phrasing and tone. This is Craft Beer World, after all, and a lot of countries get their beer mentioned. Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Spain and Chile are mentioned alongside the more traditional brewing countries, but the bulk of beers covered are from the USA, where Mark sees a land of constant innovation and brash, fearless experimentation.

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The real strength of Craft Beer World is in its variety of content. Forgetting the 350 beers for a second, there is still enough material here to form the basis of a solid beer book in its own right. From the guide to what beer is and how it is made, through to the significance of specific ingredients, it’s an extremely useful guide for a beginner. For those of us who are more well-versed in the subject matter, there is more advanced information like identifying off flavours, which is rarely mentioned in most books of this kind.

Of course, the meat of the book is the descriptions of the aforementioned 350 or so beers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are generally accompanied with an image of the bottle or label. Whilst it would have been nice to see more images of the beer itself in the glass, that’s not a task I would wish upon my worst enemy. As Dredge readily admits, he loves great graphic design, and gleefully points out beers that are as important for how good-looking the packaging is as the taste of the liquid inside. There really are some sensational labels, and the book can almost be used a flick-through primer of the current crop of leading beer label artists.

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As ever, Mark knows how to describe beer, not just in conventional tasting vocabulary, but also in a way that draws in laymen and connoisseurs alike. We occasionally get glimpses into fun-filled beer adventures, like him and his friends trying to find the Brooklyn Bridge or simply sampling another incredible round of unusual beers. Some are clearly very treasured, personal memories, and we feel privileged to have them shared with us. There are not as many of these as perhaps I might like, but as infrequent as they are, they do provide a vital context to the enjoyment of the beer being described. It’s an idea that recurs throughout the book: that beer is not just the liquid, but the moment. It’s not so arty-farty as terroir or a sense of time and a place, but something more tangible and personal like a memory (or, better still, a blurry memory) that anyone can understand.

It is also quite apparent that this book could have just as easily been about 350 breweries as 350 beers. When describing any particular beer, Mark can’t help but give us some tips on which other beers from the same brewery we should try, and sometimes this infectious enthusiasm and desire to give you as much information as possible reduces the description of the actual beer to just a line. However, it is this enthusiasm that keeps the book readable, and not just a dry reference tome that you might dip into from time to time. After all, many of us might not read a book like this in the same way we might read a novel. In the case of Craft Beer World, this is exactly what I did. I picked up every day, read about new beers and new breweries and new adventures, and felt like I was travelling along with the author. It’s a testament to Dredge’s skill as a writer, and the book makes it clear that he is a strong and important voice in British beer writing.

Whilst classic beers are acknowledged where necessary, this is a book about the best things in beer right now. The long-term value of this book will be as a time capsule of the best beer being made at the time of writing. This is more than a casual reference or coffee table book. This is a contemporary snapshot of the world’s best craft beer and the excitement that surrounds it, and this is a thing truly worth treasuring.

An interview with Mark Dredge about ‘Craft Beer World’

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Craft Beer World is the long-awaited debut beer book from Mark Dredge, author of the blog Pencil and Spoon and award-winning beer writer. I caught up with Mark at Camden Town Brewery to discuss his book.

So how do you feel now that Craft Beer World has been published?

Excited. I signed the deal to write the book in April 2012, and it’s come out just over twelve months later, so there was a tremendous amount of work.

For months I’ve been thinking ‘Why isn’t it out now? Why isn’t it out?’ because something like this dates almost immediately. Every time I go to a pub and think ‘Oh, this beer’s so good, it should be in the book…’

It’s exciting. There’s some terror as well because it’s so unlike a blog. With my blog, if there’s a spelling mistake, I can go back and tweak it. If there’s something factually incorrect, I can tweak it. But there’s a permanence to a book, something a bit more raw. You can feel the volume of work, something that took over your life. It kind of sucks something out of you and throws it into the pages…

The most exciting thing is opening it now and actually finding beers that I’d forgotten I’d written about. Reading it and being excited by what I’ve written, thinking ‘actually, that’s quite cool.’ I’m really happy with it.

What did you want to achieve when you set out to write the book, and do you feel you’ve achieved it?

I’m a massive beer geek, so I wanted to be excited by every beer in the book, or be interested in every beer in the book. That was the reason for any of them to be in there. What’s their history? Is there a really interesting story that’s related to the beer? Or is it just a really exciting beer that if I saw it in a bar, I’d think ‘I need to drink this beer’. That was what I wanted to achieve, and yeah, I think I have. There’s no beers in there that I think don’t deserve to be.

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Given that there’s quite of a lot of beer books that are ‘X Number of Beers You Should Try…’ – what sets Craft Beer World apart?

The ‘350 beers’ thing was attached to the title afterwards. We never sat down and thought ‘I think we should have 350 beers in this book,’ it was more a case of ‘how many have we written about so far? 350? All right.’

There’s so many books that focus on the classics, and they’re great, but I wanted to write a book about the new beers, the beers that have been inspired by the classics and where they’ve been taken to. Something like a Trippel, for example, is  such a classic, old style. It’s been brewed for 80 years or so in its current incarnation. Brewers can do so many things with that idea, whether it’s an American hopped version, or barrel-aged version, or if it’s got wild yeast in there. There’s this huge potential that you can take a particular type or style of beer as a starting point and then evolve it. I wanted to showcase what you can get from a single beer style, which is why the book is separated into beer styles to show the breadth you can get within a category.

You have taken a very pragmatic approach to styles. Instead of relying on just the traditional ones, you set out the  more esoteric styles like Belgian IPAs and give them just as much attention.

Definitely. There’s other styles in there which veer away from the classics and show other ones that have been inspired by them or are similar to them. Like the wheat beer category, for example, is really a wheat beer family, and it has a huge range of beers within it. Or something like dark lager, that again has a huge range of types that you can find.

In the book you will occasionally describe different places and situations that you attach to your experience of drinking the beer you’re writing about. How important do you think that is to get people interested and excited about beer?

For me, the moment matters more than anything else. I could have had a fridge with all 350 of those beers and sat and drank them at home. Fine, it would have had the experience of tasting the beers, but the context is everything. That context really matters. Whether you’re drinking it in the brewery, or on a beach, or wherever you may be, the actual experience is what really matters. I really want to get that experience in there. In my mind, there’s no other illustrated book like this that has done the first-person approach, and for me that was really important.

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After doing so much travelling, and tasting beers from so many different countries, will your next book project be a straight-out travel book?

I’d like it to be. I’d really like to do a kind of a Pete Brown style, non-fiction, travel, history, future, encompassing all of that. But that one hasn’t quite kicked off yet. I just want to build up more knowledge, more experience and things like that.

If you could go back in time to before you started the project, what advice would you give yourself?

 Don’t agree to contact all the brewers to get all the images yourself! It’s a hellish job, it really is awful. I was so focused on writing, and I’d covered about ten styles at the time and had about 70 breweries to contact. It was a really thankless task. A lot of brewers are brilliant and get back to you straight away with so much information, but other brewers just did not like, and it was just a pain in the arse.

I worked as hard as I could on this book. I learned as much as I could, but there’s always the thing that, as soon as you finish it, you learn something new and think ‘If I’d have known that five weeks ago, or five months ago, then I would have added that to the book’. With a project like this, it’s impossible to know absolutely everything at that one point in time. You can only really use the knowledge you have at that point and hopefully apply it the best way you can.

But I suppose all that new knowledge now feeds into the next book project…

Yeah, exactly. So, hopefully, they will get keep getting better and better.

Craft Beer World, published by Dog’n’Bone, is available to order from Amazon.