Beer & Book Review: Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, Maureen Ogle, 2006

The news of Monster Energy Drink buying CANarchy has fanned once again the craft beer purist complaint that another brewery has sold out to the man and gone against its core foundation. This same argument has been made when Bell Brewery was sold to Lion a subsidiary of Kirin Brewing and Goose Island was sold to Anheuser-Busch and well anytime a small craft brewery is bought by a macro brewery. What these self proclaimed purist fail to comprehend is at one time these beer behemoths were also small, most founded by immigrants, often hamstrung by government regulation, criticized by society’s opinions of immigrants, and fought by unions throughout their history. Maureen Ogle goes to in detail to describe the history of what would later become the large corporations that are buying up breweries today.

Maureen Ogle paints the picture of beer in America that starts in the mid 1800s moves through world war/prohibition/world war and finishes with the modern craft beer movement in the 1980s. She gives detail into some of the largest names in American Beer with Pabst, Busch, Schlitz, and Miller. She shows how their business decision combined with innovations such as railroads and refrigeration allowed the expansion from neighborhood breweries to regional and eventually national brands. Maureen explains how the brewery culture was different when first established in America with the presence of beer Beer halls and gardens were common staples in the brewing culture of German where many of the earlier brewers were from. She also details how anti-German sentiments caused much of this beer culture to change and ultimately led to the Volstead Act. Maureen describes how all of this combined to turn beer from a German immigrant business into a “cog in the wheel of a giant corporate conglomerate”

From the low point of post prohibition and the consolidation of national brands Maureen begins to map out the emergence of the craft beer movement. She gives the wave-top explanation of those initial breweries such as New Albion, Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, and The Boston Beer Company. This consolidation in the late 1960s led to the spark that started modern craft beer with Fritz Maytag purchasing Anchor Steam Brewery. The book was published in 2006 so it does not cover the boom of small craft breweries that have exploded across the country in the last sixteen years. Some of the struggles that those early innovators experienced have been resolved with changes in law as and practices. Other challenges are just as real as they were back then.

What I liked: The book was factually driven without the author’s commentary on the actions of the brewery or political policies. She states what happened and allows the reader to confer their own conclusion. The book did not focus on one brewery rather it looked at many of the breweries at the time and tried to explain in detail to what happened to each.

What I disliked: By covering so many breweries there was not the in-depth coverage for each one. Some breweries were given very in depth backgrounds and details on how they succeeded or failed and other received little more than a mention. While I understand the need to keep the book at a readable length if you have any interest in these breweries you will have to do more research on your own. For the casual reader this will give a good introduction to the vast number of breweries that existed back then.

Will it stay on my shelf: While I enjoyed reading the book I am actually surprised it is still on my shelf. Before I left New Jersey I gifted sever duplicate books and books I read to a fellow homebrewer who lived down the street. I was certain that this was one of those books. Surprisingly I unpacked this book when we arrived to Japan. Ambitious Brew was a well written history book, but I have very little need to keep history books now. Like I mentioned in the reasons why I dislike this book there is not enough details for each brewery. If I need to look up some statistics or facts of one of these breweries I can find the information in a brewery specific book or another location. I tend to keep technical books or reference books and while I enjoy reading these types of books I have no need to keep the copy as a trophy of my accomplishments.

Would I recommend it for your library: I would recommend this book for everyone who believes that new craft breweries are sell outs if they are bought by a macro brewery. Those individuals do not understand the full brewing picture and giving them this book will show the struggles that these large companies once faced. There are lessons learned from this book for the small brew house as well. Many of the breweries that no longer exist did not properly market themselves or made poor business decisions. While many areas saw laws shift in favor of breweries in the past two years these same politicians can swing the opposite direction. All those who doubt need to remember that there are still people alive who remember prohibition in America.

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