Monday, 6 May 2013

Always more to discover

Someone once said to me “the only problem with Mark Dredge is that he likes everything.”

He meant that the young beer writer, already festooned with awards in his twenties, was capable of mustering the same enthusiasm when talking about a third-rate European lager as when sampling a rare beer from a highly regarded small-batch brewer.

It’s that infectious enthusiasm which makes this book fun to read. Dredge understands that time and place are as important to beer as the liquid, saying in the introduction “Think about the best beer you’ve ever had. I bet you can remember the moment you drank the beer better than the way it actually tasted.”

With the book, presumably for commercial reasons, being published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic it quickly becomes clear that it is essentially an American book written by a British guy, and reading it can be disconcerting. Not because of the Americanisms in the copy, although at one point we have a bloke from Kent writing “the pumpkins of fall”, which is just silly, but because the conceptual framework is one rooted in the American homebrewing and craft-beer culture.

As that framework has been enormously influential over the last twenty years this is perhaps understandable enough, but it does fall short of what is needed for a book with “World” in the title.

There is certainly more of an emphasis on British and Antipodean beers than a North American author might have had, and it’s nice to see the latest developments in British brewing recognised in an international book: pale and hoppy (which is now de facto the name of this style) British session beer is described in loving detail. Session beer purists will be happy to see that all but one of the beers discussed in this section are well under 4.0%, and the single exception only nudges through by 0.1% (yet oddly enough, the same brewery, Cromarty, makes another beer, Hit the Lip, which suits the category better).

Where, as when talking about pale ’n’ hoppy, Dredge has superior local knowledge (England) he is able to counter some of the sillier beliefs current in the US scene; where he doesn’t (Germany) one gets the feeling that we are still being shown everything through a second-hand prism, and occasionally the impression that the author is busking it a little.

Dredge has an effusive and engaging writing style, though the odd technique grates through constant repetition: writing the witty flourishes that pepper every other beer description (some of which are amusing, while others fall flat) must have been as wearisome for the author as it eventually becomes for the reader.

Many of the beers mentioned I’d never heard of before, and there has been an admirable effort to feature what (at least in Dredge’s estimation) are the most interesting representatives of a particular style. In selecting these he is quite ruthless, occasionally – as in the case of “Belgian” witbier – not discussing a single example from the country of its ostensible origin. Dredge argues that the classics have been covered sufficiently elsewhere, and chooses to focus mostly on the new wave, including not a small number of breweries which have been set up just in the last two or three years.

Indeed, you will read almost nothing in this book about the beers most people in the world actually drink day in and day out, and it is indeed quite refreshing to not be confronted with yet another photograph of a bottle of Guinness or Früh Kölsch.

The strength of the book is to give a kind of smörgåsbord of different beers all presented at once. European brewers still tend to work in their own traditions; Americans brew anything and everything, and that’s the attitude presented here.

The weakness, directly related, is that there is almost no cultural context beyond “I drank this in Chicago at the karaoke”. But perhaps that, too, is a strength. It’s about drinking now, about travelling and trying everything possible and acquiring personal experiences; not about learning slabs of history.

The nod to the reader who might wonder where these styles originally come from comes in the blurbs at the beginning of each section. These generally try to cram far too many ideas into too little space and come across as quite confused. Additionally, they’re hard to read due to being set in small caps.

Unfortunately another aspect inherited from the American “craft” movement is a tendency to dodgy history. As Dredge is surely fully aware of the research done by the likes of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell, it’s very disappointing to see the same old myths repeated once more: IPA was a strong beer, Scottish brewers couldn’t get hops to brew with, rye beer is a traditional German style, and so on and so on. Perhaps challenging such sacred cows in the US market was a step too far for the publisher.

There are sections where Dredge attempts to answer questions like “so what is craft beer?” and the perennial “what’s the difference between porter and stout?”, and while his thoughts on those subjects are worth reading, it is painfully obvious that he finds the ideological discourse tiresome and would really rather say “sod that, let’s have another beer!”

Where Dredge comes into his own is in the enthusiastic and imaginative beer and food descriptions, and it’s a pity that he was not given the opportunity to write on food and beer in greater depth rather than having to follow the now rather tired “a picture and a paragraph about x hundred different beers” format. Writing about flavours is his great strength and the text is bursting with pithy, juicy adjectives as he tries to cajole the elusive taste sensations onto paper.

Dredge manages to embrace the new while respecting the traditional, an ability missing in many contemporaries. The book makes up in enthusiasm and excitement for what it lacks in scholarship, as does the movement it explores.

Mark Dredge, Craft beer world: a guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man. Dog ’n’ Bone Books, London/New York 2013. ISBN: 978 0 957140 99 8


  1. Haven't seen the book yet Rob, but on the face of it, an excellent review.

  2. Good honest review, I thought, I was expecting the 'blogosphere' to be a bit fawning over one of their own's efforts, so this was a good read.

  3. That’s twice now the review’s been called "honest"... I wasn’t that nasty, was I?

  4. Got my copy now and will have a look tomorrow, but I didn't think you were nasty.