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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy

The Craft Beer Revolution
Steve Hindy
Palgrave Macmillan, 250 pages
$25

Steve Hindy's new book is a serious and important work.  It contains some incredibly revealing details about the long history of brewing--particularly the history from 1988 onward, after Hindy co-founded Brooklyn Brewery and entered the history books.  It is also a wandering, unfocused narrative that contains two competing threads: early craft-brewing hagiography and an insider's guide to the unkempt, sweaty inner workings of an industry.  One half is disposable; the other half is indispensable.

The hagiography occupies the first section of the book, and it reads like many forebears.  Hindy clips through the pantheon of greats--Maytag, Grossman, McAuliffe, Papazian, Michael Jackson, and so on.  There is little here that's new, and Hindy treats the founders with a reverence we've come to expect in these kinds of books.  As he gets further along, to when he enters the picture, things start to pick up speed, though, and we see hints of things to come.  There is an absolutely fascinating section where he takes on the early, carnival-barker years of Jim Koch's rise at Boston Beer.  But then it loses focus again when he devotes a chapter to the class of '88, the ostensible goal of which is to illustrate the diversity in approach among the craft brewers.  But that was the year he founded Brooklyn, and he gives his own brewery a little biography along entries for Goose Island, Deschutes, Great Lakes, Rogue, and others.

Before he was a brewing magnate, Hindy worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press.  The Craft Beer Revolution benefits from his skill as a reporter.  He ably weaves history and anecdotes (his and others') into a compelling narrative.  But I think that reporter Hindy would have made a different decision about how to approach this book than brewery-owner Hindy did.  You can either write a business memoir or a straightforward history, but blending the two mars the history.  Hindy can't write about Brooklyn dispassionately (who could?), and for large stretches of the book, those competing impulses weaken the narrative.

Hindy shifts gears midway through, however, and the book becomes a revelation.  Here Hindy starts talking about the inside of craft brewing, the blood-and-guts reality that has been largely airbrushed out of the canon.  He treats the flood of money in the mid-90s with more details and insight than I've seen anywhere.  It's a blend of big-picture trend analysis and anecdotes that reveal the more human aspects of that time.  Oregonians may remember a mysterious brand that appeared briefly on shelves called Oregon Ale.  It was a contract-brewed stealth product by Boston Beer.  Hindy describes the situation and gets nice quotes from Oregon brewers--and then shows how Oregon responded to the threat.  These kinds of examples go on and on.

He goes into the tensions among craft brewers and between craft brewers and larger brewers.  Hindy describes the painful strife that led to the creation of the Brewers Association, with folks like Deschutes' Gary Fish on one side, glowering at Charlie Papazian on the other.  As an inside observer to the industry, he also understands the role distribution played in preserving large-brewer dominance, and devotes two chapters to describing the politics of changing the old arrangement.  (Old timers from Oregon who remember AB's vaunted distribution network and it's "100% share of mind" moment in the 90s--which led to the union with Widmer--will find that story placed in a larger, understandable context.)  These chapters about what really happened, with protagonists and antagonists, is absolutely fascinating.

For anyone interested in the beer business (which is to say anyone interested in beer), I would recommend picking up a copy.  It has large sections of the kind of writing we don't need--congratulatory (and sometimes self-congratulatory) prose about the great and wonderful American craft brewers.  You will have heard of these saints before.  But the other half is full of the sinners, the real people and the real stories behind the glossy promo--people you know a lot less about.  And that half makes this book quite a read. 

4 comments:

Sean Inman said...

I sensed a Jekyl and Hyde nature to this book too. And, I agree that the backroom arguments and board meetings was the more fascinating because it added a dimension to people that isn’t normally seen. I would have enjoyed more pages on that and the world of beer distribution (which probably merits a book of it’s own).

Alan said...

It's getting quite obvious that the great "unified bores of beer club" era is just about done. It'll be fun when the economic implications shuffle out, too.

maureen ogle said...

Yours was my response, too. Fascinating, but... (And by the way: his first book, the title of which escapes me, is also fascinating although for different reasons.)

Tim said...

Very poor naming choice for the book considering there was one with almost the exact same title published just last year. http://www.amazon.ca/Craft-Beer-Revolution-Insiders-Breweries/dp/1771001151

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