Jeff Alworth’s newly updated book, “The Beer Bible,” sets out to be the “most comprehensive” guide to the beverage, and at 644 pages it’s hard to argue it isn’t at least in the ballpark.
You can buy the book (the second edition comes out Sept. 28) for a deep dive into beer history and for breakdowns of styles from Wee Heavy to Baltic Porter to Eisbock. Throughout are beers to know for each style, and interviews with brewers who make some of the best versions.
You could spend hours pouring over obscure styles in the book, but in a recent phone conversation, Alworth shared with me his many thoughts and insights on the most notable beer of the current moment: the IPA.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The first edition of “The Beer Bible” came out in 2015. What’s changed in that time?
“A lot, which really kind of surprises me. The book was designed around broader strokes with a focus on style, brewing history, and tradition. So that stuff shouldn’t move all that much. But the past decade has been one of the most active periods in brewing history in a long time.
“I think the biggest thing that changed and the biggest seismic event in beer in really 150 years is the emergence of the way Americans brew hoppy ales. It’s kind of a brand new tradition in brewing — it has been evolving for 30 years or so, but with the introduction of hops bred specifically for IPA, and discoveries of new techniques to make IPAs, over the past decade things really went into hyperdrive.”
Hoppy beers have come to dominate craft beer. How did that come to be, and how do you view that trend as a beer expert?
“I view it as very natural and predictable in a country in which beer culture is maturing. When you look at beer culture in places where locals are making beer styles relevant to their own culture — so Britain, Czech Republic, Germany, and Belgium — what you see is a kind of narrowing of focus. So when you go to Munich you don’t find a ton of IPAs, and when you go to Brussels you don’t find a ton of cask ales.
“So as America became a better and better beer country, it wasn’t really surprising to me that our focus began to narrow a bit. And the hops that we have here are so unusual by worldwide standards that breweries really needed to kind of avoid them and work around them or embrace them. And once you embrace them they’re so potent and lively that they’re going to really dominate a beer.”
But why are we making so many IPAs?
“Customers love them. I know many breweries who would love to make some styles of beer that aren’t the IPAs that they’re compelled to make, but if you don’t have it on a menu, people ask for it. That’s where we are. And because it’s so influential I think it really mirrors innovation from centuries’ past.”
How much credit does New England deserve for this new brand of IPAs?
“I tend to think of it as maybe a less seismic development than many people do. [Juicy IPAs] happened to become quite popular right about the time I was doing my first tour for the book, so I was traveling all over the country. And there was a trend that was happening where all these new hop varieties were coming online, and they were very potent. And so if you brewed the wrong way you just got insane bitterness and not a very palatable beer.
“But brewers could also see the potential of these beers for these intense tropical fruit, stone fruit, amazing flavors. And so they were all experimenting alone in their brewhouses trying to figure it out. And they were brewing beers that were extremely fruity that we would all recognize. That was a nationwide movement.
“In New England, they were using a particular technique that made the beer a little more cloudy, though I have to tell you that here in the Pacific Northwest, our IPAs have been cloudy for 25 years. It took me a little while to figure out that there are differences — they’re fuller bodied, they’re way more sweet, less dry. What really drove the development of the New England IPA was the intense saturation of these fruity flavors you get from the hops, and they were accentuated by the use of English yeast, which I think is a fantastic little regional touch.”
What’s a beer that people used to drink a lot that seems weird now?
“One of the best examples is there was a brewery called Pete’s Wicked. And in the 1980s and 1990s they had their flagship beer, which was just called Pete’s Wicked Ale. And for maybe a decade it was the second-best selling beer in America after Boston Lager. It was a brown ale, which blows my mind. I don’t think you can give a brown ale away now. Amber ales were also really common — if you went to any brewpub in 1988 you would have found an amber ale.”
One thing I was struck by in your book is seeing so many beer styles I love but rarely see anymore. Does craft beer have a sameness problem?
“The consumer really is driving this. Brewers love diversity — for example, saison is a style that brewers love, but they can’t give saisons away. And classic English pub styles brewers love and also can’t give those away. So it’s really a consumer-led narrowing of focus.
“If you look at the one-offs that breweries are making that are draft only, and they have a small system, they’re a little bit more willing to put something on that they know it’ll take three months to sell. For the most part that’s not what people are clamoring for, so brewers are going to make what people drink.”