Two of my favorite things in the world are craft beer and books. On the last Thursday of every month I pair a book I love with a pint to sip while reading it. If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope your day is full of all your favorites, as well!
I’ve mentioned before that I’m mostly a fiction reader, but that when I do pick up non-fiction it typically has close ties to food (aka, the delicious memoir)– so you can imagine my excitement when I heard about Lucy Burningham’s new book My Beer Year. Because you know if anything gets me more excited than food, it’s beer. The premise behind the book is that Burningham, a journalist who has written extensively about craft beer, decides to study to take the test to become a Certified Cicerone. If you’re familiar with the concept of a sommelier in the world of wine– someone who is able to identify styles by taste and know the history of a particular type of wine while also suggesting a food pairing– then think of a Cicerone as this to the world of beer. In My Beer Year, Burningham shares the details of her journey to the exam, from visiting hop farms, to attending the Great American Beer Festival and traveling to Belgium to cleaning beer lines at a local brew pub.
Here’s what I loved about the book:
The accessibility. Turns out Burningham and I have some shared experiences. She lives in Portland, and when I was there earlier this year I visited some of the breweries that she mentions. I’ve also been to The Great America Beer Festival (GABF), to a rare beer tasting (though it was far less organized than then one she describes), and to Cantillon in Brussels. While I’m not the primary brewer in my house (by choice), I’ve helped with numerous batches of home brew. I also have a strong preference toward Belgian beer, and have tried the elusive Westvleteren 12. For me, sections of My Beer Year felt like a really great conversation with another beer lover (“Those crazy pretzel necklaces at GABF, right?” “Is there anything more magical than the coolship at Cantillon?” “Is Westie 12 really the best beer ever?”)
However, she also described some things I’ve never experienced, like visiting a hop farm, and yet while reading I felt like I could see the towering rows of hops and smell the tangy citrus air. I’m confident that someone coming to this book without having experienced the brewing process, or the places Burningham describes, would fully understand what they were reading. I think it’s a unique talent for an author to meet readers where they are and offer both a “yes! it was just like that!” experience along with an “oh, okay, now I understand that” experience.
The people behind the research. Burningham doesn’t just describe the processes that she is learning about in the book. When she visits the hop farm, for example, she doesn’t just describe how hops grow and what the processing equipment looks and sounds like, she also talks about the owners– describes who they are and how they got into the business. She talks to brewers and gives their take on the industry and shares their stories about their specific beers. Yes, the experiences the author has and the things she learns about the industry are fascinating in their own right, but it’s really the people behind the processes that make this a full and rich story, as opposed to a textbook about how beer is made and served.
The idea of mindful drinking. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately– the idea of drinking beer for the purpose of truly enjoying and tasting something delicious or celebrating an evening with good friends, versus going out for a beer simply as a “default” thing to do on a Saturday afternoon. In the prologue to My Beer Year, Burningham references her thought process as she was beginning the journey of studying for the Cicerone:
I already knew that getting blotto and nursing hangovers isn’t conducive to retaining information, which presented and interesting paradox: to pull this off, to become a Certified Cicerone, I’d need to approach beer– commonly consumed to blur and loosen the grip of perception– with my most sharpened senses.
Just a bit later in the second chapter, a friend watching her fill out a tasting sheet while drinking a beer comments: “‘It’s like a mindfulness exercise, only with beer.’” I loved these two passages in combination with each other. This idea of enjoying a pint with all your (non-impaired) senses speaks to exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate myself recently.
Going into this book and beer pairing, I had the thought that it would either be very easy or very hard. There would be a dominant style referenced in the book that I could go with, or it would be such a general celebration of beer that it would be tough to narrow down one perfect pairing. Turns out there was a little bit of each of these things going on. Burningham writes about the fact that Belgian-styles are her favorite, but also (as predicted) there is a lot of information about all other beer, as well.
In the end, I decide that My Beer Year is really about celebrating, studying, and consciously consuming beer, which is why I landed where I did with this pairing. Let me explain– last year this time a Virginia Brewery about an hour drive away, Three Notch’d Brewing Company, released a seasonal stout called Biggie S’mores. It’s an imperial milk stout, brewed with crushed graham crackers. All last year, I heard about it, but kept missing it– never made it to the brewery, keg would kick just before I got to a bar, etc. My intrigue grew and grew and this year I was determined to try it. This was going to be infinitely easier, because the brewery had opened a satellite location five minutes from my house. On the day it was released into the local market, I sat there beer in front of me, and nervously took my first sip. Would it live up to a years worth of expectation? How could it?But you know what, it did. It was sweet, but extremely well-balenced with a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and a lovely, toasted malt aftertaste. It was a beer to be sipped and enjoyed mindfully certainly not pounded down one-after-another.
So, if you live somewhere where you can get your hands on Biggie S’mores, obviously, I recommend it. However, the real beer to drink with My Beer Year is the one you’ve wanted to try for a long time. The one you need to taste for yourself to see if it lives up to the hype. The one that isn’t just a beer, but an experience. And when you do drink it, the key here is to do so as if you are studying for the Cicerone exam– noticing all the nuances and flavors and learning the story behind the pour. Mindfully.