Book Review: “Beer: Taste the Evolution in 50 Styles”

Due to The Event, I’ve been working from home for over a week now, basically self-isolating voluntarily, and counterintuitively (but not unexpectedly), I haven’t really had a lot of spare time since then. I nevertheless want to use my free time better, support everyone out there with some fresh new content on my blog, and also get into a better rhythm to blog more. Also, remain indoors.

In December 2019, I got into a twitter conversation with Natalya Watson, discussing the minutiae of Vienna Lager history in the Americas, a conversation we then continued by email. Natalya recently published her new book, “Beer: Taste the Evolution in 50 Styles“, and she was so kind to send me a free copy as the book touched some of the topics that we had discussed.

The book’s concept is simply as it is intriguing: give a brief introduction into the history of beer based on the evolution of its four main ingredients (malt, water, hops, yeast) over time, and accompany each of these evolutionary steps with a beer that lets you experience that particular ingredient in its respective stage. Its target audience are people who are interested in beer but haven’t yet deep-dived into brewing or even the basic history of beer.

The book starts off with very brief introductions to each of beer’s four main ingredients and how they are made, grown or prepared, and what variety exists of them, followed by a short explanation of the brewing process itself. While really short, I found these introductions exactly on point, like an elevator pitch except that it tells you how grains are malted, why this is done, what types of malts exist, and how they’re used in brewing beer.

It then goes on to introduce each ingredient in greater detail: for malt, it explains the evolution from smoked malts to the invention and development of pale malts and roasted malts, to amber and pale lager beers and ales that started being brewed in the 19th century, finishing with all the different types of pale beers that have been invented in the 20th century. Each of these evolutionary steps of malt introduces you to a new beer that stands in as an example.

For the topic of water, Natalya shows by example how the composition of the local water used to heavily influence what the locally brewed used to be like.

The evolution is hops is explained by first looking at unhopped beer seasoned with other herbs and spices, then introducing landrace varieties resp. varieties of hops that were discovered and then propagated, followed by an introduction to European and American hop breeding and how it influenced beer in the 20th century, finished off with an excursion into how these recent developments in hop breeding have completely changed the beer styles of India Pale Ale.

To finish with the last ingredient, yeast, Natalya introduces the reader not just to different types of yeast, but to different approaches in fermentation, such as spontaneous fermentation and sour beers, and also talks about top-fermenting beers that have held on despite a gain in popularity of bottom-fermented lager beers within the last 150 years, as well as the influence of the science of microbiology on brewers yeast and innovations around them.

The book then finishes with an outlook into possible futures of brewing, how styles could change, and which other ingredients are available to brewers.

While I’m certainly not the intended target audience for this book, I nevertheless found it very informative. It explains some of the most important concepts of beer and brewing, and while some details were left out for brevity, all explanations seemed on point. The fun and easy to read language made the book rather captivating: I finished it in less than 2 days. The pages are colour-coded, so you always know what to expect next when turning the page, and a timeline on the top of the page guides you at what time period you currently are when reading.

As for the historical accuracy, a gripe that I have with a lot of beer books, I think Natalya did a good job in researching the general history of the beer styles that are discussed in the book. Of all the styles where I actually have first-hand knowledge, I couldn’t find any obvious mistakes. Except for one, and that was actually the start of our Twitter conversation, namely how Vienna Lager came to Mexico and persisted there. This is a pet peeve of mine, as much of the literature reiterates that supposedly Austrian brewers brought this beer style to Mexico in the 19th century. I will hopefully soon publish my book on Vienna Lager (The Event is preventing me a bit from doing research at VLB’s library), and Natalya told me she will start an errata page. Of course, do not be swayed by this detail, because the rest of the book is great.

If I knew someone who was interested in beer, and wanted to learn more about it and didn’t know where to start, then I would definitely recommend Natalya’s book to them and tell them to read the book, front to back, and then try and get the beers described in the book, and sample them while re-reading the individual sections. It certainly would get you acquainted with a large amount of different styles, and expose you to many classic beers that I think everyone should try. For the purpose of education, I think “Beer: Taste the Evolution in 50 Styles” is a great book to get started. For people who want to dive in even further, it even guides them to more beer literature.

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