Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Modern Lager Beer

Kevin Davey of Heater Allen said in a video a few months ago that there are two types of brewers: the ones that focus on a recipe and the ones that focus on the process of brewing, and that lager brewers are in the process brewer camp.

When I read the new book Modern Lager Beer by Jack Hendler and Joe Connolly, I was instantly reminded of this. Normally, home-brewing books focus on styles and on recipes. Of course, processes will also be discussed, but the focus usually lies on the former. The structure in Modern Lager Beer is very different, though: after a brief discussion of the major contemporary lager brewing traditions, the process-drivenness (is that even of a word?) of lager brewing is being acknowledged, and everything after that is being discussed is from a process perspective, not necessarily just the authors’ opinions, but also often from the view of other experienced brewers. Sometimes, these may not always match up, or even contradict each other. As such, I never felt that the book told me what is exactly right or wrong, but rather gave me insight into the possibilities and different viewpoints to achieve different goals in a beer.

Ingredients? Yeast is being discussed and compared in all its expressive parameters, including a quick guide how to choose the right strain for you, without ever getting prescriptive. The insight on malt is how much of its parameters are driven by the malting process itself, and how much of a beer (including aspects of the necessary production process) are predetermined in the malt house, including what’s relevant when working with adjuncts such as corn (maize) and rice. For water, the topics of hardness and alkalinity and their overall impact on the process and the beer are described, while hops are more discussed from the standpoint of how they can be utilized in the brewhouse, and what specific properties of hop varieties (e.g. farnesene content) can have which impact on the beer.

The emphasis on process is even more noticeable in three chapters that make up a large chunk of the whole book: fermentation, decoction mashing, and carbonation, all absolutely essential steps in brewing a great lager beer.

I think this is what sets this book really apart: fermentation is barely ever discussed to such a great detail unless you dig through the standard works like Kunze or Narziss. Whether it’s aeration, free amino nitrogen, pitching rates, top pressure or temperature, the impact on each of these is described and discussed, filled with the opinions and views of a multitude of respected brewers from both the US and Europe. Lagering is discussed in similar detail, including the question of how much of it is necessary, how progress can be monitored, what some of the risks might be under certain circumstances (such as yeast autolysis), and how they can be detected and mitigated.

The same goes for decoction mashing: only rarely discussed in detail otherwise, Modern Lager Beer really gets into all the details of single, double and triple decoction and how to decoct even on very simple brew kits that weren’t explicitly designed for decoction mashing. The authors even bring in the views of breweries that do not employ decoction mashing whatsoever, and their rationale of what they try to achieve in a beer and why decoction mashing would not be helpful in these instances.

The third otherwise rarely discussed topic is carbonation. The authors list the different options to do that, and what advantages and risks they all bring to the table, whether it’s force carbonation, spunding or kräusening. At the same time, they emphasise the importance of carbon dioxide in beer, and even call it “the fifth ingredient”.

The last third of the book is concluded with an overview over various traditional techniques and aspects, whether it’s Kellerbier, open fermentation, coolships, beer served from wooden casks, and even biological acidification (Sauergut) for pH control, an outlook on the possible future of lager beer, and finally, a collection of lager beer recipes of various styles which, matching the overall tone of the book, are still presented in a more process-oriented fashion than usual.

All in all, the book is a very dense (but not condensed) overview over all the more advanced aspects of brewing lager beer primarily in a commercial-industrial setting, but explained in such a way that home-brewers have ample starting points to get inspiration to improve their own brewing process. With plenty of sources and references, Modern Lager Beer is merely a starting point into what can become going down a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. There’s a lot of information packed into just 300 pages, with the breadth and a level of detail that comes close to the likes of Kunze and Narziss, while remaining approachable.

As for me, I have yet to reflect on the book and what I can incorporate into my standard processes for lager brewing which have worked very well for me in the past. I’m sure there are still details that I can deal with better, but I think that requires a second and third reading of some of the chapters or sections of Modern Lager Beer.

And finally, I think it’s also worth pointing out what the book is not trying to be: it’s most certainly not a guide on individual beer styles (in fact, beer styles are rarely brought up, and my area of expertise, Vienna Lager, is only mentioned in passing as an early stage of the evolution of pale lager beers, on page 14). It is not a collection of recipe (though it does contain 30 recipes in total), nor does it contain a comprehensive history of bottom-fermented beers. And that’s fine, because in its focus on the brewing process in its many details is what makes the book really stand out for me.

If you’re a home-brewer, whether you’re just starting out with brewing lager beers, or whether you’ve gained a lot of experience already and are generally happy with what you’re brewing, do get this book and read it. It will open up your mind to all the complexities of lager brewing that most home-brewers can safely ignore, but which may still point you to some adjustments that may improve your beer even further.

The book Modern Lager Beer by Jack Hendler & Joe Connolly, held in my hand

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.