Beer on the brain

Craft-beer journalist takes a deep dive into brewing world

On the day that John Holl turned 21, he walked into his local brewpub and ordered an IPA. He came from a family that heralded Heineken and Bud as beverages of choice, and to Holl, beer was familiar only as a weak, watery lager. And as for the bitter stuff in his glass? The young man could barely choke it down.

But it was early in 2001, and all across the nation craft beer was making its way into the general public’s consciousness. There was a buzz in the air, and sensing that he was on the cusp of something great, Holl finished the IPA and ordered another.

So began his ascent into a life largely dedicated to the study, exploration and adulation of beer. Holl spent eight years as a reporter with The New York Times covering crime and politics before shifting to beer. He’s currently a writer and the senior editor of Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, and his new book, Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint—released early this month—is a broad and intelligent overview of the current trends, good and bad, that drive the industry of the world’s second most popular beverage. (“Coffee,” Holl tells us on the first page, “has beer beat.”)

In Drink Beer, Think Beer, Holl encourages readers to see beer as “more than a combination of ingredients in a pint glass.” Thinking about beer, he tells us, is much more challenging than drinking it, and this book is an excellent guide to doing so. Holl starts from the beginning of the world—in the beer universe, that is, some 15,000 years ago—and takes us rapidly forward through Prohibition, the industrial beer doldrums from 1940 through the 1980s, and into the colorful community of modern craft beer, where the book’s focus is centered. Here, we are invited to consider more than the act and effects of drinking beer and look beyond at its peripheral elements. Holl encourages readers to consider a beer’s ingredients and where they are grown, how a beer is made and where that style originated, and the people—farmers, brewers, servers—behind a beer’s production.

As Holl says more than once—with the vast selection of styles and brands to choose from—now is perhaps the best time to be a person who likes beer. But, he adds, “it’s also a confusing time. There are poorly made beers, misinformation about flavors and perhaps too much choice. For every public relations company and industry association smiling and shooting sunshine, there’s a dark side that involves pay-for-play with accounts, access to ingredients denied, unsafe working conditions, and undercurrents of racism and sexism in an industry that seems to still favor white males above all others.”

Indeed, after a cheery and brightly lit beginning, as he meanders through discussions of ingredients and flavors, Holl takes us through a more somber chapter called “Shadows in Beer.” Here, he recounts how, several years ago as editor of All About Beer Magazine, he wrote an editorial column calling out Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Alaska for making a high-alcohol beer called Panty Peeler—which Holl found offensive and distasteful. Wouldn’t almost anybody, after all? No, it turned out. While many magazine readers commended the stance, Holl was also slammed by an explosion of angry pushback from defensive beer lovers who, so it seems, had lost their moral bearings in their fervor for alcoholized barley malt. In the book, Holl revisits this experience in detail, spending much of the chapter discussing sexism and the sexualization of beer, which often occurs through advertising and marketing.

By the book’s end, Holl is plodding through complex and difficult topics such as corporate takeover of the craft beer industry, fanaticism and hype over “rare” beers, and breweries exploiting their customers.

We can and should still enjoy simple moments of innocence—when we open a beer and let our minds turn off. However, thinking about the craft beer business and confronting its shortcomings may be essential to keeping the industry and its fans on their best behavior.