Call it a guide for the perplexed. “Drink Better Beer” (Sterling Epicure, $24.95) by Brooklyn-based writer Joshua M. Bernstein gleans opinions and wisdom from more than 100 experts, including brewmasters, scientists, bar owners, and sensory specialists, who help him unravel what he calls the “increasingly complicated universe of beer.”
Full disclosure, while we’re not exactly besties, I’ve known Bernstein as a fellow traveler on beer trips to destinations as far-flung as Asheville, Brussels and Denver. And I’ve always appreciated his spirited and sometimes irreverent takes on the beverage business.
What I really like about this new book, though, is that he expresses what many of us are feeling right now. In the preface to “Drink Better Beer,” he declares, “I write about beer professionally and I’m confused. Maybe you are too.”
Last week, I called Bernstein to talk about the book, and he shared some more thoughts about the current beer scene.
“I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who asks a lot of questions,” Bernstein said. “So I thought it would be a great idea to approach other people who know more than I do to contribute to the book. I can talk about Brussels or the Pacific Northwest, but it doesn’t mean as much as somebody who has lived there and has a brewery there.”
Asked about the state of craft beer in America, Bernstein reiterated his state of confusion.
“Five years ago, we had such strong arguments about craft beer vs. crafty beer, and the lines were pretty much drawn in the sand,” he said. “Craft beer was stuff with flavor, and the funny labels, and tasted different and smelled different, too. The other stuff was the stuff you were drinking since you started drinking in high school or college. That was really easy to understand.
“Nowadays, there are so many different products out there. Boston Beer Co. makes Sam Adams, and then they make Twisted Tea and Truly, and other things. And now they’re partnered with Dogfish Head. Everything is just this massive gumbo, and it’s kind of hard to tell what you should be enjoying and what you shouldn’t like. Paradoxically, there’s more better beer to drink in America than ever before, but there’s also more worse beer than ever before, too.”
For Bernstein, that’s where “Drink Better Beer” comes in.
“Not everything is going to be awesome, and so I think you need to think about some things when you go to buy stuff. You can’t just trust your supermarket, or the gas station that just decided to sell craft beer. I want to help people understand where they should be getting stuff, what questions they should ask, and how to think about the choices they make, and be a bit more selective.
“Overall, I just feel that in our culture we’re moving at such breakneck speed that we never stop to ask why. We always ask what’s next and what’s more. What we really cherish in America is this idea of excess and shiny new objects. The beer world is not immune to either of those things. With new beers going out every week, it’s really hard to keep track. In New York City, we have 40-plus breweries now, compared to maybe a handful a few years ago. But more doesn’t always equal better.”
Speaking of more, Bernstein said one of the big revelations in researching “Drink Better Beer” came from Dr. Tom Shellhammer, the Nor’Wester Professor of Fermentation Science at Oregon State University. Shellhammer is renowned for his research on hop chemistry — and his cautionary advice that “not everyone in the industry knows what they are doing.”
“When it comes to hops, our quest for more is actually creating new problems. That was really eye-opening to me,” Bernstein said. “The idea that adding extra hops to a beer is the big thing now. But that also can add extra sugars and plant material that can create all of these off flavors and aromas, which is crazy.”
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