Book review

Bad name, great book

boutiqueBoutique Beer: 500 Quality Craft Beers
Ben McFarland

Okay, let me just say something right at that start – I hate the phrase “boutique beer”. It’s a phrase that was used back in the 1990s to describe craft beer before the phrase “craft beer”. So Matilda Bay was boutique beer, so was Grolsch, San Miguel and Moosehead. You may snigger but, it’s true, back in the day beers like Grolsch were super special.

I hate the phrase “boutique beer” because it’s so old and outdated. And because it smacks of snobbery. So, when someone uses the phrase I tend to think they’re trying to be snobby even though they’re actually out of touch. Kind of like someone today who thought Grolsch was super special.

Which makes it a poor choice of title for McFarland, because he definitely knows a lot about beer and he’s not at all snobby about it. He’s actually got a lovely, light and slightly irreverent style to his writing. For instance, a photo caption of a man pressing buttons reads “this man is pressing buttons and switches to make sure the beer is behaving”. I find that sort of thing funny.

Most of the book is made up of small write-ups of the 500 beers in the title. To be honest, I skimmed past these; I don’t really have a lot of time for straight beer reviews – if I want to know what a beer is like I’ll buy it myself. I’m far more interested in the stories surrounding beer; stories about styles, about how beer is made and the people making it.

And it is there that McFarland delivers big-time. He’s an award-winning writer and it shows here as he’s able to make things interesting. Beer books all tend to have an explanation of malt, hops and yeast and I’ve read so many beer books that I tend to skip these pages. But I read all of them in McFarland’s book.

I also read all the two-page brewery profiles sprinkled throughout the book. This is even though I’ve never heard of most of them, let alone tried any of their beers. I loved reading these profiles so much that I’d gladly buy a book full of them. It’s in these that McFarland shows his writing skills; rather than focus on the beers, he focuses on the people behind them. He tells their stories; the mates who started a brewery as a sort of workplace therapy for people with a mental illness, another whose dad decided to open a brewery and put her in charge or how a hot dog joint in the United States inspired another.

These profiles alone are worth the price of admission but there’s a lot more to recommend this book. Even if you skip all of the beer reviews.

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