Learn about beer’s varied past and discover surprising things about its present, in one of my favourite books about home brewing.
The US home brew and craft beer movement started in the late 70s and early 80s, primarily as a reaction against the blandness of beer in the country at the time.
Because the commercially produced stuff had degenerated to such low levels there was much excitment about the possibilties that home brew offered. Taking part in the revolution was brewer and graphic designer Randy Mosher.
Well known amongst homebrewers for a number of articles and books, in Radical Brewing he sets out a comprehensive view of beer and brewing, including history, ingredients, tasting, socialising and recipes.
We also visit Mosher’s own home brewery, an inspiring end to a book that generates enthusiasm throughout.
Mosher successfully positions home brewing within the history of beer in general. After describing the decline of the American product, he explains how home brewers revived the art of beer making that was in serious danger of being lost.
Because existing examples were so lifeless, they were “completely free to invent a new style of brewing unhindered by the need to preserve a vanishing folk tradition”.
While true, it’s clear that Mosher is nevertheless fascinated by brewing history and has learnt a lot by studying it.
Although described as radical, many of the things in this book have an historical precedent. Among the more outlandish recipes are many more traditional ones.
Each beer style (whether well known, lesser known or extinct) is explained with historical and anecdotal context. After the basic recipe come the variations, each more adventurous than the last.
At one point Mosher sets out his view on beer styles, which in a way summarises the philosophy of the book as a whole:
I have a conflicted view on beer styles. As historical artifacts, they’re endlessly fascinating to study. And I think that they generally represent confluences – and compromises – of technology, agriculture, cuisine, and geology that make the most of what a region has to offer. That means existing styles are usaully quite wonderful to drink, and I’m all for that.
But as a brewer who approaches the craft from an artistic point of view, I’m not always interested in precisely reproducing a particular style, challenging as that may be. I do it, of course, but it’s more for the experience of getting inside and finding out what makes a style tick. More importantly, I like to use the basic style as a springboard, a starting point for brewing beers that go beyond style and shine as unique personal expressions.
Mosher also finds inspiration in archaic brewing practices that no longer make sense from a practical point of view, but which offer opportunities for experimentation and fun.
I finished the book with a wider understanding of what beer is.
As well as learning about fermentables and yeast, I now realise that hops are a herb, or seasoning, one of many that have been, or could be, used for bittering and flavouring. There are endless herbs and spices with brewing precedent.
Brewers have always needed something to counteract the sweetness of malt and have tried more or less everything at one time or another.
In the end hops, which have good preservative qualities, won out.
This has already become a book I refer to often; it will take years to absorb its contents. There are endless tempting ideas that I intend to put to the test soon.
Radical Brewing is an inspiring book of ideas which leaves you reaching for the brew pot. I highly recommend it.