Beer needs a lot less introduction that it did ten years ago, as small breweries and numerous beers styles have flourished. So it stands to reason books intended to introduce readers to the world of beer have gotten more clever and sophisticated over that time, unlike some of the text-book like tomes of the past. Case in point is The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer from Justin Kennedy.
A book like this is a bit of a balancing act. Beer is full of rich subject matter encompassing history, economics, chemistry, and culinary knowledge in addition to being a lot of fun to drink. How deep do you go into each subject to make them meaningful without getting into tedious detail or upsetting that delicate balance while keeping it engaging. Kennedy finds the right touch, explaining beer styles without becoming boringly pedantic or describing the brewing process without it seeming like a science class. Yet, there is plenty of substance to his writing and most readers will feel like they learned something.
I say most readers, because most of the material was not new to me, but I had fun reading The Scratch & Sniff Guide anyway. Each subject or beer style is covered in a couple bite sized pages before going onto the next page, with plenty of lively images and illustrations. Kennedy’s amiable writing style makes it a quick page turner.
In addition to reviewing the basic beer styles and explaining how beer is made, Kennedy takes a few additional excursions, such as gently shutting down the myth the India Pale Ales got their name by brewed with lots of hops and alcohol to survive shipment from the England to India, and sharing a few tasty looking beer recipes. There’s a section on pairing beer with food, where he takes a somewhat controversial position that IPAs do not belong at the dinner table since they don’t pair well with most foods. I’m sure plenty will disagree, but I think he’s basically right: IPAs either overwhelm and badly clash with most food. Kennedy also acts as a beer tourist guide, providing a beer tours up the West Coast of the United States as well as in Germany and Belgium. I have to think his travel advice is pretty sound, given that his recommendations for San Francisco and Bend, OR, two beer cities I know well, are pretty spot on.
As the title implies, throughout the book are scratch and sniff stickers related to various beers discussed on the pages. For example a pine sticker is used to flesh out pine scents often found in West Coast IPAs while a cedar wood sticker is used to show the character of Northern Brewer hops used in California Commons. The stickers are a clever idea to engage readers through their sense of smell, but are arguably the least successful part of the book. Some scents are barely detectable and testing them out with my wife, who has a far better sense of smell than I do, often elicited “if you say so” response when I told her what she was supposed to be smelling. The scratch and sniff stickers were a great idea and sometimes worked, but overall, the execution had something to be desired.
That issue aside, The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer is a great introduction to the world of beer for the curious and those who know the subject well will likely enjoy the refresher course.