Book Review: The Scratch and Sniff Guide to Beer by Justin Kennedy

scatch and sniffBeer 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.

Exploring the World Wide Running Community in the remarkable "Run the World" by Becky Wade

As someone who’s run for the last thirty-six years of my life, I didn’t need to read Becky Wade’s new book “Run the World” to know runners form wonderfully unique communities. But her remarkable book shows just how diverse the strange tribe of runners are throughout the world, all dedicated to the simple act of running.

Shortly after finishing her distance running career at Rice University, which included All-American honors and two Olympic qualifying times, Becky Wade was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year fellowship for study outside the United States. Ms. Wade used this to explore the running communities of England, Ireland, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Finland in the course of a year starting in the middle of 2012. Her book is her story of those travels, followed by a coda of her debut marathon at the 2013 CIM Marathon in Sacramento where she finished in 2:30:48, the third fastest time for any US woman under 25.

The success of travelog books like this depend heavily on the strength of the narrator and the good news is that Ms. Wade is an enthusiastic, talented storyteller. What could have easily been a tedious “bus schedule” of work-outs and weekly events is instead a series of engaging stories of the people and cultures she encounters who share her devotion to running.

It helps that Ms. Wade clearly used her elite connections to hook up with numerous running clubs and meet elite athletes, including distance running stars Vivian Cheruiyot and Haile Gebrselassie. A scene with Gebrselassie crazily dancing as he hosts a party is one of the more memorable scenes in the book. Ms. Wade clearly has a knack for adapting and blending in to each new place she visits, enhancing her impressive powers of observation. While the various running clubs and training groups she joins on her worldwide tour include runners of all abilities, the book focusses more on elite runners hard at work pursuing lofty goals than those running for recreation or personal growth.

Yet, even within this narrow elite focus, we find there is a wide spectrum of different approaches to running throughout the world.  In Ethiopia, Ms. Wade trains with the Ya-Ya Girls, three aspiring young elite women runners who never keep a log, start their runs with no set time or distance, spontaneously running through rugged, high-altitude terrain in whatever direction they feel like. A bad run by one of the Ya-Ya Girls is ominously chalked up to “The Devil was inside of her sapping her strength”. Yet in Japan, she encounters a group of elite male marathon runners stoically running lap after tedious lap in small parks at tightly regimented paces and seemingly suicidal training volumes. Somehow through these opposite approaches both the countries Ethiopia and Japan both dominate world class running. The other countries she visits all approach training some where in the middle of these extremes, often reflection the national culture. For example, the Swiss stress more precision in their workouts while the Irish tend to be more freewheeling.

What we discover in Ms. Wade’s book is that despite all the cultural differences, the hard work of running creates a universal bond and respect within each running community, whether in sprawling European clubs full of runners of all abilities engaging numerous post-run social events, or with the Ethiopian Ya-Ya Girls, cloistered in a small room at the foot of the mountain treating Ms. Wade to a traditional coffee ceremony.  Ms. Wade’s historic debut marathon to conclude the book has a certain inevitability to it, as if she could not possibly fail to achieve a great marathon performance after cramming so much valuable running experience during her year abroad.

Unfortunately, it’s doubtful “Run the World” will find much readership beyond the running community.  That’s too bad, because it carries a message that seems to be missing as our nation seems increasingly divided. “Run the World” shows while racial and cultural barriers certainly exist, the hard work, patience, and understanding required to achieve a common goal will overcome them.

(Harper Collins provided an advance copy of “Run the World” for the purposes of this review.)

Reviewing the Provocative "80/20 Running" by Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald’s latest running book, “80/20 Running” is not so much a running book but a detailed argument on how to train.  Its central thesis claims optimal training results are obtained when 80% of a runner’s miles are completed slowly enough to carry on a conversation, which Fitzgerald terms the ventilatory threshold. Running faster than this, which most runners consider key to improvement, should only consist of 20% of total mileage volume.  Most runners, Fitzgerald argues, have this ratio out of whack, running too many miles above the ventilatory threshold and counter-intuitively, all this hard training is stifling improvement rather than promoting it.

Fitzgerald cites an impressive amount of research conducted on both elite and recreational athletes to back this up and presents a pretty compelling case for an optimal 80/20 ratio of easy to hard running for achieving the best race results.  Elite runners have intuitively recognized this ratio for decades according to Fitzgerald, while most recreational runners run too many of their miles fast, resulting in long term fatigue and insufficient recovery for optimal improvement.  However, the book’s appealing subtitle “Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower” only tells half of the story.

The other side to this story is that Fitzgerald is also advocating higher training volumes in his programs conducted at sub-ventilatory pace while maintaining this 80/20 ratio, so perhaps a book subtitle “Race Faster by Training Longer” would be more honest.   For runners with little time on their hands, Fitzgerald’s revelations will likely present a bit of a dilemma.  The good news is that the author realizes each runner is different about how much time they can commit to a training program. Fitzgerald wisely tailors his ideas to runners at different levels of experience and commitment.  And make no mistake, Fitzgerald is a firm believer in hard workouts.  He just doesn’t think running more than 20% of our miles at a pace faster than we can hold a conversation, whatever our overall training volume is, does us much good.

Fitzgerald helps make it pretty straightforward to find out ventilatory threshold pace, as well as a finding other key training paces to integrate into a training program.  I’ve read no better advice in formulating a training plan than Chapter 7 where Fitzgerald present’s the “fine print” to the “80/20 rule” in the form of seven sub-rules.  The book is not for those seeking to finish their first 5k or 10k, but any runner looking to improve their current performance should get a lot out of 80/20 Running.

I often rate a running book by how it affects how I run.  Analyzing my own training after reading 80/20 Running, I found that I’m was doing too high a ratio of fast to slow miles per the 80/20 rule.  My ratio was more like 75/25 or 70/30.  So I’ve added a few sub-ventilatory miles here and there, increasing my overall weekly miles and sometimes, have cut back a little on my hard runs. Three weeks of modification is not really enough to gauge the effectiveness of a training plan, but so far I seem to be making reasonable improvement yet still feel pretty fresh.  This is something I’ll likely revisit after the half-marathon is over to better gauge how moving closer 80/20 actually helped.

The provocative and slightly misleading sub-title aside, 80/20 Running is an excellent guide book in finding your way to run faster.

Book Review: Brew Britannia! Presents a Fascinating British Counterpoint to America’s Brewing Revolution

It may seem a little pointless to post my high recommendation of Brew Britannia!, the history of British beer’s rebirth written by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey.  After all, since people on both sides of the pond like Zak Avery, Alan McLeod, Stan Hieronymus and Pete Brown have already weighed in with their enthusiastic thumbs’ up, what’s really left really for me to say?

These beer writers are pretty knowledgeable about British brewing.  I, on the other hand, only had this foggy notion about some weird group of British beer enthusiasts called CAMRA, which sounded like something straight out of a Monty Python skit.  So I eagerly read Brew Britannia! hoping to learn beer’s transformation in Britain given I was pretty well versed in America’s brewing revolution.  Boak and Bailey’s book presents a fascinating British contrast to what happened in America.

As many already pointed out, Boak and Bailey couple impressively thorough research with a conversation-like writing style, focusing on the personalities that drove the British beer revolution to create an engaging story. Beer histories tend to be fairly wonkish, delving deeply into brewing styles,  beer ingredients and brewery equipment.  Boak and Bailey thankfully go in the opposite direction, focusing on the personalities and motivations of the various individuals who made British beer what it is today while rarely discussing the beer itself all that deeply.  Given the book give a very linear history of British beer starting from 1960’s, this was a wise choice, preventing it from turning into a tedious “bus schedule” of British beer minutia.  What I found especially fascinating about Brew Britannia! was comparing Britain’s beer revolution to what occurred at approximately the same time in the United States.

American brewing pioneers such as Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman, and Jim Koch were undeniably passionate about beer and took great personal risks to follow those passions to create Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, and Boston Beer respectively.   However, it is equally undeniable they were all also shrewd and highly ambitious businessmen who worked long hours to build their eventual empires. The craft brewing revolution in the United States was in many ways, entrepreneurial capitalism at its finest, where a few smart and hard working individuals took calculated risks the market would pay extra for a different product and turned out to be right as individual consumers started buying it.

Boak and Bailey’s history documents a revolution with a similar outcome, but a demand driven one rather than the American revolution driven by new supply.  Various consumer groups emerged in the 1960’s, most notably CAMRA, which not only were seeking better beer in opposing the Big Six British corporations, but were undeniably social and arguably political organizations.  Their fight was ultimately a lot more than simply demanding traditional live cask ales in favor of forced carbonated kegs of fizzy the Big Six brewers favored. It also centered on the traditional role of the British pub and a revolt against large corporations that were perceived as poor stewards of British tradition and identity.  While there was certainly dissatisfaction in the United States at the sorry state of beer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there weren’t any organized consumer groups in United States seeking change in our nation’s beer.  That whole idea seems somehow un-American.

The early British craft brewers emerging in the 70’s and 80’s come across as reluctant businessmen, simply trying to brew a few barrels of decent brew without the more ambitious goals of the America’s initial craft brewers. And yes, Boak and Bailey portray CAMRA as both goofy and dogmatic, prone to infighting over virtual any trivial topic they could possibly fight over, confirming my suspicions about the organization all along.

Boak and Bailey’s story of Britain’s craft brewing revolution seems, well very British.   Which raises the question, does each nation’s brewing transformation uniquely capture it’s national identity?  Are Sweden’s and Italy’s craft brewing revolutions distinctly Swedish and Italian?  Are Beer Bolshevik’s fermenting revolt among Russia’s proletariat as China engages on a Long March against lager imperialists led by a beery Mao Zedong?  Upon finishing Brew Britianna, these questions no longer seem as absurd.

"Canned!": A Colorful, Comprehensive Look at Craft Beer Art

(photo Schiffer Publishing)

Not only has American brewing revolution brought new and distinctive new flavors to a new generation, it’s brought new art as well.  Numerous breweries striving to create own identity have commissioned artists to convey their own personality, as well as create memorable images for each beer in their line-ups.  There’s no better compilation of this staggering amount of artwork than the new book “Canned!:  The Artwork of the Modern American Beer Can”.

Virtually every American craft beer sold in cans is displayed, along with short comments about the artwork or the beer itself.  A few short years ago, this would’ve been a pretty slim volume since few craft beers were sold in cans.  As the public has readily adapted to the concept that high quality beer can indeed be sold in cans, the craft beer industry has transitioned to release more and more of their product in cans.  While a lot of this has to do with the convenience of the packaging and because cans preserve beer better than traditionally used bottles, the fact that cans provide an ideal canvas for branding artwork is certainly part of that motivation.

Author Russ Phillips has been chronicling this phenomenon on his website Craftcans.com and the depth of his knowledge shows in “Canned!” his first book.  The book is organized into sections based on US brewery geography, which a short history canned beer and a forward by Dale Katechis, the founder of Oskar Blues Brewery.

“Canned!” one of those books you can start in the middle someplace and lose yourself while effortlessly leafing through the pages, discovering new beers and learning about new breweries while gazing at all the colorful artwork.  “Canned!” is nothing less than an engaging document of an emerging and colorful part of craft beer culture.

Chatting with Hal Higdon on his new book "4:09:43 Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners"

Few people in the United States were paying any attention to the Boston Marathon until a couple bombs detonated near the finish line last April, 4:09:43 after the race started. Then, the news channels were dominated by endless replays of both bombings going off, reports of the dead and injured, and speculation as to who would commit such an act.  As the police filtered through the scattered images from security cameras and cell phones, a picture emerged of two suspicious men walking into the crowd with large backpacks only to calmly emerge from the chaos a few minutes later without them. From carefully sifting through the noise of billions of bits of data, the picture of the terrorists slowly emerged.

In a similar fashion, long time running writer Hal Higdon pieces together the story of the Boston Marathon Bombings through scattered stories from runners in his new book, “4:09:43   Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners”.  Higdon picked through the enormous chatter of social media generated by the runners themselves to chronicle the 2013 Boston Marathon through the eyes of 75 different runners. Higdon captures the story of the race from the initial excitement and apprehension at the start, the screaming girls at Wellesley College, running up Heartbreak Hill and the final struggle to the finish line before the bombs went off sending the runners into a confused, terrifying flight from the finishing area.

The result is a readable, engaging tale of the 2013 Boston Marathon from a perspective that couldn’t possibly exist only a few years ago.  Higdon’s social media connections with so many runners works to his advantage, allowing him to piece together a mosaic of the race story from the words of several runners who directly experienced the entire 2013 Boston Marathon.   I had the chance to speak with Hal Higdon about his remarkable new book.

What was it like piecing all the postings from social media all together for this book?
It was really enlightening.  We were all in shock after the bombings and kept seeing the replays on the news at the finish line with the bombs going off, with the clock stopped at 4:09:43.  Back then, I  certainly didn’t think I’d be writing a book about the race.  Afterwards, runners started posting their stories to their blogs, most of them meant for only their friends and family to read.  Then these postings started making their way to my Facebook page.   I have a large footprint on the Internet from my Facebook page so had a lot of access to the runners who finished the Boston Marathon.   That’s when it came into my head that I could write a book about the Boston Marathon Bombings and share all their stories.
What did you learn putting the book together?

I really got a unique viewpoint of the whole event.  Most of the runners were on the course for 4-5 hours and most of that time, it was a joyous run on the course running through Boston and only at the end did the bombs go off and then all of a sudden it had a really bad ending.  And that’s what I reported on.

How do you think social media changes the way we look at terrorism?
We have more viewpoints these days.  First, there were only newspapers to get our information from.  Then television came along and we got news from two sources.  Then we have the Internet and social media where we learn things immediately.
A lot of people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger Disaster occurred, when the Twin Towers fell.  The 2013 Boston Marathon has become like those events, where you remember just where you were when it happened.
How has the Internet changed running?
Certainly one of the things that’s changing is that we can track runners who aren’t necessarily the race leaders or elite athletes.    We can now follow the people we know in the race remotely, and see when they pass through the 5k checkpoint, the 10k checkpoint, ect, over the course of a race.  I was watching my daughter run a marathon and I knew just when to expect her at the half way point based on her time at the last checkpoint.
It’s also greatly improved our ability to dispense information.  Runners from all over can ask me questions and the Internet allows me to talk directly with them.  It’s all happened only in the last dozen years.
Tell me about this fad you recall about beer drinking being good for running.

There was this fad in the 70’s with the initial running boom that carried into the 80’s about beer being good for running, initiated some of the things Dr. George Sheehan wrote, who was a popular running writer at the time, and a number of beer companies were also involved.   I’ve noticed many runners enjoy a glass of wine or a beer and most of them can control their alcohol without any problems.
I ran the Athens Marathon a couple times.  The first time I took it really seriously and finished under three hours, which put me in the top 10 or 15 runners.  The next year I didn’t take it so seriously, and carried a few Drachmas in my pocket with me so I could stop for a couple beers along the way at bars along the course.  At the second stop, I was ready to pay for my beer when the bartender stopped me, pointed to a gentleman on the other side of the bar, who waved back at me.  They didn’t speak any English and I didn’t know any Greek, but I figured out the guy waving at me paid for my beer so I thanked him and headed back out onto the course.  I didn’t take the race very seriously but had a lot of fun.
Anything else you’d like to add about the Boston Marathon?

Everyone is really looking forward to the Boston Marathon this year and it will really be the race of the century.  They’ve opened up the race more to include 36,000 people.  It’s going to be what we all hope will be an enjoyable time, a time to put the tragedies of the last Boston Marathon behind.  We’ll always remember the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and I think my book is the definitive record of them.

Reflections on "Beyond the Pale" by Ken Grossman

When we think of California entrepreneurs, most think of people like David Packard, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk.  Should we add Ken Grossman to this select group?  Foodies swoon over Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, but have they really had a bigger impact over our national cuisine and food culture than Ken Grossman?

These questions are ones I hadn’t considered until reading the Grossman’s long awaited autobiography of Beyond the Pale.  It’s a fascinating study of someone who over thirty years ago literally built a brewery out of little more than discarded scraps salvaged from junk yards.  Back in those days, distribution meant Grossman delivering beer to the few places that would sell it in his pickup truck.  His typical 12+ hour days were spent restoring antique bottling lines to functionality, repairing refrigeration equipment, or welding together discarded dairy equipment into a brewing system, things today’s craft brewers rarely ever do.  Supplies were hard to come by in those times, so Grossman even found a way to incorporate unwanted hop samples larger breweries had no use for into some of his early brews.  Grossman’s problem solving skills, creative force, and seemingly unstoppable energy jumps out through the dense prose on nearly every page.   At times, I found it exhausting just reading about the shear number of projects and challenges he tirelessly took upon himself to build up a brewery from scratch. 

Each chapter is an education onto itself.  Whether talking about the brewing process, creating a business in a time where small breweries were virtually non-existent, discussing legal and business wrangling that occupied much of his energy in the 90’s, or espousing his personal environmental and management policies, there is plenty to learn on each page and Grossman shares plenty of great insights.

For example, on the United State’s three-tiered distribution system, often vilified in the craft beer industry as stifling competition in favor of large brewing corporations, Grossman writes, “Collectively, this complex web of seemingly arcane state and federal laws has done a lot to allow the craft movement to flourish.  Many other countries don’t have a prohibition against the vertical integration of manufacturer and retailer, which has generally stymied the growth of small and independent brewers.  For example in England breweries had a long history of owning pubs, and through consolidation a handful of brewers controlled tens of thousands of pubs that sold only their own brands, making it nearly impossible for start-up breweries to get their beer in front of consumers….In other part of Europe and the world, it’s common practice for breweries or distributors to cut exclusive deals with bars and restaurants….in exchange for exclusivity in the brands the retailer sells.  These market driven systems may be aligned with some people’s notion of free enterprise, but they limit choice and independence, favoring a consolidated industry in which a large supplier that can provide beer, spirits, winder, soda and so on has a significant upper hand that eliminates a level playing field for competition.”

These type of comprehensive, insightful, and at times a little long winded, explanations on all things craft beer are peppered throughout the book.  Grossman wrote Beyond the Pale during a time of ambitious and time consuming plans for a second brewery.  As he put it, “The last thing I needed on my plate was writing a book, so a dragged my feet for several months until one day I had an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and finally caved.”  This hardly seems like the making of a great book, but it’s yet a further insight on Grossman’s incredible stamina, experience, and brewing knowledge.  Of course, it also explains why the last few chapters are a bit meandering and at times have the feel of being written by committee.  Despite Grossman’s candid admission to his readers from the very beginning that the book they are about to read was a distraction, he comes through for his readers with a thoughtful, insightful, and comprehensive story about how Sierra Nevada came to be.  That says an awful lot about Ken Grossman in itself.