Beer Through the Ages

By Will Bunch ’81 / January/February 2015
December 3rd, 2014

When William Bostwick ’07 sits down to tell the history of beer through 5,000 suds-drenched years of human civilization, he does so with the uneven energy and the rambling narrative line of the classic barroom yarn, as if told from a stool in a dimly lit Pacific brew pub.

T. Ford Bostwick
William Bostwick locates beer at the intersection between the earth's rich harvest and the drumbeat of industrial technology.
I mean that as a compliment. The author of The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer is a high-profile beer critic and part-time brewmaster, and his nonlinear, jump-around pacing is a classic case of form matching substance. Bostwick leads the reader on a circuitous journey from the brew-depicting hieroglyphs of Egypt’s Tomb of Pi, which dates to 2400 BC, to the high-tech, hop-fermenting “Torpedo” at Sierra Nevada’s modern craft brewery in northern California. Along the way we more than occasionally take side trips to an iconic Belgian monastery or the home brewery of George Washington (yes, that George Washington).

There is method to Bostwick’s narrative madness. Rather than serving up, in Rheingold extra-dry fashion, the straight timeline of beer history, the author—best known as the beer columnist for the Wall Street Journal and GQ—wants to tap the energy of the craft-beer renaissance that’s taking place in America in the current millennium. Animating The Brewer’s Tale is precisely this synergy between today’s copper-kettle dreamers and tinkerers and the unique beers and ales of past worlds, from Babylonia to Plymouth Rock, that they’re determined to recreate.

Bostwick, who went from novice drinker to experimental home brewer to beer columnist in less than a decade, draws on his network of beer aficionados as he makes a compelling case that beer is the commodity that best binds the diverse strands of human experience—much more so than bread or wine, say. After all, beer is where the earth’s rich harvest meets the drumbeat of industrial technology, and the end product has long been a hearty source of sustenance, not to mention inspiration for spiritual seekers, with its intoxicating kick.

At his best, Bostwick briefs us on the role that beer played in the shamanistic rituals of northern Europe in early medieval times; then he introduces us to real, in-the-flesh shaman Brian Hunt, a mad chemist off a dusty dirt road in California’s Sonoma County, who ferments magic elixir from the bark of local trees. It is here that the author convinces us that, while the golden history of beer may go back fifty centuries, the fullest-bodied chapter of The Brewer’s Tale may be the one that’s brewing right now.  

Read Will Bunch's interview with William Bostwick here.

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Related Issue
January/February 2015