Firstly a confession, my intention in doing a review of Zak Avery’s “500 beers” book was a naked attempt to find an excuse for lots of Zak links in a quest to push Mr Avery’s blog up the beer blog league tables and then offer to pass the book on to any other blogger that wanted to do the same, as part of a Team Avery attempt to fill beer blogging with Zak RSS feeds. However Zak has been kind enough to comment that he doesn’t wish vote rigging so I shan’t.
I appreciate if Zak takes the time to read this his first impression might very well be to slump his shoulders and think “Jesus wept, can you not take the piss out of someone else, my wine glass isn’t that funny for Christ sake”, despite the fact that it is. It is unfair to pick on Zak, especially when there is Pete Brown, Protzy, Dredgie & Cole etc to have a go at. Sorry to disappoint but this isn’t a piss take. I read the book and thought I’d say what I thought about it.
Firstly it’s quite small. I was expecting it to be a bigger tabletop type gubbins, but it is quite thick, has lots of nice pictures and I’m sure qualifies as my money’s worth. The first picture is a nice pint of lager, so it starts off promising.
After a short introduction and guide on how to use the book (erm, read it and try any beer you think you might like?) the glossary is unusually at the start. This is quite informative, I learnt that funk is the proper term for what I have been calling “pong”. I thought funk was a type of urban dance music, and funky a term for trendy trainers, but it has another meaning in the world of beer. But armed with this glossary I read on and into an informative and engaging explanation of the main ingredients of grog and the brewing process. The style adopted is to write in detail without ever patronising and written in an accessible style that breezes along as at an enjoyable pace.
As I got into the selecting, storing and serving chapter I felt I was getting the measure of the piece. I felt I was reading not a promotion of pongy ale or a CAMRA manifesto but one mans love poem to his great passion. It is impossible to sneer at such a thing. The only possible reaction is to go with the flow and enjoy the journey. I’d go as far as to suggest such a style is possibly more effective if the intention is to get the reader off the Fosters, than the cheery beery campaigning tone of a lot of beer writing, but as I said it comes across as nothing more or less than a chap sharing his considerable knowledge and deep passion and would be an engaging read whatever the topic. I’m sure if the book was about steam engines, if written in such a style, I would find it interesting. In the storing beer paragraph, mention is made of bottle conditioning and I suspect Zak’s opinion is more informed than the CAMRA one.
On the tasting beer page he makes mention of his oversized wine glass, and I found the explanation that different glasses affect perception and aroma convincing enough to feel suitably ignorant for making fun of giant wine glasses. But then I remembered I don’t taste beer, I just drink it so figured I could ignore this bit, it wasn’t for me. Likewise with the beer and food matching section. Despite the helpful table I remain of the view that rules are for wine ponces, have what you like with what you like. What I like is a combination of whatever food is in the fridge matched with whatever beer is in the fridge. Followed by cake. I like cake.
The chapter on lager I found to be interesting and without many of the ill informed prejudices that many beer experts hold. I particular liked the bit about quickly produced large-scale lager not being bad beer, even if it is qualified with the view that a slower process produces a fuller flavour. Nothing to argue about, you get what you pay for.
Then we got to the first mentioning of the beers. I liked the page layout with 5 beers a page but prominence given to one beer. This gives the “geek curious” types like me all you really need to know to try the beer style in question. Neck the one with the green background and if you like it you might want to try the rest. The different classifications of pilsner are well thought out and as we trot along we see that beer geekery involves some beers you can get at Tesco. You can’t argue with recommending crisps to go with Heineken. I find crisps go with all beer. Peanuts too. The mention of Stella is fair at “decent enough”. I personally have never claimed it to be the best beer in the world, only a neckable drop and a bargain when sold for buttons.
I liked some of the creative classifications like “un-lager” and Zak makes a decent stab at informing us what he means by that. On the Oktoberfest grog I was surprised to see Hofbrau & Paulaner not given a mention. At least one that you can get at Tesco would have been nice, and I spotted a beer I’ve necked on the Vienna page. Freedom lager. Also more surprised Augustiner didn’t get a mention in the Helles section as that is always the beer I get handed when invited back to the home of German friends. It’s decent lout that the locals drink. Can I really comment? Zak has 25 years of beer knowledge, which is exactly 25 years more than me. So maybe Zak knows more about what to put in his book than I do.
Black lager and Bocks follow before we hit English Ale. This goes through bitters, milds etc and oddly has a picture of pretty German girls wearing the dirndl and necking maß glasses of lager before we get to Scottish beer. You can’t go wrong with pretty girls and if I was to be critical, the book could have done with a few more, I’m not suggesting it should have become a beer version of Nuts magazine, but pretty girls every few pages add to the general flow and keep the reader going.
The wheat beer section covering both witbier and weissbier covered the topic well, and when we got to the Flemish stuff & the lambic pong I developed the impression we had entered the territory of the authors love for beer, that carried through to the Belgian grog. With a diversion into IPA & American beer we were back in Belgium where I learnt there was more to the country than finding an English pie shop, a glass of Leffe, thick stew with bones in it and chatting up girls in a combination of broken French and German. The Barley wine and old ale sections weren’t really my cup of tea so I skipped forward to learn the difference not only between Porter and Stout, but the many different types of both. I could have happily lived without this knowledge, but heh why not?
No mention that if you go on a lad’s weekend to Dublin and drink nothing but Guinness your shit turns jet black, but then I wasn’t really expecting such unnecessary crudeness. I was quite surprised German regional beer like kolsch comes under “oddities”.
What is the best beer to drink whilst reading it? A can of Foster’s. And that is that. I enjoyed the book. I’d recommend it. An enjoyable and informative read. If Zak turns up on the twiss up I’ll ask him to autograph it for me. Even if he writes “Cookie, just fuck off, I mean it, fuck off, love Zak” in it.