By David Nilsen
A lot of books that attempt to offer a comprehensive guide to the world of beer are, in the end, pretty similar. There are usually 10-20 pages of throat-clearing, in which the author is obligated to assume the readers who have sat down to study a 400-page book about the intricacies of hundreds of global beer styles have no idea what beer is. Then, in some order, there are large chapters on historically beer-loving countries and their beers, and how to properly drink beer to best appreciate it. Toward the end are shorter chapters dealing with beer-related travel and pairing beer with food. This is the formula. Anyone who gets a book deal to write about beer is generally qualified to do so, so almost any of these one-stop guides is usually adequate.
In The Best Beer in the World: One Man’s Global Search for the Perfect Pint, British beer writer Mark Dredge sidesteps the cumbersome requirements of these books by giving his a unique (if audacious) conceit: He travels the world looking for the single best beer to be found anywhere. That he never really answers his thesis question and never really intends to in the first place is (mostly) irrelevant. His quest allows him to write about most of the world’s beer styles and how and where to enjoy them, and with what food, without having to follow the established outline for doing so. It’s refreshing.
He makes a good show of wanting to answer the question, of course. In his introduction, in which he talks about how readers are constantly asking him what his favorite or best beer is, he explains:
“The trouble was that I really didn’t know the answer to the question. And I really wanted to know the answer. It frustrated me that I’d been asked the same question hundreds of times and still didn’t have a response to it.” – page 4
He sets off on a globe-trotting search that takes him to beer-brewing countries like Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, his native England, and the United States, as well as traveling to places like China, where the world’s bestselling brand, Snow, is brewed and consumed, Brazil, home to the world’s second-largest Octoberfest, and Vietnam, home to the world’s cheapest and freshest beer (based on time from the beginning of brewing to when the finished product is sold at about $.25 a glass). This quest allows him to provide city guides to fifteen cities in Europe, seven in North America, and three in Oceania. He tours legendary breweries, stays at the Trappist monastery that brews Orval, embarks on the perfect London pub crawl with his best friends, and answers the question, “Is Guinness really better in Ireland?”
There were a few things I didn’t care for in the book. Dredge’s tastes are fairly hop-centric, and his favorite beers tend to be styles that showcase hops, such as pale ale, IPA, and pilsner, which leads to some homogeneity in his recommended brews from various cities and breweries. I would have preferred greater diversity in his suggestions and descriptions. He has no shame in being able to enjoy oft-derided macro brews like Budweiser, which is admirable in one sense (“guilty pleasure” is a ridiculous concept: just like what you like), but also somewhat problematic. It’s fine to like how Budweiser tastes, but ignoring the damage major brands did to brewing in the twentieth century and the hypocritical marketing messages major beer conglomerates put out while buying up privately owned breweries left and right does not adequately address the issue.
Overall though, I really enjoyed Dredge’s book. He’s a wonderful storyteller, and true to his book’s theme he’s good at establishing a sense of place when it comes to drinking specific beers. Though I’ve never been there, I imagine Pilsner Urquell tastes different in the ancient cellars under the original brewery than it does out of a bottle from the supermarket, and Dredge is wonderful at placing us in these settings in a sensory way. He writes with tremendous enthusiasm, and writes like he’s talking to a drinking buddy, meaning he makes jokes, is occasionally crass, and doesn’t hide his excitement. His taste descriptions aren’t terribly technical, but they are evocative, which is preferable anyway. One thing I really appreciated is that Dredge is willing to be subjective. When presented with two esteemed brews, he says which he likes better. This sounds simple, but in their efforts to make their books general guides, beer writers often avoid expressing explicit preferences like this. Dredge owns it. This has the trade-off of feeling skewed toward his favorite styles, as I said earlier, but it’s a worthwhile change from the norm.
I was prepared to skim read The Best Beer in the World. The strength of Dredge’s writing, and his enthusiasm, kept me from doing so. In a short chapter at the end of the book, he attempts to answer his initial question, but sputters and fails to do so. His answer feels more like an extended list of rhetorical questions. No matter. He accomplishes something new on the shelf of guides to the world of beer, and for that we should raise a glass to him. Which beer is in said glass is up to you.
The Best Beer in the World is available now at Greenville Public Library.