Book Week: Pete Brown's Miracle Brew

Pete (left) in Copenhagen, on one of the adventures he tells in the book, sitting next to Stephen Beaumont, who back-blurbs it.

Miracle Brew
Pete Brown
Chelsea Green, 280 pages, $20

  • What is it? Ostensibly an introduction to beer, it is actually a series of very entertaining stories that happen to be full of information.
  • Who's it for? Anyone with a passing interest in beer of any level of experience.
  • Reviewer disclosure. I have only spent a few evenings with Pete Brown, but I consider him a friend and I confess I'm a fairly big fan.

I met Pete Brown for the first time in London, at the pub he was researching for his book Shakespeare's Local. That was in 2012. Since then he has published four books, the latest of which is Miracle Brew. (There's a funny story about how he accepted the contract for one of those amid the delirium of cold medicine and didn't learn he had done so until days later.) If you read the blurb for the book, it will sound awfully familiar: "From the birth of brewing (and civilization) in the Middle East ... Miracle Brew is an extraordinary journey through the nature and science of brewing...." You might be tempted to skip it. With Pete's back catalogue--including The Apple Orchard, which I can't recommend highly enough--you might feel he's got you covered.

Actually, though, the book is a ramble through the recent adventures of Pete Brown, probably the most entertaining beer writer working today. The book is structured by ingredient, but once he gives a very brief introduction, he's off to the Žatec hop fields, or getting trapped in a cellar in Munich during a mass shooting, or standing in a field where the seeds for Maris Otter barley come from. I had wondered how he would make the chapter on water interesting, because if there is anything in beer that defies engaging storytelling, it's ions and pH. But that chapter is a clue to his approach. He does get into some chemistry, but he also, for example, visits Burton and sneaks some well-water he's been instructed is not fit for human consumption.

Much of the book is highly amusing, which isn't the nature of most beer writing. There's no reason it can't be funny, except perhaps that people take it too seriously. But Pete manages to pack the information in because it's funny. That Maris Otter field, for example, was the source of a doomed TV segment he went there to film. Farms are not actually riveting locations; farmers, likewise, not people used to hamming it up for the camera. But the incident, told afterward, is hilarious. A taste:

When we're rolling, I put on my energetic, speaking-for-the-telly voice and say, "So! Here we are at a secret location in the Norfolk countryside. Roger Coe, tell me, what's so special about the field we're standing in just now?"
       Roger shrugs his shoulders and says, "Nothing, really," looking between me and Roger Banham, waiting to see what's going to happen next.
       I try again. "Right! So, obviously, the field itself is just a field, but what's so special about what we have growing in the field? IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD?"

It's a real pleasure to read, and, unusually, will appeal to newcomers and beer geeks alike. Since it's story-based, it doesn't matter how much you know--you're still going to be carried along by the narrative.

Jeff Alworth