I am of two minds about this book. On the one hand it mainly discusses a topic that has not been much written about - the establishment of the macro brewing business within the USA from its first years in the Mid-west German immigrant community to the great days in the 1950s of little taste in little cans that was recently celebrated in the book Great American Beer that I reviewed a few months ago. On the other hand, the manner in which the story is told is so odd as to be frustrating. The reason may be found in two pages of the introduction. On one, we are told when the project of the book began, the author "knew nothing about beer - historical or otherwise" and on the next:
As I dug through the archives and old trade journals, I discovered that almost every aspect of that oft-told tale of skullduggery, greed, and woe was false and that the truth was considerably more interesting and complex.Going from nothing to refuting all that has come before is quite the thing. By way of comparison, my main text for US beer history is the book Beer In America: The Early Years by Gregg Smith. It predates this blog so I have never reviewed it - something I should correct. It does what the average history does: starts at the beginning in the pre-colonial Dutch period and goes to the end, ie now or now-ish. Ms. Ogle, however, skips bits, starting her book "Late summer, 1844" and, say, not "New Amsterdam, 1622." This is because the book is not about the history of beer but the history of the businesses that survived to monopolize US brewing today. And it is a personality driven take on that history with much about the lives of the immigrants who became affluent from the creation of the macro-brew industry and also, in the last quarter of the book, the lives of those involves with the micro-brewing revival starting in the 1960s. In the earlier wave, we have descriptions of their homes and assets, intermarriages and recreational choices and such. And those descriptions are of a certain sort. Adophus Busch, for example, is - like Jesus in Milton's Paradise Lost - all goodness, a little too good.
Frankly, readers are told far too much about the people in these families unless you are a reader who cares to know much about the good and rich and somewhat dull. The writing is a bit ripe and dramatic rather than even-handed which compounds. And as Stan Hieronymus notes in his review the use of the imperative in the historical analysis, that there was no choice as what was was the only thing that could have happened, wears a bit. But there is plenty of information here and it is used constructively if sometimes perhaps selectively. There are plenty of end notes and I found myself checking for hints as to why things were as described, but found myself by times to be disappointed. At one point trial transcripts of witness were being used as a source of fact. One judge I used to appear before once told a witness who pleaded that what she said was true that he expected any relationship most witnesses have to the pure truth stays at the court room door. Then I noted that the contrary evidence in the trial was not given equal space. Not a way to give great confidence.
Look, there is a lot of good stuff covered here for all the weaknesses. If you want to learn how German lager came to America, the first half is a good introduction. If you want to know about what the rise of micro-brewing in the 70s and 80s and the people involved, this is a good place to start. But I would also encourage you to read Gregg Smith's book as well.
PS: I received another book to review that has far less to do with beer than this one, entitled What to Drink with What You Eat. Stan Hieronymus did a great review of that one, too: go read it.