Award offers readers a chance to learn about beer writing from around the world
If you look at the “Awards” section of my site, you’ll probably roll your eyes. I make a big deal about how awards never do enough to acknowledge that writing – be it a book or a magazine article or whatever – is a collaborative exercise. Sure, the editor got the story, but the writer gets the glory.
The former often deserves more credit. So, I don’t list any awards I’ve received, because the editors aren’t mentioned.
I stand by that today. But I’m also about to be a huge hypocrite, because this post is about how Tapping the West, my book about Alberta craft beer, has been recognized with an award.
I’m about to be a huge hypocrite.
This July, the Gourmand Awards named it the best recent book on beer in Canada. I have no idea what the book was up against. How many books about beer can possibly be written in this country in a year? Shrug. (My wife, a librarian, points out that roughly 10,000 books are published in Canada each year. Odds are that more than one is about beer.)
But I like the award because of this: It now puts Tapping the West up against top beer publications from other countries. One of them will emerge from that battle royale of books as the world’s best (at least according to Gourmand).
That’s a chance to highlight an often overlooked global body of literature about a globally enjoyed drink, the variety of traditions surrounding it, and the myriad perspectives on it. So, allow me to make an exception just this once and talk about an award, or, more specifically, some fascinating finalists.
The challenge here is that not all the books on the list are in English. This is beautiful, though not exactly practical for readers. That said, you can glean from one entry that homebrewing is a not just a North American preoccupation but one that’s gaining popularity in Italy, and from another that thobwa is a fermented drink made from white maize flour and that’s common in Malawi and Zambia. Now you know.
A couple of the other entrants, for me, however, invited deeper investigation.
Jef van den Steen is one. He’s a Belgian writer and brewer, and up for Bieres d’ Abbayes Belges, a book that covers all existing abbey breweries in Belgium (there appears to be an English translation of an earlier version as well). So I guess it’s a guide to nearly three dozen of the world’s best breweries.
Van den Steen seems like a character written for craft beer: eccentric, passionate, a polymath. He was once the guitarist in a rock band, a math professor, then picked up writing about Belgian breweries a decade or two ago, when locals just took them for granted as a part of the cultural landscape.
What’s more, Van den Steen knows his subject in a very intimate way. He owns De Glazen Toren, the brewery where he perfects his beloved saison, as well as a few other traditional styles.
Another entry of note comes U.K. food and beer writer Pete Brown. During the recent lockdown, Brown pounded out a treatise on the nature of craft – writing to publishing in 13 weeks flat. Amazing what a person can get done when they’re not allowed to leave the house (and have no children).
Craft: An Argument explores that not-very-old but suddenly essential question of, What makes craft craft? Is it an ethos? A matter of marketing? An idea as much as a thing? A feeling, for gawd sake?
In any case, it sounds like the kind of book that will thereafter send you deep into the lengthy back catalogue of one of Britain’s most highly decorated beer writers.
Then, of course, there’s me. Somehow. Scott Messenger. Author of Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat.
We all know that Belgium and England have been brewing what’s essentially craft beer for hundreds of years. But how did Alberta come to craft? That question is the (beer) engine of my book.
Brown credits the editing of his award-winning lockdown project to his wife, who also designed it and such. My wife was not my editor, though she was very supportive.
In my case, the job went to Curtis Gillespie, who served as the primary editor on Tapping the West. He’s easily one of Canada’s best writers of narrative journalism and I’m very lucky he was willing to work with a book-writing novice like me.
Once he’d finished reading my first draft, he said something along the lines of, “This is great! But …”
Then, we got on with making the whole thing way better (i.e., rewriting, front to back). It’s a team effort. Lockdown or not, you can’t do it alone.