Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Great American Ale Trail

I stopped by the library the other day primarily to pick up Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise, but decided to check out some beer books as well. I ended up taking home The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover's Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation. I skimmed through and read some sections of it last night and was impressed with the number of breweries and bars the author, Christian DeBenedetti, covers. There are also a lot of neat tidbits about beer styles, brewing techniques, and various festivals. A detailed story or description of the scene one encounters when visiting is accompanied by a philosophy and key beer to try for each place.

Sadly, I was disappointed to see some omissions. Having some similar thoughts, All About Beer says the book is "an eclectic if necessarily incomplete almanac of brewpubs, breweries and bars along with the occasional restaurant," which pretty much nails it. They go on to say it "includes more than it omits." On the whole this may be true, but...

What stood out to me is how few Michigan locations made the list. I'll admit my bias since I'm a Michigander, but really, only six? Alaska and Louisiana both had more than double that number with 16 and 14 each, respectively. The author is from Portland, Oregon and the book has a fairly distinctive West Coast orientation with large numbers of places in beer-rich states like Oregon, Washington, California, and Colorado. Population-rich New York also featured well plus North Carolina with Beer City, USA champion Asheville up there too (with a copyright of 2011, this was pre-title for now Beer City, USA Grand Rapids).

I'm nitpicking, but let's look more closely at Michigan. Featured in the book are Jolly Pumpkin, Founders, HopCat, and Bell's with a "Best of the Rest" including Ashley's and Arcadia. First thing I thought of after reading this list was, "Where is Short's?"

Obviously, ratings from BeerAdvocate should be taken with a grain of salt, but Short's has a "world-class" ranking on 66 reviews. Compare this with Twisted Pine, located in Boulder, Colorado which does get mention in the book as one of the "Best of the Rest" for Colorado, which has an "exceptional" rating (5 points lower than Short's) on only 14 reviews. This is nothing against Twisted Pine. I have visited and really enjoyed the experience, but why devote so many more pages to Colorado (37) as to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin combined (25).

The book includes a box highlighting that Michigan now has more than 65 breweries, and directs those interested to check out the Michigan Brewers Guild website. This kinda makes the book feel not quite as rigorous as it is. Short's does get a shout-out as what to grab at Ashley's in Ann Arbor, so there is obviously respect for them. Since the book has a travel orientation and much of the content comes from the author's own trips and experiences, Short's out-of-the-way location up north probably hurt when making the decisions of what to include. However, the Colorado section includes locations up and down the Front Range and all the way to Breckenridge and Durango, so it isn't prohibitive.

The suggested itinerary that includes Michigan is a Midwest-wide one though and tries to cram Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan locations all together. By grouping the Midwest in as one region like the book did really limits the focus individual Midwest states might have, while California is only paired with Hawaii and basically gets its own itinerary. The biggest issue I have overall is probably the way the book was divided and grouped.

Other Michigan locations worthy of inclusion along with Short's, in my opinion, are: Arbor Brewing (on the fence), Brewery Vivant (newly open when the book was published), Dark Horse, Dragonmead, Kuhnhenn, and New Holland.

Maybe we'll see another edition - with some modifications to the regions and more places - as this Serious Eats review bets on (not all 50 states make the list this time). Perhaps this has sounded overly critical, but I really respect Michigan beer and was disappointed to not see more of it here. Beyond that gripe, I have thus far enjoyed reading and learning about what the states I don't know as well as Michigan have to offer (and how I have managed to hit many of his Colorado recommendations). It really is a good book, and could very well be a great book with only minor improvements.

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