When Jeff Alworth was growing up in Idaho, he wasn’t sure where his life would take him. Alworth was the first in his family to attend college, and he picked an unlikely major – religious studies, with a focus on Buddhism. During his post-college years in Portland, Alworth worked for some time as a researcher, but he never found the work really satisfying.
Then his life took an unexpected turn: Alworth started writing about beer. He now maintains a blog called Beervana, and he writes a weekly column for All About Beer Magazine. His expertise won Alworth three book contracts in a row, including Beer Tasting Quick Reference Guide and this month’s Cider Made Simple. His masterwork is The Beer Bible, a 656-page codex about the many different styles of beer. During his two years of research, Alworth toured 52 breweries in six countries. Soon his travels will bring him right here to the Valley, when he visits Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Saturday, September 26. We chatted with Alworth in preparation for his visit.
This seems like a dream gig, to travel the world and sample beer. How did you land it?
The original idea goes back to Workman Publishing, which had done The Wine Bible. I had been pitching a different book, which was not as cool as The Beer Bible. They didn’t have much of an idea what they wanted it to look like, so beyond the name, I was the one to give it form.
It seems like a huge project. What was your process?
They gave me two years to write the book, so I divided it into two halves – the ale half and the lager half. First I went to Belgium, England, Scotland, and France. When I was in Belgium, many of the brewers suggested I go to Italy, so I put that on my agenda, too. The second time around, I went to Germany, the Czech Republic, and Italy. The truth is, it came down to what I could cut out. There was no way I could go to every place I wanted. That was easier in a place like England, where there are number of breweries that make very similar kinds of beer.
Had you been to Europe before?
You’d think that. My background is in Asian Studies. So I’ve been to Asia a lot, but I had never been to Europe.
You started your beer-writing career as a blogger. How did that come about?
I’ve always loved to write. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I didn’t know anything really. I didn’t know you could study religion. When I went to college, I was looking at meaning-of-life majors – English, psychology, religion. I got drawn in, and I thought for awhile I’d be a scholar in that. When I was in grad school, I discovered that being a scholar was not what I wanted to do. I tried to figure out how to make a living and write in the off time. The local weekly [in Portland] had a beer and wine column, and they were looking for a new person, and I managed to score that. I loved beer, and it seemed like a great topic, and I was in a perfect city for it. But it was not because I was so deeply into beer, I was more interested in the writing side.
Do you make beer yourself?
I have been home brewing for 20 years. I’m not a great brewer. There are many brewers who are artistic types, and they’re good because they have a creative streak. But all of them have a capacity for science. I’m not good at science, so I’m never consistent. About one out of every five batches is sublime, and one is usually a noble failure. Now I know a lot more about beer, so when I meet brewers, I respect them more because I know that it’s hard.
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What were some surprises during your research trips?
There was a ton of stuff. The Czech Republic really blew my mind. They have more kinds of beer than I expected, and they brew them differently than I expected. When we think of Pilsners, we think of German Pilsners. But one of the most interesting things I learned is that brewers are a weird mélange of scientists. They’re deeply reflective of their culture, and they’re also weirdly superstitious. Each country has fairly different approaches to beer. When they’re thinking in terms of, “This is the right way,” you could imagine a cage-fight between different brewers. They’re very declarative.
What is a brewing style that is distinctly American?
Americans tend to brew beer stronger. The one thing we do that’s very weird, and it’s unprecedented in the history of brewing, is that we are super focused on the taste and aroma of hops. The reasons people started to use hops is that it has an anti-microbial quality. The Hanseatic discovered that beer with hops would last longer than other beers. They could ship their beers all over Europe, and it would last longer. People didn’t like the flavor of hops, so it took people a while to overcome this flavor. Hops contributes bitterness, which isn’t a flavor so much as a sensation. But if you add hops later in the brewing process, you get these amazing, vivid flavors. Europeans never focused on hops. That has become a signature of America. It’s really unusual in the history of brewing.
You mention Four Peaks Brewery in your book. What do you think of the Arizona scene?
Four Peaks is great. Arizona has changed a lot since I was there last. I do have a Phoenix stop, and I’m excited to try [the local beer]. I’ll bet there have been between 25 and 100 breweries that opened in Arizona in the past year. That would be my guess, based on the trends. They’re just opening so fast. But there are 3,600 breweries in the country, and I haven’t tried them all.
Alworth will appear at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 26 at Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix. Attendance is free. For more information check the Changing Hands Bookstore website.
Editor's Note: This post has been changed from its original version.