The Roving Ambassador of Beer

A Review of
Microbrewed Adventures: A Lupulin-Filled Journey to The Heart and Flavor of the World's Great Craft Beers, by Charlie Papazian.

The phrase "this man needs no introduction" is normally a cliche, but not when referring to Charlie Papazian. Chances are, you've either homebrewed or know someone who has, so you're no stranger to his work.

Papazian's 2005 book,
Microbrewed Adventures, is a change of pace from his beloved homebrewing guides. Yes, it contains beer recipes, but the emphasis is on the adventures. They begins in his backyard, which happens to be the entire United States. He declares, "nowhere on the planet can you travel 100 miles and encounter so many different beers of such exquisite quality." Since beer is best drunk locally, Papazian hits the homebrew club, beer bar, and brewery circuit--and, of course, writes about it.

Papazian reminds us that not long ago, American beer sank to level of Velveeta and Wonder Bread (his analogy, not mine) and the nation's brewery count dwindled to 42, before a small band of entrepreneurs re-energized the industry. He maintains that these pioneers are the reason why microbrewed beer is more popular in some parts of the country than others. I see things a bit differently. The legal environment--such as prohibitionism in the South and the power of beer distributors in states like Illinois--plays a role as well. That, however, is my only quibble.

Papazian is as talented a raconteur as he is a brewer of beer. Early on, he tells the story of when the St. Louis chapter of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas invited him to speak. They also asked for a sample of his homebrew, and arranged for Anheuser-Busch to send a truck to his home to pick it up. That gave Papazian the chance to flabbergast a neighbor by telling him, "Anheuser-Busch needed some beer, so I'm helping them out."

The farther away from home Papazian ventured, the better his stories became. While vacationing in New Zealand, he stumbled upon a book on mead making by Robert Gayre, a retired British colonel. (For a travel writer, there's no such thing as a vacation.) The book inspired Papazian to track Gayre down and, later, arrange for the American Homebrewers Association to fly him to Colorado. The AHA reprinted Gayre's book, which inspired thousands of new mead makers to get acquainted with the 10,000-year-old beverage.

In Europe, Papazian came upon some lesser-known beer destinations. One of them was Gotland, an island off the coast of Sweden. It seemed that everyone there homebrewed; they smoked their malt over birchwood, lined the bottoms of brewing tanks with branches, and served the beer in wooden juniper mugs. Italy proved another surprise. Its brewing community melded the traditions of Europe and America, and added some special touches; one brewer attached headphones to his fermenting tanks to get the yeast in the mood.

Papazian has wandered even farther off the familiar ale trails. Invited by the government during less-chilly political times, he toured what remained of Cuba's brewing industry. There was still beer to be found, but sugar was the main ingredient and brewery managers had to forage for replacement parts. He also attended a brewers' conference in Africa, where he encountered sorghum beer, perhaps the oldest style known to man. The commercial variety--almost invariably named Chibuku--is brewed and shipped the same day, ferments in the package, and reaches its prime in four days. In a run-down beer shop in Zimbabwe, where customers drank out of shared plastic jugs, Papazian found out the hard way that putting one's thumbs in the beer was a no-no.

When traveling, it has been Papazian's custom to bring gifts of homebrew, and sure enough, he has stories to tell about that. On one trip to the Caribbean, his beer became "the keg without a country," barred from both Grenada and St. Vincent by overly zealous customs officers. He has lugged beer to the South Pacific, where he discovered that his host was a "cowboy-style" Fijian homebrewer, and even delivered a keg to a village in northern Thailand on the back of an elephant.

With understandable pride of place, Papazian calls the United States a "beer ark," a country where craft brewers have saved from extinction many of the traditional beer styles of Europe. The beer ark, in turn, draws from the world of Slow Food, traditions, and cultural treasures--which, to me, sounds suspiciously like Europe. So we've come full circle.

As an ambassador of brewing, Papazian has made friends all over the world. One of them is Prince Luitpold who, had he been born a century sooner, would have been the king of Bavaria. Some years ago, the prince arranged for Papazian's enthronement--literally--in an inner circle of brewers called BierConvent. The ceremony, held inside a cathedral, was conducted with the pomp and formality of a royal wedding. A fitting reward indeed.