Will Work for Beer

Last weekend, I went on a trip down the River of Beer. It only took an afternoon, and cost me just $7.99, the price of a six-pack of New Holland Mad Hatter IPA. That's because the tour was virtual: the River of Beer is a figment of Ken Wells's imagination. It's a metaphor for America's beer culture, which he explores in Travels With Barley.

Wells, a long-time journalist at The Wall Street Journal, previously edited two compilations of light-hearted features from that paper. But don't let that give you the impression he's a lightweight. Wells is a solid journalist who writes in the trademark Journal style. He can explain abstract and technical things--and brewing has plenty of both--in plain English. In fact, his summary of the brewing process is one of the best I've seen.

The author knows his facts and figures about the brewing industry. Here are just a few: Its economic impact is on the order of $150 billion a year, about the gross domestic product of a middle-sized country. Before Prohibition, breweries controlled about 85 percent of the nation's taverns--an abusive practice that led to Prohibition, and the three-tier system afterward. The average profit margin on a pint you buy at a bar is 82 percent. Anheuser-Busch spent $413 million on advertising in 2002 alone. And 1872 was the peak year for breweries, with 4,131 in operation.

He can tell a good story, too. Travels With Barley is centered around on his road trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Delta. Had he asked me, I might have sent him on another route, say U.S. 101 from Seattle to the Bay Area. But Wells had other ideas. At Houma, Louisiana, the end of his journey, he and his brothers toasted their father's memory at his favorite fishing hole. With cans of his beloved Pabst.

A veteran of reporting from the "Mahogany Ridge," Wells loves a good bar. Which explains why the main purpose of his trip was finding the Perfect Beer Joint. Problem was, once he got out of the Midwest, bars of any description became hard to come by. He solved that dilemma by making frequent detours into the world of brewing.

Wells found his way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to learn about the Extreme Beer Movement--and one of its practitioners, Sam Calagione, who also performed as rap star "Funkmaster IBU." In southern California, he came face to face with a "yeast rustler. She--yes, she--turned out to be a middle-aged Ph.D. with the mind of a detective and a love of brewing. He attended a distributors' convention, where he found an entrepreneur looking for backers for a beer television network. Wells also hung out with the press at the Oregon Brewers Festival, toured an Anheuser-Busch hop farm in Idaho, and stopped by a Hooters in Mississippi to check out the latest variation on a centuries-old tradition: using women to hawk beer.

Wells's most amusing adventures took place in Houston, where he covered a homebrewing competition. His host was the stereotypical homebrewer, male, mechanically inclined with a day job in technology, and astounded that a guy who loved beer didn't brew his own. Homebrewers, he observed, were "more missionary than Mormons," a description likely to offend both groups. Wells also judged the early rounds--in the presence of Fred Eckhardt, no less--and somehow managed to keep pace with the pros.

Long before Wells reached Houma, he figured out the difference between a Beer Person and a Beer Geek, and that the latter term was one of respect. He also confirmed that American drinking habits had changed since he lived on 99-cent six-packs of Buckhorn. Even in a "workingman's bar" in the Mississippi Delta, the number-one seller was Bud Light. Still, he found one thing that had remained the same. Barroom hospitality is alive and well if you know where to look.

You might be wondering if Wells found the Perfect Beer Joint. He came close. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, he stumbled onto "The Casino," which looked a dive from the outside but turned out to be "'Cheers' with an edge." Its owner worked as a taster for a local brewery and spent his vacations hitting the road and tasting even more of it. In retirement, he shared his love of beer; his menu featured more than 300 beers, including hard-to-find Belgians. And the clientele? Put it this way. Soon after Wells dropped in, a lesbian couple arrived to celebrate their marriage.

Wells even offers some friendly advice to those of us who write about beer: "Take your notes early in the evening." Amen to that.