If you’re anything like me, the mere thought of reading an entire book about the history of beer causes you to shudder with boredom. “Reading about beer? In a book? Like, words printed on a collection of dead trees bound together with glue? When do I get to start drinking?” Before Wikipedia and the phone that you’re reading this on right now was invented, books were humankind’s primary means of obtaining information. But let’s be honest, here: the majority of nonfiction books are sheer drudgery; hell, most don’t even have -- (gasp) -- pictures!
That is, unless you’re reading a graphic novel.
So when we found out about a fact-based graphic novel that reveals the real-life history of our drink of choice, we knew we had to learn more. Enter The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World’s Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today’s Craft Brewing Revolution. Could this be the one type of book that not only interests us, but actually makes us smarter? Beat that, best-selling author Harlan Coben!
To get the skinny on this relatively skinny (180 pages) book full of fantastically colorful pages, we spoke to one of its authors, Mike Smith. Smith is the Brewery Director at Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has been in the beer industry for almost 20 years. We excerpted a few of the most interesting pages from the book, and asked him to provide some director’s commentary-style info on them.
Beer Is Not a Modern Invention
“Beer is quite literally from the dawn of time. A [scientist] did a study on elephants, monkeys, and other animals that would go around and find overripe fruit that’s starting to ferment out, and get [buzzed] on it. I think it’d be silly to think that proto-humans didn’t do that.
“The shortcoming of science, archaeology, and the historical record is that we can only infer things from concrete artifacts -- we can only find archaeological evidence of alcoholic beverages in ceramic and clay pottery vessels. So if there’s residue of an alcoholic beverage in a terracotta from Mesopotamia, that already tells you that it’s a fairly technologically advanced civilization at that point. There’s alcoholic beverages associated with the earliest artifacts we found. It’s interesting that the earliest ones are found next to musical instruments. Alcoholic beverages are a cultural connector between artifacts.”
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
“‘‘Brewers make wort. But yeast makes beer.’ That’s a quote of mine! For many, many years, I’ve given countless breweries tours. Over the years, I’ve heard other people explain [the brewing process] and combined it with some analogies of my own. When we started to get the early sketches [for the book], Aaron [McConnell, the illustrator] translated it into visual metaphors. And my girlfriend said, ‘You’ve explained mashing to me 100 times and I never understood it, but now I’m looking at the picture and I get it.’
“Our enzymes are Lego-type construction workers breaking down the starch molecules and sugars. We have ‘yeast bots’ that eat the sugar and turn them into alcohol and CO2. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and when you have a good artist take my words and turn them into pictures? This makes all the sense in the world.”
Beer and the Beginnings of America
“Beer was considered a drink of moderation back then. I’ve read articles and books about how people were [inebriated] all the time. But you didn’t have water to drink, and it was often dangerous to do so. [People back then] didn’t know why, but they empirically knew that if you’re drinking something alcoholic, you didn’t get sick like you did with water. To make beer, you have to boil the liquid, which ends up sterilizing the wort.”
“Back in Colonial times, there weren’t a lot of places for socialization besides public houses -- that was their radio, TV, and internet of the time. It’s where you went to get information. People had face-to-face social interaction all the time. And wherever people congregate, there’s usually alcohol!”
Understanding the Brewing Process In One Easy to Digest Image
“I outlined the process for him, but this is Aaron's work. One thing a lot of these sorts of diagrams leave out is the fact that by the time the grain gets to the brewery, there’s a lot that’s already been done to it. Brewing as an extension of the agricultural process. It starts in the field, and it ends in the bar. And it’s all part of the same process.”
All excerpts reprinted with permission from The Comic Book Story of Beer, by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith, copyright © 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Aaron McConnell