(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This does not stop other people from delivering books for him to review even while he signs his own book at Christmas Markets. In order to continue to reduce the stack, he must review. Get some.)
The Handbook of Porters and Stouts is a good sign for the resurgence of local brewing across the world. If we’re to take it that the medium is the message, the fact that there is enough variety in brewing to support such a book is a positive signpost for the future.
Written by Josh Christie and Chad Polenz, the Handbook makes good use of a number of expert contributors including short essays from Stephen Beaumont, Martyn Cornell, Greg Clow and (perhaps in a sign of the times) a Buzzfeed style listicle from Joshua Bernstein about Extreme Beers. While there is a great deal of information about the history of Stout and Porter and the nuanced differences between the styles and various subsets of each style, that’s not what this book is really intended for.
It’s an attractively bound hardcover volume with bright, colourful illustrations on every page. It’s vibrant and entertaining to look at and makes good use of the variety of plumage that each brand displays. Let’s face it, the special edition Imperial Stouts do tend to have some pretty entertaining labels and stories to go with them.
The ideal audience for this book is the drinker who realized just last weekend that they like dark beer. This is shock and awe for someone who didn’t realize beer could do that. It reminds me of leafing through the ads at the back of All About Beer when I was 20 or so and thinking “wait, there’s all that stuff out there?”
The draw for the intermediate beer drinker is the fact that beer writers from across North America have been enlisted to provide a larger context than would have been possible otherwise. Josh Rubin, Julia Burke, Darren Packman, Campbell Gibson and Zach Fowle have all contributed to the book in order to give it the depth of a proper ornithological birdspotter’s reference.
This book will highlight beers worthy of your attention that you might have missed otherwise.
That said, there are a few issues with balance that are understandable in a work of this size and shape. Each of the contributors has a different style and each listing might differ in length from a single paragraph to two pages. Some might give cursory description of what might be considered a classic in a style while others might tell the story of the brewery. Does that give it novelty and vary the pace or does it simply seem uneven?
There is also, despite the recruitment of far flung experts, a tendency to focus on beers from New England and the Great Lakes region. Polenz is based in Albany, New York so it’s easy to see why the context on those entries is somewhat deeper. (I do not know that this is an actual criticism. Some of those beers look pretty good and I’m sure that if I were in charge of a book like this it would probably be Ontario heavy. We all gotta be from somewhere.)
The Handbook of Porters and Stouts would be a good gift for a novice or intermediate craft beer drinker this holiday season. It succeeds admirably at its Pavlovian primary objective: Getting you excited to drink some Stouts and Porters. It made me want a Narragansett.