Garrett Oliver (with photographs by Denton Tillman),
The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food
(HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)

Garrett Oliver is the Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery. His hefty tome is part brewing history, part culinary advice column, part travelogue and all useful information for anyone with an interest in (a) eating, (b) drinking, or (c) both. In other words, anyone whose health does not require absolute abstinence from alcohol in any form.

I greatly enjoyed the introduction with its overview of beer; what beer is, the basics of brewing, a view of beer and brewing through the ages and the setting forth of Oliver's basic premise, namely that for any meal one can find appropriate beer(s) to accompany the food. I also particularly enjoyed a number of chapters in the second section dealing with specific brewing traditions (e.g., Lambic, Wheat, British). The book is well written, informative and engaging. My one negative comment is that The Brewmaster's Table is at times a tad too earnest and dry for its own good.

The Brewmaster's Table is a shot across the bow of the firmly established notion that you need to select the right wine (and only wine) to dine fine. As Oliver points out, "...wine enthusiasts preface their selections with talk of 'tricky ingredients'. These tricksters include eggs, cheeses, smoked meats, smoked fish, tomatoes, ginger, curry, chocolate, avocados, garlic, vinaigrette dressings, spinach, artichokes, asparagus, cumin, and dozens of other tasty things." Finding a wine to compliment, say, a good chili (con carne or vegan, your choice) would be hopeless. A quick trip to the easy reference chart at the back of The Brewmaster's Table points you toward such beer choices as American pale ale, brown ale and IPA (India pale ale), Irish stout and smoked beers.

An asthmatic, I have a very personal interest in this book. Wines can set off major breathing "incidents" for me, due to their sulfites. Some wines do, others don't, but the cost/benefit ratio for discovering which are safe to drink never made much sense to me. Especially when you can easily spend twenty dollars on an "everyday" bottle of wine and hundreds to impress others with your expertise. The Brewmaster's Table offers both a conceptual framework for having beer accompany fine dining and the linguistic flourishes to enable one to compete toe to toe with dedicated oenophiles. Here, for example, is how Oliver describes the beer produced by the Trappist monks of Abbey Notre-Dame d'Orval in his section on Belgian beers:

"The aromatics are wonderfully complex, an herbal blend of hops, sage, hay, flowers, damp earth, and saddle leather. On the palate the beer is stunningly dry, with an appetizing knifelike bitterness opening onto a fruity herbal center. Hops bring up the rear, and the finish is clean and snappy."
Take that, you wine snobs with your talk of "bouquets filled with charming insouciance."

The Brewmaster's Table now occupies a convenient, easily reachable, spot among my cookbooks. With a wealth of craft brewers and brew pubs here in Maine, I thought myself something of a beer connoisseur, but Garrett Oliver has illuminated the wealth of brew making styles and traditions beyond the fundamentally British ales that predominate here (it is, after all, New England). The Brewmaster's Table challenged and inspired me to experiment more and get out of my rut. In fact, just last week I opened a bottle of Portland's own Allagash White, a Belgian style ale with a citrus tang and brisk dry palate, that nicely complimented a zesty sauteed chicken breast, new potatoes with basil and fresh steamed green beans. It probably won't supplant Fanny Farmer as the most often consulted culinary text I own, but The Brewmaster's Table won't gather much dust on the shelf. Hmmm, Geary's Autumn Ale just hit the shelves, I wonder if it would be the right beer to accompany the Thanksgiving turkey?

[Christopher White]