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Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer [Kindle Edition]

Maureen Ogle
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In the first-ever history of American beer, Maureen Ogle tells its epic story, from the immigrants who invented it to the upstart microbrewers who revived it.
Beer might seem as American as baseball, but that has not always been true: Rum and whiskey were the drinks of choice in the 1840s, with only a few breweries making heavy, yeasty English ale. When a wave of German immigrants arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, they promptly set about re-creating the pleasures of the biergartens they had left behind.

 Just fifty years later, the American-style lager beer they invented was the nation’s most popular beverage—and brewing was the nation’s fifth-largest industry, ruled over by fabulously wealthy titans Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. But when anti-German sentiments aroused by World War I fed the flames of the temperance movement (one activist even declared that “the worst of all our German enemies are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller”), Prohibition was the result. In the wake of its repeal, brewers replaced flavor with innovations like marketing and lite beer, setting the stage for a generation of microbrewers whose ambitions reshaped the drink.

 Grab a glass and settle in for the surprising story behind your favorite pint.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Conventional wisdom has it that giant breweries, driven by corporate greed, have flooded the U.S. with inferior-tasting swill, and the only beer worth drinking is from scattered boutique microbrewers. Nonsense, says Ogle: companies like Miller and Anheuser-Busch are actually near-perfect embodiments of the American dream (in which "liberty nurtured ambition, and ambition fostered success")—and if their beers became noticeably blander 50 years ago, it's because consumers wanted it that way. Ogle (All the Modern Conveniences) looks back at the early years of brewers like Phillip Best, Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch as they rose to success making European-style beers for fellow immigrants, converting plenty of native palates along the way. Such men, she claims, should be heralded as captains of industry like Gilded Age icon J.P. Morgan. This material is strong, as is Ogle's analysis of the slow but steady rise of the Prohibition movement, but her narrative loses momentum as she tries to encompass the post–WWII era and add the most successful microbrewers to her list of heroes. Her exuberant musings on the American spirit become distracting, but there's more than enough drama in the family sagas to keep even the soberest of readers turning the pages. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


PRAISE FOR AMBITIOUS BREW "A fascinating and well-documented social history that sheds fresh light on the bubbly sociable beverage."--Chicago Tribune  "From lager-making German immigrants to today's microbrew-meisters, a sudsy, briskly told survey of American beer. B+."--Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Once I had penetrated the first three chapters of this book, I found it a fascinating and quick read. However, those first three chapters took about two weeks, despite a persistent interest in beer and brewing. I covered the remaining five chapters in two days.

The first several chapters (and 40 or so years of chronology) cover the beginnings of American brewing by explaining the origins of the Best brewery (which would become Pabst), the Uihlein's (Schlitz), and Adolphus Busch. These chapters passed slowly, and didn't entertain the way that popular history can (like Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World or Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, Stephen Ambrose, etc).

However, I was extremely engaged by everything that followed. I thought the explanation of the causes and context of Prohibition was excellent. The narrative of changes in brewing in post-World War II America (consolidation, the dawn of modern marketing) was also very interesting, and did a nice job integrating societal and business changes into that story. I erroneously thought I'd experienced first-hand the rise of craft beer in America, but Maureen did a very nice job educating me on the true origins of this trend.

I was bogged down by the beginning of this book, but thrilled with the middle and end of it. This book would be a great resource for beer connoisseurs looking for an understanding of why American brewing is what it is, and as a cautionary tale for brewing executives.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This is a great book if you're looking to learn something about the history of American lager brewing, and in particular about the giants (and now-deceased giants) of the industry. It covers quite a bit of ground I have never seen covered in any other book on the subject.

The author does have some biases which I think do color the book a bit. She has a contrarian tilt which seems to lead her to the view that big "industrial beer" from the giant lager-brewers is a better product than it really is. She does not seem to be as familiar as might be hoped with brewing itself, and consequently does not appreciate the extent to which the American brewing industry compromised product quality by relying on highly tannic, six-row malts and the notoriously bad-smelling Cluster hop, for example. And her interest in American brewing does not extend to ale (apart from the ales of the microbrew era); she seems to accept all too readily the notion that American ale-brewing in the pre-lager era was a cesspool of bad beer.

The upshot is that the book is perhaps a bit too favorable to the point of view of the great national brewers, and to their insipid style of high-adjunct, low-hop lager. But the early history of the large brewers is fascinating, and she shows genuine interest in the microbrew movement and its impact upon American tastes. A very, very enjoyable book.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By S. Koue
I may change it to four stars, I feel it's around three and a half.
The book reads pretty well and complaints about confusion over the complicated relationships I think are not that valid. It is complicated and lots of extended family and lots of name changes but that is sort of the nature of the beast.

I had a couple of problems with the book. The first is a adoration of american style light lager as the pinnacle of "beer". She made some interesting points and I can see how that style took off. And I now give the guys much more credit for making a very good beer in that style. And in truth they virtually invented that style of beer so they get some points. However that is only one style of beer. There are MANY other styles of beer and they can be very good. What comes out is that the giants were actually good beer makers. They chose a style that many "beer people" find bland and uninteresting" but that does not mean that it is not well made.
The author unfortunately keeps implying and in some cases saying that everything but american light lager is swill and "bad beer", and that is simply not the case.

But then she admits that here sole knowledge about beer was drinking 10 cent glasses in college. If her self education had gone a bit deeper she may have written a more balanced look at american beer.

Another issue is that she has some factual errors. There is a point where she says that beer needs to be pasteurized or have preservatives added to make it safe to drink. This is completely wrong. There is no known human pathogen that is viable in beer. You can't get food poisoning from beer. A toss away part of that section mentions that these unscrupulous beer sellers were using filthy bottles. Filthy junk in bottles might make you sick.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Gatch
I'd first like to note that the edition I'm reviewing is the hardcover version from 2006.

I'll keep it simple. This is an extremely well-written, well-researched, and well-sourced book on a history of many things. This book goes much deeper than just the history of beer in America, which is a much more intriguing subject than it sounds. This is a history of the human spirit, assimilation, Prohibition, entrepreneurship, and several other products of beers' influence on American culture. The author, Maureen Ogle, writes in a manner that is understandable and at times humorous. She also remains unbiased, making a case for "Big Beer" (A-B and the few other gigantic beer makers) and its place in history as well as craft beer and microbreweries writing the pages of history as you read this. I will recommend this book to all my friends and family and hope you take the time to read this great book on the history of beer in America.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Very interesting read. If you're a beer drinker or just a history buff, I recommend this book
Published 5 days ago by Tyson Dillow
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting History
A thorough look at how the brewers started in the U.S. Shows how one person can build an empire but lose it when the industry changes.
Published 2 months ago by mark carson
4.0 out of 5 stars The History of "Big Beer"
While craft beer is all the rage, it is important to remember that for many reasons, much of America was raised on "Big Beer." And, that is an interesting story as well. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mac
4.0 out of 5 stars good book on business/history of beer industry
nice historical book on industry, was informative
easy read..i thought is was a great overview of the beer business large and small
and how it transition thru its various... Read more
Published 4 months ago by pfred
3.0 out of 5 stars Very historical and informative.
I did enjoy this book, especially the beginning with the Germanic Beer Barons histories. The chapters are long and things did get redundant. All in all, worth a read.
Published 4 months ago by Chris Belcher
5.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious Brew
If I can enjoy a book about cattle and pigs, which I did (In Meat We Trust) I know I can down a book about beer! I was hooked halfway thru the first chapter where Ms. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Gordon Moog
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun Read
decent history book. interesting how beer reflects society moods. It shows, once again, how big business only cares about profit. Employees always take a back seat. Read more
Published 7 months ago by short pants brewing
4.0 out of 5 stars surprisingly comprehensive
Indignant that Professor Ogle does not devote 100 pages each to Michael Jackson, Ken Grossman and Jack Joyce, beer hippies have been bashing this ever since it came out in 2007,... Read more
Published 7 months ago by proud paleoconservative
4.0 out of 5 stars Beer Hounds Rejoice.
A detailed (overly so, at times) dive into the gory underbelly of the beverage we all love. I enjoyed it cover to cover.
Published 15 months ago by K. McQuarters
Published 18 months ago by leo connerty
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More About the Author

I'm a historian and ranter living three-dimensionally in Iowa and digitally at

My mission, which, yes, I've decided to accept, is to convert history haters into history lovers. Because let's face it: just about everyone leaves high school hating history. And that's too bad, because history is the story of the human experience --- and what's not to love about humanity?

For more information (because you DO want to know more, right?) visit And thanks for making reading part of your life.

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