17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2006
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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2008
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2011
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2010
Ambitious Brew The Story Of American Beer is a social history tracing the roots of American beer back to the German American immigrants and their American Dream. As German immigrants poured into America, they brought with them their craft of making beer. From time immeasurable, beer was a focal point of the German cultural life. For German American immigrants, beer making was not only a business trade but also a deeply steeped cultural tradition.
Ambitious Brew chronicles the history of American beer beginning with the first German American immigrants. Phillip Best was one of the earliest German immigrants to construct a brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The book highlights iconic beer moguls and their immigrant stories with well documented facts and historic photographs. Histories include: Best, Pabst, Anheuser, Busch, Budweiser, Schlitz, Schandein and Uihleins, to name a few. It was during the early 1840's that most of the German immigrant beer makers came to America. These Germans were part of the Second Great Wave of European Immigration, which took place between the years of 1865- 1890. German immigrants came to America for many reasons. "The Bests had emigrated from a village called Mettenheim, where a Marley-like chain of war and poverty, taxes and regulations, shackled their ambitions."(5) "In America one knows nothing about taxes. Here one does not need to worry about beggars as we do in Germany. Here a man works for himself. Here the one is equal to the other. Here no one takes off his hat to another. We no longer long for Germany." "Everyday," he added, "we thank the dear God that he has brought us...out of slavery into Paradise,"(9)
With an entrepreneurial can do spirit, these German beer makers first established their businesses amongst a market of fellow German immigrants. "Germans for the most part who had set up shop in order to supply beer to the other immigrants. But both the tavern owners' and the brewers' market was driven by their clientele: In the first ten years of German-American brewing, lager was consumed almost exclusively by German-speaking immigrants."(16) American Beer making by German immigrants was also an adaption method, a way for the Germans to preserve part of their heritage by continuing their traditional craft. "Brewing and beer had been part of Germanic culture for centuries. Ancient northern sagas, among them Kalevala and Edda, memorialized fermented beverages as gifts from the gods and as the source of poetry. For centuries, Germanic tribes prized ale as food, and as the centerpiece of the drinking fests that preceded and followed warfare. By the fourteenth century, beer-- fermented barley cooked with hops as a preservative--had become central to German culture. To drink with friends was to celebrate life and its bounty. People affirmed wedding vows, settled arguments, and sealed contracts with glasses of beer, which served in those cases as a sacramental offering to the event."(17)
The author presents the German immigrants historic relationship to beer making from both a cultural and business perspective. The combination of immigration history and famous American brewery stories makes this book very entertaining. The inclusion of more recent American Beer success stories gives the book a contemporary usefulness offering a nod to the future brewers every where.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2008
Ambitious Brew takes you on a journey through America, often peering with a European's eye at the wealth of opportunity in an unfolding land. Maureen Ogle's tale gives little attention to the colonists, but begins with German immigrant Phillip Best in the mid-1840's. Throughout this complex story, she is like Cezanne, creating the picture with pieces of paint until the canvas takes form and presents the picture as a whole.
Ogle not only tells of the development of beer, but also connects this development with key pivotal points in history - points that had served to initiate new patterns within American society. The story swings back to the seventeenth century, when rum from the West Indian and Caribbean plantations seized the market; then surges forward again, to the early nineteenth century, when "...fourteen thousand distillers were producing some twenty-five million gallons [of whiskey] each year..."
Her findings portray such giants as Adolphus Busch, August Uihlein, and Frederick Pabst as men who fell into brewing by accident, and not by design. Rivalries for market share between the largest brewers were a constant, dampened only by occasional waves of temperance talk...indirect prejudices aimed at specific groups - saloon owners, corporate magnates (seen as sleazy crooks by the general public), German immigrants (targeted as a result of anti-German sentiment following WWI), liberated, loose women, and those who professed atheistic beliefs.
Ogle closely analyzes the events that lead up to Prohibition, but passes quickly through the dark days like Alice through the Looking Glass. She compresses the years following WWII, portraying the post-war beer world as a conglomerate of marketers and accountants, vying for the bottom line.
The tale regains its initial drama at the launch of the microbrew movement, ignited by a preference for pure, locally-produced products, championed by people such as Mike Royko, Gordon Bowker, and E. F. Schumacher. Stories of guts and ambition come alive - tales of Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, John Siebel, Jim Koch, and the debut of light beer. She applauds Michael Jackson for his book The World Guide to Beer, a work that empowered a generation of brewers to see themselves as the large, complex community that they had become.
AMBITIOUS BREW is a stimulating epic, filled with stories of fascination, competition for market share, and steady, unflinching focus by people who never saw themselves as particularly special.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2007
Mauren Ogle has shown herself to be a historian of the first order with he latest book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. She has written a thorough history with enough detail to keep both the student of history and the beer geek happy. The book is as much about the American Dream as about beer.
The book held my attention from start to finish and left me wanting more. The long battle for supremacy between Pabst and Anheuser-Busch was fascinating. Ms. Ogle showed that the brewers of the time were forced to continually brew lighter and lighter beers because, contrary to the claims of the microbrewing enthusiasts, that's what most of America wants. She also showed that he tend toward the bland didn't stop with beer, and that only in the last 20 years has there been a backlash, in beer, coffee and food in general. My only criticism would be that the last chapter on the microbrewery revolution left me wanting more. It seemed almost as if she wanted to say more, but was running out of space to say what she wanted.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2012
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.
Also alcohol IS a preservative, as are hops. The reason for pasteurization in beer has nothing to do with making it safe it has to do with killing the yeast and other microbes so it will have a long shelf life. If you don't the beer will go "sour" over time. This is not dangerous it is in fact done intentionally in "sour beers". Another beer style not mentioned in the book.
And my last big issue is that the focus is almost solely on the beer barons. It's fascinating and I enjoyed finding out more about that aspect of american beer history but it is ONLY one part of the history of american beer.
The book is titled "The Story of American Beer" and that is really not correct at all. It is mostly a story of the rise and tribulations of the american beer giants. Ironically none of these companies are american owned anymore. The largest "american" brewer is the Boston Brewing Company, founded by a man who was not even born when the moguls were at their hight.
Worth reading if you keep the limitations in mind.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2009
This is a very good book about the history of American brewing post-1850. If you're looking for a book that looks at brewing in colonial or early American history, this isn't going to help you. It's basically about the roots of the current American brewing industry and how it got its start with German immigrants. A lot of detail is spent on why pilsner was so popular, why American tastes changed for blander beer, and how microbrewing has changed the industry. The author's research shows that the industry was less to blame for light, pale, bland beer, and was instead a response to changing tastes of the American public. There's quite a bit of information about the interesting characters who ran the big breweries and the rise and fall of various brewing companies.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2014
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.
on May 4, 2010
A very interesting read, and one that constantly made me thirsty. I found myself getting both angry and excited as I read this book. While the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Miller devised evil ways to beat down the small brewers, it was stories of Jim Koch starting Boston Beer Co, Yuengling surviving prohibition and the great depression, and Michael Lewis inspiring homebrewing that made this book hard to put down. I wasn't surprised that the big beers became corporate conglomerate (jerks) as they aged, but was happy to see that there were times they didn't play cut-throat (ie, battling prohibition).
I think the book could have included some detail regarding beers in America before 1830, such as beers imported from England that we not made in the US. This could have shed a little more light on the argument about who really brewed beer in the US first - the Germans or the British.
Craft beers are evolving at a fast pace nationwide. I'd be interested to see how this book might be different in 10 or 15 years. Ogle did a good job with highlighting this revolution in the last 2 chapters of the book, which left me smiling.