(Full Disclosure: I both know and like Pete Brown, having first met him several years ago at a beer festival in North Carolina, and in fact, I fully expect to be sharing pints with him in London in about a month’s time. That said, like all honest writers, I am fiercely jealous of my friend’s success, and would gladly rip his efforts several times over were the action defensible.
Sadly, it is not.)
At the risk of outraging the beer aficionado community at large, by the time I was halfway through Hops and Glory, I was wishing that it weren’t being marketed as “one man’s search for the beer that build the British Empire.” Because the fact that this is apparently, blatantly, a book about beer will no doubt have some people judging it “just a beer book” and therefore dismissing it out of hand.
Which would be a damn shame, because while beer most definitely plays a pivotal role in Pete’s exploits, Hops and Glory is anything but “just a beer book.” It is an enlightening history book; it is a personal journey; it is roller coaster ride of emotions; it is a tableau of characters; it is a collection of arcane information and trivia; it is a polemic on the Empire; it is a comedy; and at times, it is a minor tragedy. Oh yes, and it also involves beer.
To put it as briefly as possible, Hops and Glory is the chronicle of Pete’s attempt to, as he puts it on page 21, “recreate the journey of India Pale Ale,” taking a cask from Burton-on-Trent through the canals to London, across the Atlantic to Brazil, around the southern tip of Africa and up to Calcutta, now Kolkata, India. It’s a voyage that takes him three months and 414 hugely entertaining pages, not counting the Epilogue, Appendix and Acknowledgments, the first two of these apparently added because Brown simply can’t shut up sometimes. (In email conversation with Pete during the time he was writing the book, I frequently heard about his efforts to trim back its size. The mind boggles to think of how long it might have been had Macmillan given him free rein.)
Along the way, the reader not only learns about the history of IPA – the real history, as opposed to the version I and others have been repeating as fact for years – but also about the (not so) Honourable East India Company, the rise and eventual fall of the British Empire, the ways of the world at sea, the ins and outs of cargo ship cruising, the bureaucracies of several nations and an occasionally unsettling amount about Pete Brown himself. There’s also an impressive smattering of sometimes useless and almost always fascinating information, from the fact that the Portuguese introduced hot peppers to India via Brazil to the revelation that Freddie Mercury was Parsi Indian.
While I did enjoy Pete’s first two books, A Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind, it is definitely in Hops and Glory that the author has found his voice. He is, despite all protestations to the contrary, no longer a beer writer. He is now a writer, plain and simple, and a pretty damn talented one, at that. Buy this book and you’ll see what I mean.