Book review: Liquid Bread

I do love a good academic paper. Something structured, peer-reviewed, clearly referenced, heaps of jumping-off points into tangential arguments. Most of those that I (struggle to) read with respect to beer involve hop chemistry; I'm fascinated by how that humble herbaceous plant plays a role in brewing that still isn't even close to being understood fully.

History, anthropology, sociology is more my bag. I don't get to see as much beer-based research papers in these areas - so many journals, so little budget - so when I was offered the chance to review a cross-disciplinary collection of perspectives on global beer, I jumped at it.

The International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition held a conference in 2001 which took a cross-cultural approach to examining beer, although it's taken another ten years for some of the papers presented to be compiled and published. The result - Liquid Bread - is a slimmish book that taps into a variety of academic disciplines to provide insight into some genuinely interesting subject areas.

Beginning with an attempt to answer the question as to why animals even bother to ingest ethanol, the short chapters move through a diverse topic list including German beer culture, fraternity binge drinking, sorghum beer in Burkina Faso and beer consumption in the Philippines.

Some of the chapters are truly excellent - Brewlab's Keith Thomas provides probably the best overview of the brewing process that I've read. I found the African insights particularly interesting, particularly those concerning Northern Cameroon and Burkina Faso. A few contributions don't gel quite as well - the piece on New Zealand's 'rugby, racing and beer' culture feels dated and the translations of some papers aren't exactly pulse-quickening. But there's plenty for an armchair academic to get their teeth into, take on board a basic concept concisely made and then go Google for more info.

Although I don't expect many of you to do so. The twenty chapters and 250-ish pages don't come cheap; Amazon list it at £55. Perhaps aimed more at a university bookshelf than an inquisitive reader, which is a real shame as there's something in there for most beer lovers to discover, learn from and shout at. Exampling the latter, in a chapter about the UK - "the two major categories of beer... are dark beer (ale) and 'lager'...". Or how about "... cask beers... i.e. beers which ferment in the usually wooden casks". Feeling groggy? Here's the suckerpunch: "Real ales are unique to the British Isles". Martyn Cornell, if you're reading this, breathe deeply. And in..And out. And in...

It's a combination of academia that works well, but at a hefty price for the layman. If the individual chapters were on sale as PDFs I imagine some of them would sell by the server-load. But at this price, I can't recommend it as a casual read.

Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective is edited by Wulf Schiefenhövel and Helen Macbeth. It's published by Berghahn Books; thanks to them for the review copy.


  1. With all due respect, it sounds absolutely rubbish.

  2. And you are the reason why I've dumped anonymous comments. No name? No respect whatsoever