Ambitious Brew Review
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Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer chronicles the rise of the drink of the masses, from humble origins in emigrant communities to the multi-billion dollar enterprise we know today. It reaches back to the waves of immigrants from Europe that came to America looking for a better life, to highlight how small breweries would change the puritan culture of the nation. Maureen Ogle claims to be the first person to ever write down the history of beer in this nation. The Busch family of St. Louis may dispute that, but this is probably the first history of beer in America written by a historian who’s not connected to a major brewery.

Before the 1830s, the drink of choice in America had been either rum or whiskey, with beer only a far distant third, due in part to the fragile nature of the brew. Beer in America was mostly a neighborhood venture. The men who arrived from Europe (mostly Germany) who knew how to brew beer would set up small distilleries and sell beer to taverns within a few miles of where the beer was brewed. Since refrigerated trucks and trains were still a few decades away, beer could stay fresh for a few days. It was the beer manufacturers who helped to develop ways to transport goods across the country without them spoiling.

The story of beer is full of intrigue. There were men who married the daughters of “big beer men” to increase their own fortune. At one point, Adolphus Busch had to take a rival brewer to court over the pirating of the Budweiser name and label. Miller beer started with a formula that was all but stolen from another brewery. The owners of breweries would bribe tavern owners into carrying their product exclusively. They formed the first political action committees to fight off the early prohibition movement. The recounting of how the major beer-makers survived during Prohibition should be a book unto itself. So could the story of a new generation of microbreweries.

It’s too bad that Ogle drifts off from these stories as often as she does. In several places, she commits what most historians view as a mortal sin. She allows her own politics to cloud the story she’s telling. Her clear disdain of large businesses and the power of wealth come out any time she discusses the relationship of the brewers and the law. She also spends too much time going into census data and quoting economic facts. There’s a great story here that’s bogged down by her trying too hard to make a point relevant to today’s societal landscape.

Overall, this is a good attempt to squeeze the history of beer into 340 pages or so. But be warned in advance: reading this book at your favorite tavern is going to spark hours of conversation with your fellow beer experts.

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