You might expect a lengthy philosophical discussion from a volume titled "Why Beer Matters," but this story is actually about many things: an e-book penned by an expat beer writer living in Prague, the handcrafted book it inspired, and the resurrection of a Polish beer style.
Whenever Evan Rail took time off from his French and German literature studies at UC Davis back in the '90s, he did it at Sudwerk Privatbrauerei, the popular Davis brewpub also frequented by Rail's friends in the university's Master Brewers Program. So it was only natural that the beer-loving Rail eventually landed in Prague, the capital of the world's biggest drinking country, in 2000. What began as a yearlong trip has stretched to 13, and now that he has married and started a family, it's likely he won't be moving home any time soon.
The citizens of the Czech Republic drink more beer per capita than any other nation in the world. Czech beer is all-grain, even the biggest breweries make great-tasting beer, and it's cheaper than water -- and, Rail says, the Czech people seem to take their wonderful beer for granted.
Working as a journalist for The Prague Post, the city's only English-language newspaper, Rail began writing stories about Czech beer and brewing culture. His occasional beer stories quickly proved to be his most popular, and he began focusing on beer throughout Europe. He wrote about travel and beer for The New York Times, and, in 2008, published the "Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic," the first guide to Czech beer and breweries in any language. Along the way he pondered the question of why beer matters.
The result was an old-fashioned essay in a newfangled format -- a Kindle edition available electronically -- titled "Why Beer Matters." In the essay, Rail explores the idea that "beer actually has a special relationship to the passing of time, and that beer is a more democratic beverage in the sense of it having very few high-profile validators. There's a good reason why there's no one like Robert Parker in the beer world."
In early 2012, "Why Beer Matters" came to the attention of beer lover David Johnston, who shared it with home-brewing friends. Johnston owns Sharp Teeth Press, an old-fashioned letterpress print shop that creates limited and first-edition books. Although the shop uses a computer-driven interface, it is focused on artisanal craftsmanship. It uses handmade bookbinding tools and more than 20 drawers of type to hand set each page.
When Johnston approached Rail about printing his essay, Rail knew exactly what was in store. His father, a poet, had owned his own letterpress. Rail loved the idea of taking a 21st-century digital-only work and producing its opposite in retro, limited-edition craftsman style.
Some 16 months later, Sharp Teeth had produced a limited edition 225-copy run of the 36-page book. The cover was made of hop sacks donated by Anchor Brewing, and the paper was handmade with help from the Shotwell Paper Mill in San Francisco's Mission District. Copies are $100 and can be purchased from Sharp Teeth. The Kindle version is $1.99 at Amazon.com.
But there's more to the story. Another friend Johnston shared the book with was home brewer Sam Gilbert, who co-founded San Francisco's BrewLab, a collective of home brewers. One of the threads in "Why Beer Matters" detailed an extinct type of beer last produced in Poland in 1993. Grodziskie (or GrÃ¤tzer in German) was a Polish smoked-wheat beer. It used 100 percent wheat malt that was smoked over oak during the kilning process and brewed with at least one -- possibly two -- yeast strains, one powdery and the other highly flocculating.
Gilbert and BrewLab partner Matt Smith have been working to source the authentic ingredients necessary to recreate the beer, and have brewed a dozen test batches. Once they're confident with the recipe, they'll be working with brewer Brenden Dobel at Thirsty Bear, the San Francisco brewpub, to brew a commercial batch of Grodziskie. They hope to have the beer ready by late summer, in time for an official launch party for "Why Beer Matters."