A Fresh Eye On Beer

Travels With Barley

Ken Wells

Wall Street Journal Books, 2004



(A slightly different version of this review appears in the Dec/Jan 2004/5 issue of Ale Street News.)

This is a book that had to be written. Michael Jackson couldn’t write it; he’s been too close to the action for too long to write with this fresh air of discovery. Stephen Beaumont couldn’t write it; he’s too steeped in the details to present this very big picture. God knows I couldn’t write it; I mean, I just didn’t have the time.

Okay, I probably couldn’t have done as good a job as Ken Wells, the senior editor of Page One of the Wall Street Journal, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist. Truly, I’m just happy the book got written and is out there, and everyone should go out and buy a copy for their unenlightened beer brethren.

Period. End of review.

Now, if you want to know why it’s so important that this book be written, and why you should run out and buy a case for Christmas presents, read on. Better yet, get yourself a beer and read on.

Travels with Barley – the name is a spin on Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley – is Wells’s journey down the Mississippi in search of the Perfect Beer Joint. At least, that’s how it started out, and that would have no doubt been a fine book. But Wells had an open mind and a sharp eye, and quickly found that there was more to beer joints than just Big Three drafts and chicken wings. That’s when the diversions started, and before long his journey down the River of Beer began to look a lot more like a Beer Geek’s Progress.

Wells is actually quite hip to beer, having been indoctrinated through a full immersion course with no less than Sam Calagione, but it seems quite natural that he first discovers German lagers, the components of beer, brewpubs, beer history, extreme beer, homebrewing and Fred Eckhardt, Portland, Oregon, and the famous Mary’s, the strip club with 30+ taps…in fact, Wells rather neatly compresses a lot of the beer geek experience into the book.

He has a lot of fun along the way with the things he learns and the people he meets. He looks for Elvis in Memphis, raising the eternal question: What Would Elvis Drink? The huge, rambling, insanely busy Flora-Bama in Perdido Key, Florida and its annual Mullet Toss gives you a look at the crazy side of beer. Wells walks into bars all along the river, gets handed from one beer enthusiast to another, and meets an unfunny cartoonist, a yeast rustler, a Grand Wazoo, a whole lot of bartenders, and more than a couple drunken people.

The quest for the Perfect Beer Joint never quite gets forgotten, thankfully, and Wells drank plenty of expense account drafts of Bud and Miller Lite while hitting bars all along the Father of Waters. Some bars were holes in the wall, some were sprawling enterprises, and he even devotes a chapter to Hooters – what he calls the "Beer Goddess Phenomenon." (Sorry, Jack, no mention of Ale Street News.) He takes a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis and plays it absolutely straight (which is not difficult: the tour is impressive).

The importance and strength of the book stems directly from this mix of mainstream and geek-stream. Wells writes about beer and does it well, without any of the errors common to mainstream press coverage of beer and brewing. He covers the full scope of beer in America: big brewers, craft brewers, and homebrewers. The key point for those of us who love variety in beer is that while treating Big Beer with respect, he clearly comes down as One of Us, fascinated by the panorama of beer. This is the kind of responsible, believable book craft beer needs as an introduction to the mainstream drinking public.

And it is that respect that makes this the perfect gift for your Bud Light-loving brother-in-law. Get Travels with Barley for him this Christmas (assuming he can read), and wait for Wells’s subversive message to get through: all beer is good, but some of it is a whole lot more interesting than others. It’s a compelling and broadly applicable concept: most beer books are good, but some of them are a whole lot more interesting than others.


Copyright © 2004 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: December 23, 2004