Reach for a liter...get a pint

Marty Nachel's PalmBrew Guide

Marty Nachel 

ChoiceWay Media, 2003

$19.95

When I was first learning about how much beer was out there, the variety, the wonder, I drove for hours to find new bars in hopes of finding new beers. As the new small specialty breweries began to burgeon, I sought them out, keeping notes and addresses in a series of dog-eared notebooks. After I got my first computer (a Zeos, remember them?) I carefully typed all that information into a flat-file database, and would print it all out in excruciatingly small type so I could keep a copy in the car. I wanted that information with me.

Yet when the Palm Pilot and its relatives appeared, it never occurred to me that here was the solution to my big-computer-ease-of-use, little-notebook-hard-to-search problem. The Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) has it all -- plenty of memory, data entry through the computer keyboard, shirt-pocket portability, and the all-important high geek factor. But I missed it for years.

Now, of course, you know I've twigged to it and put the fruits of my beer-hunting labors in Pennsylvania and New York in my PDA...and yours. I'm pretty pleased with the results, though it could look better and be a bit easier to use...I'm working on that. 

But just before I completed my Palm database, I saw Marty Nachel's PalmBrew Guide on the Internet (www.palmbrew.com). To be honest, I've never been a huge fan of Marty's blunt and chunky writing style. But he's a solid researcher: when he does a piece, you know you've got the information, and usually a bit more besides. In a PDA database, that's exactly what you're looking for, so it sounded good. I contacted the company doing the guide, ChoiceWay, and arranged to get a review copy.

PalmBrew looks great. An opening screen establishes a bottle-cap motif, with different caps being links to Trivia, Styles, Glossary, Food, Basics, FAQ, and the Directory itself. A quick check of these links shows a fair amount of text and information in some of them, some disappointments in others, and a telling confusion about the product's intended audience. Trivia and the FAQ are largely the same stuff you'll find elsewhere: the Great Porter Disaster of 1814, a couple beer-linked saints, and "What's the difference between ale and lager?" The Glossary and Styles links are fact-filled, but highly homebrewer-oriented, way over the head of people who might find new stuff in Trivia. Food is both interesting and cryptic, laying out terse guides to beers that might be good at various times and courses of a meal, but with no explanation of why those beer choices work. 

Okay, but that's all trimmings and sides. What about the meat, the Directory? Again, a mix. There's a huge list of breweries here. That's exactly what I'd expect; the trick is sorting and finding. That's one place PalmBrew stumbles a bit. You've got three choices: Pick Major City, Pick State, and Name Search. The State list works, but I've got bones to pick with this "Major City" thing. Call me a PA chauvinist, but why are Milwaukee, Raleigh, Phoenix, and St. Louis considered "major cities" while Philadelphia isn't? Last time I looked it was the fifth-largest American city. Baltimore? Hey, Richmond may not be that major, but it's got more breweries than Raleigh or Phoenix; actually, until Main Street closed, it had more breweries than Raleigh or Phoenix put together. Even if the list is major travel cities, places like Philly, Buffalo, Madison, Baltimore, Minneapolis/St. Paul, or Kansas City should be on there. 

That's irritating, but the real problems are in the data itself. I was a librarian before I took up writing about beer. I've worked with data a lot, and one thing that's extremely important in database construction is consistency. What you don't want to see are things like some entries called "Rock Bottom" and others called "Rock Bottom Brewery;" or some "BJ's" and some "B J's." These may look like niggling details, but they'll screw up your search. 

Then there's the bane of all indices: currency. If you're going to put out a book that lists breweries, you have to resign yourself to the fact that it's going to be out of date before it sees print. If you're going to put out a downloadable digital index of breweries, you have to resign yourself to constantly updating it.  Anything less is pointless. I've made updates to my database already...in the first week (they'll be available for download shortly). That's why I was disappointed to see six out-of-date entries in the first 20 listings in Pennsylvania, five in the first 25 listings in New York, one out of seven Delaware listings...and most of these out-of-date entries were ones that were at least six months old, some over a year. If you're looking for an update to your PalmBrew to correct these...don't hold your breath. The product came out in August 2003 and there have been no updates issued yet.

There are also some simple errors. For instance, a brewery named "Alternative" is listed in Pennsylvania at the address of Pittsburgh Brewing. Barker Brew Co. in Fredonia, NY, is listed with the name "Black Widow Brewing Co." The Rock Bottom in King of Prussia, PA is still listed as "Brew Moon," a chain that was bought and converted by Rock Bottom over a year ago. Errors like these in the states I'm most familiar with make me wonder what the rest of the country's like. When websites like www.beerme.com and www.pubcrawler.com and my own PA and NY update pages are available to make quick confirmation available, there is not much excuse for errors like these. The wrong data I know about makes me less comfortable with the ones I'm not sure about. 

And then there's the skeletal nature of the directory. Sure, it's a directory, but I'd be much happier without the Trivia, Styles, Glossary, Food, Basics, and FAQ if only I could get some kind of information on the brewery. Is it hard to find? What's the parking like? Did you like the place?

PalmBrew aims high, at least in concept. A PDA-capable database of every brewery in the country is a great idea, and would be a cool thing to have. But as this tool stands, I'm probably going to keep doing what I usually do: hit Pubcrawler for a list of brewpubs and bars in the areas I'll traveling to, and download it into the memo function on my PDA. It works...and PalmBrew doesn't cover the bars.

 
Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: February 24, 2004