“America’s great middlebrow social elixir, and inseparable companion to the sporting and spectator life, the portal to first intoxication, the workingman’s Valium, and a leavening staple to the college experience” finds a worthy explicator of its whys and wherefores.
Wells (Logan’s Storm, 2002, etc.) likes a glass of beer, and though he’s not undiscerning, he’s no snob either. “I grew up with people who knew only three categories of bad beer: warm beer, flat beer, and, worst, no beer at all.” Wells’s mission here is not to anoint the best beer (“the appreciation of one doesn’t require me to vilify the others”), but rather to gather a sense of how beer fits into the American everyday, “to gain a view of America through the prism of the beer glass.” And while he’s at it, he might as well suss out the finest watering holes along the length of the Mississippi River. Wells doesn’t trust the homogenization of longitude, but prefers the variety of latitude. He can’t explain how the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors) got so big, except that an ice-cold lager on a hot day can’t be beat . . . and their bosomy advertising garners admirers. But Wells will also be sampling Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA and Blackened Voodoo as he explores the history of beer and the cultural geography of the towns that hug the great river and its tributaries. Then, with a reporter’s nose, he seeks stories: one bar features a mullet toss, another sponsors a 5-K race with a beer stop at the half point. Wells gets literary—Shakespeare figures in, as do Chaucer, Joyce, and Thoreau (“The tavern will compare favorably with the church”)—but he is happiest bellying-up with his nose to the wind.
In the newspaper world they call it “reporting from the mahogany ridge,” where so many fine stories, social truths, and bits of political wisdom are revealed.