From Bondi Blonde to Estrella Damm

Beer: A Gauge for Enthusiasts - Greg Duncan Powell

By Robyn Lewis
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Ploughman's lunch at Red Hill Brewery, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Ploughman's lunch at Red Hill Brewery, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria [©Red Hill Brewery]

Enjoy a Wheat Beer at the Red Hill Brewery, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Hops at the Red Hill Brewery, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Award-winning beer from the Snowy Mountains Brewery


Up front I must confess that I am not a big beer drinker - I'd be better described as a beer novice than an enthusiast. The concept of a 'cleansing ale' has always escaped me (guys - admit it - it really is just an excuse for another one at 1 am, isn't it?) and growing up south of the Cascade-Boags divide meant that options were limited, at least until you got as far north as the Ross Hotel (and now we know how lucky Tasmanians are, producing two of the best beers in Australia).

But I do enjoy stout and darker brews, and will admit that there are occasions when only a beer will do. In this book you will find a beer for every one of them, from watching the AFL Grand Final or the Bledisloe Cup, through weddings and the cricket to mowing the lawn, a barbecue or eating fish and chips (being a man, Greg hasn't latched onto the recuperative post-natal stout though - after a champagne, of course).

However my husband Charlie has significantly greater experience with the amber fluid, and the recent and dramatic reversal of the fortunes of the Geelong footy club has given him and fellow Cats supporters many occasion to break their 44 year 'drought' with a wide variety of effervescent beverages. Kerry, who has just joined us after 14 years at Boags - and is still waiting for a similar opportunity on the day St Kilda may perform likewise (maybe 2010?) - knows all about the importance of the water, the malt and the hops. So, between the three of us, we leafed through Beer - A Gauge for Enthusiasts.

We all liked it. Me - because it solves the problem I face when I walk into a bar full of endless beer choices which drive me to drink something else. Somewhat to my suprise I found I could sit down and read this book - here is it, a key to my hoppy ineptitude! Do you try the latest microbrew named after our endangered national fauna? Should XXXX only be drunk in Queensland? Is Staropramen worth learning to pronounce? No worries, I can now look them up!

The beers are arranged in alphabetical order - handy, until you realise James Boag Premium is under J and Boag's Draught under B, but that's a minor quibble (we found the index), and in sections that even I can understand: standard, premium, diesel, biofuel and ethanol. Each entry starts with a summary review (they are not all good), followed by alcohol %, the good and bad points, and some more technical details like colour, condition and carbonation, which had Charlie and Kerry in muted discussion about Crown vs Carlsberg for some time.

Then comes another blokey car analogy - 'under the hood', 'performance' and a gauge for the score. Fair enough, Greg had to call them something and it's a lot better structure than many wine tasting notes I have read. The gauge is calibrated from 50 to 100, but I find the beer described as best for 'steering clear of' still ranks a 64, which makes me wonder what happens from 0 to 63? This equates quite closely to the (English, and Australian wine show) 20 point wine scoring system - where a score below 13 is considered vinous poison - and is not far removed from the American 100 point system, although here if you score below 80 you would be increasingly hard pressed to get your wine reviewed and 64 would be unsaleable as possibly undrinkable. (Why don't they all devalue and start again at zero, like Zimbabwe dollars?).

The conversion factor for me was the 'best for' description, which really made me want to try a few of these beers (I look forward to Redoak Wee Heavy Ale 'best for sipping by the fire on a dark, stormy night' and - always a taste adventurer - trying Baron's Lemon Myrtle Witbier). Some give food and beer matches - a surprising lot of seafood here, including whitebait, sushi and smoked salmon - and others are recommendations for 'a session', 'pies and footy' and 'keeping your South Australian mates happy'. Charlie and Kerry are secretly planning beer tasteoffs. I am wondering if the answer to the perennial question of 'what wine to drink with artichokes' or certain types of Asian food is between these covers instead. The main thing lacking is some price/value for money information.

I can only contrast Beer - a Gauge for Enthusiasts to another beer book I have been trying to review over the past month, Grape vs Grain by Charles Bamforth (CUP, 2008). The title sucked me in. Here, I thought would lie the answer  - perhaps even the bridge - to the thousand-year-plus beer vs wine divide. The author is a brewer of international repute and decades of brewing experience, indeed he is the Anheuser-Busch Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis, in the USA - of which facts he constantly reminds us. I see on Google that he is described as jovial, but he sure didn't convey that to me, with more than a hint of superiority of the hop to the grape wafting from every page. (Well, as far as I got, I kept glazing over with statements such as 'If one is derisory about the alcohol-challenged products, then does it follow that beers replete in alcohol are at the other pole of acceptability, that is, the ultimate in beer excellence?' (perhaps a valid question, but Grape vs Grain surely needs a good edit).

About the only thing I got from this book is that there is a health aspect to beer drinking in moderation (vitamins, antoioxidants etc), which is perhaps under-researched and could provide some beer marketing alternatives to caveman ads. And the information that English beer maids have apparently been pouring beer incorrectly for decades - God help the Australian ones, who have been erroneously tilting glasses probably since the 1800s. I doubt I'll need all 7 pages of Rune XX (not to be confused with half a Fourex) of the Finnish Saga The Kalevala on the brewing of beer (free on the internet), although if one were contemplating taking up brewing as a profession the chapters on beer making and quality from such a master would undoubtedly be useful. Every time Bamforth turns to wine, the chip on his shoulder (made of a sackful of Pride of Ringwood hop pellets, perhaps) is firmly in evidence - which is a pity as each has a lot to contribute to the other, as evidenced by the growing numbers of boutique winemakers turning their skills and palates to microbrewing (and who knows? maybe even the reverse).

Grape vs Grain ends with some recommendations for further reading - on beer, citing his own as the 'correct introductory reading' (of course! But I didn't need to reach p 199 to work that out) and a small selection of wine books on p 200 from the 'too many ... on wines, styles and countries of origin' (get over it, there are more wines than beers, and unlike beer every vintage is different). He cites a single wine book as being 'one of the more economical and less pretentious of the genre' (he clearly hasn't met or read Jancis Robinson, a prolific and definitely unpretentious wine author).

Our verdict? Save your $50, buy or give a copy of Beer - A Gauge for Enthusiasts, and put the $20 change to roadtesting some organic Bellarine Bitter and Mountain Goat Surefoot Stout instead.

I agree with Bamforth on one thing though, beer and wine have much to learn from one another. Let's call a truce.


Beer - A Gauge for Enthusiasts by Greg Duncan Powell is published by Murdoch Books (2008). RRP A$29.95. and subscribers can buy Beer - A Gauge for Enthusiasts  and Grape Vs. Grain (RRP A$49.95) from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount (plus postage).



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August 10th, 2008
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