When longtime beer aficionado Ken Wells got the opportunity to spend a year hanging out in bars drinking on his publisher's tab, he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
He also knew he couldn't have it turn into the type of crazed jaunt best exemplified by one of his heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, who was best known for his drug-fueled adventures while writing for
magazine in the 1970s.
"I had to keep it clean," says Wells. "As a
Wall Street Journal
reporter, I would have to bring Journal-style reporting to it, or it would be disgraceful."
In other words, what Wells didn't want (or couldn't give his publisher) was a beer version of Thompson's classic
, in which the late author recounted a series of paranoid narcotic-induced hallucinations while expounding on the state of the U.S.
What Wells did do, in his book
, which was this year republished in paperback, was to chronicle his yearlong investigation of beer culture up and down the Mississippi.
Rather than just float from dive bar to dive bar up and down the country, Wells steeped himself in brew lore, detailing the history of old-world brewing from England and Germany, and how America gave the world its own particular tilt to the beer story with the eventual rise of the industrial-size brewers, the makers of Budweiser, Coors and Miller.
Of course, the biggest news in the global brewing business so far this year is InBev's bid for
. It was a move that
St. Louis, Mo., when the news came to light earlier this year.
At the heart of the problem for many was the purchase by foreigners of a company that had become an American icon.
Budweiser is going to get some backlash," Wells predicts.
Still, he doesn't think any product boycott would last long, noting that BUD, like the other dominant brewers of American standard lager,
Molson Coors Brewing
, has gone to great lengths to produce beer that appeals to the masses.
Of InBev's bid, he says: "They were actually kind of shrewd. ... They made a high offer, and then when
BUD's board started to fight, they upped the offer."
In general, Wells says he's not too concerned about the state of the U.S. brewing business. He describes the craft brewing business as "relentlessly experimental," noting the growth of "extreme" brewing, in which high-alcohol content concoctions are made with a huge diversity of ingredients not normally associated with beer.
"In some ways the American craft brew industry has become an ark for endangered beers, rescuing and replenishing them," Wells says. "
makes a really interesting Porter."
The first step toward sampling such brews is typically through what Wells calls "gateway beers," such as Corona, the imported Mexican lager.
Once drinkers of the traditional American lagers have tried and liked imported lagers, they are much more likely to sample the plethora of ales, porters and stouts that are now being spewed out by the burgeoning craft brewing industry, he says.
It's clear Wells enjoyed the research for the book, although he emphasizes the very real work aspect of producing 100,000 well-researched words on a topic, however well-loved.
"How much can your liver take? You really couldn't be drunk and report the story."
So, in an effort to keep in shape, he "went into training and ran five miles every day so that at the end of the year, I wouldn't look like Norm out of TV
Not that he's complaining much about this gig: "It will end up being the biggest beer-doggle of my career," he says.