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“The Comic Book Story of Beer” Creators Brew Up a Refreshing History

by  in Comic News Comment
“The Comic Book Story of Beer” Creators Brew Up a Refreshing History

Beer and comic books may or may not be an ideal combination, but reading the new book from Ten Speed Press, “The Comic Book Story of Beer,” it’s clear they go very well together.

Writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell have a reputation for making nonfiction historical graphic novels, having previously collaborated on “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation” and “The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.” For their new project, “The Comic Book Story of Beer,” they brought in a third creative partner, co-writer Mike Smith, who has worked at Waterloo Brewing, Harpoon Brewery and Mayflower Brewing, and most recently was the head brewer at Back East Brewing Company.

The result is a book that’s packed with information that people who know about beer will be amazed by, but also provides a very different lens to look at 9,000 years of human history. CBR News spoke with all three beer experts about the ins and outs of brewing, drinking and their refreshing new book that is ultimately about far more than just beer.

CBR News: I have to start with the obvious question — why create a comic book about beer?

Jonathan Hennessey: I’m always glad to talk about where the idea for “The Comic Book Story of Beer” came from, because it’s one of the few ideas of mine that has a clean and specific “Eureka” moment as opposed to something hazier. The idea was hatched at Mayflower Brewing Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts. My co-author Mike Smith has been a professional brewer for 17 years. In August, 2010, I was back on the East Coast visiting him while he was working as head brewer at Mayflower.

Mike gave me the brewery tour to end all brewery tours. The man has always had a first-rate head for trivia and anecdote in general and I found that he was just regaling me with terrific stories from beer’s history. At the time I thought I had a reasonable possession of, you know, Brewing 101-type knowledge. But it dawned on me that I was much more ignorant about it than I realized.

Not only that, I was turned on to the fact that the true history of beer was just sensationally interesting — from how old it is (it predates civilization itself), to how it reflects such an amazing cultural cross-pollination, to how it has literally helped humanity survive over the millennia. We tend to think of beer as something to accompany food, but for huge swaths of the past beer was food, and one of the healthiest ones at that!

I exclaimed to Mike, “Mike, please God, you’ve got to collaborate with me on a graphic novel about this.” Five years later, we’ve got “The Comic Book Story of Beer.”

I thought getting people to learn a little more about the beer they were drinking could give them that same feeling not only of wisdom and knowledge but empowerment. As it turns out, the more you know about beer, the better it tastes — and the more fun it is to drink it!

So that’s where the idea for the story came from, but what is it about making a comic out of it that made sense to you?

Hennessey: After my previous books with Aaron, I had seen first hand how useful, effective and mind-grabbing the comics format can be for nonfiction.

The Gettysburg book was case in point. While exhibiting it during the 150th Anniversary of that Civil War battle, I had seen skeptic after skeptic — the kind of people who haven’t picked up a comic in their entire adult lives — pick it up, give it a dismissive leaf-through, and go to put it down. Then suddenly double back because some point being made or some historical detail they had figured could never make the cut in a comic book had caught their eye.

Not every single one of these people wound up buying the book, but they all admitted that the pictures in “Gettysburg” didn’t detract from or cheapen the words. In fact the illustrations helped clarify points of fact or philosophical arguments.

That’s what people don’t seem to get, that the words and pictures can build on each other. They can achieve synergy to create multiple levels of meaning or devices for informing. And in every single panel!

You would be hard pressed to find a beer book that doesn’t have some lovingly-rendered photo or illustration of beer on the cover. It’s not that far a leap to take [to comics]. Beer lovers want to look at beer.

And a whole graphic novel on the subject would thrill readers’ senses. And, more importantly, it would transport them vividly to the times and places of which we have few or no visual artifacts.

A standard, prose book might have a blurry black and white shot of hieroglyphics or pottery shards by an archaeologist’s dig site. But “The Comic Book Story of Beer,” I knew, would be able to actually take the reader to the ancient Fertile Crescent or Neolithic China or Florence in the middle of the Black Plague.

And furthermore a graphic novel could present these earlier episodes of history on an equal footing with craft beer pioneer Jack McAuliffe welding a brewing operation out of dairy equipment in the 1970s.

There were already some very good single-volume books on beer history. But they could be challenging to get through. Too dry. Too technical. I felt that if we did it right, we could give readers the best of both worlds: accurate, devotedly beer-centric information and an energetic, creative, and more absorbing way to experience it.

How did you guys write the book?

Hennessey: It started with loads of research. Like I said, there was a lot Mike already knew. But some of that stuff was apocryphal and needed a firm backing up. There were also big knowledge gaps to fill in.

On top of that, we wanted to make sure that the information in “The Comic Book Story of Beer” actually added to, rather than regurgitated from, popular histories that were already out there in gift books and popular blogs and Wikipedia pages and the like. So for this we often turned to the very latest academic research — or at least scholarly papers whose ideas haven’t yet migrated into the mainstream.

It was also important to Mike and I that we don’t repeat phony baloney myths about, say, where certain beer styles come from (like the one about porter being an attempt by brewers to re-create a popular “cocktail” of mixed beer flavors then being served in London pubs, or India Pale Ale having become a domestic English only fad after an Asia-bound merchant ship wrecked in the Irish Sea and barrels of IPA floated to the beach).

Once we had a body of factual information to draw from, it needed to be organized into some kind of structure. Mike was key in helping form plausible themes from the great movements of beer history, such as how the fall of the Western Roman Empire affected it, and how beer went from everyday homebrew that spoiled in just a few days to something that people actually learned to store and sell.

I took the lead in thinking up images to accompany the words, because that was where my strength and experience lie. I wrote the kind of industry standard comics script I had been taught to write, with panel descriptions and dialogue and caption text and sound effects. Mike often contributed to this a lot, reviewing the script and making sure it stayed on point and didn’t drift too far from the heart of the project.

How much time did you spend working out how much to tell. I mean, you start around 7000 BCE. What made you go, “All of this is important”?

Hennessey: We started the actual writing process with far more information than could possibly make it into the book. (And in fact we had to cut about 50 pages from the manuscript at one point). It was a big part of the job to vet what was crucial and what could be let go for now — and left for the most aggressively inspired readers to go out and pursue on their own. But we had set out with “The Comic Book Story of Beer” to include all that your average beer lover would need to graduate to a “way above average” level.

And, as I knew from the lesson of my own brewing history ignorance, the baseline wasn’t high. Imparting a pretty thorough education wouldn’t take too too much. Most people are sitting around drinking imitation Pilsners (90% of the beer consumed today!) without even knowing that Pilsen is a city in the modern Czech Republic, or loading up on hoppy beers without realizing that beer has only had hops as an ingredient for about 700 of the last 9,000+ years.

Actually, to not include the whole beer history shebang would have been imposing an arbitrary structure on the book. “The Comic Book Story of Beer” goes far enough to give you even a taste of the most speculative aspects of beer prehistory — before hard archeological or documentary evidence enters the mix.

Aaron, how much freedom did you have in terms of the script you were given and getting to interpret it.

Aaron McConnell: As much freedom as the yeast has to make beer! I worked with the carefully crafted ingredients that Jonathan and Mike provided in the script and made an effort to bring it all to life, visually. This was my introduction to the fascinating history of beer as well as the brewing process, so my role was primarily visual translation.

If the script called for a baby barleycorn to be shown nibbling a piece of starch, I might add a bonnet to sell the idea, but mainly I drew what was written. Am I underselling my role? I don’t think so, because without yeast you can’t have beer, and without a comic illustrator you can’t have a comic book.

You’ve drawn a few nonfiction books. What’s your process in putting together a book like this, and what were the biggest challenges you had on this book?

McConnell: The primary challenge for me is always to get it done sooner than later. It’s easy on nonfiction books to get lost down rabbit holes of research, but if you spend too much time drinking tea with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, you can blow your deadline.

My process has evolved to make the production of the pages as efficient as possible. I spend the most amount of time laying out the design of the page. The inking and coloring stages are pretty streamlined. It was certainly a pleasure on this project to turn the lettering over to Tom Orzechowski. I’ve been reading comics he lettered since before I realized there were letterers.

Why did you decide to have one-page “Meet the beer” information pages throughout the book?

Hennessey: Did I mention having to cut almost 50 pages out of the manuscript? Going long is definitely the sin I wrestle with as a writer! So one aspect of the “Meet the Beer” pages was taking the opportunity to get more words on a few pages.

But more importantly, we have these single-page featurettes of many of the classic beer styles — like Trappist Dubbel, lambic, bock, Pilsner, Belgian Wit and so on — because they reflect historically significant developments or practices in the brewing world. Porter, for instance, dovetails very well with the story of how beer affected (and was affected by) the Industrial Revolution. Lambic is one of the closest styles we still have to how beer was made in the Middle Ages. So you will find those “Meet the Beer” pages within the appropriate chronology in the book.

What did you have to learn in the process of making the book? I’m sure it was an education in many ways, even though you knew a lot before.

Hennessey: We have fielded a lot of jokes and cute remarks about our “research” being a lot of heavy drinking — but for me, it was true. I tried a lot of beer that I had never sought out before, and that was a legitimate education. It had always seemed to me that fruit-flavored beers must be some kind of gimmick to make beer more palatable to those who don’t truly like the taste. But now I am really partial to a sour cherry or peach lambic, which I don’t find to be sweet and cloying, but actually dry and complicated.

And as I’ve hit on earlier, there was a lot for me to learn in this history. I had always known that monks made beer, but I had always accepted this without quite knowing why. I had missed the obvious point about beer and bread essentially being two sides of the same coin (both are made with grain, water, and yeast) and extrapolated that people who have taken a vow of poverty and are required to fast a lot might find themselves limited to a bread and water diet.

Also, I had never before had so much exposure to the greater community of brewers. Now I have a sense of these craftswomen and men as true professionals, more introverted than not, whose life pursuits are really all making beer instead of making money.

Mike Smith: Oh man, I learned a ton in the process of making the book. Firstly, there was a bunch of history that Jonathan dug up that was new to me. The whole story of how beer became second fiddle to wine was a revelation. Jonathan also shed light on political and socioeconomic factors that influenced and were influenced by beer.

It was also fascinating watching Jonathan and Aaron work. I make beer for a living. To many folks, that seems like magic. To me, however, it’s just a process. In making this book, I was allowed to “peek behind the curtain” and see how a graphic novel is made. It’s also a process; crafted, really. Just like beer.

I was fascinated to learn about how a lot of types of beer like porter, Belgian wit and Vienna lager, had largely disappeared and were revived by craft brewers here in the U.S. What are the interesting trends you see in brewing the U.S. right now?

Hennessey: This really brings us into contemporary history, but yes — the earliest phase of the craft beer movement was centered around making traditional and/or lost European brews here in the States.

But while making a good stout style might remain a mainstay of every business-minded brewery out there, an amazing thing going on right now is that craft brewers are inventing new styles (like Imperial IPA, pioneered by Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River Brewing Company) and experimenting with spontaneous fermentation and wild yeasts culled, for example, from the skin of a wasp. Many craft brewers are pushing the definition of what beer can be. Some of them are so avant-garde that you find yourself asking if what they’re making still actually qualifies as beer at all — like BrewDog’s “End of History,” which was repeatedly freeze distilled to ramp the alcohol content all the way up to 55% ABV!

Smith: I love the trend of sour beers. These harken back to some of the world’s oldest brewing traditions but are cutting edge at the same time. What’s old is new again!

What’s a good pairing with this book?

Hennessey: Use your new deep knowledge of beer history to give yourself permission to try something you have never had before. Better yet, try a beer from an actual historical recipe like Dogfish’s Midas Touch (created by matching the chemical analysis of 2,700 year-old clay jars from Crete) or Yards Brewing Company’s Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale.

Smith: I think any beer would be a good pairing with this book! Actually, it’s better to look at it from the other way around: I think that whichever beer you chose to drink while reading this book will be enjoyed that much more by a new level of understanding.

“The Comic Book Story of Beer” is on sale now.

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