|Interview conducted by Stefan Blitz|
Next week is Thanksgiving, which in addition to turkey, most people find themselves watching a football game, and often with that, drink a beer.
As someone who spent their childhood avoiding Thanksgiving football games, instead choosing to watch the annual airing of Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball starring in Yours, Mine and Ours, thus narrowly escaping the social expectations of having to watch “the game”.
I can’t (and won’t) talk football.
But I will talk beer. Thanks to the fantastic new book, The Comic Book Story of Beer, by authors Jonathan Hennessey, Mike Smith and artist Aaron McConnell, I’ll be able to spread some serious knowledge about hops and barley, as well as dazzle everyone with tales of Pilsners, Ales and Stouts.
Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith took some time to chat with FOG! about their book, favorite beers and some of the interesting things discovered while doing research.
Jonathan Hennessey: Stefan, forgive the preliminaries, but it would be ungracious of us not to thank you for taking the time to reach out. We know you have many choices when writing about books, and we thank you for choosing The Comic Book Story of Beer!
Several years ago—summer 2010 to be exact—I was back on the East Coast. I was visiting my mother and, as you do in this kind of situation, catching up with friends who, unlike me, had not been afflicted with the kind of temporary insanity that compels one to move away from Massachusetts.
One of those friends was Mike Smith, a teenage years pal who had at that point already been a professional brewer for over a decade. One is tempted to say he was a beer guy “before it was cool.” But when hasn’t being a beer guy been cool?
In any event, I headed over to Mayflower Brewing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Mike was working at the time, to say hello and do the brewery tour thing. I walked in there pretty confident that I knew something about beer. So I kind of expected the tour to be pleasant enough but, you know, kind of like a trip to a museum or sports hall of fame you’ve been to a handful of times before. Like, “Yeah, there’ll probably be something interesting in whatever new exhibit they’ve got up, but I won’t even bother with the permanent collection.”
Man, was I wrong.
It wasn’t like Mike was out to “school” me or anything. Far be it from that. But ten minutes into the formal brewery walkaround I realized I was almost spectacularly ignorant about this drink that I and so many of the rest of us have been sportily downing our entire adult lives. (If not longer, given that I, a preternatural late bloomer and socially-developmentally-challenged creep anyway, still managed to score my first beer at age 12 or 13).
Mike also impressed upon me that beer history is a fascinating subject. One big reason for that is that it has been a guest of honor at the party for the entirety of human civilization. Like we say in the book, beer has changed us and we have changed it.
Right then and there I all but begged Mike to collaborate with me on a nonfiction graphic novel about beer. I had been lucky enough at that point to have two under my belt: The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation, which in 2010 I was still in the middle of writing and researching.
It’s obvious from the book, that you both have a love of beer. Were you comic book fans as well?
Mike Smith: I am new to the comics world. I had some Flaming Carrots and some Dan Clowes stuff back in my high school and college days. But I was never particularly obsessed.
It’s been interesting getting an immersion course in comics culture touring around with the book. We did New York Comic Con in early October. And that was quite an eye opener! It was a bit overwhelming, but I loved the vibe.
We debuted the book at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. It’s funny that the GABF was Jonathan and Aaron’s first beer fest and NYC was my first Con. No better way to learn than dive in the deep end, right?
How did artist Aaron McConnell get involved in the project?
JH: The Comic Book Story of Beer is actually my third big collaboration with Aaron. It was impossible for me to imagine doing the book with anyone else. I can’t say with certainty whether it’s Aaron on his own or just this rapport we are lucky enough to have…But since I’m one of those benighted comics writers who cannot draw his own material (but can see it in his head), my level of dependence on an illustrator is complete. And Aaron just “gets it.” That is to say, he somehow either composes exactly what I had in mind in the first place or levels it up to something I had not imagined but would have if I could have.
It has been a real privilege seeing Aaron’s work evolve over three pretty significantly-sized graphic novels. And these kinds of projects put a lot of wear and tear on a guy like Aaron. He’s the sort of creator who can’t or won’t fake it when it comes to visually representing something historical. In the pursuit of accuracy I try to give him tons of image reference material on my own. I just don’t feel like I can responsibly and morally instruct him, “Go ahead and draw the city of Hamburg, Germany, as it appears in 1284 A.D.” But no matter how wide a net I cast on my own in terms of gathering reference, I have learned that Aaron takes it upon himself to pursue even further ends.
Our Civil War book came out right around Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, of course, was itself scrupulously production designed in terms of historical accuracy. And after seeing the flick, Aaron called me up in a state of distress. He said, “Shoot, man, they had so much more patterned wallpaper back then than I realized! I can’t believe I got the wallpaper so wrong in our book!”
What kind of research did you do for the book? What’s the most surprising thing you learned while doing research?
JH: The best snapshot for the scope of the research and the kind of sources we relied upon can be found on the book’s website, thecomicbookstoryofbeer.com. There you can find a visual panel-by-panel presentation of chapter notes. Every assertion the book makes and every quotation it uses is supported by what I would argue is sound scholarship.
This is probably obvious, but I am a big believer in the comics format for education and nonfiction. And the last thing I would find acceptable is someone blindly presupposing a book like this has to be made up of regurgitated Wikipedia articles and/or anecdotal beer trivia picked up over PBRs at some hipster dive bar.
When it comes to research, I also tend to overdo it—like reading an entire account of the fall of the Western Roman Empire (to distinguish it from the oft-forgotten Eastern Roman Empire, which managed to hold on for about a thousand years longer) for source material for about two and a half pages of book. Also, to make sure that we’re not just recycling bits from popular histories already on bookstore shelves, I like to chase down the latest academic research whenever and wherever I can. That often involves holing up in university libraries for books and journals that just aren’t available outside of academia. For Beer that involved visits to The Case Western Reserve University Library, The Library of Congress in D.C., and The Fuller Theological Seminary and Occidental College Libraries in Southern California.
Most surprising thing I learned while doing research? Wow, there were so many for me. One key clarification was just what beer really is, at its most essential: a fermented, alcoholic drink made from grain. Even Japanese sake, which is typically thought of as a rice “wine,” is actually a beer. That’s because you’re starting with something that does not already have simple sugars available for the yeast to consume, as you do if you’re starting with fruit juice, honey, or even milk.
It was also an eye-opener to get into the nitty gritty of the (to me) hugely persuasive argument that human beings invented farming not so they could raise cereals to eat, but to generate a reliable source of grain for brewing. That sounds like something a beer drinker would want to be true, and would love to spout off about over Thanksgiving dinner or something. But as it turns out the speculation has a lot going for it, and even someone as hands-on with uncovering prehistory as biomolecular archeologist Dr. Patrick E. McGovern endorses it.
And, yes. Research has involved, for me anyway, a lot of beer drinking! I still am not one to be able to boast about a sophisticated palate or a blasé worldliness for beers of a hundred nations. But before this undertaking I had never, for instance, exposed myself to lambics and historical recipes like Dogfish Head’s line of “Ancient Ales.”
Do either of you homebrew? What kind of beer do you make?
MS: I have, for sure, homebrewed. Back when I was just starting out in beer I even worked at a homebrew supply store in Austin, Texas.
I haven’t dusted off those skills for a while, though. They say be careful turning a hobby into a career…
I plan on starting up again now that I am between brewery jobs. I love making all types of beer. As a matter of fact I can’t say I’ve ever made the same beer twice! And I love that about homebrewing. That’s a major difference between brewing at home and in a professional setting. There, the task is all about consistency. About turning out a product you have been hired to make. There is obviously room to experiment. But it’s nothing like the freedom you get in your own kitchen.
What are your top 3 favorite beers and why?
MS: My standard answer to that question is that my favorite beer is the one I’m currently holding. And my second favorite is the next one.
But really, the fact that there are so many types out there is one of the things I like best about beer. What beer I want depends on what time of the year or day it is, what mood I’m in, what I’m eating, who I’m with, where I am, and on and on.
That having been said, I’m really enjoying Saisons lately. I’ve also been drinking lots of Pilsners. I like how the Craft Beer folks have recently come back around to Pilsners. For a long time they were kind of frowned upon, as if they were guilty by association with macro-lagers. But a well-made Pilsner is delightful and really showcases the skill of the brewer.
What’s the most unusual or memorable beer you’ve had? What set it apart?
MS: A few of the most memorable beers I’ve had have been:
- The first Kölsch I drank when I was an exchange student in (West) Germany. It opened my eyes (and taste buds) to full flavored beer and the concept of “beer culture.” That was shocking to an American high schooler in 1987!
- The first Guinness I had in Ireland. No, not because it tastes different over there. (It doesn’t.) But because it tastes so right there. The beer and the surroundings meld to form one perfect experience.
- The first time I ever had Chimay Red. I had never had a beer so nuanced and with such depth of flavor. I love love love Trappist beers. Enjoying them is a religious experience on so many levels.
Any plans for a follow-up book? Any other liquors you’d be interested in “researching”?
JH: At one point we had to cut about 50 pages of material from the manuscript for the book, since color graphic novels are notoriously expensive for a publisher to produce. That material tended to accent beer history in places like Asia and Latin America, or expound upon some transformative historical circumstances—like the Enclosure Movement in England—that were pretty “deep cuts” into beer history, that arguably would belong in a book with a more monographic scope.
We would love to be able to work that back in somewhere, somehow, since so much of it is interesting, like how the best Mexican beers are direct descendants of Vienna Lager because of the brief rule of Emperor Maximilian I, executed in 1967.
As for other alcoholic drinks, you bet! Although I do not believe anything so perfectly overlaps the interests of comics lovers as beer. Wine persists in having this general elitist vibe, and sometimes the major boozes—gin, whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, etc.—read like niches when considered on their own.
What are you currently geeking out over?
MS: Funny enough, one thing I’m geeking out on is comics and graphic novels. The immersion therapy is working!
It’s not exactly pop culture, but another thing I’m really geeking out on is the Aubrey/Maturin series of books by Patrick O’Brian. They are a series of 21 books involving a ship’s captain and his surgeon in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I am about halfway through the series but I had to force myself to take a break. He sucks you into his world like that.
I’m really looking forward to the new Star Wars movie, too!
JH: I am loving Fred Van Lente’s and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers graphic novel, the podcasts Gordy Tells Justin Comics and the series “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” on the You Must Remember This podcast. As for music, movies, and TV, I’m a bit in the penalty box because I have two very little kids and very little leftover time and energy for screen time right now.
But I’ll tell you this! My older daughter, who is still four year old, loves to be told stories, especially when we’re walking somewhere. So after running dry of fairy tales, Grimm’s fables, and Greek mythology, I finally started serializing Elfquest to her, the Wendy and Richard Pini book mostly done in the 1980s and which cemented my comics mania when I was in middle school. I’ve never thought that book received its due, but I have been geeking out all over again rereading it online and refreshing myself on the plot points. Humans being the bad guys: not necessarily the worst worldview to pass on to the next generation!