Some of the most interesting breweries profiled in the book don't sell in Wisconsin.
To misquote Homer Simpson, "Craft beer. Is there anything it can't do?" Of course Homer, the great devotee of Duff, probably wouldn't know what to make of an IPA.
In the sluggish economy that's lingered since 2008, craft beer has been a bright spot. Craft beer production increased 9.6% in 2013 (though it constitutes 7% of the overall beer sales), according to an industry report. Interest in the Great Taste of the Midwest, Madison Craft Beer Week and Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest grows every season.
Anna Blessing's new Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America's Heartland (Midway, $22.95) is an entertaining overview of various craft breweries around the region.
It's never quite clear what's meant by "the heartland" when that term is used in this country. A headline from the day the Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City read "Terror in the Heartland," but Blessing does not go all the way to Oklahoma. Here, "the heartland" means Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Blessing visits 20 craft breweries in these states, which is obviously a small selection of those available to be profiled.
"By the end of 2012, there were approximately 2,000 breweries in the country," writes Blessing, "...with an estimated 1,000 on the drawing board for 2013."
Blessing, a photographer as well as a writer, wants people to get to know the brewers behind the breweries. Her camera focuses on the hallmarks of contemporary craft brewing: wild labels, unconventional ingredients, wooden barrels, amped high-alcohol beers, and -- well, perhaps less crucially -- sleeve tattoos.
Of the 20 breweries, just three are from Wisconsin: Lakefront, New Glarus, and Central Waters. Some other Wisconsin brewers might feel left out on this score, but for those of us who are familiar with our own state's breweries, Blessing's book is a chance to take a peek at more out-of-state breweries. While it would make a poor tourbook if it was the sole resource consulted -- can you imagine a brew-based tour of Wisconsin that hit only three breweries? -- it would be a fun armchair-start to a brewery tour of Michigan, for instance. On the other hand, completists are apt to find Locally Brewed frustrating.
Some of the most interesting breweries profiled in the book don't sell in Wisconsin, so road trips would be necessary. While Bell's Brewery, of Kalamazoo, is a known quantity, Short's Brewing Company distributes only in Michigan, and its limited-release imperials sound well worth the trip to Bellaire.
Blessing includes a list of bars where the beers are on tap; while this is potentially useful, the lists are also, obviously, a selection (just three bars, for instance, are listed for Lakefront, and only five for New Glarus).
More fun are the "Brewer's Playlists" for many of the brewers, citing some favored music that gets them psyched for the job. Brewers have ecumenical tastes when it comes to music, sometimes even within the same brewery (10CC with your Black Sabbath, anybody? Head to Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids.)
Stories range from the multi-generation August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota, to the oft-cited homebrewer-with-an-epiphany business development(too many to name). 5 Rabbit Cerverceria of Chicago was inspired by a desire to improve the image (and flavor) of Latin-American beer. Illinois-based Two Brothers Brewing Company grew out of co-founder Jason Ebel's semester-abroad experience in Paris and Brussels drinking lambics and other Belgian-style beers. There are a lot of beer conversion experiences -- someone could write a masters' thesis on the conventions of the genre.
The newest brewery in the book isn't even open yet. Moody Tongue, of Chicago, a "culinary-driven" brewery, is preparing for its official open within the year and is often found testing its brews at events.
So while Locally Brewed may not be the best choice for the craft beer completist, it could be argued that even the completist could learn something from reading it.