Ken Wells’ Travels with Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in America 

UnknownFill up the goblet,
Let it swim in foam,
that overlooks the brim;
He that drinks deepest,
here’s to him!

So goes one of my favorite verses about beer. I have no idea where it comes from, but it’s nicely etched on the side of my favorite pair of beer mugs. Now, I’m not the biggest beer drinker in the world; in fact, a single twelve-pack can last in my refrigerator for a month at a time, which I think marks me as pretty much of a “lightweight,” as we used to call them in college (although I was certainly known to quaff a few in my day).

Since that wonderful time when I, like every good college student everywhere, would spend my days trying to fill my brain cells with as much information as possible and my nights trying to kill those same brain cells with alcohol, I’ve tried to revise my criteria for buying beer to include factors like flavor over factors like how many cans come in the box compared with how many dollars I would have to pony up for said box.

But even with my recent development of my palate to include dark ales and porters and bitters and IPAs (but not quite stouts; I just can’t get into those), I never really knew the difference between a lager and an ale until I read Ken Wells’s book Travels with Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in America.

Wells posits the existence of something called the River of Beer, which I suppose is analogous to Annie Savoy’s “Church of Baseball” from the movie Bull Durham, and Wells decides to launch a journey through part of the United States to find what he calls “the perfect Beer Joint.” Wells isn’t exactly clear as to what will constitute the perfect Beer Joint:

“I admit this is a highly subjective and possibly even controversial matter. Purists will argue that the Perfect Beer Joint fundamentally has to be about the beer, followed by an ambiance conducive to the pleasurable drinking thereof.”

I almost got the idea that Wells didn’t actually want to conclude that any of the places he saw on his travels was the Perfect Beer Joint, and I know how he feels. It’s kind of like why we keep reading books, or going to new restaurants, or seeking out new Celtic music bands. We’re all looking for the perfect whatever, and we know we’ll never find it; but that doesn’t stop us from looking, and it doesn’t stop Wells from traveling the US looking for his Perfect Beer Joint.

But make no mistake: while none of the Beer Joints he describes may be the perfect one, I’d very much love to visit some of them. Even the beachfront behemoth on the Florida-Alabama state line described in the first chapter, a place that features a regular contest called the Mullet Toss. (Referring to the fish, not the hairstyle.)

Some readers might quibble with Wells’s methodology, restricting his “quest” to the Mississippi River Valley; anyone not living in that part of the country will no doubt cry out, “How can he possibly hope to find the Perfect Beer Joint if he doesn’t go to _____ in my town!” And yes, I myself felt a bit skeptical that such a quest could not hit a place like the Anchor Bar or the Strykersville Pub, to name just two of my favorite home-region watering holes.

The book is part travelogue, then, as Wells journeys from Minnesota southward on his seemingly, and admittedly, quixotic journey. I personally found the early chapters more involving in this regard, but I suspect that is because they actually detail Wells’ travels through a few old stomping grounds of mine in Wisconsin and Iowa. I actually toured the brewery in LaCrosse where “the World’s Largest Six-Pack” can be seen, and I was sad to learn that it has since ceased operations. But there’s a certain poignance that comes later on, when Wells travels through some very poor counties in Arkansas and Mississippi, including one county where the economic uplift from the building of spectacular gambling casinos appears to have been nil. The Memphis chapter, where Wells spends some time investigating whether Elvis Presley was a beer drinker or not, is fairly amusing, though.

Travels with Barley is not just concerned with Wells’s search for the Perfect Beer Joint. He also explores the history of beer, detailing with interest the triumph of lager over ale and the rise of Anheuser-Busch (which, Wells tells us, accounts for one of every two beers sold in America); the politics of beer (the beer industry constitutes one of the most powerful lobbying interests in Washington); the homebrewing craze; something called “Extreme Beer,” a segment of Beer Culture where people try to basically push brewing to the limits; and a chapter I didn’t entirely understand about “yeast smugglers.” That chapter had quite a bit of biology in it.

Beer, for Wells, turns out to not be so much a drink but a way to connect with his own past. In my experience, there are worse reasons to quaff a pint of ale or lager. The book closes with a touching Epilogue as Wells reaches the destination he may have been looking for all along, and cracks open a cold one while doing so.

And yes, I drank a bottle of beer while writing this review. It seemed the right thing to do, yes?

(Wall Street Journal Books, 2004)