“Let There Be Beer”

Back in 2005 the magazine All About Beer ran a column in which beer writers named their favourite beer authors. Michael Jackson, Roger Protz, Tim Webb, Fred Eckhardt, Allen Sneath, and Charlie Papazian all figured among those cited.

Some historical or science writers were mentioned including Wahl and Henius, Tizard, Arnold, Salem, and an old beer journal series. Specific brewery histories were also named, and various modern technical works.

Ray Daniels stated:

There’s another book called Let There Be Beer by Bob Brown (1932) I came upon not too long ago, which contains, I believe, some of the most lyrical writing on beer I’ve ever read. Really wonderful.

Of the 15 interviewed he was the only one to mention Bob Brown.

Checking online, but based on my memory going back to the 1970s, I realize that Brown’s book is to all practical purposes a dead letter today. He was cited, briefly, by about a half-dozen writers or bloggers in recent decades by my verification, and after that, that’s it.

Who was Bob Brown? What kind of beer book did he write? Why does virtually no one in beer today know who he is?

Illinois-born Bob Brown had the distinction, not just of writing of a fascinating book on beer, but also a respected series on food, co-authored in this case with his wife Rose and/or his mother Cora. The “Browns” are well-known in culinary historical literature, in fact.

This clan certainly would have been familiar to Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Clairborne, and other pre-1970s American food luminaries.

Not only that, Bob Brown was an internationally-known poet, fiction and non-fiction writer, and publisher. He is remembered today for his realistic and experimental writing, essay work, and his c. 1930s”reading machine”, a progenitor to Amazon’s Kindle and other e-reading devices.

In fact, Brown was the subject of a 2016 biography by Dr. Craig Saper, The Amazing Adventures of Bob Brown: a Real Life Zelig who Wrote his way Through the 20th Century.

Saper, a Maryland-based professor of language and literature, does not fail to mention the beer book of course. But Saper is not a beer historian and his insights, while valuable from a media and biographical standpoint, do not venture much into this area. There are one or two shorter, recent academic treatments of Brown’s literary output but nothing extended, to my knowledge, on his beer work.

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Brown which includes the following:

Robert ‘Bob’ Carlton Brown, II (June 14, 1886 – August 7, 1959) was an American writer and publisher in many forms from comic squibs to magazine fiction to advertising to avant-garde poetry to business news to cookbooks to political tracts to novelized memoirs to parodies and much more.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Brown was a bestselling fiction writer and found great commercial success selling his stories to magazines and with his novelizations of those serialized magazines stories collected as What Happened to Mary? (1913) and The Remarkable Adventures of Christopher Poe (1913). He also published bohemian poetry when he and his second wife, Rose, became central figures in Greenwich Village’s bohemian arts and culture scene. As part of his work with The Masses, Brown also became a fund-raising impresario staging balls and costume parties at Webster Hall.

With the start of World War I, the Browns were forced into exile, first to Mexico for a year with other war resisters called Slackers.

Later they eventually made their way to Brazil where they started an international business news publishing empire. Using the profits from their business, they traveled around the world in the mid-1920s, spending about a year in China. In 1928, they located to Europe to join the expatriate avant-garde group in France, which included Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, and Nancy Cunard. They entertained cultural figures from Emma Goldman to Charlie Chaplin. Brown founded Roving Eye Press, a press dedicated to publishing mostly his own experimental writings. His most famous works at this time include his manifestos and experimental demonstrations, including in The Readies (1930) and Words (1931), for his reading machine and the processed texts that would revolutionize reading.

With the economic depression in the 1930s, the Browns, including Cora, Rose, and Bob, eventually moved back to the United States writing bestselling cookbooks to make a living . They wrote over twenty cookbooks, such as Cooking with Wine (1934), 10,000 Snacks (1934), and The Complete Book of Cheese (1955). The Browns simultaneously worked on a commune, and joined the faculty at the radical Commonwealth College; Bob also helped start the Writer’s Guild and organized summer writing trips to the Soviet Union.

In the 1940s, after Cora died, Bob and Rose became writers in Hollywood; they wrote numerous story treatments for the movie industry, and used advances and fees to fund travel to the Amazon. They published a colorful memoir about their travels and collected artifacts, which they later donated to museums in Brazil and the United States (in Los Angeles). They eventually moved back to Brazil in the mid-1940s, and Rose published a few young adult history books.

In the mid-1950s, Bob moved back to the United States after Rose died. He married his old friend Eleanor, and they restarted Roving Eye Press as well as publishing cookbooks, selling rare and unusual books, and publishing works with the Beat poets.

For more information on Brown see this blogpost by K.A. Wisniewski, also a Maryland-based academic. He is part of a group with Saper who have re-started Brown’s Roving Eye Press. This shows a headshot of Brown, as well.

For an outline of Let There Be Beer!, see Brown’s entry in the website Beer Books, here. It sets out the table of contents and includes a brief extract. The site tags the book, quite accurately, as “rare”. (The title page shown above is from that entry).

The book shows on every page the high literary skills of the writer but also his deep knowledge and appreciation of beer, its history and ethos (mainly in America, Germany, and Britain). The subject is treated in an idiosyncratic way, to be sure, but one is always enlightened and usually entertained. Brown’s youthful experiences with beer are among the best parts, New York saloon days as well.

We especially like his evocation of the pre-Prohibtion drug store, which functioned as a quasi-saloon in many dry areas.

Brown was an odd-type, an artist through and through, rather left-wing (which we are not), but wise in the ways of the world including the business world when it suited him. The book features in many chapters (not all) an unusual style, at times tending to the ironic and even fabulist.

We think this was intended, first simply as humour, second as a kind of parody of the Prohibition mentality, or riposte to it.

Why isn’t the book on the lips of every modern beer scribe or beer historian? Because it came out a long time ago, during Prohibition albeit with its end in sight, because America was in Depression, because the world was much larger.

Another factor is that Germany was soon to enter its darkest period, of Nazi rule. Few were going to lyricize and perpetuate a book that rhapsodized German brewing history and customs.

When beer was legalized in 1933, an event foreseen in a concluding chapter in the book, beer had its own ideas of what the public wanted, or was going to get in any case. Much of the pre-Prohibition lore lovingly recalled by Brown went by the wayside. An avant-garde New York writer talking endlessly of German beer in a pre-Repeal book wasn’t going to change anything.

In any case there was no international network such as we have since about 1970 to publicize and give legs to an effort like that. Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer (1977) was the obverse case.

Finally, the book is quite hard to find. It was never reprinted and is not viewable online except for the odd excerpt.

I obtained a copy though, and can confirm the book is a wonderful and important read. In many ways, it is better than anything our modern beer writers have done including Michael Jackson, due to Brown’s advanced writing skills but also his particular interests and offbeat style.




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