A fixture in the regional beer scene and expert all things malted, hopped and brewed in New England, it is hard to fathom that Norman Miller once hated beer.
He, like many, began his relationship with beer by being disappointed and turned off by mass-produced and poorly crafted lagers. One magical beer, called Drunken Monkey Barkleywine, forever changed Miller's relationship with beer. And that expansive relationship led to his nationally syndicated column and popular blog, "The Beer Nut," hosted by the Daily News and GateHouse Media. Now Miller has recently published his first book, "Beer Lover's New England."
What this book offers in detail is every brewery, brew, brewpub and beer bar in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island. Each brewery is profiled in detail, from who the founders are, what they brew and Miller's top choice from each stop. The book hits on the big names like Boston Beer Company (yes, they make Samuel Adams) to the stellar but tiny The Alchemist in Vermont that makes only one beer, the phenomenal and super hoppy Heady Topper.
For added content, the book also dishes out food recipes from brewpubs. Want to to know the secret to the Portsmouth Brewery's hanger steak or a fanatstic beef stew made by Milly's Tavern in Manchester? It's in the book.
What's also in the book is Miller's plainspoken sense of humor. A beer snob or foodie elite Miller is not. He's not above calling his hometown of Leominster a beer wasteland, and he freely admits that he named his beer fridge Beatrice. This is a book that delivers on knowledge gained from years of ... well, drinking. And drinking well judging from the reviews about the quality of craft beer in New England.
You went from not liking beer to developing a taste for craft beer to becoming an expert in the field. What motivated you along that path?
I used to work at a newspaper in Laconia, N.H., and there was a small brewpub that was close to the office, and we used to go there all of the time. It turned out to be cheaper to buy the beer than it was to buy mixed drinks, so I decided to try some, and quickly found out that beer can have flavor. It wasn't like all of the stuff that I tried in college that tasted like slightly flavored water. From there, it was just buying any beer I could find and finding stuff I really liked.
With an already solid base of knowledge of the New England brewing scene, did anything you learned during the research for the book surprise you?
There are just so many breweries that are in the middle of nowhere that, unless you happen to be in that area, you've probably never heard of them. The one thing that all of these places had with the more well-known breweries was the passion they have in their voices when they speak about their beer. They legitimately love what they do, and many of them left much more lucrative jobs to do what they really love to do.
Page 2 of 3 - Inevitably you must come across some breweries or beers that you think are poor examples of quality beer, yet the book offers no harsh criticism. How do you manage that?
This really wasn't a book of reviews. It was more of letting people know what a brewery, brewpub or bar offers. Sure, there are plenty of beers that I don't like, but other people love. Who's to say my opinion is right? For example, I do not like Shipyard Pumpkinhead. It's just not for me. However, liquor stores can't keep it on the shelf. So, who is right? Me, or the thousands of people who can't get enough of it? I always say people should try a beer, no matter what someone else says, and make their own decision.
Do you think of this as more of a beer book or a travel book?
It can be both. For someone who likes to try as many local beers as possible, this is great for them. But if you're going skiing in Waterville, Maine, and you want to have a good beer afterward, you can find that in this book, or if you are in Granby, Conn., for a family reunion and you want to escape, you can find a brewpub or a bar in that town with the book.
Craft brewing has been exploding in New England. Is the region unique in this sense?
It's not unique that there are a lot of breweries are popping up, but what I do find unique is the quality of the beer being produced. In 2011, there were eight breweries alone that opened in Massachusetts, such as Jack's Abby Brewing in Framingham, there were several more in 2010, and there have been several more so far this year. The great thing is, they're all making good beer. It's not just in Massachusetts, there are breweries popping up throughout New England. The quality has just gone through the roof.
I think part of the reason is brewers are getting exposed to good beer at an early age. Now, when you see younger people, a lof of them are drinking Samuel Adams, so they get exposed to good beer earlier on.
After more than a decade of writing in much shorter formats, what did you find most challenging in taking on a long project?
The hardest part was getting ahold of everyone. A lot of these smaller breweries are literally one-man operations. They brew, they clean, they sell, they are the accountants, they run their own websites and they deliver their own beers. I'm pretty sure I tripled my cellphone usage minutes each month doing the book.
What's the best piece of advice anyone in the brewing industry ever gave you?
Page 3 of 3 - The best piece of adivce I ever got, and I really wish I could give the person credit but I can't remember which beer writer it was, was when I'm writing a review of a beer and I don't like it, I shouldn't just say I don't like it, I should say exactly why I don't like it. That makes sense because if I say why I don't like it, such as a flavor I'm not a fan of (anise for example), someone else might read the review, say, "I love anise," and will give the beer a try.
Sprinkled throughout the book are tips for beer enthusiasts, such as how to behave at beer festivals, food combinations and even home-brewing recipes. Why did you include this?
I wanted to make it a full-service book. Sure, the main idea was a travel guide, but I wanted to make it full service. I know a lot of homebrewers would love to tackle some new recipes, so I figured I'd include them, and cooking with beer is growing in popularity, and there are so much good food at some brewpubs in bars in New England, I figured why not let people try to make their favorite dish at home. The beer festival section was more for selfish reasons - I go to them all of the time, so if people follow all of these rules, it would be better for me.
Did this book inspire you to tackle another book project?
If I do another book, I want it to be more of stories about my own beer trips, and the adventures I've had on them. I travel often throughout the East, and I've had some amazing times. Some I've shared in The Beer Nut, but those were sanitized versions because a lot of what happened couldn't be shared in family newspapers.
Where can you find it?
"Beer Lover's New England" is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble in Framingham, Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough, Julio's Liquors in Westborough, Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, the Vin Bin in Marlborough and Strange Brew in Marlborough.