Field Guide to Drinking in America Book Review

FIELDGUIDE.COVER_hiresThis is a book review about Portland author Niki Ganong‘s new book, The Field Guide to Drinking in America, but this is my blog so I’m starting with a story about me.

So I’m in Pittsburgh with a whole day to explore and drink up the culture. My primary beer stop was Church Brew Works, a righteous brewpub where parishioners, I mean patrons, break bread and hoist pints in a deconsecrated church. The other beer I really wanted to try wasn’t actually brewed in Pennsylvania, but I’d read it was newly available there. If Church Brew Works’ beers are a little slice of heaven, the other one would be a little slice of pizza. Mama Mia’s Pizza Beer. It’s a homebrew recipe using real pizza and ingredients that is contract brewed and bottled and, well, I just had to know. My hunt took me to beer bars and Italian restaurants, none of whom had heard of it. An internet search led me to a place that carried it and I GPS’ed my way to a beer distributor’s warehouse (different than the state-run liquor stores) where they had said pizza beer but they would not sell me a bottle. Instead, if I wanted it, I had to buy the whole case of 24 bottles.

In the end, I had 23 friends back home who were more than happy I went through the effort, but I wish I had a resource like Ganong’s new title, The Field Guide to Drinking in America: a Traveler’s Handbook to State Liquor Laws.

It’s the subtitle that gives this book from local Portland author Ganong its prime practicality. If you’re over 21, you’ve likely learned the ins and outs of your home state’s liquor laws. You know what time the bars close, where you can drink (slash: where you can’t), and if you can find your beer, wine, and spirits under the same roof or not. But when you’re traveling (which means, by default, when you’re drinking someplace farther from home), deciphering the regulations often causes some headaches. For example, how much does it suck being in Colorado, home to even more great breweries than Oregon, but not being able to find most of the beers you’re trying to track down because they’re above 3.2% alcohol by weight (yes, ABW, which is roughly equal to 4% ABV) so what you’re left with is specially-brewed/watered-down for Mountain State markets Colorado and Utah.

I’m not alone in these discoveries. A point made in the book’s intro about the head-scratching, state-by-state laws enacted following Prohibition, “Many a surprised traveler has been caught off guard by an unexpectedly early last call, a sad and liquorless Sunday, or the choice of 3.2% beer or nothing at all. Almost everyone has a story about this.”

Tips and factoids, including a handy-dandy list of “What you can do” and “What you can’t do” in each state that drink-seeking travelers would pick up from the Field Guide:

Vermont: You cannot purchase a second drink if you have not finished your first nor participate in a game or contest that encourages excessive drinking. (Sorry UVA underclassmen.)

Alabama: This Southern state has some of the restrictive liquor laws in the union (they one they’d probably like to secede from again). Of its 67 counties, 25 are dry, though not completely: private clubs are allowed to sell to consumers and each one has at least one wet city.

Louisiana: God bless Louisiana and it’s 24/7 bars and open container laws and drive-thru daiquiri huts.

Tennessee: More than a third of its counties are dry but that only prevents the sale of alcohol, not the bootlegging of it. Interestingly, those dry counties “tend to have higher DUI arrests than wet counties.” The Jack Daniels Distillery, the oldest in the USA, is in dry Lynchburg. Unlike when I visited, now visitors are able to buy a commemorative bottle of JD’s sour mash whiskey but only at the gift shop. Fun bit of trivia: Mountain Dew was invented in Knoxville and originally featured the character “Willy the Hillbilly” firing his shotgun, possibly at another moonshiner, with the tagline, “zero proof hillbilly moonshine.”

Colorado: You can’t buy Santa any beer over three-two to persuade him to add you to his Nice list, nor can you beg for booze.

Incidentally, readers might even pick up some points of interest about their home states. I learned that here in Oregon, I cant bring an unfinished bottle of wine home from a restaurant and that I cannot use a beer bong in a bar (or surf while drunk, not that I’m able to surf stone-cold sober).

Niki Ganong will be at Belmont Station’s Biercafe on Saturday, May 2 from 1-3 p.m. selling and signing copies of her book. She’ll also conduct a tasting of IPAs from across the country. Come sample her selection of some of the country’s best IPAs — including Boulevard’s just released The Calling IPA.

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