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Travels with Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in America” By Ken Wells (Free Press, 320 pages, $24) America has always been the setting for epic quests, from Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth to Lewis & Clark’s exploration of the uncharted West. In “Travels with Barley,” Ken Wells wanders the country looking for a considerably more prosaic Eldorado: what he calls the “Perfect Beer Joint.” Bars are ubiquitous, but Wells is after something more — a place where the right ambience, clientele, music, and beer selection come together to make an ideal social space. Wells’s travelogue is only half of his book, however. He also explores the culture and business of beer, from multinational corporate brewers to home brewing clubs to the loosely defined demographic of what he calls “Beer People.” Wells is a premier example of such a person. He writes that his first taste of beer at age 11 — a swig from his father’s Falstaff — led to a lifelong passion for beer. But he brings more than enthusiasm to his subject. What gives “Travels with Barley” its substance is Wells’ considerable skills as a business reporter. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, he joined The Wall Street Journal the same year and has written many of its quirky front-page features since then. The bulk of “Travels with Barley” is an account of a trip Wells took through the Mississippi River valley in search of the perfect bar. From Minneapolis to New Orleans, he deftly describes the people and places that he encountered along the way. In alternating chapters Wells discourses on various topics of beer miscellany, which makes for a disjointed read. But the reporting is solid and the characters are amusing, and the book manages to be informative and entertaining even for people who prefer Pinot Noir to Pabst Blue Ribbon. Wells’ background as a business reporter especially comes in handy when he looks at the $75 billion-a-year beer industry, dominated by Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., Miller Brewing Co. (now SABMiller plc), and Adolph Coors Co. (currently working on a merger with Molson Inc.). Wells spends the most time on Anheuser-Busch, an obvious choice since the company makes one out of every two beers purchased in the United States. Anheuser-Busch didn’t become the “king of beers” by accident, Wells shows. Rather, it has relied on an aggressive business strategy to win market share in what Wells refers to as the “Lager Wars.” Proving that no market is too small, in 1994 the company made inroads into the world of microbrews — which comprise a small but growing percentage of the beer market — by developing its own version of craft brews and buying a minority interest in two popular microbreweries. To ensure that these and other products are well publicized, Anheuser-Busch spent $413.4 million on advertising in 2002 alone, more than any other beer company in the world. But in “Travels with Barley,” the beer business is less interesting than the beer consumers that Wells meets in his journey. Jimmy Paige, for example, is the “Grand Wazoo” of the “Foam Rangers,” a Houston-based home brewing club; his pickup truck bears a bumper sticker that says “Save the Ales.” Maribeth Raines-Casselman, according to Wells, is “one of the nation’s acknowledged beer yeast experts.” Along with her husband, she brewed a stout from the emulsified remains of their chocolate wedding cake. And then there’s Kent, whom Wells meets on a tour of the Budweiser plant in St. Louis, and who has taken the hour-long tour several times solely to receive two complimentary beers at the end. In several cities, Wells finds bars that seem like they could be his perfect beer joint. But for reasons that he never clearly articulates, each candidate ultimately falls short. The book doesn’t suffer because of it, though. “Travels with Barley” takes a broad look at beer culture, and finds something for every reader. Beer aficionados will appreciate the history of beer culture and the examination of the beer industry. They will undoubtedly recognize some of the beer-swilling patrons and varying obsessions with hops and yeast. The book has a certain appeal for nondevotees as well, simply by providing a look at an interesting slice of America, albeit through a sometimes foamy lens. Coster is a staff reporter with The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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