Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Brew to Bikes

A few weeks ago I was sent a PDF of the book Brew to Bikes: Portland's Artisan Economy, edited by Charles Heying and published by PSU's Ooligan Press.  Here's the publisher's description of the book:

Dissatisfied with passive consumption, many residents of Portland, OR, take matters into their own hands. Associate Professor of Urban Studies Charles Heying noticed these local artisans prospering all over the city and set out to study their thriving economy. Profiling hundreds of local businesses, and with an eye on Portland’s unique penchant for sustainability and urban development, Brew to Bikes is about everything from bike manufacturers to microbreweries, from do-it-yourself to traditional crafts. A treatise to local, ethical business practices, Brew to Bikes positions Portland as a hub of artisan ingenuity worthy of admiration.

It sounded like it was right up my alley.  Well, I'm not necessarily opposed to passive consumption, whatever that means, but I'm a big fan of microbrews, bicycle transportation, and buying local, and those things are near the top of my list of reasons why I love Portland.  Heck, I had just recently received my own artisan bicycle, handmade here in Portland by Tony Pereira.

It pains me to pan this book, but I can't really give Brew to Bikes much of a recommendation.  It begins with a little bit of philosophical introduction by Prof. Heying, followed by a dozen chapters written by PSU students about various artisan industries in Portland, and ending with a couple of chapters of recommendations to policymakers and civic leaders here and elsewhere.  In the Introduction -- which reads peculiarly like a sales pitch for the book -- the intended audience is described as (paraphrasing here) "Locals who love Portland... city planners, consultants, and developers... academic courses in popular culture, community and economic development, urban sociology".

It's hard to imagine any of those potential readers finding much to sink their teeth into.  It's not a coffee-table book, with colorful illustrations of this exciting time in the life of a great city.  It's not a scholarly work that researches how Portland's artisan economy came to be -- in particular, it doesn't have any grounding in Economics, despite its subtitle.  Portland history buffs would be disappointed in the book as well: for example, a fan of Portland beer who read the chapter entitled "Brew" would be annoyed by the inaccuracies and gaps in that chapter.  I guess the city planner angle makes a little bit of sense, especially the next-to-last chapter which sums up the book with some insightful recommendations on how a city can foster or build upon homegrown industries.

If you're someone who lives elsewhere but has visited Portland and likes what our city has to offer, you might enjoy reading the vast middle section of the book, which provides overviews of several artisan sectors such as beer, food, fashion, bikes, coffee, and distilling.  These chapters are written at about the depth of an article in an in-flight magazine:  they drop lots of names of businesses and the people involved to give you a nice sampling of what's unique in Portland, without pretending to cover any topic completely.  That level of presentation makes sense for an out-of-town visitor, though you'll have to wipe your brow at the occasional howler, like this one in the section on the Free Geek computer-recycling collective:  "When regular Joe buys a sexy new laptop from a big-box store, he may plug it in at home and be so completely baffled by all its cutting-edge software that he never turns it on again."  Uh, say what?  How did a frankly bizarre, clearly false bit of hyperbole like that make it past the author's rough draft, the book's editor, and the editor at the publishing house?  It makes me worried about the factual content of the rest of the book.  Still, if you want a quick, airline magazine-style taste of Portland, you might appreciate the middle section of Brew to Bikes.

On the other hand, Portlanders might well be put off by these "in-flight" chapters, especially those on topics they have some familiarity about.  Readers of It's Pub Night would be smacking their foreheads to read that Portland has been called "Beer City USA" (Charlie Papazian's annual poll has never picked Portland), or that the industrial brewing practice of padding out the grain bill with rice was imported from Bohemia, or that whereas Widmer and Portland Brewing consolidated with other breweries, Bridgeport has remained an independent brewery (Texas-based Gambrinus has owned Bridgeport since 1995).  And, while I love this city as much as anyone, the self-congratulatory tone of most of the book is a bit much at times.

Check it out if you need a broad but shallow intro to Portlandia chic.  Meanwhile, keep drinking those brews and riding those bikes.  [Click here to buy Brew to Bikes from Powell's Books.]

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