Book Review – Strange Tales of Ale by Martyn Cornell

Strange Tales of Ale has no index or glossary but there isn’t really any need. The title of each section tells you everything about the content and the text states all references and sources. It would make looking for something quick work.

Martin Cornell writes concisely and economically. Each section is a different topic related to beer and the content stays within the scope of that topic. It draws neatly to a close when all investigative avenues have been followed. He goes through sources, puts hypotheses up to the light, finds holes in arguments and hunts down anachronism with the logic of a detective and the subtlety of a rugby quarterback. It’s about the facts not the nostalgia.

It’s both a light book and a heavy book: It’s slim and weightless in its hardback format but heavy in detail. If like me you have a line of the more visually oriented tomes of beer & glasswork porn on your bookshelf, than this diminutive but complete book will serve as a sober counterbalance. Reading it is like sipping a heavy bodied beer – the photogenic coffee table volumes (though I love them) are the froth and refraction.

Readers interested in etymology, food history, journalism and the classical world will all be sated by the breadth of research in this book. I take in a new fact roughly once each written line. This is a book that could be quoted in court. Like nature, he seems to abhor a vacuum and you won’t find text squeezed into the centre surrounded by wide margins or other areas of empty white. Also, like nature he’s a force. I can imagine The British Library looking like a tornado’s swept through it after he’s completed his research. This book is 99.9% content without waste. The tiny remainder represents quick little asides to the reader.

Some sections are just several pages long but reflect exactly how much can be said about the issue. One of my favourites for example, is about the origins of binge drinking as a term. I’ve rarely read something so short (just over 2.5 pages) that has divulged so much information with such clarity and this is Mr Cornell’s strength. 
A lengthier section on words for beer is proof of a passion for uprooting every available resource to get to the bottom of what might be an unanswerable question, in this case – where does the word beer come from? Early in the text words for beer in Europe are rounded up into four pens – cervesa, bier, pivo and ale. I had a moment of rising smugness as I knew the word in Georgian was different and envisaged getting in touch with the author to share this. This vainglory was quickly dashed when he came to that exact word and proceeded casually to teach me a history of the Alans (you’ll have to buy the book), of Georgia and its vocabulary before moving along with his enquiries. I was both deflated and in awe.

We can read about subjects that reach into modern times (see binge drinking), beer during the war, pubs in Victorian times and beer right back to antiquity. This would be an ideal guidebook for a time traveller – light enough not to add weight to the rucksack and invaluable in knowing what to order from the bar. I love picking it up, slaking my thirst for now and putting it down for later. I recommend this book and know that I’ll keep going back to it to make sure I’m repeating the facts rather than the myths.

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