Author RJ Willow’s collection of weird and whacky short stories center on a floating city and a hidden brewery.
Over the years, our Bookshelf column has featured a wide array of beer books covering nearly all topics in the industry, from deep dives into the history of libations and the desire for ancient civilizations to imbibe, to the story of a U.S. Senator charting his path from brewpub entrepreneur to a life in politics. However, if any were to accuse Heady Times of a blind spot in our coverage, it might be the lack of reviews of the elusive fictional beer book.
That’s why we were so happy to be made aware of RJ Willow’s book of short stories, The Brewing Cloud. Willow, an independent author based in Oxford, England, has written a charming collection of short stories all centering on a fantastical floating city where all inhabitants are involved, in one way or another, in beer and brewing.
The whimsical tales follow an eclectic group of characters, from a hop farmer who finds a beer bottle that grants good luck, to a barley and hop plant who discuss the nature of love. An easy and delightful read (when, of course, paired with your favorite beer) the comical vignettes and stories weave together, each uncovering new and mischievous adventures.
By placing his collection of short stories firmly in the genre of fantasy, Willow is able to highlight, poke fun at and oftentimes subvert some of the classic craft beer tropes in wildly amusing ways. In True Love, a young man named Jonah spends the afternoon inside The Crow’s Nest, a neighborhood bar with “twenty-four taps of liquid gold; the rarest bottles bought and sold.”
He has his sights set on a bottle of emily, which sits high on a shelf. The chocolate and orange blossom stout was brewed by the mysterious Dr. Wunder (a recurring character throughout the collection of stories) to commemorate the birth of his only daughter. It also happens to be the rarest bottle of beer in existence.
Willow’s depiction of Jonah’s (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with obtaining this extraordinary beer will likely be familiar to any craft beer geek who has gone to the ends of the earth to try that hyped-up brew that seems perpetually out of reach.
Another tale surrounding a mysterious beer is The Skeleton, which follows a young woman who, when digging a trench to plant hops on her 100-acre farm, finds the remains of a creature (possibly alien?) clutching a glowing green bottle. Soon, the farmer learns that her puzzling beer bottle may possess magic powers – but a tragic end might just be in store for those who try to wield it.
And the story Vampire Brewing finds Meghan Campbell, the proprietor of the titular brewery, considering a tempting offer from a mysterious, hooded figure at her bar proposing to buy her business. An allegory for small, independent breweries who sell off their business to larger corporations, no doubt.
Willow’s stories toe the line of whimsical entertainment and sharp examinations of the current state of the beer industry. And at just 124 pages, the collection of short stories can be enjoyed in one sitting at your local corner bar.
Fans of The Brewing Cloud will be happy to know it represents the first installment in an anthology of stories Willow is calling the Arcane Substances Trilogy.