To Brew or Not to Brew, by Joyce Tremel


Title: To Brew or Not to Brew: A Brewing Trouble Mystery

Author: Tremel, Joyce (Author’s Website)

Genre: Cozy mystery, mystery, culinary mystery, gentle reads

Bibliographic: Berkley, 304 pages, Paperback List Price $7.99, ISBNs 9780425277690, 9780698181748

Publication Date: December 1, 2015

Rating: ★★★☆☆/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Cozy, clean

Why I picked it up: The author’s son is a friend of mine.

S.I.A.S.: Max keeps finding bodies in her microbrewery, and needs to find the murderer before her grand opening is derailed.

Summary: After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Maxine “Max” O’Hara went to Germany to earn her brewmaster certification. Now she’s back in her native Pittsburgh, mere weeks away from the opening of her very own brewpub, but strange things keep happening. Most recently, there’s a crack in the water line, which Max and her assistant-slash-Chef Kurt suspect was put there on purpose. Later that evening, Kurt calls Max to say that he knows who’s been sabotaging their business. When Max shows up at the brewpub, she’s annoyed at first when Kurt isn’t there, then devastated to find his body inside of the mash tun.

Her father, a homicide detective, thinks that Kurt’s death was an accident, but Max isn’t so sure. With the help of her book club, her many brothers, and her childhood-friend-slash-new-chef-slash-love-interest Jake, Max sets out to discover who is trying to prevent her from opening. Is it the crotchety owner of the local dive bar? His equally curmudgeonly best friend? The zealous leader of the local historic preservation group? Max is sure that one of them is guilty, and she’s not going to stop digging until she finds out who.

Evaluation:  I am very much not the target audience for this book — I’ve never read a cozy mystery before, and I don’t drink alcohol at all (and therefore have no interested in brewing or craft beer). Even so, I found this to be an enjoyable read. The writing is good and straightforward. The pace moves well, and I never felt like it was dragging. The plot was a little bit predictable, even to someone new to the genre — I was fairly sure that Dominic Costello (the owner of the local dive bar) was a red herring, and I can’t say I was surprised when he also turned up dead. I figured out who the “bad guy” was pretty early on — the only thing that I wasn’t sure of was if he acted alone. I’m not sure if that’s common in this genre or not, but I can see how that might appeal –it’s kind of nice to know going in that Max is going to figure it out and things will be okay.

The place this book really shone was in the cast of supporting characters — Max’s book club is made up primarily of other local business owners, and honestly their vibe kind of reminded me of Gilmore Girls. The two brothers we meet provided good context for Max’s and Jake’s characters, and helped the reader to understand their history. The only characters who I would say weren’t well-developed were the three potential villains (and the actual villain), but they seemed to be tropes and that may just be a convention of the genre.

One other thing worth mentioning — I don’t know anything about brewing or different types of beer, and Ms. Tremel does a  pretty good job of explaining the brewing terms she uses (although I did have to look up what a mash tun was). Jake, second most important character, knows nothing about craft brewing, and so Max is able to explain to him what she’s doing and why — this was a really good device, and a really unobtrusive way to make sure that readers knew what was going on without breaking up the story.

Significance: This book is the first in a series (the second will be published October 4, 2016).

Readalikes: Wedding Cake Murder, by Jessica Fluke. The Whole Enchilada, by Diane Mott Davidson. Devonshire Scream, by Laura Childs.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Why do you think people have such a hard time accepting the idea of a female brewmaster? Do Max’s characteristics — her masculine name and her “boy hair” — change the way people react to her?
  2. Were you surprised at who the murderer turned out to be? Why or why not?
  3. At the end, Max decides to offer her secret tunnels for the creation of a brewing history museum. Were you surprised? Do you agree with Max that continuing to create beer in the building is the best way to honor its historical legacy?
  4. Do you think Hops is a good name for a cat with a broken leg? What would you have named it?
  5. Could this story have been set anywhere other than Pittsburgh? How does the setting impact the plot?

Lists and Awards:  None.

Professional Reviews:  Pittsburgh Magazine. RT Book Reviews. Pittsburgh Tribune.

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