Breweries are opening in the United States at the rate of 1.5 per day, says the Brewers Association, a trade group representing small brewers. With this boom has come a similar explosion in the publication of books about beer. Here are three that are sure to quench the beer lover’s thirst for knowledge.
“The Beer Bible,” by Jeff Alworth (Workman Publishing, $19.95), bills itself as “the essential beer lover’s guide.” It is an apt description. Rich in history, culture, flavors and service, this all-encompassing beer primer offers something for every level of beer enthusiast, from novice to master brewer.
Alworth starts with the basics: what beer is, how it is made and how one should taste it. Especially helpful is a section on deciphering the odd codes — IBU, ABV and SRM, among others — that appear on many beer labels. A historical overview tells the story of beer from ancient times, through the Industrial Revolution, the brewery consolidations of the late 20th century, and the renaissance of modern craft brewing.
The bulk of the book’s 600 pages is given over to a comprehensive look at beer styles. These are grouped into broad categories such as porters and stouts or abbey and Trappist ales, which are then further divided into sub-styles. Alworth starts with the vital statistics for each style, including numbers such as original gravity, alcohol percentage, and bittering units. He then goes on to tell the origins of each style and describe special brewing methods where applicable. Each style gets a rundown of its basic characteristics and recommendations of classic examples. He includes amusing historical anecdotes, such as the great porter flood of 1814, and interesting technical notes, like why the foam on a stout appears to cascade downward.
“The Beer Bible” finishes with a section on the beer drinking experience. There are chapters on selecting the proper glassware, beer service and storage, pairing beer with food, and world beer culture. A section on beer tourism offers recommendations of places to visit and beers to try in some of the world’s great beer-producing regions.
“The Beer and Food Companion,” by Stephen Baumont (Jacqui Small, $35), shines in its exploration of the culture of beer and food. “Beer has been in existence for at least 10,000 years,” Baumont writes. “And humans have, by definition, been eating for much longer than that. So it’s only logical that the two would have met, matched and become intertwined along the way.”
He goes on to describe that cultural and culinary entanglement as it manifests in settings from the British pub to the German beer hall and Belgian cuisine a la bière. As food and beer developed in tandem, natural affinities arose, resulting in such classic pairings as English bitter with fish and chips or Japanese rice lager with miso soup.
There is an extensive section on cooking with beer that includes suggestions for incorporating beer into a number of cooking techniques such as brining, braising and making condiments. Beer chef profiles give insights into how the pros are tackling the marriage of beer and food. Recipes from each chef give readers the opportunity to put those insights to the test.
“Beer Pairing,” by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley (Voyageur Press, $25), is for those interested in the nitty-gritty how and why of pairing beer with food. Herz and Conley begin by admonishing readers to chuck the “pair this with that” mentality and instead “embrace sensory anarchy.” They acknowledge that each of us is genetically equipped with different sensory apparatus, making taste highly subjective. Only by disrupting routine and trying a lot of different flavor combinations can each person find the pairings that work for them.
But the authors aren’t advocating chaos. They go into a detailed analysis of the sensory mechanics of flavor, laying a basis of knowledge to guide the exploration. They give a thorough explanation of how the brain constructs flavor from the separate sensations of taste, smell and touch. Sensory exercises allow readers to experience this process firsthand.
Although Herz and Conley do give examples of specific beer and food combinations, the section on pairing is more about understanding the elements that go into creating a great pairing. They give the clearest definitions that I have read of the basic pairing principles — bridge, complement, contrast and cut. Tables of possible flavor interactions provide guidance on how elements such as sour, salt, bitterness and sweetness work together in beer and food combinations.
Especially instructive are the “palate trips,” which are circular, sensory journeys that take readers through real-life explorations of these interactions. Each guided trip involves three to four beers and a similar number of foods. Sampling around the plate affords the reader an actual experience of each interaction, letting them taste for themselves which combinations create magic and which ones are train wrecks.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.