Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink
by Randy Mosher
A Well-Brewed Book with a Good Head
A review by Doug Brown
I like beer. Ales in particular, and hoppy ales in very particular. Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Elder (and the rarer Pliny the Younger) are heaven in a glass to me. Several of my friends brew at home, but I'm a mere appreciator of the results of brewing. In general, though, I'm not a fan of beer books. They tend to be either mostly about homebrewing or encyclopedias of beer brands which are out of date as soon as they hit the shelves. But, in the gift shop of Stone Brewing in San Diego where we had gone for lunch and a pint, a homebrewer friend of mine picked up a copy of Tasting Beer and started flipping through it. He grabbed another one and handed it to me, saying simply, "This is really good." Indeed it is. If you enjoy a well-crafted pint and are looking for a general overview on beer and its appreciation, here's your book.
Tasting Beer begins with a historical overview of beer and then moves on to the sensory experience. Mosher covers olfactory and taste perception well, including a welcome debunking of the old "flavor zones of the tongue" myth. This is followed by a chapter on brewing, with sensory sidebars explaining which aromas are results of various steps (or mis-steps) in the brewing process. For instance, a cheesy aroma often discloses the presence of isovaleric acid ("Appropriateness: never"), which results from "Formation of organic acids during improper storage of hops. Also may be one of many aromas of a bacterial infection." Good one to remember.
The next chapter starts off with specific gravity and its relation to alcohol content. As a number, specific gravity tells how much denser the wort is from water, and it is often given on craft-beer labels. As Mosher puts it,
Gravity is a rough measure of the amount of alcohol that may end up in the finished beer. A good rule of thumb is that a 1.050 beer will be in the neighborhood of 5 percent; a 1.060 beer will be around 6 percent, and so on. However, this is a very rough measure.
Mosher follows this with a detailed analysis of beer color, including helpful color scales and charts of color ranges of various beer styles.
Presentation gets a chapter, from kegs to casks to all of the different glass types. Mosher presents a nice two-page spread of the various glass types, along with their strengths and weaknesses, and which beers are best presented in which glass. Sadly, he has little good to say about the Shaker Pint Glass (the typical American pint glass). More preferable is a glass with an inward taper near the top to collect aroma. Presentation is followed by the most tummy-rumbling chapter: "Beer and Food." Various taste interactions and pairings are discussed, along with many recommendations. Beer and cheese pairings get a couple of pages; cheese isn't just for wine any more. Mosher says stouts in general go well with aged Gouda, though a specific suggested Northwest pairing is Rogue Shakespeare Stout with Rogue Creamery's Smoky Blue cheese.
Much of the remainder of the book covers various beers styles, their histories, and their characteristics. For each style, there are recommended food pairings and several recommended examples. Flavor, aroma, and balance get their own headings, as well as technical characteristics like gravity range, alcohol range, color, and bitterness.
Tasting Beer is presented in an easy-on-the-eyes layout that encourages "open anywhere" dips, as well as more lengthy reading sessions. Plentiful sidebars present useful takeaway information that are enhancements rather than repetitions of the text. Beer quotes and lyrics from history are sprinkled throughout. The photos and illustrations are clear, engaging, and demonstrative. In short, this is just about the best book I've seen on the enjoyment of beer. It isn't intended to be an encyclopedic guide to every ale and beer; that's what RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com are for. Tasting Beer is about just that: how to taste beer with your eyes, nose, mouth, and brain. Highly recommended to my fellow quaffers out there.