Remember when you thought beer was gross? Not at all like the golden elixir you’d imagined? Beer was probably not immediately beguiling; it rarely is. But at some point, you presumably got past the initially off-putting impressions, and your palate acclimated to a beverage that is prized for a complex interplay of sweet and bitter. That was the first big step on the path to loving and appreciating the wide variety of flavors modern beer offers.
Here are two books about beer and flavor that will nudge you forward if you feel you’ve hit a plateau on your beer journey. One explores pairing beer with food, and the other is a treatise on all things bitter.
"Beer Pairing: the Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros" — Julia Herz, Gwen Conley (Voyager Press, $25)
Craft beer experts Julia Herz and Gwen Conley blend science, practice and inspiration into a guidebook for marrying food and beer. The 220-page volume is not the kind of food book you casually leaf through, looking for inspiration before heading to the market. It’s a workbook that demands careful attention. Which isn’t to say it’s a drab text; it is filled with wonderful beer and food photography alongside charts and tables that help illustrate the concepts behind the pairings. It’s a book aimed at beer geeks, with plenty of technical details and scientific exposition along with profiles of some of the beer industry's leaders.
The books starts with information on how beer is made and how beer flavor is perceived, followed by insight on how to mindfully taste and talk about beer. If you’re new to flavor science, expect to be surprised by the revelation that there’s more to our taste buds than just sweet, salty, sour and bitter. By the third chapter, the authors are introducing charts and scales to help you quantify exactly what you’re tasting in a beer before launching into specific practices and guidelines for creating your own pairings.
There's also a brief look at cooking with beer, and suggestions for devising a whole menu’s worth of coherent pairings for a beer dinner. “Beer Pairing” explores the details of just how and why some foods and brews go so well together, and it manages it with a voice that is authoritative and approachable.
"Bitter" — Jennifer McLagan (10 Speed Press, $30)
Beer and bitterness are inexorably tied together. Hops, the essential beer ingredients that have fueled the modern craft beer industry, are prized for the bitterness they lend to beer. A love for bitter flavors is undeniably an acquired taste, and developing the appreciation for them can be rewarding. It can open a whole new world of flavor combinations to experience. Slickly styled and crisply written, “Bitter” is part investigation of the wild allure of bitter flavors, part cookbook and part exploration of the science of human senses that will teach you to love “the world’s most dangerous flavor.”
Jennifer McLagan, who also wrote “Fat” and “Bones,” assembles dozens of recipes for everything from the mundane (Brussels sprouts, bitter greens) to the exotic (Seville oranges, cardoons) and presents them frankly and without apologies for their assertive flavors (Fernet Branca chicken livers anyone?). There’s a whole chapter on bitter drinks in which, of course, beer is explored (including recipes for beer soup, beer-glazed carrots and even beer jelly), and any beer lover will find plenty to explore beyond the beer-specific content. The ideas and recipes inside “Bitter” complement the techniques explored in “Beer Pairing” and offer ample opportunity to practice the skills learned from the latter text.
The book's recipes are inventive and fun, but it’s the examination of our perception of bitterness that’s the real meat here. The well-researched and insightful commentary on history, taste, sensory organs and our psychology is as compelling as the staggeringly beautiful food photography (by Aya Brackett) packed into the book. McLagan’s passion for food and for flavor is infectious, and even if you’re averse to bitter foods, you can find inspiration in “Bitter.”