How do I learn a LOT about beer in a short amount of time?
December 14, 2009 9:56 PM   Subscribe

I need links to interesting websites and enjoyable books about the history of and current practices of beer making and beer tasting. I start a new bartending job soon, and I may have scored it by pretending to know more than I really do about brew.

I currently work at a bar, and have had extensive service industry experience, but the new job involves a super extensive list of bottles from around the world and a changing lineup of relatively unusual drafts. We've been warned that brewers and booze snobs will be among our regulars and that we all need to brush up on our factoids if we're going to really pull through as staff members. I'm in Chicago, so if you are too, think HopLeaf restaurant (it's not there, but I'd rather not give away my identity/location cuz I don't wanna be haggled!).

I'm hoping to start with fun to read literature. Something along the lines of "Salt-A World History" but about beer. I know that there are tons of guides out there, and that this question is highly google-able, but I'm hoping for suggestions that you have personally read, enjoyed, and been enlightened by. I know too that they key is TASTING all of these beers, but I need to know more about what I'm tasting and how to describe it. I need to be a beer nerd starting tomorrow! And yes, I already love and enjoy beer, that's not a problem. I'm just a bit of a n00b when it comes to critical analysis and meaningful beer-related chitchat. Help!
posted by macrowave to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This may be extremely lazyweb of me, but I think Wikipedia's beer entries give a decent primer--close enough for most purposes, at any rate. I'd start by learning the difference between a lager and an ale and go from there.

Also, while I don't contribute to the site, the Beer Advocate is almost always among the highest-ranked pages for my beer searches, and the reviews are very informative. That's another good starting point.

Since you asked for one, I'll recommend a book, but with the caveat that I haven't read it, so be forewarned. Michael Jackson (no, not that one) is a highly-regarded beer writer, and his World Guide to Beer is one of the canonical tomes.
posted by tellumo at 10:20 PM on December 14, 2009

I recently came across a series of blog posts by a guy called Josh Christie, reviewing the essential bookshelf of beer-related books. He has broken it down into categories:

Memoirs and Travelogues

(to which I would add Pete Brown's Hops and Glory, which I believe hasn't been released in the US yet, but can be ordered from the UK. It's about beer, history and a lot of other vaguely related stuff. A fun romp through the history of a classic style.

Beer Guides

I run a brewery in England. One of my beers features in the first title :-)

Homebrewing Books

(to which I would add Ray Daniels's Designing Great Beers, which is my go-to book for recipe construction and takes apart all of the ingredients in depth and technically, but not too deep for the lay reader. Masses of great information.

Odds and Ends

I also agree with tellumo that Jackson's World Guide is a great background on beers in general. I suspect it's getting a bit dated. I would add any of Tim Webb's books on Belgian beers. The latest, I believe, is Good Beer Guide Belgium.
posted by sagwalla at 12:40 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, Josh Christie mentions in passing the Cicerone programme for becoming a certified beer server. This might be another good resource for you.
posted by sagwalla at 12:45 AM on December 15, 2009

In addition to your course of beer literature, I bet you could glean a lot of beer geek information FROM the regulars, by adopting an "active listening" approach to the job for a while. There will surely be at least some people who will be much happier to tell you their opinions on beer, rather than hear yours! Just think of some gently probing beer-related questions to start them off with.
posted by emilyw at 2:43 AM on December 15, 2009

Seconding Ray Daniels's Designing Great Beers -- hugely informative book covering style ingredients and techniques. Also, of course, just drink a lot of beer!
posted by wrok at 5:44 AM on December 15, 2009

Adding on to emilyw's suggestion, as a beer geek I'd be happy to share my opinion with a bartender who at least seemed like they wanted to hear it. I honestly don't expect a bartender, even in a good beer bar, to know as much as I do about beer in general. I've spent a long time tasting and brewing beer to get the knowledge that I do have. I would expect a bartender to know a bit about what they're currently serving, though, and understand the basic differences between the styles.

I'd concentrate on the basics: differences between ales and lagers, the different styles of each, and the contribution of different grains, hops and yeast to the beer. For instance, knowing that stout is so dark and roasty tasting because of healthy amount of darkly roasted malted and/or unmalted barley. If you don't know already, learn a few key ideas about beer flavor - malty, hoppy (and why it might be different than bitter), roasty, sweet and know how they relate to the beers you are currently serving.

Good luck!
posted by mollweide at 5:53 AM on December 15, 2009

To learn about the general characteristics of specific styles, visit the Beer Judge Certification Program's style guidelines page.
posted by cog_nate at 6:25 AM on December 15, 2009

You could look at Randy Mosher's book, "Tasting Beer".

"The Brewmaster's Table" by Garrett Oliver is about pairing foods and beers, a topic that a lot of your good beer snobs will be interested in. You don't say if the new job is another bar, or if it's a bar at a restaurant, but beer geeks like to talk pairing food and beer.

And I am going to second the notion of looking into Ray Daniels's Cicerone program. It was invented for exactly the position you're in. A cicerone is to beer what a sommelier is to wine. Maybe down the line a bit you could see about going through some of the coursework.
posted by bDiddy at 6:54 AM on December 15, 2009

You guys have been great. Off to the bookstore, and ready to listen to the intimidating customers. Thanks a bunch.
posted by macrowave at 11:05 AM on December 15, 2009

If you can find the documentary American Brew (try youtube), you should watch it - it's a great, concise history of beer in America.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:08 AM on December 15, 2009

Thirding Designing Great Beers. I've been brewing beer only for about the past 6 months or so, and while I'm not making recipes from scratch yet, the book helped a lot in developing a sense of why beers are different. I also remember things better if I know the story behind them, and learning the history of various styles was really great for me.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:35 PM on December 15, 2009

For a very readable (but UK centered) take, try Pete Brown's Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer.
posted by zamboni at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009

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