Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher is an excellent overview of the subject of beer. Randy is a beer expert, having penned several books, taught beer style courses at the Siebel Institute, and been a leader of the both the Chicago Beer Society and the American Homebrewers Association.. At this summer's Philly Beer Week I am hoping to sign up for one of his guided tastings.
The book takes you through the whole story of beer. Randy starts you out in ancient times, noting that by 3000 BCE, the Sumerians were producing several beer styles, including a diet beer called "eb-la," which means "lessens the waist." From the crash history course he moves on to explains the science of sensory evaluation, the brewing process, and how to taste and judge beer. There is a whole chapter on serving beer, which highlights the importance of temperature and appropriate glassware. And there is a chapter on beer and food pairing, which serves as an excellent introduction to the subject. Then he moves on to the tricky nature of style descriptions, providing details, history, and description of all major styles.
The book is full of fascinating information, pictures, and tidbits. Maybe you already realized why wine is the drink of countries such as France and Spain, but for those of us a little behind the 8 ball Randy gives us a nice map of "The Grape Line," above which barley was much more suited to stand up to the cooler climes and therefore beer the drink of choice (Think countries such as Germany, Czech Republic, Great Britain). His writing style is simple and straightforward, even when getting into scientific jargon such as attenuation and acetaldehyde. Probably the most important thing I learned from this book is how to properly pour a beer. I was always told to pour down the side of a glass to minimize the head, but this is incorrect. You should pour right down the center, letting the bubbles release, even if it takes longer to pour. This creates a "dense, creamy foam," which not only looks better but also results in a beer that is creamier and more like draft beer.
Tasting Beer would be a good read for a beer expert or a novice, but it's ideally suited for someone with a bit more than a passing interest. Someone who enjoys craft beer and wants to learn a bit more about how that Belgian Trippel made in New Jersey found it's way into your glass in the 21st century.