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A heady batch of books about brew

(ran ST, TP editions)

Americans, always on diets, are drinking less beer these days so it might seem odd that there is an absolute explosion of new books on the sudsy subject.

It's probably because, while regular beer is stuck at a yearly 187-million barrels in the United States, specialty beers _ from Pete's Wicked Ale to Boar's Head Red _ have skyrocketed by 50 percent since 1994, according to Market Watch magazine.

So here are thumbnail reviews of a heady batch of the new books:

A Taste for Beer, by Stephen Beaumont (Storey, $14.95). Beaumont, a veteran brew writer, provides a concise description of North American beer styles from amber ale (malty, light, easy drinking) to porter (strong, sweet, nearly black).

He argues: "Wine snobs trumpet the "sophistication' of fermented grape juice relative to the alchemic magic of beer, but beer is far more versatile at the table than wine."

His beer-food matches: a crisp, light ale with hors d'oeuvres, a hoppy pilsner with cream soups, a rich British pale ale with medium-rare steak, a roasty dunkel or dry bock with barbecued salmon and a sweet and dusky stout with chocolate desserts. Watch out, Beaumont; we wine snobs will get you for that.

The Beer Lover's Rating Guide, by Bob Klein (Workman, $9.95). Klein, a former beer newsletter editor, gives his personal tasting notes on 1,200 beers, from Norway's Ringnes Export Pale Pilsener ("warm, mellow. . . a cer-tain roundness. . . very good with Buffalo wings") to St. Paul, Minn.'s Gila Monster Lager ("aromaless and tasteless. . . washed out. . . seems to have been thrown together").

Yes, yes, Bob, but did you like it?

The Encyclopedia of Beer, Christine P. Rhodes, editor (Holt, $35). If you're really, really into beer, this is an indispensable reference.

From "Abbaye," a rare ale fermented by Trappist monks, to "Zymurgy," the science of fermentation, it defines 900 beer terms. If you need to know that "China ale" is a home-brewed English ale flavored with China root or that "God is good" is an old English term for yeast, coined by imbibers supremely thankful for beer's intoxicating qualities, then this is your book.

Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries, by Gregg Smith (Avon, $11). This true believer traces the old brewski back 6,000 years, when Man the Wanderer first put down roots in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"Even more important," he argues, "anthropologists suspect man chose the area deliberately because of what would become an indispensable item _ beer!"

Boy, were Marx and Engels barking up the wrong tree.

Secret Life of Beer: Legends, Lore & Little-Known Facts, by Alan D. Eames (Storey, $9.95). This will make you the chattiest (although possibly least-popular) person in the bar as you spout Eames' trivial pursuit of everything you didn't know about beer.

Did you know that the Mayflower quit looking for a better spot and landed at Plymouth Rock because it had run out of beer? That alewives in Colonial America brewed a high-octane "groaning ale" for mothers-to-be to swig while in labor?

Warning: Don't try these as pick-up lines.

Dave Miller's Homebrewing Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Make Great-Tasting Beer, (Storey, $14.95). A serious, straightforward and complete guide to beer making, from the nuts-and-bolts (a list of the 14 most important pieces of equipment for making beer) to the super-scientific (a nifty drawing of the molecular structure of the amino acids in beer).

Read this and you can quit your day job.

Home Brew: Techniques and Recipes for the Home Brewer, by Philip Ward (Lyons & Burford, $12.95). Briefer than the 358-page tome by Miller above, this 160-page soft-cover covers much of the same territory and gives recipes for a number of home brews, from malty India Traditional Pale Ale to Belgian-style "Saison."

It also offers recipes for cooking with beer, from carbonade de boeuf a la Flamande (Flemish beef stew) to moules a la biere (French mussels cooked in beer).

Enough to make you hungry and thirsty.

Great Beer From Kits, by Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher (Storey, $14.95). These ardent home brewers describe the TV-dinner style of home brewing.

Instead of from scratch, as in the other two books, they start with store-bought "kits" _ cans of liquid malt extract or fuller packages with malt extract, hops and other ingredients and tell you where to go from there.

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