Test the waters
Let me start this off by giving the best advice I can to any of you who are just starting out drinking craft beer – just get out to a bar and try some beers. Not too many beers, mind you – just try two or three that sound interesting to you, or the bartender recommends based on your taste, and then next weekend try a few more. Eventually, you’ll get an idea for what you like and what you don’t. No one can tell you what the best beer in the world is, because it’s different for every person. Sure, if you take a certain set of criteria and judge beers, then you can objectively state that one beer is better than another. But if you find something you like, then there’s nothing wrong with that, even if someone tells you it’s a bad beer.
Try, Try Again
The most frustrating thing to hear when you take a friend to a bar is “I don’t like beer.” There are simply too many beers out there to be able to make that statement with confidence. So, if you’ve been burned by a bad beer and you’re hesitant to jump back in, don’t be. Just keep in mind what it is that you didn’t like about that beer, and shoot for something else. As you refine your palate and get to know what it is you’re tasting, circle back to that first beer and see if you change your mind. If you do, great! If not, that’s cool too. The best thing about beer is, there’s always something you haven’t tried.
Now, let’s drill down to the core of craft beer and define what it truly is – and what it isn’t.
What craft beer is (and what it’s not)
A cursory Google search will tell you that for a brewery to be “craft” it has to produce 2 million barrels or fewer each year. An easier way to figure it out is simply to know what’s local, and if it’s not local, if it’s affiliated with a macro brewery – one of the major American breweries that falls under the umbrella of Anheuser-Busch InBev or SABMiller. You know them well. Bud, Miller, Coors and so on. And be careful – there are some beers out there that aren’t quite what they seem. Beers like Blue Moon and Shock Top are red herrings – they boast about their unique ingredients and their care for refined flavor, but in reality, they’re subsets of major breweries. Blue Moon? Owned and distributed by Coors. Shock Top? Anheuser-Busch. We won’t get into why these macro breweries do this for now – that’s a different story for a different time.
Now, once you’ve determined what beers are available to you, and which ones are craft, you have a decision to make – well, lots of decisions, but the first one is simple. Ale? Or lager? Seem a little too simple? Let me explain.
All beers deviate from either an ale or a lager, with a pretty large favoring on the ale side of things. The difference between an ale and a lager is, simply, whether the beer was made with top fermenting yeast or bottom fermenting yeast. There’s also a nominal temperature difference when brewing each type – ales are fermented warm (55-70 degrees Fahrenheit) while lagers are fermented colder (38-50 degrees Fahrenheit). What does this mean for you, the drinker, in terms of flavors? Well, to categorize ales and lagers by flavor profile at this general of a level is somewhat of a fool’s errand, but generally speaking ales are more robust and aromatic, and include the fruitier, bitterer beers, while lagers are usually described as being crisp, light and clean. Now, by no means does this serve to describe the flavor of any given beer you pick up – these are just sweeping generalizations. To determine what to expect from that bourbon barrel-aged stout you’re holding, you’ll need to drill deeper into the beer family tree.
Let’s start with lagers, since there’s significantly less taxonomy to pick apart. Lagers can be broken out into three main categories – dark lagers, pale lagers and bocks. Dark lagers, like dunkels and Schwarzbiers are lightly hopped and despite their dark color, aren’t particularly heavy or thick. (Side note: the color of beer is never solely an indicator for how thick, heavy, caloric or alcoholic a beer is). Pale lagers are more readily recognizable, and include your staples like Pilsners and American light lagers. If you’re accustomed to American macro lights, you’ll feel right at home here. And finally, bocks are typically brown to black in appearance and usually heavier on maltiness than hoppiness (think Shiner Bock). And that’s the basic rundown on lagers, aside from the occasional outlier like smoked, or “rauch” beers.
Let’s jump into ales. Buckle up.
Ales are where beer started, centuries and centuries ago. They’ve had generations of brewers tinker with their flavors, and as a result, there are nearly endless styles it lays claim to. I won’t list every single one – that would be pointless. Instead, I’ll break it down into its most general categories.
On the dark side (cue Vader breathing) you’ve got brown ales, porters and stouts. Think of these as the three brothers of dark beer, since they’re all very closely related. Porters and stouts are especially similar, since stouts were originally identified as “stout porters” or, stronger porters. This doesn’t necessarily hold true in every instance today, but the takeaway is that you’re going to see a lot of similar flavors and crossovers between the two. Porters and stouts are the brewers go-to for carrying flavors like chocolate, coffee and vanilla. They’re earthy and robust – a far cry from American light beer. Brown ales are like porters with the dial turned back a little bit. They’re dark, but have a medium body and usually have nutty flavors. With all three, you’re far less likely to be able to describe any of them as “hoppy”, though it’s not impossible.
Moving to the light, bright side of things, we’ll start with pale ales – arguably one of the most popular styles in craft beer today. Pale ales are almost always bitter – some of them (like imperial and double IPAs) are so bitter you’ll need to sit down and contemplate whether or not you think Nyquil is sweet. Don’t let that deter you, though. Once you’ve acquired the taste for bitter beer, there’s really no going back. This style includes bitters, or extra special bitters, American pale ales and the reigning king of hoppy beer, the India Pale Ale, more commonly known as the IPA. Since the IPA is the most prominent style here, that’s the one I’ll focus on.
India Pale Ales, despite the name, aren’t Indian. They get their name from their travels to India in the early 18th century. Beers making the great journey from Europe to India needed to meet certain criteria to survive the trip and be drinkable, and hops acted as sort of preservative, allowing the beer to retain its flavorful splendor over the 18-month sea voyage. With refrigerated shipping and the emergence of, well, modern technology, this is no longer necessary. Alas, the name stuck, and we have what is now known across the globe as the IPA. They’re excessively hoppy, bright, bitter and carry floral aromas. You’re bound to find a plethora of IPAs and pale ales at any beer bar worth its salt, since almost every brewery in the USA has at least one on tap. Brewers don’t generally experiment with their pale ales by way of adding outside flavors like coffee or fruit (though there are a few exciting experiments out there), so they achieve variation through the use of different hop blends, yeast varieties and malts. Some pale ales have two or three kind of hops contributing to their flavors, while some of the less complex varieties have one. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, double IPAs and Imperial IPAs are usually much more alcoholic (sometimes above 10% ABV) and according to Beeradvocate.com, can have a “hop profile that might rip your tongue out.” Proceed with caution.
The next sub-category of ales is one that prides itself on a distinct flavor profile that can’t really be mistaken for anything else – Belgians. Belgian beers use a specific strain of yeast that give it an unmistakable strong flavor that’s rich and a funky sort of sweet. They can be light or dark, hoppy or not, and sometimes have ABV levels in the 15% range. Once you’ve had a few Belgians, you’ll be able to spot them a mile out. This style includes Belgian dubbels, tripels, quadrupels; saisons and Abbey/Trappist ales.
Next up are sours, which taste pretty much exactly how you think. Whether they gain their trademark pucker from brewer-selected yeast strains, or from being exposed to airborne bacteria (if you think it’s gross, maybe reconsider eating yogurt ever again), they’re tart and sometimes fruity. There’s really not much else to say about sours, other than they’re an experience all their own. They’re definitely not for everyone, but I recommend trying one anyway. Don’t live life closed off from experiences.
Finally, we come to wheat beers. You’ve undoubtedly seen wheat beers before (see above: Blue Moon, Shock Top), and you’ve probably noticed that they’re pretty varied in their flavors. That’s because wheat beers on their own are pretty bland, barring a few exceptions. This opens the door for brewers to add all sorts of flavors, like strawberry, orange, raspberry or even blueberry (be careful with that last one). They can be sweet, or not at all. In any case, they’re typically very drinkable and session-worthy, unless they’re way too sweet (see above: blueberry). Wheat beers can be a good way to foray into craft beer, since there’s usually nothing offensive or overpowering about them. If you’re new to craft beer, this is a good place to start.
As I stated before, this is a pretty general look at beer styles. There are tons more, and there will be more in the future, too, as brewers experiment and push the boundaries of what beer can be. That’s what’s so great about beer, and the community that surrounds it. It embodies the excitement you feel when you try something new, and it never gets old. Nothing quite compares to the anxious anticipation you feel when you’re walking into a beer festival, wondering what crazy concoctions the brewers will have shown up with. A jalapeno IPA? Sure. A raspberry brown ale? You got it. A hazelnut and chocolate infused porter? That’s right, Nutella beer. Or maybe it’s not crazy off the wall and it’s just the best damn pilsner you’ve ever tried. Either way, beer is a lot of things – a social lubricant, a vessel for flavors you can’t find anywhere else, a chemistry and biology experiment you get to drink, and your next favorite hobby.
There are tons of other facets of beer drinking I could explore here, like proper pouring technique, lovibond units, IBUs, hop varieties and seasonal trends. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to explore some of those things in the future. But this is an introduction – and you’ve got homework, newbie. Go out and try some beers. Learn by experience. If you need some motivation or help, here are a few great resources to help you get started:
This is a crazy cool social networking service for beer drinkers. It works a lot like Foursquare, letting you check into each beer you try. As it keeps track of your beers, it’ll reward you with badges as you hit certain milestones – like your first ten Russian beers, or your first ten check-ins at a bar, and so on. You can connect with your friends and see what they’re drinking, too. The app is on Android, iOS and Windows, so download it and start checking in.
Link: untappd.com (Then connect with me: connortarter)
This is a great all-around resource for beer knowledge. The site has forums for beer geeks to chat about their favorite brews, and has detailed information on almost every beer in existence – it even has a rating system. I prefer to make my own opinions, but if you want a baseline to refer to before you try a beer, this is a good way to find it.
There are tons of other resources out there, but those two are the ones I use. In any case, it’s probably best not to get caught up in the apps and services and websites. Just drink beer and enjoy the ride. If you have another resource you use and want to share it, leave it in the comments below. Cheers!