Beer. The word is so simple. And with only four necessary ingredients (water, malt, hops, and yeast), the beverage itself should be, too. Yet with the number of breweries and beers we have to choose from today, so many of us are overwhelmed -- if not terrified -- by the prospect of saddling up to a bar and ordering one with confidence. Do you want a lager? An IPA? A double-hopped imperial saison barrel-aged on cherries, wildflowers, and freeze-dried fairy wings? The options are seemingly endless.
I haven’t always been Senior Manager of Education for The High End (the craft and import arm of Anheuser-Busch), but I have always been a beer lover. Looking back at my life before working for AB, I’m embarrassed at how little I knew about the product I was pouring as a bartender in New York -- I was all, “light, dark, repeat.” In more recent years, I’ve broadened my palate by visiting breweries large and small, working my way through a vast number of styles. (It also helps that I have a cool wife who likes to play along.) For instance, I always knew that I liked smoky porters like Magic Hat's Humdinger Burn Pile (RIP), but until I landed my current job, I didn't know that I was at the brink of discovering a whole range of smoked German rauchbiers.
Luckily for me, the topic I've been tasked with evangelizing isn’t too hard to swallow. I find that most people are already beer lovers who could stand to expand their style horizons, or they’re non-beer drinkers (the horror!) who associate more with that spoiled grape drink I keep hearing about. In either case, I ask for a moment of their time to chat about the delicious, refreshing, bubble-laden beverage that I know so well.
Through these interactions, I’ve learned that the greatest barrier is the unknown. With all of the choices these days, it’s hard to determine where to start -- or in which direction to go once you have. Thus, I’ve come up with five tips for approaching beer if you’re feeling a bit lost.
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1. Determine what style of beer you’re drawn to.
If you’re already a beer drinker, you surely have a short list of “old faithfuls.” Make note of which styles you already regularly order and do some research on each. If you typically go for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, chances are you’re attracted to it for its American hop-derived bitterness, and subtle fruitiness from ale yeast. You’re bound to like other hop-forward pale ales, too. Try some out and compare! You should also dabble in adjacent or related styles, like India Pale Ales (IPAs) or Double (imperial) India Pale Ales!
2. Know which flavors you like.
If you don’t yet consider yourself a beer drinker, you already have a catalog of flavors that you tend to enjoy in any beverage. Target the detectable flavors in your favorite beverages, and look for bridges into the beer world. For example, if you’re digging the tart notes of a high-acid New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you might want to take a sour gose for a test drive. This salty, coriander-kissed German wheat beer is low on bitterness, and high on sourness derived from lactobacillus bacteria. Boom, converted!
3. Read the label.
As I mentioned in a previous article on how to read beer labels, the label is like a beer’s diary, revealing all of its secrets. The label can give you a good sense of what to expect. Is the beer hoppy? Will there be fruity or sweet characteristics? Will you be able to knock back a few, or will you be singing (or worse, crying) to your fellow bar patrons after just one? This isn’t a perfect science, but the description, ABV (alcohol by volume), IBUs (International Bittering Units), and date will all help you understand what’s in the bottle or can. To “study,” I suggest tracking down one of those U-Pick-6 dealies, fill the carrier with a wide range of brews, and treat yourself to a taste-off with a friend or loved one.
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4. Pick an activity.
Beer is often best served with an occasion. It’s not only a relaxer and a conversation starter, but your activity may well dictate your beer. As you might know, space is a commodity in New York City; outdoor space is even more highly coveted. Without a yard or balcony, my wife and I often take to our stoop on summer evenings, beer in hand, for a nightly “Stoop Sesh.” I often choose a session IPA like Golden Road’s Wolf Pup. Sessionable means that the ABV of the beer is low enough that the drinker can have more than one in a sitting -- which is perfect for me as I try to stretch out those precious warm weather moments with my girl.
5. Get down with some food.
Some of my best beer experiences have been greatly enhanced by food. Everyone knows that burgers pair well with beer (especially amber, pale, and brown ales!), but I like to dive a little deeper. I realize this may sound challenging, but there’s really no wrong way to do it; if you dig on lagers and linguini, more power to you. There are, however, ways in which you can get the most out of a pairing. In education-speak, we like to call these the ABCs: align, bridge, cut. You can align the intensity of the beer with the intensity of the dish; bridge a flavor note present in both the beer and the food; or cut through the food with a beer that provides a sharp contrast. These three potential criteria for pairing beer and food will make your taste buds do a tumbling pass that would rival that of Nadia Comaneci.
Beer doesn’t have to be scary or unapproachable. The wide variety of styles, colors, and flavors in which beer comes simply means that there’s something out there for everyone to enjoy. And if you happen to try a beer you don’t like (we can only pray this never happens!), give something else a whirl. Or better yet, tell us what turns you on or off in the comments below, and we’ll try to find the right style of beer for you!
Note: Golden Road Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.