Miller Highlife might be “the Champagne of beers,” but the unyielding craft beer movement is beginning to command a level of knowledge more akin to French Bordeaux than Veuve Clicquot. Welcome, brew bros, to beer tasting school. Your knowledge of elaborate beer-pong racks won’t be necessary.
With that said, where does someone begin with craft beer? What separates a neophyte from a Cicerone? A little knowledge goes a long way. Here are a few tips to help you get a foot in the door of the craft brew scene, and probably discover some new brews you’ll enjoy.
At its most basic, beer is divided into two groups defined by the type of yeast used to make it. These groups are lager and ale. Inside of those categories, a multitude of different sub-categories arise that you will come to know while tasting beer—don’t attempt to memorize all of them right away, there are too many.
Craft beer as a movement has been overwhelmingly driven by India Pale Ale (IPA), so you will find numerous and varied expressions of this style. IPA is hoppy and medium-bodied, but it is only one style of beer, and you should be open to tasting all styles to become familiar with them.
The bitter, citrusy elements prominent in IPAs are created by the strain and amount of hops used in making the beer. In brewing, malt provides the balance for hops, giving the beer it’s sweeter more sugary notes. In addition to the core elements of hops and malt, you may find sour beers that are defined by their fruity, lip-puckering flavors at some breweries.
Learn to identify the styles and characteristics of beers you enjoy, and you’ll be on your way to finding your favorites.
Color and Strength
While many people assume that darker colored beer is “heavy” and lighter colored beer is “light,” beer’s color has little to do with its alcohol content or body.
Color is typically a product of the ingredients used to make a given beer. Guinness, for example, uses roasted malted barley which gives the beer its roasted flavor and rich brownish-red color. Even though it has a hearty color, Guinness is actually very low in alcohol with about 4 percent ABV.
Instead of trying to guess what a beer’s characteristics are, know them and taste from a beer that is, in fact, lighter to beer that is heavier, not darker. Most places that allow you to taste beer will have a menu that communicates this information. While it’s not an exact science, lighter beers are typically made with fewer ingredients, which leads to less sugar yield and therefore less booze.
Some things you can do, but others you just shouldn’t. There’s no crying in baseball, and if you’re in a beer bar, you should understand the etiquette. Granted, this is still beer drinking so you can keep that pinky down.
The way a beer is poured is one of these. A well-poured beer has two fingers of foam on the top and is often poured at a 45-degree angle. Should something go wrong, and your beer ends up with excessive foam, mention it to the bartender and they’ll get you a new one, but be respectful about it.
Freshness is also a thing, and many brewers adopted the practice of having “born-on” dates. Fresher beer is better, but a keg might be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks old and still considered “fresh.” Also, bars with lots of taps aren’t necessarily better, and they might let a lot of beer get old in the kegs.
There’s more to know than you might think. Luckily for you, the brewing community is pretty willing to share their knowledge after a beer or two. So, drink up.
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