I didn’t start to like beer until I was about 35. When I was growing up, you had pretty clear beer options. There was Miller, and Budweiser, and Coors, and that was basically it. I recall the occasional appearance of Heineken in fancy restaurants. Based on the occasional sip of Mom’s beer, I determined early on that I didn’t like any of them. I remember the first ads on TV touting Samuel Adams Boston Lager as better beer; something about winning a mess of gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Tried that, eventually. Miller Lite, but bitterer.
When I was in college, I discovered a small stock of “microbrews,” (Moosehead, Red Stripe, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Anchor Steam, etc.) at the liquor store down the street from my dorm in the Chicago Loop. I kept trying to find a beer I liked, because I assumed that anything so many people thought so much of had to have something going for it. Some of them were okay, but nothing I liked nearly as much as I liked rum and Coke. Or just rum. Or just bourbon.
So I gave up on beer for a few years, and then I moved to Florida to start a business and didn’t have money for anything besides cheap vodka* for about five years. So I missed the initial wave of America’s current craft beer renaissance entirely. When I left Chicago, it was worthy of remark to find Harp or Bass on a restaurant menu. When I came back, those two were as ubiquitous as Heineken had been ten years before. But I hadn’t tried any of the new stuff, ‘cause I didn’t like beer. And then two important things happened: Some friends opened a craft-beer focused bar in Key West, and I rented an apartment in Chicago less than five hundred yards from a bar where the manager – who, full disclosure, lives in the apartment above mine, and has become a good friend – is a beer enthusiast. So I’ve enjoyed a crash course in craft brews for the last year and a half. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1.) The difference between “microbrew” and “craft brew” is artificial, shifts constantly, and has a lot to do with trying to keep the parent company of the Samuel Adams line from moving into macrobrewery status. At the consumer level you can use the terms interchangeably.
2.) A lot of comparisons are made to wine. These are basically fair. Pairing beer with food is a pretty decent introduction to how what you eat can affect your perception of what you drink. When consumed with food, the flavor-profile change in some beers is much more dramatic than in wine. And beer snobs are just as annoying as wine snobs.
3.) Speaking of pairings and wine, it has been possible since 2008 to become a Certified Cicerone – which is a trained, high-end, exam-qualified beer sommelier. This bodes well for the future.
4.) On spirits, the alcoholic strength is expressed by proof. On beer and wine, strength is expressed as the percentage of Alcohol By Volume (ABV). (Double the ABV for the proof.) This is an important number in craft beer. The ABV of Miller Lite is 4.2%. The ABV of craft beer can go as high as 10.5% before you will start to notice that it is quite a bit stronger than you expect it to be. If you’re moving up from Bud Light to Chimay White, you are going to be in for an interesting surprise when two pints hits you like four. Some craft beers have much higher ABVs, but you’re not going to get anything above 10.5% unless you know what you’re doing already. I count my beers in MLUs: Miller Lite Units. One Guldin Draak is 2.5 MLU’s, and you will not notice the difference in alcohol content until you try to get up off the stool after three of them. Pay attention to that number, is what I am saying.
5.) The only way to learn what you like is to try a lot of different beers. This is about as enjoyable a testing process as you will find, but it does require discipline. You cannot just stick with the first thing you try that you like. That’s how five-year-olds wind up eating nothing but mac & cheese, Cheerios, and stuffing. Be an adult and suck down some beer. You’ll see patterns eventually.
6.) To that end, I have yet to meet the bartender who will refuse you a taste of anything the bar has on draft.
7.) What I have learned about my own tastes: I like malt better than hops. I like Belgian Golden Ales. I usually like Quadrupels and Trippels. I like some mouthfeel, which labels often call “body” or “chewiness.” I usually like Scotch ales, unless it’s hot out. I like wheat and yeast. I (generally) don’t like bitter, I don’t like fruity, I don’t like anything at room temperature, and I don’t like stouts. I don’t like oranges and spices. I do like lemon. I don’t like the stuff that appears at Christmas because it often tastes like unsweetened fruitcake. BUT: I’m still learning.
8.) I initially shied away from the 750ml large-format bottles. This was due, I think, to a subconscious association of them with dollar-fifty “fodies” of malt liquor. I have since learned that they are pretty consistently more interesting than anything sold in six-packs.
9.) Hoppy beer seems to be on a career arc similar to that of hot sauce, in that it is slowly becoming about endurance rather than flavor. “Hop Monster,” “Hopsecutioner,” “Hop Stoopid” – these put me in mind of hot sauces with names like BIG DICK’S ASSRAPING DEATH SAUCE and labels featuring sobbing cowboys sitting pantsless in tubs of ice. I don’t understand why the ability to drink something that tastes like chewed aspirin is a mark of distinction.
10.) I am beginning to think that there are palate types the way there are blood types. Here’s why: I often find that if I like one thing from a brewery, I will like most things from that brewery. Even the styles I normally dislike, I will dislike less. And the same is true in reverse. For example: I like just about everything from the North Coast Brewing Company and from Boulevard Brewing, even the stuff I wouldn’t normally expect to, and I am not crazy about most of the output of Lagunitas and Unibroue, even though I recognize that their products are generally regarded as exceptional. I don’t know what this is about exactly, but there you go.
11.) One of the places with whom I share a palate is Dogfish Head. To me, Dogfish is the Coen Brothers of breweries: They are capable of making things I don’t like, but they are incapable of making anything uninteresting. The worst thing I’ve ever had from Dogfish was fascinating. They are worth seeking out, especially 120 Minute IPA (20% ABV), World Wide Stout (22% ABV), and Fort (18% ABV raspberry beer).
12.) I have yet to try making a black and tan with 120 Minute IPA and World Wide Stout – what the Dogfish Head brewpub calls a “Heaven and Hell” – because I have not yet found an occasion worthy of such a cocktail.
13.) The magnificently-named “He’Brew Jewbelation 15” (15 hops, 15 malts, 15% ABV) is as good as anything I have found, and at 22oz for $5, it rivals Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout in flavor and crushes it in price.
14.) My introduction to the large-format bottles came in the form of Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing’s “Sixth Glass,” a quadrupel ale (10.5% ABV). I got it from a gas station in southern Illinois. I cannot stress this strategy enough: If you don’t recognize something, buy it and try it.
15.) Speaking of Boulevard: Visit breweries. They often have tours and tasting rooms, and the tour guides often work there due to their love of beer. Tell them other things you like, and they can point you in the direction of similar products.
16.) Swear allegiance, but not exclusivity. Picking one obscure microbrew and touting it as your longtime favorite above all others may seem like a rakish trademark, but you’re really just limiting yourself.
17.) That said, if I had to pick only one beer for the rest of my life, it’s North Coast Brewing Company’s Belgian-style Golden Ale, PranQster (7.% ABV). It’s delicious, has real body, and goes with anything. It’s complex and interesting, but also as good as starting point as those of you moving up from Miller Lite are going to find. (And come on. Who couldn’t love an easygoing, delectable, approachable blonde with a great body?)
18.) Cautionary note: Improved flavor = substantially increased calories. So I’m off beer for a while. But the discovery was worth it.
*Trick I learned from a chemistry major at Michigan: Fleischmann’s or Wolfschmidt is indistinguishable from Ketel One if you run it through a Britta filter three or four times.