There was a time in (very recent) history where the depth of knowledge required to order the perfect beer for you was knowing whether you wanted it in a real bottle, or one shaped like a bowling pin. We now live in the midst of a beer renaissance, though, and between all the sours, lagers, stouts, Belgians, and reds out there, getting the right beer means expanding your knowledge.
Luckily, with beer forever being the beverage of the people, the amount of smarts required to get what you like is relatively pocket-sized. These tips will help you navigate beer lists, talk to bartenders and shop clerks, and give you a huge leg up out in the wild. Use them to improve your hard-earned night out. Use them to impress your date. But above all, use them everywhere. Even the bowling alley.
1. Ales and lagers are categories, not styles
Without jumping into a full-blown lesson in biochemistry, the difference between ales and lagers comes straight down to the yeast used during fermentation. Ale yeasts, which ferment at warmer temperatures, are known for the brighter, fruitier, and spicier flavors they produce, while cool-fermented lager yeasts create much more subtle, smooth-finished flavors. Color, body, and ABV have absolutely nothing to do with the classifications.
2. The four main ingredients of beer are grain, hops, yeast, and water
Just like baking bread, the ingredients that go into beer play huge parts in their own rights. Grains (usually malted barely, but sometimes a blend of rye, oats, or other grains) give beer the sugar needed for fermentation. Water (which, at 95% of the product, is often the unsung hero) has to be treated to make sure nothing affects flavor or fermentation, and allows for all of the chemical reactions to take place. Hops act as a preservative and provide the bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of beer and give it beautiful aromas. Yeast is the actual worker behind it all, converting sugar into alcohol and actually creating beer.
The process is so tried and true it’s even been legislated: in Germany, purity laws called Reinheitsgebot have ensured the ingredients have stayed the same since the 1500s (although actually sticking to it these days is sort of considered to be optional).
3. Other ingredients are called adjuncts (as well as flavorings)
Wheat, oats, corn, rice, and sugar are regularly added to the mash to up the amount of fermentable sugar, build a beer’s body up or tone it down… or to cut corners. A lot of cheap beers are made using a huge amounts of corn and rice to save money on malted barely. Other ingredients are also very common, including spices like coriander and sage, coffee, chocolate, milk, fruit, or honey -- all of which have a more direct effect on the flavor of beer.
4. The color of your beer has nothing to do with its alcohol content
I’m not sure if it’s a carryover of a misunderstanding of spirits or the term “light beer,” but there’s a persistent misbelief that darker beers are heavier in alcohol than their pale counterparts. Consider that Belgian strong golden pale ales like Duvel (which clocks in at 8.5% ABV) are night and day compared to jet-black stouts such as Guinness Draught, which, despite your favorite St. Pat’s reveler’s assertions, clocks in at a mere 4%.
5. A small, foamy beer doesn’t mean a bartender’s ripping you off
Most people associate foamy beer with bad experiences at keg parties, which is why most people balk at being handed a beer that isn’t pure liquid to the top. But head does a lot to improve your beer: it’s hugely important for delivering aromas to your nose -- both before and after each sip -- and has a huge impact on the texture of a beer in your mouth. Each style is different, but an inch to an inch and a half of head is considered to be part of a “perfect pour” in most cases (much more for wheat beers). And if an inch still has you feeling cheated, realize that even the simplest glassware usually includes an extra bit of space to accommodate for it. So you’re good!
6. All hefeweizens are wheat beers, but not all wheat beers are hefeweizens
This is a semantics thing that drives even some experienced beer drinkers crazy, but knowing the difference will help you find a beer you like. Hefeweizens are the German style of wheat beer made using at least 50% wheat and a Bavarian yeast strain that gives it that bubblegum, banana, and clove flavors most people associate with wheat beers. Wheat beers are also made with wheat (duh), but instead use a different strain of yeast that doesn’t give off the same clove flavors as their German cousin.
7. Hops from different parts of the world taste (and smell) different
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’ve had at least one hoppy American IPA in your drinking adventures. Probably today. It probably smelled a lot like citrus, grapefruit, and pine tar. This huge flavor profile is a hallmark of North American hop varieties, which is probably why you’d be surprised to try an English IPA using English hops.
Hops are grown all over the world, with the most coming from Germany (where they tend to be floral, earthy, and spicy), the Czech Republic (known to be grassy and great for the local pilsners), the UK (earthy and grassy: mellow enough for local bitters), New Zealand, and Australia (similar to the US’s citrus vibe with more tropical flavors, especially passion fruit). Think of hops as a gigantic spice cabinet in a restaurant kitchen: each can be used in harmony with each other to create desired flavors for any specific dish.
8. And some hops are used just for your beer’s aroma
Since a lot of the fragrances hops provide get boiled off quickly, brewers add more hops at the very end of a boil to make sure the hops’ aromas are still part of the package instead of just their bitterness. Some brewers go even further by “dry hopping” their beers, which is when hops are added during fermentation.
9. Freezing your glasses is bad for your beer
I always hate being the bearer of bad news with this fact, but pouring beer into a frozen glass or mug is bad for your brew. The ice crystals will cause the beer to foam right up, essentially killing all of the aromas and carbonation before you can even get a sip of it. What you’re essentially left with is a flat, mostly flavorless beer that will only be truly frigid for a few sips.
Side note: you shouldn’t always strive to serve beer extra chilled, as it mutes almost all of the flavors that make it great. But if you’re still absolutely dying for a cold-as-humanly-possible beer, put the can or bottle in a bucket with salt, ice, and water, and let it sit for five minutes while you fill a clean beer glass with ice and water. Wait five minutes, dump the ice water out of the glass, and fill it with with your super-chilled beer. Cold beer without the foam over!
10. Skunking is exactly what it sounds like
Most people tend to use the term “skunked” as a blanket description for any beer that is off-flavored, which isn’t entirely true. “Skunked” actually refers to beer that has been “light struck,” usually a result of having been stored in clear, green, or blue bottles. Whether it’s sunlight or fluorescent bulbs in a fridge, the second brew is exposed to brightness, flavors and aromas begin to change for the worse, creating the smell of a skunk’s spray (and the easy lay-up of a nickname). If your bottled or canned beer tastes like paper or cardboard, it means it’s oxidized (and probably old or poorly stored), not skunked. Which means…
11. Canned beer is in no way inferior to bottled beer
The myth of all canned beer being cheap swill needs to die once and for all. If anything, it’s arguably better! Cans block out all light, protecting beer even more than brown glass can from spoiling faster. Cans are much lighter weight (just try carrying a case of bottles versus a case of cans), more outdoors-friendly with their durability, and better for the environment in the long run. I encourage everyone to test drive this at some point with a side-by-side bottle vs. can tasting of the same beer. You have nothing to lose -- and then you get to drink two beers at once!
12. Not all beer ages well
Holding onto bottles of beer to drink way later is becoming more of a practice these days, but it’s important to go about it the right way. Since hop aroma and bitterness die off with age, you probably shouldn’t sit on that hop-bomb IPA for too long before opening it up: the sooner you drink it, the better! Go for beers with higher ABVs, and make sure you’re storing the bottles upright at a consistent cool temperature (close to 50 is best) with little light. You should see the malt body come front and center as time passes.
13. The point of drinking beer is to enjoy it, not be a snob
It’s amazing how this simple (and in my opinion most important) rule is the first thing people forget when hitting the bar these days. The industry of beer may be in the greatest growth spurt it has seen in over a century, but the tried-and-true act of lifting a glass to your lips and taking a sip is as old as civilization itself. Be adventurous. Learn what you like and what you don’t. Share it with your friends. Use it to take a load off after a long week at work. And never settle for drinking something you don’t love, no matter what that beer is!
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