Monday, January 26, 2009

Expand Your (Beer) Horizons

Here's an article I wrote for the Capital Ale House weekly email newsletter, published January 26, 2009.

Most craft beer fans were at one time stuck in the rut of drinking only macro-lagers from the factory brewers. It's highly likely that you even had "your brand", that you drank exclusively. Now that you've discovered craft beer, it's easy to get in a pattern once again. Face it, even to the knowledgeable craft beer drinker, the choices can be overwhelming. It's tough enough to browse a well-stocked store at your leisure, but when you are looking at a multi-page beer menu, and add in the pressure of your friends, and the server, waiting for your selection, the task can be bit stressful. "What do I choose?" "Will I like it?" Here are a few hints for getting over the hurdle of choosing a beer.

First, of all, it's just beer. Don't stress. The excitement of trying something new is part of the adventure. There's little chance you'll select something that you really don't enjoy. And if you do, often times a quiet word to the server with a new selection will result in no charge for the offending drink. (Don't use this as a ploy to get free samples.) Many establishments will offer free samples, usually 1 or 2 ounce pours. That's just enough for you to decide a beer style isn't to your liking. At a brewpub, start with a "flight" of samples of the house beers. Then you can settle in on one you really enjoyed.

Try a different beer in a style you enjoy already. Not all brown ales are the same. Nor are all pale ales just like every other pale ale. That goes for any style. Whenever I'm asked to suggest a new beer for someone, my first question is "What beer have you liked in the past?" If you know you've enjoyed a brown ale such as Newcastle Brown Ale, try an American Brown, like Brooklyn Brown Ale. You'll find some different flavors, but still enough familiarity to avoid any shocking changes.

Do you have a favorite pale ale? Try picking one from a different part of the country. There are still plenty of regional differences in beers. A commonly held rule is that west coast pale ales run to the citrus side, while east coast brewers tend to use more bittering hops. However I could give you plenty of exceptions to that rule, so why not experiment for yourself?

By the way, selecting-by-style is an especially good tactic for introducing macro-lager drinker to craft beer. Find another American lager for them to enjoy. This gives them the general appearance of a beer they are already familiar with, but with more flavor for their enjoyment. Locally, I've had particular success introducing macro-drinkers to craft beer with Old Dominion Lager and Starr Hill Jomo Lager.

Are you feeling "habitual" in your beer selections? Try kicking it up a notch. Select a "big" beer. Go for something with Imperial in the name. Do you like "dark" beers like Guinness? Try an Imperial Stout such as Great Divide Yeti or Old Rasputin. If you enjoy Pale Ales, try an Imperial Pale Ale such as Avery Maharaja.

Lastly, always look at the seasonal selections. I often find myself selecting the seasonal releases from a brewery over their year-round beers. These limited-release beers are labors of love for many brewers. They may take longer to brew, require more effort, or use hard-to-find ingrediants. The results are often uniquely flavored beers that you begin to look forward to each year. Seasonal releases might be considered the "chef's special", which rarely dissapoints at your favorite restaurant.

Finally, have fun! That's what it's really all about. The next time you are at your favorite beer retailer or bar, make a point to try something you've never had before. I doubt you'll be disappointed.


  1. That's kind of how I got into craft beer, got sick to death of Czech macro-lagers - the likes of Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Gambrinus. Getting into to craft ale though was a case of taking my new found love of craft lager and applying the same principle to the stuff I drank before I moved to Prague.

    I wonder though if everyone then goes on to making their own beer?

  2. Very well written.

    Mentioning the stress of a multi-page beerlist for a Cap Ale newsletter? You don't say!

  3. I need to expand my beer horizons!


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