It seems that the larger the scope of any topic, the more intimidating it can be for those looking to become even only slightly literate in said topic. It’s even more difficult when one has a preconceived notion that they can fall back.
The topic of beer illustrates the above point nicely, especially for Americans (and Canadians, I suppose). We love to think that the beer world is primarily made up of crisp, light lagers. A large subset of this group may be aware of darker beers, such as Guinness, without really knowing how these brews fit into the larger context of the beer world. I would also hazard a guess that most people are aware of micro-breweries. But as to the types of beer they sell? That’s where it gets tricky. There are literally hundreds of brands out there, each with their own take on a hundred or so different varieties of types of beer.
So the question that comes from this is thus: How does a person learn to increase their beer knowledge? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Get out of your comfort zone: This is a number that I’ve stated before, but it bears repeating. 8 out of every 10 beers sold in the United States comes from either Anheuser-Busch, or MillersCoors. If your idea of beer comes from the beers or advertising of either of these two companies, you will need to change your perspective rather quickly.
- Avoid Light Lagers: This relates to the first point somewhat. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have made their fortunes on the back of Light Lagers. As such, when an American thinks of beer, the stereotype is of these types of beer. The fact is that these types of beer constitute only a small percentage of the varieties of beer that can be produced.
- Think Countries, rather than Companies: There are several cultures out there that have strong relationships with their brewing histories. Some of them include Bavarian, Belgian, British, and more recently, American. If you start to approach beer from the point of view of these histories, rather than from brand-loyalty, your knowledge will increase much, much faster.
- Understand that the taste spectrum of beer is quite large:. This is a follow up to the second point – not all beers highlight the same characteristics. Beers can taste sweet, sour, bread-like, flower-like, bitter, coffee-like, to even quite bitter. Their complexity can range anywhere between subtle to quite overt in their flavors. In short, there’s a beer out there for everyone. Anyone who has ever taken a drink of a lambic will tell you that it’s a far, far cry from the light lagers. As an example, lambics from Lindemans taste like liquid Jolly Ranchers to me.
- Don’t be afraid of the tap: As a rule of thumb, a beer from a tap is better than a beer from the bottle, which, in turn, is better than a beer from a can. There are many, many exceptions to this rule, especially if the bottle is green or clear rather than brown (as these are prone to skunky aromas) or if you’re dealing with bottle conditioned beers. If you’re going to get out of your comfort zone, put aside the bottle of Budweiser and ask for what’s on tap.
- Understand that there are beers that you won’t like: Due to the sheer amount of beers available, there are bound to be some beers that don’t catch your fancy. Sometimes this is due to a poorly made beer, sometimes this can be due to the fact that you may not like a particular flavor characteristic. Regardless, don’t let this discourage you. My partner, Tara, took a while to discover she loves Wheat beer. My friend Andrea has decided that porters are more her speed. To arrive at these conclusions, they had to soldier on after tasting many bad and mediocre beers.
- Take advantage of the knowledge of others: Collectively, beer freaks are the friendliest people I know. The have no qualms about speaking about beer to either their friends, or even complete strangers. Head to a micro-pub, and ask the person behind the bar to give you recommendation.
- Take advantage of the community where you live: Speaking of bars, in every big city there are places that devote themselves to beer making and/or beer fans. Make a plan to head to one of these locations, and indulging yourself in the unknown. These places are typically locally owned, have good to great pub food, and encourage socializing.
- Sample, Sample, Sample: there’s less brand loyalty in the micro-brew world, than their is in the corporate beer world. There’s several reasons for this. One, the sheer volume of the variety of beer means that everyone can looking for the best brewer, best type of beer, or even the best beer overall. In other words, everyone is doing what you’re doing if you follow the above steps – They’re looking for the beer that best suits them.
- Enjoy yourself: I can’t say this enough. It’s often better to enjoy the moment than to enjoy the beer. While Andrea and I have been ‘researching’ beers for the past six months, often that research is set aside as we end up laughing, talking about work, or socializing with other co-workers and friends who have come out with us.