by Carol A Westbrook
The late Kingsley Amis, a noted authority on drink and a beer-lover himself, acknowledged that “the best wine is much better than the best beer,” but also pointed out that “wine is a lot of trouble, requiring energy and forethought.” He might be pleased today to find that beer, which requires a lot less trouble, has finally come into its own.
Not long ago, beer was considered to be an uninspired, bitter-tasting beverage that was drunk in large amounts by fraternity boys or construction workers. Wine was preferred among intellectuals, the educated, and the true gourmet. We struggled to learn enough about wine so as not to embarrass ourselves when presented with a wine list. And any self-made wine expert–a wine snob–was held in high regard. But the increasing popularity of craft beer means it is now appearing on the menus of even the most discerning restaurants, because it is a delightfully tasty, complex beverage that pairs well with food. So now, in addition to being able to navigate a wine list, we must learn to read a beer list as well.
Fortunately, it's easy to master craft beer–in part because there are only a limited number of beer styles and breweries for you to remember. Furthermore, even the most posh menu will feature only a short selection of beers, and most are inexpensive, in contrast to dozens of expensive wines. If you follow a few simple rules you can quickly reach point where you can hold your own with a beer list–or at least bluff your way through it. With a little effort you can become recognized by your friends as one who knows craft beer, can select the best brands, and can wax elequent about breweries and beer trivia. Yes, you can become a beer snob.
First, let us define craft beer. According to the Brewer's Association, the definition of an American craft brewery is one that is “small, independent and traditional.” “Small” means an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less, (compare to Anheuser-Busch, which sells well over 150 million barrels per year). “Independent” means that the brewery is at least 75% owned or controlled by a brewer, and “traditional” means that at least 50% of the beer it makes is all malt beer. (Note that many mass-market beers use up to one-third rice or corn in place of the more expensive barley malt ingredients.) . With a craft beer you can be assured of quality ingredients mixed by a knowledgeable brewmaster whose is motivated by taste, not only profit.
Brewery size is important. Small breweries don't have the production capacity to be distributed nationally. This is why many of them are regional–the craft beer available to me in Northeast Pennsylvania is different from that in Chicago, for example. A microbrewery–one that produces no more than 15,000 barrels per year– operates on an even small scale, often by a couple of guys working out of their garage! Micros usually don't bottle, but distribute their beer in kegs, or serve it at their own brewpub. With limited resources for marketing and distribution, they rely heavily on word of mouth, customer loyalty and reputation. You may have to seek out these beers, and that where the beer snob comes in. A beer expert knows what to drink, where it came from, and how good it tastes.
Here are ten rules for the beer snob.
1. Drink only craft beer.
By avoiding mass-produced, big-label beer, you will be drinking the best-tasting beer, and will also be supporting your regional small breweries. Be wary of “phony” craft beers, made by the large brewers to look and taste like craft beers. Some of these non-craft beers include: Blue Moon (MillerCoors), Shock Top (Anheuser-Busch), Leinenkugel (SABMiller), Goose Island (Anheuser-Busch). If the beer list at your meal does not include craft beer, don't be afraid to look down your nose and tell the waiter, “Forget it, I'll just have water.”
2. Learn the basic beer styles
To understand a beer list you must learn to differentiate among beer styles. Here are the eight styles you should know: 1) Lager (includes Pilsner); 2) Pale Ale (American and English); 3) Amber (or Red or Brown) Ale; 4) IPA (India Pale Ale); 5) Porter or Stout; 6) Belgian Ale; 7) Wheat Beer; 8) Saison. The easiest way to learn them is to try them. Take a trip to a bottle store and buy a representative sample of each, spend 15 minutes looking up each of them on Wikipedia, then taste and compare. Voila! Instant expert!
3. Know the main beer ingredients
There are only three: malted barley, hops and yeast. Malted (sprouted) barley is sweet, and full of fermentable sugar. The yeast converts this sugar into alcohol and carbonation. The residual malt flavor in beer is distinctively mild and bread-like. Hops are bitter, pungent herbs that are added for flavoring, and are used with a heavy hand in ales, especially in IPAs. Hops are an acquired taste, which you really must acquire if you want to be a beer snob. There are many varieties of hops, but don't expect to be able to taste the differences as a novice. You can bluff you way through this by looking up the beer's web site, where you may find the IBU level (International Bittering Unit, a measure of the degree of hoppiness) and the hop variety, so you can at least say something knowledgeable about the taste.
4. Always chose draft over bottled beer
Draft beer is fresh from the brewery at the peak of flavor, whereas cans and bottles may deteriorate with time (remember to check the date stamp). And there is a good chance the draft list will contain a selection or two from your local microbrewery, giving you the opportunity to show off your beer expertise (see rule 6, below).
5. Drink beer only from a glass
If your beer selection is in a bottle, then insist on a glass. You would never drink wine from the bottle, why beer? You probably won't be so fortunate as to have your beer served to you in a Spiegelau Beer Classic (see picture), a glass specifically designed to showcase hoppy American IPAs (and the latest fad among beer snobs). At the very least, expect a standard pint glass for all beers, except for Belgian ales and high alcohol beers, which should be served in a tulip-shaped glass. Drinking beer from a glass allows you to enjoy the color and clarity, to observe and then taste the frothy head, and finally to savor the aroma before taking a sip — while pointing out these attributes to your admiring friends.
6. Get to know your local craft breweries.
There are probably only a handful of micros and a dozen or so larger craft breweries in your area–so few that you can get to know them all! Visit a few tasting rooms and try the latest offerings. There is a good chance you will meet an owner/brewmaster, learn his philosophy, and find out what's brewing. The true beer snob is always welcomed at his local brewery.
7. Taste as many beers as you can, and remember the ones you like.
The only way to know beer is to drink it. Ask the bartender for a few tastes, purchase a sampler, or go to the local brewery tasting room. You can take notes, but it's easy to remember beer names, which are much more distinctive than wine names. For example, Flying Dog's “Underdog,” Victory's “Hop Devil,” North Coast's “Brother Thelonius.” But be careful to taste and not drink as many beers as you can. Because of their high malt content, many craft beers are high in alcohol. For example, two 7% ABV beers in standard 16-oz draft mugs are equivalent to four 12 oz. bottles of Budweiser (4.5% ABV). Ouch!
8. Do your homework
An investment of 10 minutes online before you go out will make it easy to keep one step ahead of your friends, and even your bartender. Check what's on draft at your local beer bar and read the descriptions (Style? Hops? Aroma? Finish?). Besides the brewery web site, there are internet sources which provide descriptions and objective reviews; Beer Advocate is one of the oldest and most comprehensive. You can get a beer app for your smartphone so you will never be caught unawares. I'm currently using “Beer Citizen.” Read the reviews so you can compare them to your own notes and avoid the real stinkers. Although carefully crafted with quality ingredients, not every craft beer is delicious.
9. Pick out a few “go to” beers
When you are confronted with a taproom of unfamiliar beers, are facing a draft list full of mass-market lagers, or it's pumpkin ale season (ugh), then stick to the old standards in bottles. Regional breweries have flagship beers that are consistently produced and readily-available; find a few that you like. My go-to beers are IPAs: Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA, Harpoon IPA, and Bell's Two-Hearted Ale.
10. For extra credit, become a home brewer
The best way to gain respect for your beer skills is to admit that you are a homebrewer. If you brew, you have the chance to taste and appreciate the different malts, you will learn to tell the different hop varieties apart, and you can speak knowledgably to a brewmaster. Alternatively, find a friend who homebrews and is willing to step you through the process, let you try the ingredients and the final product. If all else fails and you are still motivated to taste the ingredients, you can order small amounts of hops and malted barley for just a few dollars from an online homebrewer supply store.
If you follow these easy rules you will soon become an expert on craft beer. You may also find that you have become a true beer aficionado, seeking out unique beers, brewing your own, or even writing for a beer blog, as I do (I write The Beer Clinic, for YourBeerNetwork). Remember that the purpose of becoming a beer snob is to help you find and enjoy good beer. As Hunter S Thompson wrote, “good people drink good beer.”
Carol A Westbrook, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist at the Henry Cancer Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. She is a former cancer scientist, and author of the book, “Ask An Ocologist: Honest Answers to Your Cancer Questions.”