An adventure in flavor: learning about craft beer
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Perhaps you’re new to the world of craft beer, but would like to learn more. Perhaps you aim to be an authority on craft beer. Perhaps you’ve been saying to yourself, “I would like to become known around the pub as an insufferable, pompous jerk; the kind of patron that bartenders want to hit with a tap handle.”
No seriously, while those folks exist, most people are capable of developing a taste for craft beer and still maintain a pleasant cameraderie with their fellow drinkers. And the jump from big-brewery lagers to flavorful micros is actually comortably short.
Most craft beer newbies, however, run into two obstacles. One is taste aversion. Lager from national breweries is brewed to be consistent and palatable to millions of people, so they strive to make their appealing to the lowest common denominator. In contrast, microbrewed beer is avaiable in a bewildering array of styles, flavors, and strengths.
People just discovering craft beer also have to deal with myriad preconceptions, some based in fact and some absolute nonsense. It’s commonly assumed that all craft beer is stronger than the canned stuff, or that Bock beer is made from the leftovers scraped out of the kettles or that all English beer is served warm.
Ten minutes of conversation with an experienced bartender, or with the guy shoving the dolly at Beers of the World, will be enough to get you started separating beer fact from beer fiction. More adventurous people will just jump right in and dispel the myths with their tastebuds.
And a good place to start is with brown ale, a style that served as the training-wheels beer for lots of people in the know. It’s a darker, slightly sweet British style with very little bitterness. You can find plenty of different examples, from the imported Newcastle Brown to various examples from regional microbreweries. Brooklyn Brewing Company’s Downtown Brown ale is a flavorful standout, as is Long Trail Brewing’s Hit the Trail Ale.
Brown ale might wind up being your thing, or you might grow bored with the style’s relative blandness and long for beer with a bit more bite. So try pale ale. Expect a rich amber color, a floral aroma, and substantially more hop bitterness than brown ale.
The most famous example, of course, is Bass Ale. It’s available everywhere, and still sets the world standard for pales, even though you can find tons of imported and American microbrewed pales that blow it out of the water.
Pale ales are, in fact, one of the most common microbrewed styles. American hops lend a flavor that’s noticeably different from the British stalwarts. A nice example is Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado’s Oskar Blues Grill and Brewery. You’ll know it when you see it on store shelves; it’s one of the few microbrews available in cans. You might also find yourself faced with a cool bottle of Fat Angel, from Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewing Company, and that’s not so bad on a brisk autumn day.
Once you’re enjoying these beer styles (could take a few pints, could take a few sips), the pantheon of craft beer will be a pleasure to explore. One of the best things about tasting beer is the staggering variety of flavors and styles. We, as drinkers, owe a great debt to craft brewers who constantly experiment, tinker with their recipes, and develop entire new styles of our favorite beverage. It never gets old.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org