Beer is so, so good. All of it gets you drunk, and a lot of it even tastes good in the process! What more could you ask for? Maybe just a quick little primer on how to get the most out of the experience? What's that? "No," you say? "Fuck that," in fact, you say?
Look, that's not an unreasonable position. I'm not sure who decided roughly five years ago to change the rules and make it so that instead of a simple, hedonistic pleasure, beer had to morph into something you need to, like, study. Though I benefit greatly from this cultural shift away from beer pong and toward beer geekery, I will be the first to acknowledge that a person can derive stunning degrees of satisfaction from this liquid without knowing a hop cone from a chicken bone. (Note to novices: Chicken bones are not traditionally employed in the beer-making process. I threw that in there because "yeast strain" does not rhyme with "hop cone.")
But if you're here, you care at least a little bit about the academic side of things, and even though I don't want everyone to over-study beer to the point that they wreck it for themselves, I do feel as though the Adequate Man or Woman should strive to be just informed enough to order properly—not to impress a fat guy with a pretzel-dusted beard and a T-shirt with the classic Run-DMC logo bastardized into something about barley or whatever the fuck, but just so as to maximize your own enjoyment.
Here, then, are 12 things to keep in mind.
1. "Craft beer" doesn't really mean shit anymore (if it ever did).
The Brewers Association is a trade group that considers itself "a passionate voice for craft brewers." They seem like a fine little lobbying association and awards-show producer, but they don't really have anything much to do with drinking beer, and instead largely concern themselves with defining it. Their official definition of "craft beer" has changed a few times over the years—generally, they fetishize independent ownership and (relatively) low production capacity. So if you sell too high a stake to a larger brewery or pump out too many barrels of beer, you lose your craft card.
This doesn't mean shit to a drinker like you and me. "Craft beer," as commonly understood by reasonable people, mean, "You know, the good shit, not Bud Light." If you see a guy on Tinder who says he really likes beer but forgets to mention the word "craft," do not assume he's expressing an undying passion for Keystone Light. Self-identified beer fans—as opposed to those gloriously sloppy motherfuckers who just like getting through the day with whatever 30-pack was on sale—are really easy to spot. We know who we are, and we don't need to sweat the wordplay.
2. Everyone likes hops.
Most beers are made from nothing more than grain (usually barley; we'll get to that), water, hops, and yeast. That rather thin guest list leaves a lot of heavy lifting for the hops, which are the major flavor engine in most beers, adding bitterness and a variety of other characteristics, usually having something to do with citrus and/or tropical fruits and/or pine trees. There are dozens of variety of hops, with more on the way. A lot of new beer appreciators, or burnt-out old heads, will claim to not like hops; what they mean is they don't like the bombastic face-puncher beers typically produced by aggressive Californian IPA brewers (Stone, Lagunitas, Green Flash).
Beer people will often talk about the American-grown "C" hops: Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Cascade, and Citra. These are high in alpha acids, and highly acidic hops produce a bitterer beer. European and English hops tend to be less acidic, and as such are said to produce more of an aromatic effect.
In addition to hops, beer is sometimes flavored with fruit, other herbs such as heather or sage (these beers are often classified as gruits), or specialty yeasts such as brettanomyces. But, by and large, any flavor your beer has beyond cooked cereal grain is going to come from hops. So you like hops. You might not like IPAs, which is your every right. (Just in case: That's "IPA" as in "India Pale Ale," a heavily hopped darling of the craft-beer set.) But you like hops, I promise.
3. No need to be a grain snob.
Most of the best beer is made with barley, and most of the justifiably derided "American adjunct lager" category—Bud, Miller, Coors—features heavy doses of rice or corn or out-of-date Cheerios or whatever other fermentable grain was on sale that day. But Notch Brewing made an excellent corn lager last summer called The Mule, and a lot of your better stouts will contain oats. I've had a lot of great, spicy rye IPAs lately, and hefeweizens are made with at least 50 percent wheat. So be wary of being overly wary of "adjunct" lagers, because the term is still most commonly used to imply mass-produced fizzy yellow bullshit, but there are plenty of great beers brewed with grains other than (though usually in addition to) malted barley.
4. Yeast matters.
Yeast turns the stuff in the tank from wort to beer by encouraging the fermentation that results in alcohol. There are hundreds of different yeast strains used in beer production; many better brewers rely on proprietary strains developed on-site over time. Outside of the traditional beer-making yeasts, the one you're going to hear the most about is brettanomyces (brett), which tends to impart a funky, earthy note that some people (like me) enjoy and others emphatically do not.
Belgian beers are very heavily reliant on yeast for their flavors, as they tend to be less hoppy than beers from other countries (and barley doesn't taste like a hell of a lot, so we've got to get some flavor from somewhere). The clove, banana, and bubblegum aromas associated with a lot of Belgians comes from the yeast. You can memorize all of the different esters and phenols, which yeast variants they come from, and how they tend to get expressed in the end product, or you can just be a normal person who understands that Belgian beers are unique—and outstanding—largely because of the yeast, some of which make certain beers sour.
5. You like lager. Trust me. You like lager.
There is no inherent qualitative difference between lager and ale. The categorical distinctions are based on yeast (top-fermenting for ale, bottom-fermenting for lager) and fermentation temperature. Lagers are fermented at lower temperatures, which slows down the necessary chemical reactions, and therefore makes lagers, in that regard at least, a less attractive option for brewers. But we're drinkers, not brewers, so what do we care how long it took the fermentation process to complete?
Also, lager has had its good name besmirched by a long association with shitty American macrobrews, all of which have to be lagers, and all of which would be just as gross if they were ales. There are hoppy lagers, fruited lagers, black lagers. Don't assume a beer is inferior just because it's not an ale.
6. Get your nose in and out as quickly as possible.
You probably already know that most of what we experience as flavor is actually aroma: It's tough to tell IPA from Gatorade with your nose pinched closed. I prefer to take a couple of quick, little sniffs rather than one big, long, deep one for the simple reason that it makes me feel like less of an asshole. So sneak a couple of fast sniffs in before the first sip, see if anything interesting jumps out at you, and then just get down to drinking.
7. Don't waste beer, obviously.
Even if you're at a beer festival and want to try as many things as possible without getting too wasted to update your precious Untappd account, there's never any good reason to spit out beer. You can handle the first sip, no matter how gross it may be. And then, if you just can't face the daunting task of sucking down the remaining three sips in the little sampler glass, then I guess you can just toss it and embarrass your family. But don't ever spit beer out on purpose. It's unnecessary and obnoxious. That shit's for the winos.
8. Taste from light to heavy.
This one's probably common sense, but while we're all here, I guess it's worth mentioning: If you are trying to really evaluate a series of different beers, start with the lighter ones, to give your tongue a fighting chance by the time the end of the session comes around. And I don't mean light in color, but in flavor. (Which generally tracks fairly closely to alcohol content; that's an imprecise guide, but if it's all you've got to go on in an unfamiliar setting, that's the criteria to look for.)
9. Dark beers are not stronger than light beers.
Guinness has less alcohol by volume than Budweiser. Belgian-style tripels, which generally hover close to 10-percent ABV, tend to be on the pale side. Beer turns dark if it's made with roasted barley, and roasting barley does not have anything to do with its potential to ferment into alcohol. Similarly, a beer's color has no correlation to its calorie count, as that's determined largely by the alcohol content. This is why Guinness is basically diet food.
10. Freshness matters, to a point.
You know those weirdoes who spend every Saturday morning waiting in line to buy beer at a farm in Vermont? Most of the reason they do that is because it's just about the only way to get some of the real good shit, but freshness is also a factor. Almost all beer is designed to be drunk as soon as possible after being bottled, canned, kegged, or growlered. IPAs and other hoppy beers in particular suffer from aging. They don't go "bad," per se—a six-month-old Ballast Point Sculpin isn't going to do you in like six-month-old milk would—but it's just not going to taste as good as it should.
11. Be wary of bars with too many taps.
Because of freshness, duh. I've never once spoken to a bar owner who has decided, "You know what? This pilsner keg I tapped six weeks ago just isn't moving. It's a shame that people are too dumb to enjoy a nice craft pilsner; I guess I'll just pour it down the drain and start over with something else." Nope, that shit will just sit there deteriorating until the last drop is sold.
The situation's particularly dire if you live in a state like mine, where happy hour (i.e., periodic lowering of a beer's price) is illegal. That prevents a semi-honest bar owner from doing the reasonable thing by tacitly admitting, "Look, this beer didn't sell like I'd hoped it would. It's not exactly the freshest barrel in the building right now. So let's call it half price, sell it off to the tightwads, and never speak of it again." If you see a bar with 40 taps, and 20 of them are the same style (and that style will very likely be IPA, which deteriorates quickly), ask yourself what the odds are that each option is being ordered in perfect rotation to ensure maximum freshness.
12. Demand (politely) that your beer be poured properly.
Foam typically contains about 25 percent beer-by-volume, so if a harried bartender on a busy night tries to give you a pint that's half foam, know that it will settle into 10 ounces of beer when all is said and done; you paid for 16. Politely address the situation by exploiting the gigantic gulf that exists between being a dickhead and being a sucker.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.