My first beer was a Blue. That’s what we call it in Canada, not a Labatt’s Blue, just Blue. Then I became a Molson Canadian girl. Eventually, a few independent breweries opened up in Toronto, but then I moved to the States and started drinking wine.
Although my beer palate was still pretty raw I knew, even then, that the American mass market beers were undrinkable. My mantra was, in fact, “American beer sucks.” In the late 90’s I discovered craft beer at The Big Hunt, in Washington DC—a bar with a row of taps pulling interesting beers with actual flavor. Some I liked, some I didn’t. The problem: I just didn’t know why.
Cut to many, many years later, where craft beer is the norm and I got educated. Thanks to my now-husband and his craft beer swilling friends I learned what different beers were and why some made my taste buds leap for joy and other made them weep for mercy.
If you are new to craft beer the first key is to learn beer styles. Sounds easy. It’s not. Mainly because the categories are constantly evolving and it’s no longer, lager, pilsner, stout, and ale. It’s lager, pilsner, stouts, porters, ales, IPAs, Imperials, Saisons, Goses, Belgians, Bocks and Double Bocks, Wheats and Sours and the list goes on.
The second key is to find out if you are a hop person or not. Hops are what make an IPA an IPA (India Pale Ale. It no longer has anything to do with India or being Pale). IPAs are now the thoroughly American beer (suck it Budweiser). Hops are plants that flavor the beer and act as a stabilizer. I don’t like hops. They taste like soap in my mouth. I ordered IPAs for years not knowing that hops were the main flavor. I did the math: IPA = Hops = Naomi Doesn’t Like.
Hops are in all beers—it’s just about how much and when in the brewing process they are added and where they are from. Hops are a book unto itself.
One book that helped clarify craft brewing for me, was Craft Beer World: A guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man, by Mark Dredge. For me it wasn’t so much about the beers themselves, but how he breaks down each category and explains the history and process. He writes in an easy, accessible style and there are infographics (hooray) and lovely illustrations. He talks about the evolving state of beer, and that the “best” beers are truly subjective. It’s a good, solid, interesting read if you are trying to figure out this whole craft beer thing.
So, my point is this. If you are at a bar, and you try a beer, and you find out “hey, it’s Belgian style ale, I like that” find out what’s in that beer, and in doing so you will learn the language of beer, and then move on from there. And if you like hops? Well, this is your time, go forth and conquer. I myself will stick to a nice, tart, Gose.
-Naomi Major, Contributing Writer
Naomi Major has written for Popular Science Magazine, American Photo and The Forward. A sampling of her past employers include Gotham Chamber Opera, The World Science Festival, Grey Advertising and Jewish Living Magazine. She dreams of moving to a farmhouse in France where she would make cheese and her husband would cure meat.