Learn Stuff. Drink. Learn More Stuff. Drink More.

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.

So What is Craft Beer Anyway?

Craft beer is hard to define, and as the industry expands, it’s only getting more difficult. The top result of a Google search offers this vague definition: a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery. The Free Dictionary lists two definitions that don’t shed much more light, mentioning distinctive flavors, regional distribution, limited quantities and small and independent.

The Brewer’s Association, a trade group set up to “promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” defines craft beer by three attributes: size, ingredients, and ownership. To be a craft brewer one must produce 6 million or fewer barrels of beer annually and have a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Finally, the craft brewery cannot be owned or controlled by more than 25 percent by a non-craft brewer.

By this definition, Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company), which brews more than 2 million barrels per year, is a craft brewer. In fact, the Brewer’s Association changed its annual barrel limit from 2 million to 6 million in 2011 in order to accommodate Sam Adams. This means that Goose Island, which produced about 360,000 barrels (as of 2014) per year but is owned outright by Anheuser-Busch InBev is not a craft brewer. On the other hand, brewers such as Southern Tier and Sweetwater, which are owned in part by private equity companies, are still considered craft. Confused yet? I sure am.

It’s no surprise that the makers of Bud want to cash in on the craft experience, even if its commercials often poke fun at the trend. But the idea that once a “big-box” brewer owns a craft brewery it’s no longer craft is irony at its best.

Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired eight craft brewers since 2011, including the aforementioned Goose Island, Blue Point Brewing, and Breckenridge Brewing. Not only that, but it’s also in the process of taking over SABMiller, a deal which will include divesting of SABMiller’s stake in MillerCoors, which would be transferred over to Molson Coors Brewing. Mergers and acquisitions!

But how can craft beer be defined only by numbers and percentages? What about quality? What about craft? Experimentation is one of my favorite things about the craft movement: I love a brewery that takes risks and brews with odd ingredients like grape must, such as Dogfish Head Noble Rot, one of my favorites.

Sam Adam’s Boston Lager is the best-selling craft beer in the US, and it’s a good beer, but it’s not a very exciting beer. That’s not to say that Sam Adams isn’t innovating, with limited releases and the nitro project. But are they brave enough to experiment with oddball styles like Gose and sours? (I’m loving Jammer, Sixpoint’s take on Gose.)

What the Brewer’s Association leaves out of its mission are the beer drinkers.  Shouldn’t a customer know what level of craft they’re buying?