The craft beer phenomenon went from fad to trend, and it’s now more and more looking like it will be a mainstay of the urban lifestyle for many years to come. While sometimes perceived to be the drink of choice for snobby, condescending city-dwellers, that’s not the beer’s fault, is it? In the end, it’s the flavor that matters, and craft beer brewers have created some of the better tasting beers in recent memory.
If you’ve made it through the 2010s without ever learning a little about craft beers and now are too scared to ask, don’t worry! There are some things to know before you order one at your local bar, but it’s all in pursuit of a better drinking experience. Enjoy our little beer guide for beginners.
So, what is a craft beer?
Craft beer has become an umbrella term for any type of beer made by small, independent breweries, and sometimes by local eateries or bars using “microbreweries”, which traditionally focus on creating deeper, and more developed flavor profiles. Sometimes, brewers infuse them with extravagant flavors, but for the most part, they are new spins on old favorites.
Some of the big brands have products labeled “craft,” and while they can be tasty on their right, they’re not in line with the spirit, methodology, and complexity of real crafts.
A few terms to get familiar with
Like we mentioned at the beginning, there are some words used to describe the beer you’ll be drinking, and it’s good to know what they mean so you don’t end up ordering something that doesn’t suit your palate.
- Complex: This is something we touched on above. Brewers sometimes opt for all sorts of crazy flavor mixes, and the results can be really out there, but all in all, you won’t ever get a boring beer labeled “complex.”
- Hoppy: Hops are climbing plants whose flowers have been used to flavor malts, beers and all sorts liqueurs for centuries. While it’s sometimes thought that hops are exclusively bitter, they can also taste earthy, floral and more.
- Light: Light beers are usually clearer and their taste is crisper than darker variants.
- Medium: A balanced beer that’s not too crisp but not too rich, either. Most try to adopt different characteristics from both lighter and darker beers in one batch.
- Dark: Very rich and full-bodied. Dark beers usually have earthier or even chocolaty tastes, but this is not always the case, and variety is the name of the game with craft beer.
- Malty: According to standard practices in some places, craft beers should be made of up of at least 50% malt, and the level of roasting it goes through will affect the flavor and color of the beer. The longer the roast, the darker the beer.
- Session: This term simply refers to lower alcohol content in your beer. Perfect for repeat servings!
The glass doesn’t make the beer (but it helps)
Beers aren’t as prohibitive when it comes to glassware as other liqueurs can be, but getting the right glass for the right beer can be a truly enriching experience that will help you bring out the best qualities of your brew. It’s not something you should strictly learn by heart, but what kind of craft beer tutorial would this be without it?
- Pint glasses: The go-to glass for most beers. Good for lagers, ales, IPAs, stouts, and porters.
- Goblets/chalices: A glass with a long, thick stem and a bowl on top. They come in a variety of sizes, but it doesn’t affect the beer. Good for heavier types of beer like Belgian ales and German Bocks.
- Pïlsner glasses: An increasingly popular glass that helps enhance your ability to appreciate the taste of the beer. It’s good for (of course) pilsners and other lighter beers.
- Weizen glasses: Taller than a pint glass and with a more pronounced curvature than the pilsner glass, a Weizen glass encourages a thick foam head to form, and it’s better suited to appreciate the aromas of wheat beers.
- Tulip/thistle glasses: Usually reserved for Scottish ales, this is a better compliment to stronger beers, such as Double IPAs and Belgian ales.
- Snifter: Another friend of the stronger beer, this is similar in shape to the chalice and is more traditionally used to taste cognac and brandy, but can help bring out the flavors and aromas of Imperial or Double IPAs and Belgian IPAs.
What to look for in a craft beer?
As time goes one, you’ll start to develop your flavor profile, and some beers will turn out to be your favorites (and others, only a bad memory). While you get there, however, here are a few pointers on how to judge a beer.
Right after it’s served, take a good sniff of your beer, because the volatile elements that make up the aroma will be gone soon. The smell will sometimes tell you all that you need to know about the beer. Is it a sweet smell? Then it’s probably malty. Ales, on the other hand, tend to be fruitier. Sour, toasty, flowery, earthy, these are all things you can pick up by smell alone.
Now take a good look at your beer. Is it clear? Does it look dull? Maybe the foam is thick and rich, or it dissolves into nothing after a few seconds. Each beer should have a particular look, and you’ll learn how to discern quality just by looks alone eventually.
Finally, the flavor and body. While flavor, of course, refers to the taste of your beer, and how well these elements play with each other, the body refers to the mouthfeel, whether it’s watery and thin or robust and chewy.
Colorado has a fantastic craft brew scene that keeps growing every year, so you won’t be hurting for chances to learn more about the world of beer. You can even buy a few bottles from different local brewers and have a little tasting session at home. Just remember to keep smells out of the house to maintain the purity of your brews.