You agree to meet up with some friends at the city’s newest microbrewery, hoping for a night of some light conversation, bar nuts, and getting sloshed. Little did you know that the guys you’re with are really into craft beer.
And you’ve been drinking Budweisers all your life.
Craft beer comes in so many different variants and colors and can be so bitter. A fundamental understanding of the few main categories and knowing which buzz-words to say can make you sound like a total beer expert.
What’s Beer made of?
Literally just 4 ingredients!
Barley malt OR wheat in some cases OR both (Basically grain!)
Craft Beer: The Cast of Characters
This guy is the best beer we’ve been drinking all our lives — the Budweiser, the clear yellow fizzy drink that doesn’t have a significant flavor. It just tastes like… beer? Lagers you get in breweries are usually flavored. You’ll see smoked lagers commonly. There’s nothing you need to know about a Lager except that it’s basic, and chances are nobody is going to pay it much attention.
Bonus points: What makes a beer a lager is when it’s bottom-fermented. Bottom-fermented means a different kind of yeast was used at the bottom of the wort. It doesn’t release too many esters, which is the flavor giving stuff.
So bottom-fermented is less flavor. The yeast is not given center stage to do his thing.
We’re not going to spend too much time here because there are a few kinds of ales we have to get into. But an ale is a beer that’s been top-fermented as opposed to our friend Lager. That means there’s lots more flavor and color due to the release of esters.
In case you order a Red Ale, which is usually really tasty, just know that it’s a caramelized version of an ale. The malts are roasted, which gives it a light nutty and caramel flavor.
Okay, hear me out. All pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners.
A pilsner is a pale lager.
A pilsner should be clear and (not cloudy) pale colored. What’s good in the craft beer world is when the foam has lots of tight bubbles and some big bubbles. There should be different sized bubbles that have a lot of character. In craft beer, the aim is not as little foam as possible; in fact, it’s to enjoy the foam as if it’s whipped cream on your milkshake!
What to say about a Pilsner vs. what you shouldn’t say: “This Pilsner is really clean.” VS. “This Pilsner tastes nice.”
“This Pilsner has a light mouthfeel.” VS. “This just tastes like regular beer.”
“The foam is really rocky.” VS. “Bro, why did you pour my beer with so much foam?”
“What a zing of bitterness in the aftertaste!” VS. “Thank God, it’s not too bitter.”
Wheat Beer/Hefeweizen/Weiss Beer/Witbier
The reason they’re all in the same category is that what they have in common is wheat. Most beer uses only barley, but these beers are brewed with either only wheat or a combination of the two.
Wheat beer is always cloudy, never clear. It also shouldn’t be dark. It will taste very floral and fermented.
Wheat beer is also traditionally one of the sweetest beers, which is why most people like it. When talking about the taste, you should mention coriander for extra points.
How to talk about a Wheat Beer vs. what you shouldn’t say:
“Tastes really fresh with a hint of citrus, maybe orange peel?” VS “Tastes fruity.” “What a bright and floral spritz.” VS “Smells like my mom’s perfume.”
“Has notes of banana and clove.” VS “I told you, it tastes fruity.”
“Low IBU, clean, focused bitterness.” VS “It’s sweet!”
“Kind of broad across the tongue, nothing snappy.” VS “It’s okay.”
Pro Tip: Nothing makes you look more like a beer snob than criticizing your brew as an afterthought. My go-to insult: “Tastes broad across the tongue, nothing snappy.” Chances are, everyone will agree with you. They have no idea what that means either.
IPA (Indian Pale Ale)
Here’s a little bit of history for you. IPA’s were made by the British and then sent across to India through the Calcutta port for the colonialists who were chilling over there. So beer was kept in barrels, and it had to last over 6 months.
That’s why IPA’s are so hoppy. Remember one of the 4 ingredients, hops? It’s actually a flower, and it gives beer its flavor while also preserving it. So the IPA is known for being really high on that hoppy flavor.
I know what you’re thinking: what do hops taste like?!
The answer is: They can taste anywhere from floral to fruity to spicy to sour. There are many different varieties of hops.
Bonus points: If you think this Hop flower looks a lot like weed, you’re not too far off. Hops are in the same Cannabaceae family of flowering plants. Share that fun fact with your beer snob friends!
But it’s easy to say an IPA tastes hoppy because that’s the dominant flavor component. Compared to the subtle flavors of yeast and barley, hops will be prominent. They smell really strong and are an explosion in your mouth.
What to say about IPA’s VS What not to say:
“Lots of hops, they jump right out at ya!” VS. “It tastes weird. Is this beer?”
“These hops have a nice acidity.” VS. “Is this spoilt?”
“Really aromatic, fun IPA.” VS “What’s that smell?”
You usually spot the Stout first when you walk into a micro-brewery. It’s the most non-beer looking thing; it’s usually dark brown, mahogany, or even black.
It can taste like caramel, malt, and coffee and is usually pretty bitter. But not an unbearable bitterness; it’s similar to your morning black coffee. It’s usually less bitter than the IPA.
The foam in a Stout has to be creamy. That means the foam feels thick, almost like soft-whipped cream, not like the bubbly foam we get in lighter beers.
What to say about Stouts VS What not to say:
“This stout has great creamy foam.” VS. “You poured it wrong!” “A lot of depth of flavor.” VS. “It tastes like coffee.” “Has notes of coffee and roasted malt.” VS. “It tastes like coffee.” “Too one-dimensional. A bit too sour.” VS. “I don’t like how it tastes.”
Pro Tip: If you want to criticize your beer, make sure you call it one-dimensional.Some heavier insults are chemical finishand superficial flavoring.
The irony is that if you reached the bottom of this article, you’ve probably learned a bit on the way and may not be faking being a beer expert all that much. Talking about beer isn’t that difficult; try to focus on four main factors:
The look (how the foam looks, how clear/cloudy beer is.
The aroma (what it smells like)
The taste and after-taste (fruity/floral/sour/bitter)
The viscosity (how thick the liquid feels in the mouth)
Don’t forget to smell your beer before taking a sip. Maybe don’t swirl it around; that’s for the wine connoisseurs.
Remember to enjoy your beer, and figure out which kind you like the best.