Within the past two years, I’ve become a fan of craft brewing. Apparently, I’ve chosen the right state to have this happen in, as Minnesota is a haven for craft beers, microbrewers, and various new and exciting forays into the world of malt, hop, and barley. However, I’ve also found that it can be a dangerous territory, filled with crazed beer traders who horde bottles for profit, stores with insanely varied product, and a large group of drinkers “in the know” who seem to make it their life’s work to belittle you if you cannot taste the “essence of (insert obscure plant here)” that may or may not have actually been used, but must be there because they say they can taste it. So, I made it my goal to hold my own in a conversation about one of the finer and more varied things in life: craft beer. I’ve used a few simple steps that hopefully everyone can utilize, even if it’s not with beer, then with something they enjoy.
- 1) Drink what you like, not what people say you should like. If you like hoppy beers, drink them, winter or summer! If all you want are lagers, go for it. Embrace what you enjoy, and tell everyone to go to hell. Politely of course. I’m not into hopped up, bitter beers. I prefer malty, thick, rich beers, barley wines, and quadrupels. And I want them any time of year.
- a. If anyone’s interested, La Trappe Quadrupel tops my favorite beer list, North Coast’s Old Rasputin is a favorite Russian Imperial Stout, and Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout are favorite seasonal/rare beers. But I also enjoy a cold Leinie’s Honeyweiss or Grain Belt, especially with pizza.
2) Don’t be afraid to experiment with new and different types of beer. It’s really the only way to find out what’s out there, and to avoid getting stuck in a rut with your beers. A great way to do this is with a beer tasting, either at a liquor store that provides them, or by hosting one with your friends. Have a small group of people over, tell them to bring a couple of different kinds of beer, and provide the snacks (and a place to spend the night if you get overly involved in the tasting aspect). Many a new and delicious beer has been discovered this way in my circle of beer loving friends. And I’ve been able to eliminate beers that I was curious about but didn’t want to spend the money trying by myself, that I found weren’t to my liking. And keep a list for yourself. Rank them if you want to, but even a simple “like” and “dislike” checklist will let you know whether you should spend money on a beer again or not. Websites like Beer Advocate, though they can be filled with people who have to express each (real or imagined) nuance of flavor in a beer, can be a good guideline for finding interesting beers in the styles you prefer.
3) Find a liquor store that you’re happy with, that has knowledgeable staff, and has beer at a reasonable price. Just because you’re spending more, doesn’t mean you’re getting better product. There should be ample stock with a decent selection, and once you decide what types of beer you prefer, one that provides more of what you like. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of the staff. A good staff member should be able to give you recommendations if you tell them “I like x beer, what else do you recommend that’s similar?” If that person doesn’t know, they should be able to point you to someone who does. If you ask “What’s the difference between a lambic and a lager?” and they just stare at you blankly, head for the nearest exit.
- a. Personal favorite stores of mine are: Blue Max in Burnsville, for a wide variety of beers from around the world, and a usually very knowledgeable staff. The prices are higher than a “typical” liquor store, but there’s a great selection; Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, for a largely Belgian beer selection, a great “make your own six pack” wall, a (so far) universally knowledgeable staff, weekly tastings, and prices that are a dollar or two higher than say MGM or the city liquor stores; MGM liquors in Burnsville for a very large variety, decent prices, relatively knowledgeable employees, tastings typically on weekends, and a lot of options to make your own six packs, but finding rarer beers is a crap shoot. And they don’t sell Surly. There are many others, but those should give a large cross-section of available craft beers.
4) Once you’re comfortable trying out different beers, attending a beer fest is a great way to expand your palate. Big or small, they can be a lot of fun. Just remember a designated driver or ample time to sober up, and know that for every beer you like, there will be quite a few you won’t, and that’s okay. But a single admission fee for multiple types of beer to try is a great way to find new favorites, both of individual drafts, and of breweries as a whole. These can vary locally from just a few breweries to a large fest like the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest and Gitchee Gumee Brewfest in Superior, WI, which I personally recommend as a great time with a large variety of beer.
I don’t know if any of this will help open the wonderful and treacherous world of beer to anyone else, but I know by trial and error that these things helped me stop looking at the ever-increasing tap lists at bars with a mixture of confusion and dread, spending money unnecessarily on beers that were everything I didn’t want, not knowing what it was that I did, and thinking very seriously about giving up on the whole beer thing in general. The main thing is, if you like beer, enjoy all of the possibilities, and don’t get intimidated by names, descriptions, or reviews that are short on information. Make up your own mind, and use outside opinions as a guideline, not a rulebook.