I’d estimate that 94% of people go their whole lives without drinking a real, good beer. That is to say, without drinking a beer not brewed by one of the huge mega-brewers that make up the vast majority of U.S. beer sales. And that’s a bummer because there’s a lot of really good beer out there. You just have to know where to look… Actually, you don’t have to know where to look. A lot of it is right at the grocery store, a few inches from where you pick up your 12 packs of Coors Light. All you really need is a bit of an adventurous spirit and a willingness to try new (and better) things.
Later, if the mood strikes, I will go into more detail about different beer styles, the brewing process, and just why the mega-brews suck and good beer is good (if your taste buds aren’t trustworthy enough), but rather than spend time on that now, let’s get to the good part: drinking.
A quick and easy guide
Like you, I am but a humble traveler on this craft beer journey. For those brave enough to follow me, I have compiled a rudimentary guide for anyone wishing to begin exploration into the wide world of beer. Keep in mind, this is an introductory list for the beginning craft beer drinker. I’ve selected these beers mainly because they are very easy to find and I think they offer a good variety of flavors without getting too intense.
Although a lot of the best beers are hard to find outside their home region, luckily many great beers do have a wide distribution. All of the beers listed here should be available in your local supermarket beer section.
1. Blue Moon
Blue Moon is a Belgian-style wheat ale brewed by “Blue Moon Brewing Company.” I put the name in quotation marks because Blue Moon is actually owned and brewed by Molson Coors, one of the huge beer conglomerates. For this reason, it’s a bit controversial in craft beer circles. I list it here because, if you’ve tasted only one beer besides the light, flavorless, lager style of the big breweries, chances are it was a Blue Moon. (Because it is owned by Coors, it is distributed along with it, meaning it is available virtually everywhere.) I also list it because—again, if you’ve never tried anything other than Bud or Coors Light—it’s a good place to start introducing your tongue to more beer flavors without overwhelming it. Personally, I think it’s a pleasant, easy-to-drink beer with a bit of citrus zest (especially if, as is often the case, it is served with a citrus garnish). But there’s so much more to explore, so don’t dawdle here.
2. Tioga-Sequioa Half Dome
If you live near Fresno like me, our local Tioga-Sequioa Brewing Company brews Half Dome and bills the style as a “half weizen”: half hefeweizen (wheat beer similar to Blue Moon) and half pale ale (see #4). It’s a decent beer and is a good transition to beers with more hops. Hops are one of beer’s key ingredients. They add the citrusy, spicy, bitter tastes that characterize stronger beers, and they provide craft brewers with the basis for countless beer-naming puns (e.g., “Smooth Hoperator”).
3. Fat Tire
New Belgium Brewing’s Fat Tire is an amber ale with a taste described as “toasty” and “biscuit-like”. Besides hops, the other main ingredient in beer is malted barley, which is roasted to varying degrees before being added to the brew (this roasting is why some beers can remind you of coffee or chocolate, which are also derived from roasted ingredients). In general terms, “hoppy” refers to the bitter, astringent tastes of beer and “malty” refers to the sweeter, bread-like tastes. Fat Tire is a great example of these malty characteristics.
4. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
This is my go-to beer. Sierra Nevada Brewing is my favorite all-around brewery. They don’t brew a lot of the more far out stuff many of the small craft brewers are famous for, but Sierra Nevada does what they do well. Their signature beer is the pale ale. Pale ales are about balance between malt and hops. I find Sierra Nevada very refreshing1. For someone who’s never tried it, it can seem too bitter, but it’s easy to become acclimated.
Those are my recommendations for the uninitiated. Give yourself a chance to get used to the new flavors and see what you like, what you don’t. Then, start exploring.
- When the mega-beers advertise that they’re refreshing, what they really mean is, they’re cold. And they need you to drink it that way. The cold masks the flavor (or lack thereof) of the beer. Here’s an easy do-it-yourself test: let your Bud or Coors or Miller come to room temperature and take a few swigs. Then decide how much you like the “taste” of your beer. While a sip of beer at room temperature may not be ideal drinking conditions, it does ensure the flavors have center stage. [↩]