Of all the foods that are acquired tastes, beer may be the most maligned and misunderstood. There are few foods for which you will readily find people who will boast, proudly, “Oh, I never drink beer. That stuff tastes terrible.”
The problem with this statement is that beer is perhaps one of the most complex drinks known to man. Not liking beer qua beer is sort of like saying you don’t like “vegetables.” So my assumption is that anyone who says they don’t like beer (as opposed to “I don’t like this particular beer”) just doesn’t know how to drink it.
Today, I’m going to teach you how to drink beer. That means I’m going to teach you how to find a beer that you think tastes delicious.
I came to beer late. Growing up, I had only ever tasted standard American beers (ironically labeled “premium”), which are barely drinkable. The position of beer as serving sort of “check your pride at the door” philtre at college frat parties likewise made me look down my nose at it. It was at some point after college that a friend ordered me a beer, I tasted it, and said “Hey, wait a second. This can’t be beer. It tastes good.”
I spent several years completely obsessed with beer. I brewed my own, some of it pretty good, and spent lots of time seeking out interesting beers to drink.
The typical way to give advice on beer is to recommend specific brands or styles. But that doesn’t really help you if you don’t know enough about beer to understand why one might taste good to you, or why another tastes bad. Instead, I’m going to talk about the major flavor components of beer, and then I’m going to recommend specific beers that exemplify those tastes. Once you understand what you’re drinking and how to describe it, finding something you actually enjoy is easy.
What You Need
First, you need a local bar with a decent selection of domestic and imported beers. Because I’m an effete intellectual snob, I will assert without proof that European beers are generally better than their American equivalents. There are plenty of good American beers, but the market for beer is so crowded that your chances of finding a classic, if you don’t know what you like, are lower. So you want a place with a good selection of imports, and at least some beers on draft. The more beers they have on draft, the better.
Second, you want a talkative bartender who likes beer. Tell her what you’re doing. Tell her you’re on a quest to find a beer that tastes good. If she’s a beer geek (and many of them are), you have probably just put yourself in a good position for a night drinking lots of free samples. Ask for what’s fresh — stale beer is bad beer.
Lastly, you need some free time. Assuming you’ve found your talkative bartender, do him or her a favor and don’t show up in the middle of the friday night crush and expect to be pampered. Show up in the late afternoon or early evening, before it gets busy. And tip well.
The single most important flavor component of beer is malt. It is also the most expensive component. Not coincidentally, the common American beers you find — Budweiser, Coors, and so on — have very little malt in them. This is part of the reason that they taste terrible.
When I say “malt”, I really mean “malt sugars.” Malt does not ferment very cleanly. When the yeast begin their work of converting sugars into alcohol, they can only convert some of the malt. This leaves a very distinctive residual sweetness. If you’ve ever had a malted milkshake (or malt balls, for that matter), you have some idea of what this tastes like. So let’s say we have two unfermented beers, and one of them has more malt sugars in it than the other. When they ferment, we can know a few things about how the resulting beers will compare to each other. The beer that had more malt sugar will have a higher alcohol content. It will have more body, or mouthfeel — sugar is thick — and a deeper color. And it will be sweeter, or maltier.
Most other sugars are converted more efficiently by yeast than is malt. This means that they produce more alcohol, which means you need less of those sugars to produce a beer of a specific alcohol level, which means it will be cheaper to make. It also means that the beers have less body, and less flavor. In the worst cases, we can say these beers taste “attenuated.” The best you can hope for in a standard mass-market American beer made with corn or rice is that it not immediately strike you dead with its horribleness.
So the first homework assignment is to go try a beer that is “malty”, without a strong balancing hoppiness (more on hops in a bit). This time of year, you can still find some German Oktoberfest beers. Pschorr-Braü is a good starting point, as is the Ayinger Oktoberfest. If you’re reading this article in the Spring, look for a Märzen, or a Maibock. If you’re at a place that has a good Belgian beer selection, some of the Abbey ales are pleasantly malty (I particularly like the Westmalle Double or Triple). On the extremely sweet side, McEwan’s Scotch Ale would be a good choice.
As you drink these beers, make a note of how they feel in your mouth, how they taste when they are on the tip of your tongue, and the aroma. When someone says a beer is “malty,” now you’ll know what they mean.
So you’ve tried a malty beer, and you liked it, because everyone does. Why, the question arises, does anyone drink anything else?
The reason is balance. Too much sweetness, by itself, is cloying. Brewers use hops, a small bitter flowering plant, to provide a counterbalancing aroma and taste to beer. The basic idea is not unlike what you would find in a good wine. As you drink, the malty beer washes over your tongue, bringing you body and sweetness. As you swallow, the hops hit the bitter taste buds in the back of your mouth, serving as a tonic, leaving (hopefully) a refreshing taste.
You hate beer — if you do hate beer — because most of the beers you’ve tried are unbalanced. All you can taste is hops. And with nothing to balance them, hops taste nasty.
The homework assignment for this section is to go drink some Pilsner Urquell, a Czech beer that should be fairly easy to find. This is the beer that all modern American beers are patterned on, in a sort of cruel, dadaist, mocking way. Think of Pilsner Urquell as Superman, and Budweiser as Bizarro-Superman, and you’ve got the idea. This beer will probably not be to your taste, if you’re new to beer, but we’re drinking it to find out about hops. As the beer goes down the back of your throat, you’ll taste a somewhat spicy, somewhat floral bitterness. That’s the Saaz hops, a specific variety native to Europe. Saaz is particularly subtle and distinctive, which is why I’m recommending this one to start. Most other varieties of hops will have a more aggressive, harsher, bitter bite, and (in my opinion) a slightly less interesting taste. But since hops in beer is meant to serve as a counterpoint to the malt, and not as the star, that’s OK.
Victory Brewing Company, from Downington Pennsylvania, brews a beer called “Hop Devil,” an extremely bitter India Pale Ale. I wouldn’t recommend this to beginners, but if you decide you like the hops in Pilsner Urquell and want to see just about how bitter a beer can be, that’s the one to try.
Other Common Tastes
Most of the beers I’ve mentioned so far are bottom-fermented beers, or lagers. Ales are beers made with top-fermenting yeast. They are generally fermented at a higher temperature. As a result, they don’t taste as “clean” as lagers. When fermenting at a higher temperature, the yeast will produce more byproducts than just alcohol. The most important, for our purposes, are esters. The esters commonly found in beer produce aromas that can be described as fruity — smelling of apples, bananas, or orange. The effects of esters in beer are subtle, and hard to categorize. The homework assignment for this section is to try a Whitbread Ale. Make sure you don’t drink it ice-cold. Esters are more noticeable as you approach room temperature. Be sure to smell as well as taste it.
A few beers can be described as
phenolic tasting of diacetyl. These have a butterscotch-like aroma that in excess would be considered an off-taste, but in moderation can be pleasant. Samuel Smith’s Pale Ale is the best example of this that I know.
Beers To Not Try (At First)
Here is a partial list of styles of beers that have complex tastes that will make it harder for you to figure out the relationship between malt and hops. You might consider avoiding these when just starting out. If I were you, I’d avoid stouts (which generally taste primarily of roasted barley), porters (which taste of burnt “chocolate” malt), rauchbiers (which taste like smoke), wheat beers (slight clove overtones), and any beer with more than one adjective attached to the name. If you must drink Guinness, at least get it on tap. The stuff in the bottle is not fit for human consumption.
I’ll recommend a partial exemption for one particular type of fruit beer. Many beers have fruit flavors added to them. These are all for girls. I drink them anyway, but I drink them knowing they are for girls. Most beers with fruit in them are terrible, and should be avoided as a matter of course. However, the Belgian fruit-flavored lambics are quite good. Kriek, flavored with sour cherries, is incredibly fabulous and absolutely worth drinking. Some people prefer the raspberry-flavored framboise to kriek. These people are apostates, and must be destroyed.
Once you’ve found a beer that exemplifies the malt/hops balance that you like, you can (and should) branch out into these other varieties. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.
Add it Up
Hopefully, your homework assignments for this article will give you some hope that finding beer that tastes good to you is a real possibility. Go try some beers. Come back and tell us all about your experience: what beer you tried, whether or not you liked it, and what you liked or didn’t like about it.
Benjamin Franklin once said Deus nobis cerevisiam dedit quia nos felices esse vult (“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”) Go forth and be happy.