One of the things I always enjoy talking to people about is where they are in their craft beer adventure. You get to meet people who have been drinking better beer for decades as well as people just getting into better beer along with all points in-between.
I know that some people find the amazing choices we have right now a little intimidating when getting into better beer. I was in a Binny's in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend, and for some reason it hit me how hard I think it would be for someone to start getting into better beer now. I was stopped by a very nice and humble gentleman who asked me for help when he saw me taking far too long to decide what to buy. His nephew had brought "some Chicago beer" to Thanksgiving that he really enjoyed, and he was now looking for it in the store. I took him over to the Chicago beer section, and he quickly saw the label for the beer he was looking for: Revolution's Eugene Porter. His exact words to me were, "This is all overwhelming." We got to talking about his beer preferences and how he stuck to what he knew when he went to the liquor store or to the bar. It wasn't that he didn't want to try other things, but the selection process was a little daunting to him. He also didn't want to spend 8 to 12 bucks for a beer he might not like. I was at that point not too terribly long ago, and I forgot how I was the same way. I'm still very hesitant to pull the trigger on a $10+ four pack or sixer of something that I've never tried. It just got me thinking about my own craft beer journey, and I often forget truly how much is out there right now. It is hard for me to choose most of the time, and I know what I like!
I got into better beer before I was in 21 and was still in college. I got a job at the local Sears and worked with a guy who was a beer nut. I had been drinking cheap keg beer and the cheapest case from the liquor store at that point. I wonder if people look at me the way I looked at him when I first met him? He was crazy about beer. He talked about it, attended beer tasting events, bought all kinds of crazy beers I had never heard of, and took special trips to breweries on the weekends just to taste their beer. I remember thinking, "Man, this guy is crazy. It's just beer." Lucky for me, I told him just that and he invited me over frequently to try new beers. He showed me how to taste a beer, what I was looking for in the beer, how the brewing process worked, and he helped me to begin thinking about quality over quantity. I was bitten by the beer bug right there.
I still had a problem at this point though, and I looked at beer like Beavis and Butthead looked at life. Either it sucked or it did not suck. I didn't know much about the beer I was drinking. The style, IBUs, brewer etc... I didn't really have a clue about the difference between a lager and an ale or a pale ale and a Russian imperial stout. I owe that honor to two places in Muncie. Every Wednesday you could find me and a few friends at Scotty's for $5 dollar pitchers of anything on tap. Scotty's always had a really good selection of better beer even 10 years ago before the beer boom really happened. Each round we would try something different, and I began to understand the differences between pales, porters, and browns etc... I began to enjoy hops, and at the time I didn't enjoy heavily malt forward beers. What really changed me though was when I discovered the Heorot. Every Friday you could find me in there for $2 pizza and usually $2 something on tap. I can't remember how many taps they had back in 2002/2003, but it was 40+ at least and they didn't have any Bud, Miller, or Coors beers. I was really impressed, and I still am by the Heorot. I simply started at one side of the tap list, and by the end of the school year, I had worked through most of their draft list and repeated my favorites many times. I would have a beer that I really liked and when I got back home would find out anything I could about the beer and the brewery. I began reading more about styles, the brewing process, and anything else I could get my hands on. I'm certainly not saying you have to do that for enjoyment reasons, but that is part of how I got into beer.
I didn't drink much beer after I graduated from college, and I didn't really miss it honestly, but one fateful day my best friend gave me a bottle of Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. It was the moment that pushed me back down the rabbit hole. I have not really looked back since then.
If you are just getting into better beer or have ever felt overwhelmed with the selection available around town, I offer these few pieces of advice that worked for me:
- Try flights when you go to a brewery or tap room. This will give you a great sample of what the brewery has to offer and an easy way to try small samples of many beers instead of ordering an entire pint of something you may not enjoy. Some bars now even offer the opportunity to do flights. It's a great way to try many things. I still do this today at every single new brewery that opens up. You can tell a great deal about the quality of a place by running through their beers.
- Ask for a sample before you order. Most places are usually happy to do it from a customer service standpoint. I've seen places charge to do this, but I would much rather pay 25 cents or 50 cents for a sample than 6 bucks for a pint of something I may not like.
- Find a liquor store that lets you break up six or four packs. When I moved to Indianapolis, I went to a place on the south side called Parti-Pak. They still allow you to break up anything and buy it as a single. That is a great and economical way to sample many things without having to go all out on a full six or four pack. I used to create a mix six in the same styles. I would do a sixer of IPAs, pales, Scottish ales, and anything else I wanted and would sample them that way.
- Go to beer festivals and events. The great thing about a beer festival is that you can try many things, talk with the brewer, and get information on beers and styles you enjoy
- Come to a Hoosier Beer Geek Tail Gate for Nothing. This is a great opportunity to talk with fun beer people that truly enjoy sharing the beer experience. You can see the twinkle in someone's eye when they hear, "I'm just getting into better beer." You say those words, and I know you will have plenty of things to sample in no time flat.
- If you really want to take your knowledge further, I think the best book ever written on beer is Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer. That book changed the way I look at beer and the tasting experience for the better. (*Disclosure: I wasn't given anything to say that. I really think it is the best beer book I've ever read on tasting and understanding beer).
- Indiana has a number of groups doing great things in the beer community as well. Check out Girls Pint Out, Indiana Beer, Indiana Beer Barons, and many more that I'm not aware of.
- Have fun! Even though I can be a crusty curmudgeon sometimes, better beer is still a ton of fun for me, and it is the people and experience involved in the beverage that keep me coming back. It helps that we have more breweries than ever before brewing some of the best beer that I've had the pleasure of drinking.
Ultimately, beer can be whatever you want it to be. It doesn't have to be pretentious, stuffy, or require an encyclopedic knowledge for enjoyment. It is as simple as either it sucks or it doesn't to some and for people like me I want to dive in and know about the style, brewery, ingredients, and any other background knowledge.
If you have the time please let me know about your beer journey. How did you get into beer and what keeps you in the beer community? Any advice for others?