These days, I can’t walk into a bar without obsessively sizing up the tap list, or wander into the supermarket beer aisle without systematically working my way through the new stock. But I remember a time, around my first couple of years out of college, when I had only a passing interest in craft brews, and going to bars to seek them out was a process of trial and error. I drank a lot of crappy stuff, fell victim to price gauging, learned the dangers of drinking ten Belgian tripels in one night, and so on.

It wasn’t until I found a local bar where I really felt comfortable—Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village—that I was able to get past the nervous tiptoeing (turns out dudes who causally namecheck esters and Galaxy hops can be somewhat intimidating) and really started to gain confidence in what I liked. This came naturally as I tasted more, attended events, and learned from beer nerds who were willing to talk to a newb.

There’s no substitution for drinking a lot (though not necessarily all at once) and hanging out with knowledgeable folks when it comes to really getting into beer. But looking back, I do feel like I could have skipped some of the nonsense—and enjoyed myself a bit more—if I had just known a few basics of how beer bars work, and how to know who’s pouring the good stuff and who’s just looking to cash in on a trend.

With that, here are my tips for getting the most of out a beer bar.