Twenty years ago, beer drinkers really only had to worry about two things: what was “good” beer, and what was “bad” beer. Bad beer was easy to locate—the fizzy, corporate-produced lagers that Americans had seemingly been drinking since time eternal. While good beer was what we now call all the craft brews hitting the market—flavorful, ambitious, complex, and usually more alcoholic fare produced by small, independent operations.
But today’s era of well-informed patrons has upped the ante for what it means to be a
insufferable beer nerd.
In fact, as craft beer has come to dominate American palates—even though, in actuality, it makes up just around 15% of the market—and as IPAs, imperial stouts, and sour ales appear at chain restaurants, a new level of snobbery and pedantry has emerged. Suddenly, it was almost scary for average Joes and Janes to enter some of the more “serious” craft-beer bars out there.
What if you messed up pronouncing “Lagunitas”? What if you wanted to drink a pale ale straight from the bottle? What if that bearded beer geek at the end of the bar glanced up from checking in beers on Untappd just to mock your shocked reaction to a tart gose? It didn’t help that the hardcore fans had turned their love of beer into a flat-out competition. Trading and muling had inexplicably turned the mere act of drinking beer into a drunken arm’s race, with people battling to land Side Project and De Garde and SARA bottles like comic-book dorks worried about old issues of X-Men.
It may feel stressful for emerging craft-beer drinkers, but it doesn’t need to be. Even if beer has indeed gotten a whole lot better and now demands the same serious consideration as wine and whiskey, it’s still a whole helluva lotta fun. For starters, you need to spend less time worrying whether you’re “doing it” right by cutting through the noise that surrounds beer culture.
Here, we debunk some of the most pervasive myths that stand between you and a good beer, with knowledge darts from three of the country’s top beer experts:
- Tom Peters, owner of the acclaimed Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, co-founder of Philly Beer Week, often credited with first introducing Belgian styles and sour beer to America
- Tristan Colegrove, GM and “beer czar” of Haymaker Bar & Kitchen in Manhattan, former bartender at such notable beer spots as The Gate and Berg’n, both in Brooklyn
- Tinika Green, certified cicerone and beer sommelier at The Cannibal Beer & Butcher in New York City, formerly assistant general manager and beverage director for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group
The myth: All hoppy beers are bitter.
The facts: Yes, hops themselves are innately bitter, added to beer in order to provide balance to the sweet malts. But hops are most significantly used in today’s “hoppy” beers for aroma and flavoring aspects. Likewise, hops are no longer just one-note with a piney flavor profile. Today, there are literally hundreds of hops cultivars, running the gamut from tropical to citrusy, dank to herbal, grassy to flowery, and even oniony and spicy in some cases.
Peters says: “It all depends upon which hop (varietal) is used and when they are added to the boiling brew kettle. Adding hops early during the brew adds bitterness while adding hops for the last 15 minutes of boiling adds aroma. Hops also act as a preservative, which gives it more shelf life.”
Green says: “Hops add both flavor and bitterness to beer. Many of our favorite beers have grassy, piney, tropical, and/or herbal flavors and aromas, which are present due to the hops. In my opinion, when we speak of hop bitterness, we speak of it in relation to the malt character of the beer; how much residual sweetness is left in the finished beer, and how the bittering factor of the hops balances it. In many styles with lower residual sweetness, the bitterness of the hops is more pronounced. In beers that are more malt-driven, the hops bitterness balances the sweetness of the malt. The flavors of the hops are present in many of these styles would be considered ‘hoppy,’ though they’re not particularly bitter. English old ales and barleywines are a great example of this.”
The myth: The higher the ABV, the more flavorful the beer.
The facts: With the onset of the craft-beer movement, all of a sudden beers were both more flavorful and more alcoholic. For the longest time, American beer had sat comfortably around 4 to 5%, but styles like stouts, barleywines, and anything “imperial” shattered this expectation, often breaking double-digits in alcohol by volume (ABV). But does that mean that alcohol necessarily equates to flavor? Do these big brew really deserve to top beer-rating sites, or are consumers just drawn in by the shock-and-awe of so-called “extreme beer”? (Photo: brasseriedelasenne.be)
Colegrove says: “I have had a lot of session IPAs [low alcohol] lately that flavor-wise stack up to an imperial IPA. They just don’t have the body the imperial does, and usually a thinner mouthfeel as well. I find that imperial stouts, especially barrel-aged ones, do have more depth of flavor than your run-of-the-mill stout, though.”
Peters says: “There are many breweries which produce full-flavored session beers. A session beer is generally in the 3.5% to 6 % ABV range. They are meant to be consumed as fresh as possible. Yvan De Baets at Brasserie De la Senne in Brussels is world-renowned for producing low-alcohol yet flavorful beers which have a nice, dry finish.“
Green says: “Some of the most complex and flavorful beers around hover in the 3 to 6% ABV range. English bitters, German sours, Scottish ales, Belgian lambic, and Flanders reds are all within this range, and impart a great deal of complexity and flavor. There are even many lower-alcohol or session IPAs on the market that are still full-bodied and flavorful but won’t have you sliding off your bar stool.”
The myth: Canned beer is worse than bottled beer.
The facts: The first canned beers came about in 1935, courtesy of the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company. An instant sensation, they drove skyrocketing sales, and soon most major breweries were canning. Aluminum cans, even cheaper to make and lighter to transport, were introduced in 1958. Yet, for some reason, “classy” beer—in other words, high-end craft beer and most European imports—remained in bottles until Colorado’s Oskar Blues begins doing it in 2002. Nevertheless, even with some of today’s finest, most acclaimed beers strictly coming in cans (see: The Alchemist Heady Topper, Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine, Tree House Julius, etc.), the stigma lingers that “good” beer should come in a bottle. (Photo: Facebook/OskarBluesBrewery)
Colegrove says: “Depends on what you plan on doing with the beer and what style it is. If you want to drink it fresh and it is not an ageable brew, then stick to cans. Bottles are fantastic for aging, especially corked-and-caged bottles. Cans let less ultraviolet light in so the beer is more protected in that regard—hence the recent canned IPA trend. Growlers are mainly for transporting beer off draft lines. I don’t suggest using them unless you are going to drink the beer rather quickly. I would say, overall, I prefer the can than the bottle.”
Green says: “Two of beer’s biggest enemies are light and oxygen. When exposed to ultraviolet light, the chemical compounds in beer which are derived from the hops break down, and the resulting reaction leads to the light-struck or ‘skunky’ flavor you may have heard of. This is why we like dark-colored bottles over light-colored ones. Over time, however, bottles with crown tops can allow oxygen to invade the bottle and affect the flavor of the beer. With cans, these two issues go out the window—the beer is protected. Whatever container your beer is in, though, be sure to store it in a cool, dark place.”
The myth: Beer should always be priced cheaply.
The facts: While fat cats drank pricy scotch and corporate snobs drank wine, beer was always seen as the affordable tipple for the everyman on a budget. Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson certainly favored quantity over quality, but even well into the 2000s, one could get a quality six-pack for under ten bucks. That’s changed of late, and now beers like the aforementioned Heady Topper cost around $5 per can, with “bombers” of quality stuff often reaching well into the $20-$30 range for just a single bottle. Late last year, Goose Island released Rare Bourbon County, its famed imperial stout, aged this time in 32-year-old bourbon barrels; it had a recommended retail cost of a whopping $60. (Photo: Flickr/sashimomura)
Peters says: “Beer is always a great value. Some bars sell really good beer at $5 a pint. That’s cheaper than freshly-squeezed orange juice. But some beer costs more to produce, and takes up to three years before it can be bottled. That translates to increased cost. You can purchase one of the best beers in the world for $15 to $45 per 25-ounce bottle in a good beer bar or gastropub. What type of wine can you get in a restaurant that only costs $15 a bottle? Probably not an inspiring wine.”
Green says: “There are Tuesday night beers and there are Saturday night beers; beer should have context. I love a well-crafted beer that I can enjoy with friends over a laugh that doesn’t break the bank. However, there are also beers that are crafted, perhaps blended and aged, that require an investment of dedication and patience on the part of the brewer/blender; these efforts are often costly. Once in the glass, these beers are going to demand your attention. Inherently, these beers are going to cost more, much like a 15-year-old Barolo.”
The myth: Beer freshness is overrated.
The facts: When Anheuser-Busch first started putting “born-on” dates on bottles of Budweiser all the way back in 1996, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. Beer couldn’t go “bad,” could it? Well, yes, certain brews will turn eventually, especially when stored improperly or subjected to light, but these days it seems like many breweries are treating their product more like precious quarts of milk than beer. Stone released its “Enjoy By” double IPA in 2012, literally making the brewers’ cut-off date for drinking it a permanent part of the label. (Photo: stonebrewing.com)
Colegrove says: “Some beer ages very well. I like most of my beer fresh, though. Especially IPAs, saison, and the more recently popular kettle sour. Some brewers have guidelines online for what is ageable and what is not. They also tend to give outlines for cellaring the product as well.”
Green says: “You usually want to taste the clean malt and hop flavors that the brewers intended as close to the time that the beer completed the brewing process as possible. For other beers, especially those with a high ABV, or sour or smoked beers, they will typically improve and develop as they age, as long as they’re stored properly.”
The myth: Brettanomyces makes beer sour.
The facts: Brettanomyces has become a “famous” yeast in beer-nerd circles, and more and more it’s popping up as a selling point on beer labels. That’s probably owing to the fact that it is deployed in many great, funky saisons and wild ales like Boulevard’s Saison-Brett and Allagash’s Midnight Brett. But most people don’t exactly know what this strange yeast actually does to beer, and many consumers assume it’s responsible for the sourness often present in wild ales. (Photo: adamchandler.beer)
Peters says: “Brettanomyces eats any sugar remaining in the beer. The longer the ‘Brett’ is in the beer, the dryer the finish will be. A great example is Sierra Nevada Brux. Brian Grossman used only Brett for fermentation and that beer is not sour at all—just very, very dry.”
Green says: “Brettanomyces adds quite a bit of character and flavor to beer. It can add funky barnyard notes and floral, fruity, tropical aromas, depending on when it is used during the brewing process. Lactic acid bacteria (like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) are responsible for ‘souring’ beers during fermentation. Brettanomyces is used in conjunction with many of these beers for added depth of flavor and aroma. At best, when used alone, as a primary or secondary fermentation yeast, Brett only adds a lightly tart character, in addition to the previously mentioned aromas.“