The idea of learning about craft beer and brewing can seem daunting at best to someone new to craft beer. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the details involved with the countless beer styles, brewing techniques, and describing/enjoying beer. The great thing about beer is that it can be as easy to understand or as complex as you want it to be.
Getting started on the path to learning more about craft beer is tough to say the least. From ingredients to beer styles to glassware and more, there’s a lot to learn and no perfect place to start.
If you’re one of the growing number of craft beer fans that want to know more about beer but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Looking back on both my own personal start with craft beer as well as the hundreds of questions I’ve personally answered both online and in-person at beer schools I’ve hosted, we’ve compiled the top five steps to start learning more about craft beer today.
You don’t have to be an expert in beer styles, and you don’t have to know every taste and aroma descriptor out there, you just need a base of knowledge to get started and from there it’s all about how much you want to know. With the base of knowledge you can gain from following the steps below, you should know enough to join in the conversation about craft beer and not only learn from them, but contribute to the conversation as well.
Here are our 5 steps to start learning about craft beer today.
1. Taste a Variety of Beers
We’ll kick this list off with the easiest tip of all, drinking more beer! The single best thing you can do to learn more about beer is to try a lot of different beer. It’s all to common for someone to say “I don’t like IPA’s,” or “I hate dark beer.” These gross generalizations will stop you from enjoying some amazing beers that are being judged just by their name or style. If you’re at a beer festival or sampling, make sure to taste beers that you don’t think you’ll like. Even if you don’t like a style of beer you should try as many as possible to see if you truly don’t like the style, or if you just don’t like the ones you’ve had so far.
When you taste these beers don’t just drink them, but think about what you’re tasting. Understand that it’s not an IPA that you like/dislike, but the ingredients and brewing technique that you love or hate. By learning what it is you like or dislike about beers you’re tasting you will gain the most important knowledge possible, which is a better understanding of your palate and how different flavors and aromas come off to you.
2. Understand the Basics of Brewing
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Speaking of ingredients and their impact on beer, the next important step in learning more about beer is learning the basics of brewing. This doesn’t mean you need to go buy a homebrew kit and start brewing yourself (even though you really should, it’s quite a lot of fun), what it means is that you need to know the basics of how beer goes from the base ingredients to the finished product. Even a general overview of the process will help you understand the beer you’re drinking far more than ever before.
While even an overview of the brewing process deserves it’s own post, the basics are surprisingly simple. They are:
- Soak grains in hot water to extract sugar
- Boil the resulting liquid called wort (pronounced wert) for an hour or more
- Add hops and other ingredients to the boiling wort
- Chill the liquid to ~72* F
- Add yeast to the wort and let it sit and ferment
This is about as basic as you can get when talking about the brewing process, but it’s a great place to start. Basically, the steps above are designed to extract sugar and enzymes from grain, which yeast eat to produce alcohol and CO2. That’s the most basic idea behind brewing. Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol & CO2.
The real magic in the process is just an amazing pairing of art and science, allowing a brewer to craft a beer that’s amazing and complex while relying on the science behind the scenes to make sure the beer turns out the way they hope it will. Learn more about brewing here.
When brewing beer, each brewer starts with the same four ingredients and from there, can add just about anything he or she wants. The basic ingredients of beer, which are the same four ingredients in the Bavarian Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, are:
- Malt (typically barley)
Behind every beer in the world today are these four ingredients. No matter how weird and wild a beer gets, these four are always used. How they’re used and what type of each are added are what make beers unique. You can learn more about beer ingredients here.
3. Learn the Basic Beer Styles
There are hundreds of beer styles in the world today with new sub-styles like white IPAs popping up more and more frequently. Knowing this, how can you possibly start learning about beer styles when they’re changing every day?!?
While yes, there are quite a few beer styles, some of which are harder to pick out of a crowd, the basics of beer styles remains, for the most part, fairly static. The (arguably) most important beer styles you should understand to get started with craft beer are:
- IPA & Pale Ale
- Stout & Porter
- Wheat Beer
Starting with these styles can help you get a grasp on what makes a beer fit into a style, and since they run the gamut of bitterness, color, and body, you can use these to better understand what you like or don’t like about beer.
The interesting thing about beer styles is that once you truly understand them and what makes each beer fit into each one, styles as a whole start to mean less to you. They’re important to learn when getting started, but once you’re moving past these basic styles, you can start to gain your own picture of what beers you like, which as you’ll find out, often pass across a variety of styles that you may not typically like.
You can learn more about beer styles with our beer style guide here.
4. Start Describing Beer Better
Once you have an idea what goes into beer and how it’s made, you can use this knowledge to start describing beer better. You might know what you mean when you say a beer is good, this doesn’t mean much to anyone else. Knowing the basics of describing a beer can not only help you relate a beer to someone else better, but it can help you understand and appreciate beer better, too.
Describing beer starts with understanding the process of tasting a beer. There are four key areas:
These can be broken down further, but starting with these is perfect. As with most of our other tips above, we could do an entire post on each of these areas, so for now check out this post on the characteristics of beer to get a better idea what the descriptors are, and how they relate to beer. This post on hosting a beer tasting is another great place to get started with describing beer better, and best of all, it helps you have some fun while doing it.
5. The Importance of Craft Beer
There’s more to craft beer than meets the eye. Behind those colorful labels and amazing tap handles is something special, and while yes, the beer behind them is special, we’re talking about the businesses and business owners. When you buy craft beer you’re buying from a privately-owned, local business. Instead of giving money to a massive company, you’re giving it to someone who’s living out his or her dream and doing something they love.
Craft Beer is about the greater good. It’s about respecting the local guy and knowing that by spending money with that small business you’re directly giving those brewers a better life. There’s nothing wrong with buying from large companies, but when there’s a small, local alternative that’s as good, if not better, why not spend your money there?
The craft beer movement is about more than having better access to hoppy beer, it’s about expecting higher quality and voting with your hard-earned dollar. Beer is great, and it’s by far the single community that’s had the most impact on my own life, which is why I say that craft beer is more than the sum of its parts. Take the time to enjoy the community that’s built around craft beer and remember that no matter how much or little you know about craft beer, never be a jerk about it.
Bonus: Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Speaking of not being a jerk, a great place to end is with the idea that craft beer should be fun. Sure, there’s a lot to learn and when looking at the business and social impact of craft beer it can seem like something akin to taxes or calculus but at the end of the day beer is about having fun.
Craft beer is important, but it’s not important enough to be a jerk about. If someone loves drinking <insert watery macro beer here> then let them enjoy it. Beer is about having fun and sharing an experience with friends. Beer shouldn’t be stressful and learning about it should be fun. So, get out there and have some fun while you get started on your own quest to learn more about our favorite drink, beer.