Have you ever been in a situation where you just wanted a nice cold beer, and the person next to you tells you that you really should have that beer at only ten degrees above room temperature to make sure that you get the full benefit of its “hop forward finish?” Or doesn’t hand you the bottle opener until they tell you the history of the brewery that made the beer from its humble start in the garage of a heroic pioneer who bucked the system by making beer and distributing it late at night in a station wagon they built out of spent barley, driftwood, the bitter tears of unrequited dark beer lovers (adds to the IBU, they say), and old pull tabs that they combed up from the beach sand? Or they tell you in a voice filled with pity that the beer you are drinking thinking that it adds to your craft beer street cred is actually brewed by a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch?
The recent renaissance of craft and home brewing has given rise to all manner of beer snob or “aficionado,” as we sometimes like to call ourselves in our most pretentious moments. But most of us would rather be known as “the good beer guy” and are really just trying to be the one that brings something tasty to the dinner party or barbeque that the folks there may not have ever had before. Sure, we love a good deep dive discussion into the craft and process of making beer, but there are ways to both fit in to a group of enthusiasts, and also remove any examples of snobbish nonsense from the conversation that are more suited to elitist wine conversations that should be restricted only to those wearing bow ties and ball gowns.
So here are some tips to use when confronted with this situation:
- Remember, beer is actually akin to tea or soup broth that has boiled and then been infected with bacteria and left to sit for some weeks until the infection has mostly run its course. The general process is to take grains and boil them for about an hour or so, adding herbs (hops) to the pot every so often, and then cooling it down before adding yeast in there to eat the sugars you cooked out the grain and poop out alcohol and carbonation. Because it comes out as a tasty beverage that causes us to become red-cheeked and jolly, and sometimes to tell our friends that we love them and to find everything suddenly funny, we do not throw away this spoiled barley tea. That is basically it. There are other minor details, but it is absolutely not rocket surgery. Or a space operation, if you prefer. They even had laws about it needing to be dead simple beginning around 500 years ago. So, when you hear about different ingredients being added, realize that is the same as when you cook spaghetti sauce and you put more garlic, or sautéed mushrooms because you like it that way. They are just talking about someone saying, “Hey, this beer may need some lemony flavor to it, because I like it that way.”
- Most of us know we sound somewhat pompous. So if you hear “this one uses Motueka and Sorachi Ace hops, with a grain bill of Maris Otter and Caramunich, and then I dry hopped it with Saaz to up the IBUs (International Bittering Units) to 65…” what they are saying is “this beer was boiled with two types of malted barley (barley that was roasted to concentrate the sugar) and two different herbs (flowers, really, but still, think of it like saying oregano and basil or something) and then because I wanted it to be more bitter than sugary, I added a third one (like thyme or something) after I let it ferment for a while (spoil, really) but before I put it in bottles. If you want to deepen the geekiness, say, “Why would you combine those two particular hops?” Or if you want to reduce it, say, “Well, let’s see what it tastes like.” You may be asked questions about how you think it tastes afterward, but hey, at least you have a beer by this point.
- If the conversation starts to move to the even more arcane brewing trivia, or becomes a genital measuring contest about who has had the most rare or coveted beer, you are allowed to walk away as you would if it was an incredibly snooty wine conversation, or any other fandom in which you are not interested enough to live it and breathe it. Just think about it—it is basically the same with any obsession; the devotees are definitely geeks for that thing, be it beer or wine, sports or motor vehicles, movies or TV, books or music, gaming or collecting, or all the various Sci-Fi addictions in which people immerse themselves. If you are allowed to find a reason to walk away when the conversation turns into a debate about politics or religion, you are likewise permitted to do so when it becomes a debate over whether or not Harry Potter would defeat Emperor Palpatine. (He would by the way, because he beat Voldemort, who was able to perform far more complex and powerful spells than just force lightning and mind control, but that is neither here nor there.) And that goes for beer as well. If drinking the beer is more fun than talking about how the beer was made, then say that, and if they don’t change the subject, then ask them what their favorite type of beer to drink is and why. That should buy you at least another 20-30 minutes.
If you wish to join in on the discussion, and level up your beer geek cred, here are a few terms you will hear or want to use and what they actually mean.
- Barrelled: Beer that was aged in barrels previously used to age wine or spirits, and which should impart a touch of the flavor of what was in that barrel to the beer itself. Most barreled beers are higher in alcohol, and are what I like to call ADVANCED Beer.
- Bottle Conditioned: Beer that has been aged a bit in its bottle with active yeast before being released. This is to make the flavors more complex and to mellow out and deepen the character of the beer.
- Big or Session beers: Big beers are high alcohol, as measured by ABV (Alcohol by Volume) with some approaching or exceeding the alcohol content of wine. Session beers are lower ABV, and therefore you can have MOAR BEER, because you can drink it all day long without ending up nude and face down on the hood of your car with obscene drawings all over you in Sharpie pen.
- And a few for the lightning round:
- IPA: India Pale Ale, so named because it is very hoppy so it would still have some flavor when shipped by sea to India in the early 1800’s
- Sours: Beers that have fruity or tart flavors due to ingredients like fruit, and also the yeast that is used to give it a sourness like sour milk. Bonus yeast names: Brettanomyces (Brett) or Lactobacillus (lactic acid).
- Mouthfeel: Like it sounds. Is it a thin or slightly thick liquid?
- Finish: Aftertaste. Like “this has a stone fruit (peach, apricot, etc.) finish, with notes of coriander and lavender.” *also you can say floral.
- Belgian: Beers from Belgium or in styles that originated in Belgium, where folks know what beer should taste like.
- Reinheitsgebot: A 1516 German law that said beer must only be made from barley, water, hops, and yeast.
- Fizzy, yellow beer: Bud, Coors, Miller, Michelob, Lowenbrau, Pabst Blue Ribbon, etc. Generally looked down upon as from the observation platform of the Empire State Building.
- Pliny: Two Holy Grail rare beers (Pliny the Elder—tough to find) and Pliny the Younger (almost mythological, look it up) that are both extremely hoppy, but very flavorful. If you say “I waited in line for four hours for Pliny last year, but it was totally worth it,” you instantly gain +10 on your beer geek cred. By the way, some people think they taste like drinking a Christmas Tree.
Now don’t get me wrong, it does not mean you are a bad person if you do not care one way or another if you enjoy beer that I would think is horrible, and you cannot imagine anything more wasteful of time than debating and describing your beer while drinking it. I have a good friend who swears by Coors Light, and we only make fun of him some of the time. But the thing is, there are about seventy billion beers out there to try, and the worst thing that can happen is that you find one you don’t like too much. If you learn some about it, you can narrow that search, and beer geeks are generally there to help you with that learning, if you wish.