Basic Beer Knowledge

Good beer is widely available and relatively inexpensive, but choosing among all the various styles can be a little confusing without some help. A little beer knowledge can turn a possibly daunting experience into an enjoyable one. You can start with a list of handy beer descriptors, along with some great beer styles and brands to try. You can also use pointers for buying, serving, tasting, evaluating, and dining with beer.

A Few Useful Beer Descriptors

Because beer is widely available in a variety of different styles, describing it isn’t as easy as it used to be. Knowing a handful of colorful beer descriptors comes in handy when discussing beer with others. Here’s a sample list to get you started:

  • Aggressive: Boldly assertive aroma and/or taste
  • Balanced: Malt and hops in similar proportions; equal representation of malt sweetness and hop bitterness in the flavor — especially at the finish
  • Complex: Multidimensional; many flavors and sensations on the palate
  • Crisp: Highly carbonated; effervescent
  • Diacetyl: Buttery or butterscotchy aroma or flavor
  • Estery: Fruity aromas
  • Floral: Full of aromas reminiscent of flowers
  • Fruity: Flavors reminiscent of various fruits
  • Hoppy: Herbal, earthy, spicy, or citric aromas and flavors of hops
  • Malty: Grainy, caramel-like; can be sweet or dry
  • Roasty/toasty: Malt (roasted grain) flavors
  • Robust: Rich and full-bodied

The following are two other terms commonly used to describe a beer, but they don’t describe taste:

  • Mouthfeel is the tactile sensory experience of the whole inside of the mouth and throat — warmth (alcohol) in the throat, dryness, carbonation, and so on — and includes a sense of body.
  • Body describes the sensation of fullness, or viscosity, of a beer on the palate, ranging from watery to creamy; beer is generally described as thin-, light-, medium-, or full-bodied.

Unusual Beer Styles and Great Beer Brands to Try at Least Once.

Most beer drinkers tend to drink just a couple different beer styles without straying too far off the beaten path. But to fully understand and appreciate the wider spectrum of beer styles, here are a few types of beers that every beer drinker taste at least once:

  1. Belgian Fruit Lambic: Well-aged ale with surprising, effusive fruit aroma and taste; intoxicating fragrance
  2. Doppelbock: Strong, dark, and caramel-like Bock Beer with two times the flavor and body of Bock (doppel your pleasure, doppel your fun)
  3. Imperial Stout: Dark, rich, and creamy Stout with complex grain flavors; a brew to chew
  4. Rauchbier: Oktoberfest beer made with a portion of beechwood-smoked malt; delicious and unique but takes somewhat of an acquired taste (great with smoked cheese or sausage)
  5. Witbier: Perfumy Belgian Wheat Beer made with orange rind and coriander seed; like nothing else in the beer world

Certain brands of beer have become synonymous with distinctly different flavor profiles. The following short list includes some of the more famous brands along with a couple others that are still cultivating a following. True beer lovers should taste all of them at least once.

  • Guinness Stout (Ireland): Dark, dry, smooth, and roasty, with a creamy head; the perfect sipping pint
  • Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic): Crisp and hoppy with a touch of malty sweetness; the original, classic Pilsner beer
  • Rodenbach Grand Cru (Belgium): Sharply sour but refreshing, with fresh fruity notes; beer masquerading as Burgundy wine
  • Samichlaus (Austria): Incredibly malty-rich and spirited; a terrific tipple for the Christmas holidays
  • Samuel Adams Utopias (United States): Throat-warming malt complexity with hints of oak, like no beer you’ve ever had; that’s why you sip it like a brandy

Buying the Freshest Beer

To ensure that you always get the most bang for your beer buck, keep these tips in mind when buying beer. Remember that freshness in beer is as important as freshness in bread.

  • Don’t buy bottled beer that’s coated in a layer of dust and/or has any flakes, chunks, or floaters in it.
  • Always consume beer from growlers before it goes flat — usually in the first 24 to 36 hours.
  • Look for freshness dates and buy only beer that isn’t past the freshness date.
  • If you have the choice, buy beer that’s refrigerated rather than beer that’s sitting on a shelf.
  • Don’t buy beer that is or has been sitting in the sun.

Serving Beer Properly

To fully enjoy your beer-drinking experience, it helps to follow a few simple serving suggestions. Here are some very simple and easy ways to increase your beer enjoyment:

  • Make sure the beer is at proper serving temperature. Lighter bodied and lighter colored beers can be served cold (40 to 44 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 to 6 degrees Celsius), but darker beers should be served a bit warmer (44 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, 6 to 9 degrees Celsius). High octane brews can even be served at room temperature.
  • Always pour the beer into a (clean) glass. Doing so releases a lot of the CO2, which increases the beer’s aromatics while reducing your carbonation intake (and, thus, your aromatics).
  • Though not absolutely essential, using certain beer glasses, such as Pilsner glasses, Weissbier glasses, wine flutes, and brandy snifters, can enhance your sipping experience.

Tasting and Evaluating Beer Wisely

Drinking beer is easy, but evaluating it as you drink requires a little more diligence. Here’s a good step-by-step process to evaluate beer like a pro:

  1. Purposely pour the beer to create at least two fingers depth of head in the glass.
    Creating a decent head also creates a fuller aromatic bouquet.
  2. Experience the beer’s aroma first because aromatics dissipate quickly.
  3. Look at the beer’s color and clarity.
    The color and clarity of beer changes from style to style, so don’t expect all beers to look the same.
  4. When tasting the beer, try to discern the various flavors of the primary ingredients — malt, hops, yeast, and so on. Note fruitiness and warmth (if any).
    In addition, pay attention to whether the beer is sweet, dry, or acidic, as well as where those flavors are experienced (foretaste, midtaste, aftertaste).
  5. Determine the body and texture of the beer.
    The body may be full, medium, or thin; texture may be watery, creamy, chewy, gassy, and so on.
  6. Reflect on the beer.
  7. After tasting the beer and discerning its various flavors, aromas, and textures, decide whether the various parts of the beer work harmoniously to create an enjoyable beverage.

Creating a Delicious Dining Experience with Beer

Beer makes an excellent accompaniment to many different foods. The following beer and food pairing tips can help enhance your overall dining experience:

  • A very general rule is to think of lagers as the beer equivalent to white wine and ales as the red wine equivalent.
  • The best pairings occur when beer is used to either cut, contrast, or complement the dish. For example, a happy India Pale Ale cuts through the oiliness of duck or lamb, a malty Märzenbier or Vienna Lager contrasts the heat of a 5-alarm chili, and a rich Imperial Stout nicely complements fudge brownies.
  • Drink light-bodied beers before eating; save fuller bodied beers for dessert or for after the meal.
  • Lighter bodied and colored lagers pair well with delicate fish; malty, amber-colored beers pair well with chicken; hoppy Pale Ales mate well with pork and lamb; dark Porters and Stouts complement hearty beef dishes — especially when grilled.
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