I use to be the first person who would scoff at beer as a beverage option. When offered a can or bottle I would wrinkle up my nose and politely decline opting for just about anything other than beer to drink instead. A few years ago that all changed for me and now every time I hear someone make similar statements I want to jump in and help them understand that beer isn’t the enemy.
I was known by friends for this definitive statement. Once, when handed an aluminum can of some light beer or another I reacted strongly and they knew never to offer it to me again. Then one day, years later, the same friends met me at a bar while I sat with a deliciously dark ale in a pint glass and they were dumbfounded. “I thought Beer Yucky!?” And I responded with, “Oh no, I was wrong. Beer Yummy!” So, what changed?
Acquiring a taste for beer is just like acquiring a taste for anything else – such as coffee or sushi. You have to continuously taste it and determine what you do and don’t like about it and keep trying new things. Drinking a Bud Light and declaring all beer evil, which is exactly what I did, is not productive. It doesn’t teach you whether or not you might like certain flavor profiles. But trying lots of different styles of beer and determining what flavors and aromas work for you can enhance your experience.
For me, it started when I began to spend more and more time in Asheville, NC. The city has been voted Beer City USA for several years in a row and its beer culture rivals Portland, Oregon. It is one of the “ground zeroes” for the craft brewing industry. One weekend, several years ago, we found ourselves as a new bar in town called The Thirsty Monk. It is now an Asheville institution, but at the time it was a Belgian only beer bar hidden in the basement of a hard to find building. We found it, ventured inside and sat down at the bar. I was instantly overwhelmed with the choices. I knew very little about beer, much less Belgian style beer. The people I was with, and the bartender, told me that Belgian beer was like wine; there are tons of types and they each has a different complexity. So, with some help I made my initial order of a beer sampler. I ordered a Lambic – a fruit beer that I had many times before and enjoyed. I also ordered a local Belgian-style beer from a brewery called Pisgah. The beer is called the Pisgah Solstice and is a Belgian Tripel. The third beer in my sampler was recommended by the bar tender – St. Bernardus Abt 12. I started with the Lambic, because it was a known quantity. It was, as I already knew, a sweet and fruity beer that tastes more like raspberry champagne than beer at all. I then move on to the Solstice. I started to read the complexities but at the time still didn’t like it. It tasted too much like “Beer” not exactly like “Beer” and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I have revisited Pisgah Solstice several times since then and understand it to be a full bodied, strong Belgian style ale. But then I tried the Abt 12. I knew nothing about this beer except that it is brewed by monks in Belgium. With that very first taste I knew I had never had anything like it before. It was a deep chestnut brown color, which caught my eye because most of the beer had seen was light gold or deep black like Guinness. The red color caught the light when I held it up. The aroma was sweet but not cloying. It smelled like caramels and Christmastime. The taste was something I had never expected. The flavors burst across my tongue – the sweet caramel, well toasted malts, and Belgian candy sugar. It was truly incredible.
With that sip I knew I wanted more. This is going to sound like hyperbole – and it is – but it was like the scene in The Miracle Worker when Patty Duke, as Helen Keller, suddenly realizes that the symbols her teacher is signing into her hand are the names of things. When she makes that connection that the sign for water represents the water from the pump and suddenly a whole world opens up before her. St. Bernardus was the key that opened the door to beer for me. I suddenly wanted to try other beers to better understand them. I started to evaluate the beers on menus to determine what might re-create the St. Bernardus experience for me. Truth is, nothing ever really recreated it but as I expanded out from the St. Bernardus epicenter, I started to recognize flavors in other beers the I liked. For me it was like a spiral from the middle. I went from the Belgian beer to porters and stouts and then spiraled out to browns (for a long time it was a favorite style of mine) and then ambers and wheats and finally made my way to pale ales and IPAs, finding the bitter hops the hardest flavor to fully grok. Now, as a point of interest, pale ales and IPAs tend to be my first go-to at a new brewery or bar – I have learned to really love the crisp refreshing flavors.
For anyone who thinks they might like beer but can’t get past that beer taste I suggest just trying some different styles when you’re out. If you don’t like the bitter flavor, start with a malty brown or an amber. If you like light refreshing beer, try a Kolsch or a Pilsner (but not Bud, Michelob or Coors). Try draft over bottle, but if bottle is the only option ask them to put it in a glass. It opens up the flavors and aromas and gives you the full experience. When you try something new consider the things you like about it and the things you don’t. Then, next time you order something articulate that. A bartender at a good craft beer bar is usually pretty knowledgeable about the beers they have. Tell them what you like and they can help you with a few choices.
It is possible to develop a taste for beer. I am living proof.