Well, the day when I had to drink a macrobrewed light beer finally came & passed like a bland but friendly ghost. A local bar was hosting a benefit dinner for a family member of a friend – the charitable donation to attend came with an all-you-can-eat Italian supper & a 10 oz. plastic cup for all-you-can-drink light lager. In my ongoing effort to shed conceit & negativity I had a couple pours of the drink touted as ‘refreshing’ by macro mad men.
The yellow fizz filled my mouth, I held it for a passing moment & swallowed feeling unfazed. As the liquid followed my esophageal trail downward I thought about the experience I hadn’t had in several years. I awaited for some consubstantiative experience that would connect the ingredients of the drink with the flavor they melded together… But none were to be found – just a mouthful of liquid matter. No hint of grain, no trace of yeast character, no hop bitterness or flavor to speak of and (strangest of all) no perceivable alcohol anywhere within the taste. If I were blindfolded, I might have mistaken it for distilled water.
For a great percentage of America, this is what beer has evolved to become. The perceived function of beer for millions is to be an inoffensive chaser for stronger distilled libations; something quaffable but unworthy of regard. The idea of these macrobrews posing as a method of refreshment is dangerous to one’s sense of culture and more-so to one’s health. Such is the first aspect of beer opened up to homebrewers who get their start brewing ‘light’ beers: flavor. Taste has been absent from American beer for decades on the principle of multinational profitability. But to call a homebrewed cream ale anywhere within the taste spectrum of a Miller High Life would be confirmed hogwash to even a burgeoning homebrewer.
Even if you never brew any other color of beer than straw or yellow, the flavor of a craft brewed beer will pry open your senses, exposing a history of flavors that have been long covered up stateside. The true biscuit malt & spicy hop flavors of a authentic continental lager could easily pique one’s interest to explore other unfamiliar styles. But such a quest can be difficult to undertake. Standing alone for the first time in front of a cooler full of microbrews, or perusing a pub’s tall chalkboard of on-tap offerings is an intimidating memory for many (myself included). Worse yet, there’s often those within one’s group of familiars that will dissuade the curious against straying from macrobrews with terms like “heavy beer”, and instead try to lure you into recreational Jagermeister consumption.
This is where beer tasting groups are uniquely useful. With the expansion of craft beer offerings in all sort of bars, more of these groups are being formed in cities both big & small. Some passers-by might look upon the concept with the scorn of high-society wine aficionados, but beer tasting courses are usually a common-peoples’ gathering. Certainly a tasting session might be prefaced with instructions on swirling & sniffing the aroma of a brew or holding a taster glass up to a light to perceive color, but there aren’t groups I’ve known that call for the spitting-out of such fine brews. Beer tasting groups lend appreciation of both the creation & consumption of craft beer & which glassware, foods & seasons are called for with a wide range of beers.
In the Twin Cities we’ve got a weekly event called Beer School – a weekly tasting ‘class’ at Republic Minneapolis that hosts craft brewers & distribution reps the chance to expose their fine wares to a captive & highly interested audience. Each season brings another session of Beer School classes. One can attend a single session for $5, or pony up $15-40 for the entire session, depending on the length of the session & how many classes have elapsed. The school principal is Pat Fahey, a fella well-versed in both Minnesota beer events & the beers poured therein. The teachers include craft brewery owners, brewers and sales/marketing staff members with hands-on product knowledge & stories. Occasionally beer distribution sales reps will host a class, bringing imported offerings from the catalogs of breweries with otherwise unpronounceable names, and occasionally aged high gravity treats raided from their own personal cellar. The staff are regular folks & homebrewers who know how to pour samples & have plenty of decent suggestions for after-class drinks. The students are laid back pub-goers; some are students from the nearby University of Minnesota (the business & law schools are well-represented), others work downtown, and some are seasoned pub-crawlers making the rounds.
The class starts with the only two rules: To turn off your cell phone, and to return tasting glasses at the end of class. Homework turn-in comes next. That’s when bottle shop or bar tab receipts including the past week’s featured brewery are collected in the only pitcher not to be full of beer that night. A dramatic drawing then proceeds in which the winner takes home a four or sixer of last week’s sampled beer. A few announcements, and the class teacher is introduced. The staff work their way around the would-be dining room with rows of thirsty students, pouring four ounces into each glass. Some students start by observing the brew’s color, others go nose-to-foam to whiff, but plenty samples go right into the cheeks for an anticipated mouthful. The teachers often expose details of the brewing process, ingredients, history of the development of each beer & the local availability of each beer sampled, but nothing is as important as the brewer’s take on the students’ reactions as glasses are emptied. Feedback ensues with questions asked by students about anything on their mind which the teacher hasn’t covered. Some are interested in whether the brewery grows their own hops, others inquire about water sources, sometimes (especially after the third sample) more personal inquiries are made – sometimes about the brewers’ personal experiences after drinking the sampled beer.
Nothing is taboo. Only a vague impression of professionalism survives each class. Attendance is rewarded with the knowledge to navigate any pub’s beer menu, not to mention graduation giveaways from Northern Brewer at the end of each session. In the time since Beer School moved to Republic from St. Paul’s upscale Happy Gnome pub, the capacity & perceived accessibility for the classes has greatly expanded. Even the building which Republic occupies has grown more casually well-educated about the wide range of tasty beers at-home & worldwide. What was once a close-to-campus bar serving fishbowl sized cocktails & a tap with every name for inoffensive straw colored liquid has become a menagerie of rotating American craft brews, local upstarts and tremendously tasty locally-sourced food menu.
Look for local tasting events online. Ask your bartender, inquire with your liquor store proprietor or email breweries that have turned your tongue the right way. The fine people that make & serve this ever-expanding array of beer choices want to help you navigate through a world of styles, brands & brews. You’ve already shed the intimidation over the process of brewing your own craft beer; all that’s left is to put down the stadium cup & pick up an imperial pint glass. Turn heads while you’re watching the game barside by ordering a golden Kwak in the proprietary long glass & wooden stand. Gather & learn more from those who seek and those who know their folly.
Within every glass of craft beer there are facts, anecdotes & memories. Learning to appreciate beer by homebrewing is a first big step. Learning to appreciate the styles, one taste at a time with a group will shorten the steps leading up to a much bigger view of the wide array of flavors hiding behind barroom curtains and under beer garden umbrellas throughout the world.