I walked into the Wrigleyville bar fumbling for my ID, heart thumping. I searched for a menu, a chalkboard, or some divine sign to guide me, but coming up empty, I joined a queue of improv classmates clumping towards the bar.
Each one rattled off his or her order as if answering a roll call or reciting a last name. Trying to overhear the shorthand vernacular and collect the internalized menu, I turned to Lisa and used a strategy I have employed many times since, “So, what are you going to get?”
“Probably a Shiner.”
“Oh right.” I said. Dang it. This didn’t help. I was lost. “Eh…Which one is that?” Oh god, what were these words coming out of my mouth?
“Shiner Bock? Its on special today.”
“Oh yeah, sorry its hard to hear.” It was noisy, but I had heard her clearly. As clear as someone who knew nothing about ordering a beer could.
Then it was my turn. I rested my hands on the wooden ledge, adopting the posture of Oliver Twist. When you know what you’re doing, the bartender barely looks at you and keeps pouring, scooping, shaking, opening, and shuffling without stopping for more than a nod to acknowledge your order.
“What can I get for you?”
“A Shinerbocker…” Somewhere in the middle of that made up word, I started to mumble, fading off into a whisper. Everything at the bar halted. The bartender ceased her pouring, scooping, shaking, opening, and shuffling to look down into my eyes.
“Sorry, what did you want?
“A Shiner…” I gestured flopping my hand toward the chalkboard with the specials scratched on it.
“Oh a Shiner?” Oh god, what word had I just said? She pulled down the corresponding lever and handed me my rite of passage. As I headed towards the beer garden with my beer of great price, I took a sip.
I wanted to weep thinking of choking down the heavy brown liquid whilst my peers slugged back their brews like I gulp Diet Cokes. Man, I really wanted a Diet Coke.
That was several years ago, but more recent than I would like to admit. Sometimes our experiences, subculture, and preferences isolate us from learning certain things. For these skills, I feel I’ve missed my chance and hopped in at the wrong point of the learning curve.
Like skiing. I think I missed the lift on that one. I skied once in second grade at Villa Olivia, which is in a Chicago suburb with slopes made by carting snow around with dump trucks.
My friend Devin assures me I don’t have a steeper learning curve than people who just drank Natty Light four years in college. But even so, these peers gained a confidence and casualness around beer from experimenting with how much they could drink before throwing up.
What beer you order speaks to something about you, like the design on the back pockets of your jeans or the car your drive. So at 25 years of age, I had to ask…
What beer should I order?
For this revealing question, I asked my friend Marty to be my spirits guide. Our lesson took place at the wonderful Two Brothers Tap House in Warrenville, IL where I tried more brews than I had in my lifetime. I’ve comprised my findings below (please do not hold Marty liable for my interpretation of his information).
Meredith’s Incomplete Guide to Craft Beer
(Or how beer is like everything else)
First of all, mind blown. Did you know there are really only two main types of beer? Ok, I can see how you might’ve already known that, but I didn’t. Did you know that a Diet Coke with grenadine is called a diet Roy Rogers? We just know different things.
All beers start relatively the same way, but their fermentation process funnels them into two main categories: lagers and ales. Ales are top-fermented beers that ferment at higher temperatures. Lagers ferment at lower-temperatures and are bottom-fermenting beers—they’re much more temperamental (Holding back from sharing all the wonderful historical details Marty imparted, but I’ll try to prioritize).
Wine drinkers may fancy sours, beers brewed to taste more acidic or tart. I enjoy Lambics, which hale from Belgium. Unlike the controlled and calculated brewing process of ales and lagers, Lambics are exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria—spontaneous fermentation.
In the states, Lambics like Framboise provide a juice-like go-to for me at bars with a wide selection. The other sour I tried from Marty’s personal collection reminded me of kombucha.
The scientist-types can cling somewhat to the IBU of a beer, or the International Bittering Unit. On average, beers have IBU’s between 15-60. I found I tended towards mid-range beers, but with so many factors contributing to a beer’s taste, it’s hard to reduce beer choice to this measure; it’s definitely not foolproof, but it might help your decision if listed.
You also can’t judge a beer based solely on its color. All the generalizations I previously used to navigate beer ordering prove to be just that, generalizations. Beer color comes predominately from the grain used to make the beer. When I looked at the spread of beer samples, I assumed I would love the lightest colored beer, which I assumed was the “girly” beer, and would hate the stout (I knew that beer term already and used it at least five times to gain credibility).
I ended up falling in love with Sidekick, which was somewhere in the middle on the color spectrum. Marty encouraged me to smell the beer first. The aroma reminded me of citrus fruits with hints of more complex flavors. Our sense of smell influences a majority of what we “taste” in a beer. I enjoyed the smell and subsequent sips of this borderline IPa. Which leads me to hops.
This beer had some hops. I thought hops had something to do with grain and friends advised that “hoppy” beers take an acquired taste. The type of tastes acquired by bearded and flannel shirt wearing men in glasses that line up every couple months down my block when the liquor store I live above releases a limited edition brew.
Did I mention I live above a liquor store known for their craft brew selection? I know. All I am saying, is give hops a chance. Hops are actually a bud that grows on a vine and can be compared to hemp or marijuana plants. Hops range in taste but often fall into two categories: piney or citrusy. I still don’t relish the taste of piney hops, but citrusy hops… life changed.
Did you know hop content determines whether a beer is an IPA? I didn’t. But I know a lot of other things, like how to fill an empty muffin tin with water while baking or how to make a piecrust from scratch. I’d make a great Amish woman.
Anyway, IPA stands for India Pale Ale. I love the little narratives Marty told that made beer lore memorable. Everyone should learn about beer from a patient friend with good stories:
The English colonists settling in India attempted the brewing techniques used back home, but the climate caused the beer to spoil. This created a big problem, since beer was a staple in the colonial diet. Hops solved the problem. Used as a preservative, hops characterized the taste and composition of Indian Pale Ales.
Although beer stereotypes pervade popular bar culture, Marty dismisses them. Some girls might love the traces of coffee and chocolate in stouts even though it’s not traditionally a “girly” beer. It has more to do with your palate then your gender, and our palates transform over time.
Different beers compliment different seasons. A stout will not refresh on a hot, muggy day, but may be perfect when sitting on a bear skin rug and grunting on a cold winter’s eve. A Radler, a beer I enjoyed while traveling in Germany and Austria, makes a perfect summer day drink.
Beer tastes change, and Marty claimed that there really is no bad beer. well, except for all the watered down and chemical-laden beers that have ridiculously long shelf lives and are distributed en-mass by gigantic corporations that bought out local brews like Goose Island’s 312. Woof.
Lest Marty’s postmodern narrative about beer taste leave me too much in the lurch, I asked for some quick guides to help me gain the approval of my peers. When it comes to Marty’s favorite, he claimed he didn’t have one, but his wife claims its Daisy Cutter.
If you want to namedrop some of the “holy grails” of the beer world, learn some of the limited release brews and study up on the top breweries. Here are a few names of breweries and brews to get you started: Alchemist – Heady Topper, Cigar City Brewing Co. – Jai Alai, and Russian River Brewing Co. -Pliny the Elder.
Ultimately, I learned that beer is like everything else, it’s complicated. Palates change, seasons change, menus change and it’s hard to use only a few generalizations to guide your path. One can appreciate how temperature, proportion, grains, hops, brewing techniques, and conditions create a gigantic gamut of wonderful tastes.
My first instinct at the bar not so long ago proved to be a good one: dialogue. Talking with bartenders and friends, asking questions, and trying new things will lead to a more rich experience than simply guessing based on a beers colors or avoiding one type of brew. I find few things as fun as listening to people talk about things they love and know a lot about. Marty suggests I start by bringing up a beer I loved, like Sidekick, and asking the bartender for suggestions from there.
I left the Tap House with so many new stories and lots of fond memories too. Its good to remind myself of the reason I’m at bars in the first place: I’m there to be with people and to truly hear and know them; I’m there to laugh and clink glasses and to moan about difficult times. I’m excited to try some new beers and to note how my palate changes, but sometimes, I’m not going to be afraid to just ask for a diet Roy Rogers on the rocks.