The Novice’s Guide to Venturing Into the World of Craft Beer

From food pairings to the best brews for beginners, Dan Koester presents a comprehensive guide to craft beer

America can’t get enough craft beer. Microbreweries, regional breweries, and brew pubs per capita as of April 2012, according to the Brewers Association

Dan Koester wants to assure you, there’s nothing to fear. Despite having names such as the Worthy Adversary, Alimony Ale and Nippletop Milk Stout, craft beers aren’t as intimidating as they appear, though just try ordering a Fulton Lonely Blonde without feeling like a crusty, old sailor. But Koester, craft enthusiast and author of The Definitive Guide to Buying Craft Beer: Discover Everything You Need to Know About Buying and Enjoying Craft Beer, says craft beer is for everyone.

Koester says he hasn’t met a craft beer he doesn’t like.

“I think the group in general, the people who are enjoying craft beer, is just a very laid-back group,” says Koester, who sports a respectable mustache and hails from the brew-loving land of Wisconsin. During the day, he’s conscientious, Oak Creek Dental Care Dr. Koester, but in his free time, he’s a bit of a Renaissance man, restoring old cars, biking with his family and trying any craft beer he comes across.

After sampling craft beers his son was bringing home while working at a liquor store, Koester began exploring a world previously unknown to him. Now he travels the country, most recently to Oregon, to try as many varieties as possible.

His interest coincides with a national boom in the craft industry. After a serious slump post-Prohibition, large companies were the only survivors, acquiring smaller operations so that by the end of the 1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies in the country, according to the Brewers Association. Koester says homebrewing grew in popularity in response to industry consolidation. Craft breweries blossomed from basements and garages and, as regulations began recognizing the smaller breed of brewers, craft beer gained a foothold in the market. Over at the Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida sifted through the data to figure out why craft brewing seemed to boom in certain states. Interestingly, the state comparison revealed that income played less of a role than education level (the higher the level, the more breweries abound). Florida also found some interesting corollaries:

“…craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).”

“Curiously, there was a negative connection between craft breweries and two other unhealthy behaviors or “sins” — smoking (-0.28) and even more so with obesity (-0.54).”

Some states have even begun trying to attract craft brewers as a way to boost local economies. And, in true trendsetting fashion, American craft brewers are now feeding demand in Europe, according to PRI’s The World, who argue that the big shift came two years ago at Munich’s Oktoberfest when a Samuel Adams beer took home gold. The victory in the heart of European beer country was compared to the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976 when two California wines bested the competition in a blind tasting.

There are now 2,126 breweries in the country, according to the Brewers Association, with 2,075 considered craft breweries, meaning they produce 6 million barrels of beer per year or fewer.

Before you get overwhelmed by the choices, Koester offers his expertise on everything from food pairings to essential questions to ask before you buy a drink.

On food pairings:

Spicy Foods: “With spicier food, Mexican food, that sort of thing, I like the Scotch Ales, they go very well with spicy food,” says Koester, singling out Samuel Adams’ version of it in particular.

Best Bets: For a gold medal-winning brew, try Oskar Blues Brewing’s Old Chub Scottish ale, which placed first in its category at the U.S. Beer Championships. The beer is “brewed with bodacious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt,” creating a flavor profile “of cocoa and coffee, and a kiss of smoke.”

Heavy Foods: ”The more bitter, hoppy beers, which I do like a lot, the IPAs and Imperial IPAs like a Russian Imperial Stout, go really well with German food. The heavier, meatier foods seem to go well with the bitter, hoppy beers,” says Koester.

Best Bets: The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper, with a promise to put hair on your chest, took the top honors over at Beer Advocate in the Imperial IPA category. And Paste Magazine nominated Great Divide Brewing Company’s Hercules, also a double IPA, for its balanced flavor and hoppy finish.

Sweet and…Sweet: With the glut of holiday cookies upon us, Koester says you can’t go wrong pairing a similarly sweet brew with a sweet treat. “Something like an Abbey Triple or a fruitier beer, a Lambic, with something sweet goes very well,” says Koester.

Best Bets: Developed from a Belgian recipe from the 1300s, the Allagash Brewing Company makes a Coolship Resurgam that the Wall Street Journal calls, “clean and tart with an effervescent strawberry finish.”

On craft beers for wine lovers:

So maybe you remember a little too well the stale, pale flavor of college party beers past though you wish you didn’t. For whatever reason, you’re a wine-only person. To get out of your grape rut, Koester again recommends starting with something like a Lambic, known for a refreshing, bubbly profile with hints of fruit that should appeal to the wine-lover’s palate.

Best Bets: And for another great Lambic from abroad, the New York Times likes Lindemans Cuvée René as an older, aged variety “with wonderful raspberry aromas that combined with a sort of earthiness.” For a sweeter finish, the New York Times suggestsDe Troch Apricot Chapeau from Noble Union Trading, saying it had a ”nut flavor almost like Turkish delight.”

On beginner brews:

“A lot of the things that will turn people on or off is how bitter is the beer,” says Koester. “I think that’s a very basic question: Do you like more of a sweet or milder beer?” Because the hoppier brews can be a bit strong for beginners, he says brown and amber ales tend to cut a middle road. “They have some bitterness, some hoppiness, but they’re also a very flavorful malty beer.”

Best Bets: Tröegs Brewing Company’s amber ale, Nugget Nectar, has the highest user-generated score of any amber ale over at Beer Advocate. Available February through March, the brew promises to “take hopheads to nirvana with a heady collection of Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk hops.Meanwhile, Red Brick’s version, Laughing Skull, placed first in its category at the 2011 U.S. Beer Championships with its signature zombie logo.


Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.