As a columnist for one of the leading beer magazines in the U.S., and as a beer educator and brewer, I have been asked countless times, "What's your favorite beer?" Seems a simple enough question, but it is nearly impossible to answer without a litany of stipulations and qualifiers. For me, the answer depends on the season, my mood, what food I am eating and even the location where I'm imbibing.
Beer, and its appreciation, is a rather subjective affair. There are more than 140 recognized beer styles, according to the Brewers Association, and choosing just one is a daunting task at best - an impossibility at worst.
So, what of the people who declare to me, often apologetically, when they find out what I do for a living, that they simply don't like beer? Typically, I respond by assuring them that beer isn't for everyone, and tastes differ, and that's OK. Then, I challenge them with the notion that there are so many beer styles out there that it is conceivable that they just haven't come across a beer they like yet. Stating "I don't like beer" is awfully definitive, especially when many who make this claim have tried only one or, maybe, two kinds of beer. If you think about it, this is not unlike saying you don't like movies because you saw a bad one or wine because you happen to dislike Riesling.
As the weather warms up outside, I thought it might be useful to offer a few simple suggestions to those of you who might have glanced at my column before but dismissed it because beer just leaves you cold. Perhaps a fresh perspective to go along with the newness of spring will help brighten your opinion of beer and encourage you to give something new a try. It is important to note that what most non-beer drinkers think of as beer represents only one out of more than 100 styles. Some people are perfectly content with light American lager beers, and that's fine. But, if you have tried the ubiquitous cans of suds and they just don't do it for you, maybe - just maybe - the world of craft beer has something for you. So, on that assumption, here are a few suggestions based on the way I determine what beer to enjoy and when that might just help you warm up to the idea of a cold beer this year!
For everything, there is a season(al)
Many fans of craft beer - beer made by small, independent breweries - look forward to the release of special beers commonly known as seasonals that are available periodically throughout the year and only for a limited time in conjunction with the season. Focusing on unique styles or ingredients makes these beers stand out and frequently attract drinkers, who would not otherwise gravitate toward "regular" beer. There are spiced beers in the fall and winter, including pumpkin beers and winter warmers; and, in the spring and summer, many breweries offer lighter, refreshing ales and lagers, such as fruity wheat beers or the malty, yet crisp, German-style maibock - a lager traditionally brewed in the month of May to enjoy during warm weather months. Seasonals offer a new take on beer flavor and challenge assumptions about how beer tastes. Try Sierra Nevada's Glissade (a maibock) or Bell's Oberon (an American wheat ale), both available locally, this spring or summer for some user-friendly seasonals.
Food for thought
Like wine, beer enjoys a close relationship with food. In fact, it really is food. "Liquid bread," as it has been called, is typically made from a base of cereal grain (usually barley), making it exceedingly food-friendly in terms of ingredients. Add to this the fact that beer is carbonated, and you've got a beverage that can go places with food that even wine fears to tread. When pairing beer with food, try both complimentary and contrasting approaches. For instance, a hop-heavy India pale ale is a classic pairing with spicy curry dishes, or you can match one up with a rich, tangy lemon cheesecake. Likewise, a big, malty English barleywine is equally at home with Stilton cheese as it is with pecan pie! Often, a beer you may not enjoy on its own will taste significantly different when paired with the right food.
Better with friends
Finally, if you're still in search of the elusive taste for beer, why not try attending or even hosting a beer tasting? Such an event allows you to try multiple styles of beer without the commitment of buying an entire six-pack and being stuck with a beer you don't like. Further, this forum allows you to draw on other people's experiences with beer and get their opinions on favorites. Chances are, you will find a few people with palates similar to yours, and this is often the best way to zero in on a beer style or two you will enjoy. Several craft and specialty beer retailers around the Southern Illinois region host beer tastings these days. They are generally free and a great way to broaden your beer horizons without the guesswork. Hosting your own can be a lot of fun, too. Just invite a handful of friends over, serve some appetizers and ask each of them to bring their favorite beer or something unique or unusual. I suspect that you'll learn a lot about beer in the process, and you may even find yourself offering more cheers than jeers toward beer in the future.
SHAWN CONNELLY writes for Beer Connoisseur magazine; he is a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and an award-winning home brewer. Read his blog at beerphilosopher.com.