Beyond facts and figures, this is what craft beer drinkers actually need to know about the industry.
Craft beer has garnered a reputation for being high in ABV, pricey, and oh-so bitter and hoppy. And there is some truth to that, especially compared to the generic, commercialized, Big Beer options like Budweiser that most people think of by default when they think of beer. On the other hand, that “beer” is a pretty low starting point, so being above it in the realm of flavor and ABV is not really saying much. Big Beer bashing aside, none of that actually has to do with why we love craft beer.
Craft beer is all about innovation, creative thinking, and passion. It’s about new, crazy flavors; things that sound like they really shouldn’t work, but that do. It’s about people bringing passion to their jobs, day in and day out, to make exemplary products that push so far beyond what beer used to mean. That’s what we’re here for: the things that push us out of the comfort zone of what has been accepted in the past and guide us toward having open minds and open palates, ready to experiment and broaden our horizons and take chances on someone else’s dream of a great product, a great business, and obviously, great beer.
All that said, here’s an insider scoop on what you actually need to know about craft beer:
Yes, it comes with a higher price point and can certainly pack quite the ABV punch, but that’s not the point. We can spout stats and figures all day about definitions of particular styles and ABVs and IBUs, but that isn’t going to help you learn much.
One of the great things about craft beer is that every beer is unique and breweries are constantly trying new techniques and styles, and infusing classic beers with new ingredients. If you’re looking to put these beers into black and white categories, craft beer may not be for you; not all IPAs are insanely bitter and not all dark beers are stouts. That’s the underlying point of this movement; it’s innovative and inspired and dynamic. Craft and Indie beer is about so much more than a box to check or playing by the arbitrary rules created 100s of years ago. The industry is constantly evolving, and luckily these brilliant brewers are taking us along for the ride.
-Don’t waste your time on pilsners. While we all need to start somewhere, if you are looking to experience craft beer in all its glory, don’t get stuck with a pilsner as your go-to option for too long; expand your palate. Are they still well-made beers? Absolutely, but by sheer definition of the style, they don’t have very dynamic flavors. The hop content is so mellow and minimal that it isn’t really worth paying $6 or $7 a pint, which is what you’re looking at, even at most breweries. Honestly, if you like pilsners, try expanding to pale ales, which can be a bit more worthwhile if you come across a really good one (see Alesmith’s .394), but even then, the price point oftentimes won’t be reasonable (also, see Alesmith’s .394).
-No one really cares about IBUs anymore. Sure, it was a helpful starting point, especially in the days of microbrews, but now brewing recipes are so much more sophisticated that a certain beer may very well have a high hop and bitterness complex and the IBU measurement will reflect that, but there’s no statistic on the board for how well the malt or chocolate or sweetness of the fruit balances that out. Don’t judge a book by its cover; don’t judge a beer by its IBU count.
-IPAs. Yes, this is the heart of craft beer. East coast style versus west coast style doesn’t even matter; in both regards, this is where craft beer flourishes. The recipes and (obviously the results) are just brilliant and constantly changing and getting better. And on the flip side of all of that change and innovation, breweries are achieving remarkable consistency (which is especially impressive in hazy, New England style IPAs). There are also more and more unexpected IPA flavors like coffee, grapefruit, and blood orange that are actually incredible.
-In a similar vein, stouts are a huge part of the “craft” aspect of craft beer. Between the flavor infusion which has graduated from only chocolate and coffee (we see you and your experiments Belching Beaver), to food pairings with everything from donuts to full dinners, stouts are a huge staple in the industry. Sidenote: while IPAs are definitely year-round beers, don’t be corralled into thinking stouts are only for winter. Dry stouts and milk stouts especially are great all year round.
-Small batches and R&D (research and development) beers are the pinnacle of the industry. A good way to be “in the know” is to try them whenever you’re given the chance, even if it isn’t something you normally would choose. These brews are the groundwork that often lead to the next “big thing” or style wave, like Gose having a moment in the sun last summer, not to mention the entire Haze Craze taking over the west coast. The local market has influence some over that too, because oftentimes, the R&Ds that do well (sell quickly and get good feedback) tend to get the green light to go into larger, sometimes even main production. Another cool thing about these small batches is that they are where you most often see collaborations between breweries, which is not only great for the industry in general, but also results in really amazing beers.
Bottom line: Craft beer is anything but boring. There are all kinds of styles and flavors you may have never imagined in beer, brought to life because of magic… I mean the science of brewing. That’s the heart of what craft beer is though; it’s a trade, it’s a business, but at the end of the day… it’s art. Deliciously, consumable art.