So you’re thinking about getting seriously into beer?
At some point, we went from not caring about beer at all to being mildly interested in it, and from there to being more-or-less obsessed.
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’ve reached that second stage. This article is intended to give some practical advice, and some reassurance, but first…
Once you start, it’s hard to go back. You might find that pubs you used to like are no-go areas because there’s ‘nothing to drink’. When drinking becomes thinking, it can be hard to just relax and enjoy a pint. It’s even possible that, for a time, you might become, frankly, a bit of a dick about it.
Are you sure you want to do this?
Then read on.
1. Drink everything
In which you give your palate a workout.
At first, what matters is trying new things as you come across them. You don’t need to know the history, the recipe or the brewer’s shoe size. This is one pastime (unlike, say, archery) where it’s better to have a go first and then read the manual.
It’s about discovering your taste, and broadening it, while trying to avoid developing prejudices based on what’s outside the glass.
This will mean drinking beers you don’t like, and that’s important.
At first, we didn’t like some of the stronger and more strongly-flavoured beers we tasted, but we persevered, and learned to love some of them.
“So you don’t really like them?” No, we really do, even though, back then, we really didn’t. It’s like, say, learning to play a musical instrument — not fun in itself, with the boring scales and finger pain, but once you get to the other side, you’ll have a ball.
We also learned, eventually, what we really didn’t like: try as we might, we have not generally acquired a taste for beers aged in whisky-barrels, for example.
Test your boundaries with…
Strong stout (Guinness Foreign Extra)
Something with ‘in your face’ aroma (Brewdog Punk IPA)
Something sour (Boon Oude Kriek)
A subtle English bitter or mild
Smoky beer (Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier)
Wheat beer (Hoegaarden or Schneider Weisse)
2. Pick a guide, any guide
When, like a three year old, you find yourself repeatedly asking “Why?”, it’s probably time to buy a book.
The market is crammed with guides to beer, of varying quality and complexity, as well as lists of Beers to Drink Before You Die which can perform the same function, as well as giving shape to your exploring.
Here are a couple we’ve reviewed:
It doesn’t really matter which guide you choose, though something recent will probably (a) feature beers that are still on the market and (b) take account of more recent scholarship. And this one (which we haven’t read) is actually pocket-sized — very practical for the pub-goer.
Of course blogs are good, too, and free, but you’ll have to do a little more work to find the good stuff among the self-indulgence, rambling and misinformation. (Guilty as charged.) Check out our blog roll (over to the left) for some suggestions.
Whichever guide you choose, remember you are allowed to disagree with it, and do check other sources before trying to use something you’ve read in a beer book to win an argument.
3. Finding others of your sort
You’ll probably soon find that friend and family are less interested in beer than you have become, and, if you’re an outgoing extrovert type, will therefore want to find opportunities to hang out with other geeks and talk beer.
There are various societies and clubs you can join:
- The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) — founding in 1971 and with around 150,000 members, it has branches in every corner of the country; specific focus on cask-conditioned beers; branch meetings, beer festivals and social gatherings.
- The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) — like CAMRA but much smaller and with less geographical spread. (They are most active in London.) Lots of brewery and pub visits.
- The Campaign for Really Good Beer (CAMRGB) — free to join, informal and mostly online, but with organised ‘Twissups’ (Twitter pissups) and less formal pub meetings between members in the same area.
Or you could just find a nice beer-geek friendly pub in your area, sit at the bar, and get chatting. Here are some local pub guides by various bloggers around the country, or you could try Googling ‘craft beer bar [YOUR TOWN]’ and see what you find.
Internet discussions can be a bit fractious, in our experience, so, unless you’re pretty resilient in the face of aggro, it’s best to be in listening and questioning mode until you’re really confident you know what you’re talking about.
One of the bits of being a beer geek that is most enjoyable is travelling to try local specialities and experience unique beer cultures.
Here are just a few suggestions for places where you can learn more about beer in one weekend drinking than from 20 books:
- Bamberg, Germany — a small and beautiful German city with a disproportionate number of breweries producing a range of quirky beers.
- Munich, Germany — for super-fresh dark and light lager in a sunny beer garden or atmospheric beer hall.
- Prague, Czech Republic — to drink golden pilsner in the country where it is generally agreed to have originated, and where it tastes at its best.
- Sheffield, UK — to drink a vast range of some of the best-made and most varied British beer, in some of the country’s finest pubs and bars.
- Brussels, Belgium — to find a cross-section of Belgium’s many types of beer, but especially the sour lambic at Cantillon.
- (We’ve not made it to the US yet, but our readers insist that pale ale and IPA in California is a must.)
Some people think it’s important to try specific rare beers such as the legendary Westvleteren 12 or Pliny the Elder. Sometimes, it can be fun to join the mass hysteria, and, as in collecting books and records, to have a ‘hit list’.
We’ve tried Westvleteren 12 and, though it is a very good beer, it is not The Best Beer in the World, and hunting rarities is not, in our view, the best way to go about enjoying beer. But that’s just us.
Brew your own
Home brewing is a great way to understand the science behind beer without resorting to text-books and courses. It can also provide social contacts — many areas of the UK have their own brewing clubs and societies. If the beer you make is undrinkable, you will learn something. If not, then, wa-hey! Beer!
So when do I get my membership card?
There are various ways you might consider you’ve graduated from the School of Half Pints and the University of Big Hops.
There are actual qualifications, e.g. the Beer Academy’s beer sommelier accreditation.
Or you might just be happy, as we are, with a more personal sense of confidence in your taste, knowledge and opinions about beer: when you stop feeling like a bullshitter, you’re there.
We’ll be adding to this and amending it as more thoughts occur to us.