Five steps to navigating complicated beer menus without all the fuss.
There’s plenty to admire about America’s craft beer renaissance: the wide variety and distribution of unique beers, the rise of local breweries, and the steady decline of light beer. With more than 3,000 breweries nationwide, it’s easier than ever to find a great craft beer near you. But as the industry grows, so does the complexity of the average beer menu. These days, even relatively standard beer lists can contain arcane terms like “nitro,” “IBU,” and “flux capacitor” (yes, it’s a real thing). What are the more casual beer drinkers among us to do?
Don’t panic, for starters. You don’t have to transform yourself into a weirdly intense "beer person" to try (and enjoy) something new at a "fancy" beer bar. For help cutting through the jargon, we spoke to Greg Engert, the James Beard Award-nominated beer director of Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The world of craft beer can be “overwhelming,” Engert admits, and even “a little bit pretentious”—but it doesn't have to be. By following these five simple steps, you’ll be able walk away from any craft beer bar experience without wanting to murder the beer snob friend who dragged you there in the first place.
At a true craft beer bar, every staff member should be trained to guide you through the menu, says Engert. Even if the bartender or server doesn't know every single brew, he or she should be able to determine, based on the style and ingredients, whether a beer is right for you. Keep in mind, “you’re going to a professional,” says Engert.
You are not, however, going to a mind reader. It helps to bring some working knowledge of beers you’ve liked, even if it’s just a brand name or a vague memory. The more specific you can be about your taste preferences, the better your recommendation will be. The following are some examples you might mention:
Individual beers. Let’s say you hate Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and you love Blue Moon. Based on those selections—the former mildly bitter and hoppy, the latter fruity and spicy—the bartender will be able to steer you toward a sweeter, fruit-forward beer like a German Hefeweizen.
Flavors. Many bars now organize their beer lists by flavor rather than style or country of origin, thanks in part to Engert. His flavor profile system classifies beers into seven broad categories: Crisp, Malt, Hop, Roast, Smoke, Fruit and Spice, and Tart and Funky. There are subtle variations within each group, of course, but when flavors overlap—a crisp beer, for instance, might have a bitter, hoppy finish—Engert relies on a distaste test: “If somebody were to absolutely abhor this beer, what would they hate about it? That’s the category in which it goes, because that’s the most overarching thing.” Engert has seen his system catch on in bars across the country—and, notably, at Whole Foods—but even if your bar doesn't use the same categories, knowing these flavor terms can help you articulate what you want.
Styles. If you already know you tend to prefer one style of beer, feel free to ask for one—but remember that style can be subjective. “Somebody’s session IPA is another person’s American pale ale,” says Engert. Read the ingredients (or ask the bartender) to find out what flavors you’re getting.
But don’t bother asking for a beer by its country of origin. The distinction is essentially meaningless, according to Engert. “It’s not like wine [which is] tied to geography and region because of the terroir of the grape,” he says. “Beer has far fewer boundaries that way.” American beer can be brewed in the “Belgian style." German beer can be sour, smoky, or bacon-y, not at all light or refreshing like a quintessential lager. When trying to figure out what to order, stick to flavors and styles.
“The best visits to a bar include splashes of beer,” says Engert. All craft beer bars stock small glasses for tasting, so you can and should sample a few different brews before you order. "You should never, ever, feel bad about asking, ‘Can I just try a little splash of that?'" Engert says. So don’t be shy, but do be aware of the situation—if it’s three deep at the bar, don’t expect to try every beer on the menu.
Not all beers are meant to be served ice-cold in a 16-ounce shaker glass. As a general rule: lighter beers will be served colder, in straight-sided glasses, while heavier beers will be served warmer, in curved glasses (like tulips and snifters). But keep in mind price can also be a factor: Even if a particular IPA doesn’t need a snifter to release its flavor, it might be served by the 10-ounce glass because it would cost $20 by the pint. If it’s a high-ABV brew, you won’t need that much of it anyway.
Most of the time, if you order an unusual beer at a craft beer bar and wind up regretting your choice, you can’t send that beer back and expect not to have to pay for it (especially if you've already followed Steps 1, 2, and 3). But there are a few cases where you should definitely consider complaining, says Engert:
- If your glass is hot to the touch (which means it probably just came out of the dishwasher).
- If your beer tastes sour and it wasn’t described as a sour beer (which might mean it's “infected”).
- If your beer is flat, without a generous layer of foam on top (which means the glass might not have been rinsed completely and soap residue has prevented foam from forming).
In any of these situations, you can and should send the beer back.
Drinking beer should be fun! Whatever you do, don't let people who take beer way too seriously ruin your good time.