How To Navigate A Craft Beer Menu

Craft beer. What used to be a fun subculture has become ubiquitous. The big boys of brewing have even caught on and added their own microbrews to the game (hey there Blue Moon, I didn't see you hiding amongst all that Coors Light).

What does that mean for you? It means that beer menus have expanded. Your choices are no longer Swill and Swill Lite. Now you have to get your brain off its lazy brain-ass and make a decision. Before that happens, though, you need to know how to make a decision. To get some insider info about the ongoing craftification of our nation's beer lists, I talked to Tate Kline, self-described In-House Utility Beer Guy for Public School (the new gastropub outgrowth of LA-based chain The Daily Grill). If a chain can launch a mini-chain of gastropubs, you know that craft brewing has gone mainstream.

1. Think About What You're Eating

Wine pairings have been popular for ages, but beer pairing is a relatively new idea. No matter what you're drinking, you want to make sure that your beverage of choice matches up with your entrée of choice. Kline thinks that beer is much more forgiving than wine when it comes to pairing with food. "Beer lends itself to crossing over a wider range of food pairings," he says. "The citrus flavors that we taste in great wheat beers are a good pairing with seafood meals; the bold hops in west coast IPAs lend themselves to pizza." It makes sense. After all, that ceviche might not taste as good if you're trying to enjoy a malty porter at the same time.

2. Don't Be Shy

It's always best to defer to experts in subjects where your own knowledge might be lacking. Kline encourages people to ask questions and snag some samples before you commit to a full pint of something. According to Kline, "Any respectable beer-centric establishment wants you to enjoy what you pay for, so the loss of a few ounces in tasters is well worth it." Just don't be that jerk at the ice cream counter who asks for samples of everything.

3. Start Light, Go Heavy

Like weightlifting and Beatles songs, you want to start out with the light stuff. Give your palate some time to get into the spirit of things. Pro tip: "Start light to dark and take your time to allow all of your senses to get involved (aroma, taste, and mouthfeel)."

4. Give it Time

Beer is like wine in that the taste experience changes over time. Downing an icy-cold beer on a hot summer day may be satisfying, but the beer connoisseurs let their suds open up a bit. "Many beers warm into fuller flavor profiles," says Kline, "so don't guzzle it down right away."

5. Compare and Contrast

To find the brew that's right for you, it's important to get a sense of what makes it special. Kline offers up a spin on the Pepsi Challenge to scout out your perfect beer: "My rule of thumb when introducing someone to the world of craft beers is to have them drink a mass-marketed brew in the same style after the craft beer, not before. The drinker then can taste – or rather not taste – what is missing." Basically, drink the good stuff, then the bad stuff, and it'll make you appreciate the beauty of a beer that didn't pop off an assembly line in St. Louwaukeelorado.

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