The more you drink craft beer, the more likely it is that you’ll fall progressively more in love with its many facets — the nuanced quality of product, the exciting freshness, the personal relationship you’ve built within your local beer community. Wait, what do you mean you haven’t built relationships within your local beer community? Establishing connections with those who create and deliver this nectar of our devotion can be very worthwhile as you further educate yourself on the science, culture, politics and business of craft beer. You may place brewers and their ilk upon pedestals, which can make even the thought of striking up a conversation feel intimidating. For those like me who fear the possibility of sounding uninformed or foolish (especially in the craft beer realm), I’ve devised three intriguingly titled rules to help you navigate the waters of interacting with the titans of the craft beer world.
Be a secret agent.
Whenever I head into a question-asking situation, I try heighten my awareness, comporting myself like I would if I were a secret agent. Whether I’m meeting a brewery representative/bartender/distribution rep or simply visiting a new brewery to try a new beer unaware of who I might encounter, I do my best to ‘case the joint.’ How many seats are at the bar? What’s the bar top made of? How many tap handles are there? How’s the flow of the room design? Is there music playing? Can I see the brewery equipment from the bar, do they have a kitchen or utilize a food truck, what’s on the ceiling and how long is the longest beard in the room? That way, when I finally have the chance to chat with the person guarding the treasure (so to speak), I’ll have a few observation-based queries that will demonstrate I’m paying attention to the environment, beards included.
The ceiling, for example: How frequently do you look at the ceiling when you visit a bar or brewery? You may be pleasantly surprised that somebody painstakingly fashioned some really intriguing light fixtures out of old barrels, and there’s almost certainly a good story about them. Give yourself a moment to take it all in before launching into your inquisition, while avoiding a creepy stare as best you can.
Be a nerd.
It’s okay! The craft beer movement is based on so many nerdy things: biology, chemistry, history, agriculture, sterilization, quality control, law, physiology, philosophy, physics, plumbing and so on. Yes, plumbing. I try my best to read up, but even with all of my RSS feeds, news aggregators and library cards — even if I lived day in and out as an industry pro — there would always be new information. Fact: This industry is full of nerds who love to meet other nerds! A few weeks ago I visited Actual Brewing in Columbus, Ohio, for the first time to taste the brand’s new Magnon IPA. My intention was simply to drink the beer silently, keeping well to myself, but then I started really paying attention like a secret agent (see rule 1) and noticed a firkin infusing Actual’s Saison du Poincaré with chamomile and Sichuan peppercorns. I had to try that, too: I’ve been to China; I’m familiar with those tongue-numbing, flavor-packed peppercorns!
While Zane, the classy bearded, bespectacled gent manning the bar, poured from the firkin, I started up with “Hey, this may be a dumb question, but what’s the difference between a firkin, a cask and a nitro beer?” Thus began one of the most positive brewery experiences I’ve ever had. Zane kindly answered my question, which led to more questions and more answers. I told him it was my first time visiting the brewery and that I’d heard Actual was developing a yeast business — how was that coming along, by the way? Before too long, Zane was taking me on an impromptu tour of the brewery! He never seemed annoyed by my questions, only happy to geek out a bit and educate a willing pupil. Later, his attention was diverted back to the bar as the drinking crowd poured in, so I grabbed a pint of the company’s Fat Julian Imperial Stout on nitro, enjoyed a sandwich from the food truck parked outside, then thanked my teacher and went on my merry way a more educated beer enthusiast.
Be a human.
You are a human drinking craft beer. Not only that, but the person you’re conversing with about craft beer is also a human drinking craft beer. While this may all seem pretty obvious, it helps to remind ourselves of this fact as often as needed. We all enjoy feeling valued for our intelligence, but something changes when we start cultivating knowledge about a hobby. It becomes tempting to hoard it and to lord it over the noobs, all too easily (and typically unintentionally) adapting an air of superiority, wielding your hard-earned knowledge in a way that strokes your own ego at the cost, perhaps, of someone’s feelings. Don’t give in to that temptation — this is craft beer! Wonderful craft beer! Use your powers to cultivate teachable moments. And if you feel yourself slipping into an overly proud moment or have been babbling on about something very specific nobody else understands for a while now, remember to maintain consideration: Pivot your viewpoint to that of a true teacher and help somebody else’s love of craft beer grow.
The modern craft beer movement is about continuous experimentation, education and an unflinching commitment to excellence. It’s about brothers and sisters helping each other out, the rising tide of knowledge lifting all of our boats from the dregs of ignorance, undeveloped palates and, yes, sobriety. It is something sublimely human, so get hyped, go thank your favorite brew purveyors tonight and make some beer friends.