“What is the closest thing you have to Bud Light?” For a long time, overhearing that question inside of a brewery would cause me to stop and think. More often than not, the person asking the question wasn’t asking because they just loved the taste of Budweiser, but because it is the most familiar to them and therefore the safest option. As I considered that question, I began to realize that those specific words reveal the uncertainty that new craft beer drinkers feel the first time realize that they can’t choose a beer at a craft brewery based on the brand, but have to instead choose a beer based on its style.
Outside of cities with a strong craft beer scene, I’ve found that many people choose their beer based on the brand, not the style of beer. While Lisa and I were living in New York, we defaulted to ordering Bud Light more often than not. While this is partly due to the fact that a Bud Light bottle in New York City costs the same as a growler of craft beer in Boulder, it was primarily because we didn’t know any better. Before moving to Boulder, if you pressed me on the difference between a lager, an ale, and a stout, I would have probably ending up saying that those words were merely synonyms for the word “beer.” I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that a Bud Light or Coors Light was a lager. I would drink Sam Adams if I wanted to drink something “different,” but I couldn’t have told you that Sam Adams’ main beer and their OctoberFest beers were lagers while their summer seasonal is a wheat ale, and that’s why one tasted so different from the other. I would order a Guinness from time to time, but I had no idea that I was drinking an Irish Dry Stout, but even if I did, I wouldn’t have known what that meant.
When you are sitting in bar or restaurant that sells a wide variety of beers, not knowing the differences between the options you have available to you isn’t a huge problem because there are often beers that come from a company with a strong brand that you can default to. That strong, recognizable brand creates a certain level of trust and can make it easy to choose a beer. But what happens when you walk into a brewery that doesn’t offer a wide variety of beers from a wide variety of producers? How do you choose a beer when everything that’s available comes from the same company? The way that you select beers in a brewery is by understanding what type and style of beer you like to drink. Realizing that I couldn’t order beer based on the brand was at first a challenge because I was very unfamiliar with the options. It reset my ordering process because I didn’t yet know that brown and amber ales are ones that I always enjoy, especially when I’m not in the mood for the hoppiness of an American Pale Ale or an IPA. While choosing beers based on style made me re-think how I select which craft beer I’ll order at first, it has also made visiting the more than 45 breweries in Boulder infinitely more enjoyable.
By breaking the bonds of brand-based decision and learning about styles of beers, you can begin to see and taste what makes Avery’s Ellie’s Brown Ale different from the Upslope Brown Ale and how those are both different from Walnut Brewery’s Old Elk Brown Ale. You begin to not only make better choices about what beer you prefer, but you also begin to understand why. It lets your explorations lead to an ever-expanding list of go-to craft beers and it is a great feeling when you realize that when breweries add a vanilla flavor to their porter, they will hit a home run with me every single time.
Because you wouldn’t walk into Backcountry Pizza and ask them, “What is the closest thing that you have to Pizza Hut?” selecting a beer that you are going to love requires that you learn which types of beer you like, and which ones don’t exactly excite your palate. Spending even just a small amount of time learning about the styles of beer can unlock a world of new experiences for you when you visit a craft brewery. It doesn’t mean you have to learn everything at once, though and although you might not learn what a “barleywine” is for a while, with countless flavors available to experiment with in the area, learning about the options that brewers offer to us lucky patrons here in Boulder is flat out fun too.
If you want to learn more about styles of beer and begin to be able to distinguish between their tastes, take a look at the Beer in Boulder TV series where we here at Beer in Boulder learn about the different styles of beer right alongside you. With each style being discussed coming from our local Boulder breweries, each episode will discuss new flavors and styles to help you to select a beer that you will love when you walk through a brewery’s front door.