Help! What’s My Favorite Beer?

Craft beer selection at Fred Meyer, Portland, OR

Part of the craft beer selection at Fred Meyer Supermarket, Portland, OR

In the quest to learn about craft beer, recent converts often ask more seasoned drinkers, “What’s your favorite beer?” For some newer drinkers, the answer seems to change almost with each new beer. But, then, the possibilities are nearly infinite. At this very moment, probably every one of the 5300+ breweries in the U.S. has at least four beers ready to serve. That’s 21,200 beers. A more realistic guess at the total is probably double or triple that number. That thought alone is enough to make a new craft fan turn in his glass.

Forty years ago, when the American beerscape was dominated by macro brewers, beer fans often swore by a brand like Bud Light or Miller. More adventuresome ones might have answered Shiner or Heineken. Not many folks talked about actual styles, mostly because they hardly existed in the U.S.

Third Street Aleworks, Santa Rosa, CA

Third Street Aleworks flight, Santa Rosa, CA

Well, we’ve come a long, long way, baby. These days, a beer drinker who swears by a brand will probably tell you he’ll drink anything brewed by Russian River or Dogfish Head or (insert name of brewery), and then he’ll reel off particular beers from his fav brewery. Generally, though, knowledgeable drinkers tend to talk about styles, saying they love dark beers or they’re hopheads or they like pilsners because it’s harder to hide mistakes like off colors or flavors or too much bitterness.

If you’re newer to craft beer and you don’t know what your favorite beer is, not to worry. Some days, a lot of long-time enthusiasts still aren’t sure. Instead of, “What’s your favorite beer?” try rephrasing the question.

“What beer styles do you like best?” and the natural follow-up “Why?” are guaranteed conversation starters with craft beer fans. The next time you go to a bar or a party with a nice selection of good beer, ask for a flight or samples from your friends’ beers. With each one, take note—mentally or on paper—of what you like and/or dislike.

Sample malts at Hopworks Urban Brewery, Portland, OR

Sample malts at Hopworks Urban Brewery, Portland, OR

Maybe you’re a coffee drinker and espresso stouts practically take you to heaven. If you aren’t into the flavor of roasted coffee beans or malt, you probably gravitate toward beers made with lighter toasted malts like pilsners or pale ales. Maybe you find you’re attracted to the flavors of grains like wheat or rye. If you don’t like your beer too cold or carbonated, English-style ales are probably your thing. Do you crave hop bitterness or does even a tame IPA overwhelm your palate? Before you declare you can’t stand sour beers, try a variety. It’s perfectly acceptable to pucker after one sip of a hard-core sour (a lot of us do), but you may discover you really enjoy a few ounces (sampler size) of a delicate kriek fermented with fresh cherries.

Just as beer trends change over time, your preferences probably will, too. You might not care for hop bitterness now, but as your palate grows accustomed to it, you may search out increasingly bitter beers. (The good news is they’re everywhere these days.) Early on, I decided wheat beers were my style—until I discovered IPAs. After a long romance with hoppy beers, I gradually moved to the opposite end of the bitterness spectrum—pilsners, kölsches, blonds. All along the way, Belgians and their aged and soured American cousins, which can almost claim their own beer universe, have kept me fascinated, too.

If servers don't offer water, ask for it. Deschutes, Portland, OR

If servers don’t offer water with your beer, ask for it. Deschutes, Portland, OR

Ask me about my favorite beer today and I’ll answer, “Fresh.” The cool thing about all this exploration is that you learn to drink and appreciate just about any good beer for its style.

If you’re a long-time craft beer fan reading this, and unwavering in your go-to style, just for the fun of it, try revisiting the style question. Here’s what one decades-long homebrewer had to say in a 2011 interview with The Denver Post.

Q: What are the best new trends in either home brewing or beer in general?

A: From a personal and selfish perspective, I’m discovering more and more breweries are offering beers that are 5.5 percent (alcohol by volume) or less that are full flavored. For me, I am able to enjoy a few beers rather than stick with one glass of high-octane beer and I am out. So I like that trend.

Q: What beer do you like to make the most and why?

A: To reiterate what I just said, I like real flavorful beers that are around 5 percent (ABV) or less because I can enjoy them more frequently that are both refreshing and full of flavor — a German-style Helles, ordinary English-style ales. I have a Vienna mild that combines an English mild, which is low alcohol, and a Vienna lager.

Who was that homebrewer? Charlie Papazian, founder of the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association and godfather to millions of amateur and professional brewers. New craft beer fans, consider Charlie’s evolving answer permission to change your own answer as often as your taste buds dictate.

Cervecería Woods flight, San Francisco, CA

Cervecería Woods flight, San Francisco, CA

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