So You Want To Learn About Craft Beer

img_4915So, you want to learn about craft beer but don’t know where to start. At your local grocery store, the yards of shelves heavy with colorfully labeled six-packs and bombers are overwhelming and intimidating. And, what’s a bomber anyway? (Answer: a 22-ounce bottle.)

Maybe you attended a beer tasting, but you suspect it could have been a lot better. What does a “good tasting” even mean? Are we talking about the actual beer, how the tasting was carried out, the knowledge of the person leading the tasting, how much you learned or about how much fun you had because you were with a cool group of friends? (Answer: all of the above.)

So, how do you up your beer education? What makes a beer event “good,” and how do you find one you’ll enjoy and learn from and not spend half your paycheck on?

First, it depends on you and your goals. Do you just want an excuse to drink beer? (If so, you’re better off buying a case of PBR and partying with like-minded buddies. Just please don’t drive afterwards.) Are you looking for something fun to do with friends? Beer, and wine, events can make great outings, and you’ll probably learn a little along the way. If you’re more about the learning and increasing your beer sophistication, then consider the ideas below.

Second, consider what you already know. If you’re a veteran craft beer enthusiast, you probably won’t learn much at that $20 on-board beer tasting during your Panama Canal cruise. If you’re a newbie, that same activity may make a nice, relaxed introduction at a reasonable price.

img_1400The absolute best way to learn about beer is by drinking it—duh! If you’re relatively new to craft beer, there are lots of fairly inexpensive ways to try different beers and learn. One of the easiest is beer flights, which most pubs and tasting rooms offer. Expect to pay about $2 per sample of 4 or 5 ounces. Wait staff will generally answer a reasonable number of questions. Some restaurants and brewpubs offer simple weekly beer pairings that include several beers and a bite-sized dish with each. Plan to pay in the neighborhood of $15.

Some big box stores offer free or inexpensive tastings, and employees can be quite knowledgeable and willing to chat. You’ll probably walk out carrying a purchase, which is the incentive for stores to offer such events. While smaller liquor stores usually can’t compete with big box pricing or events, if you find one with good employees willing to take time with you, an extra buck on, say, a $30 purchase can be worthwhile.

img_1163Beer fests are a great way to quickly get acquainted with a lot of area beers. Go for the ones you don’t know and then chat with the servers and fellow attendees about the beers. If a few sips of one is enough for you, toss the remaining ounces in a nearby dump bucket, trash can or the grass and head for the next booth. And know your limits. While today’s mega fests with 100+ breweries and several hundred beers are awesome, realistically, how many samples are you going to drink? You may find smaller, more intimate—and less expensive—festivals more to your liking and needs. And personally, I avoid those where participants go to drink all they can.

While what’s offered on brewery tours varies a lot, they’re a great way to see what goes into making beer and the samples don’t get any fresher. Mid-sized to large craft breweries general offer beers available only at the brewery. Brewery tours also make a great vacation activity.

img_0718Watch for local beer events, particularly seasonal ones. Fresh hops festivals are now wrapping up, just as Oktoberfests and pumpkin beer season are hitting their peak. We’ll soon be seeing winterfests and Christmas brews. Going to a brewery’s one-day celebration of a seasonal can be fun and, again, you’re assured the beer is fresh, which can make a huge difference in how it tastes.

Of course, one of the best and most fun ways to learn about beer is by hanging out with friends who know more than you. Get your group together at the local brewpub, beer garden, tasting room, etc., then sip and discuss what you’re drinking. Also check websites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer to see what others have to say about the beer.

Homebrewers are another good source. If you want to see how beer is made, snag yourself an invitation to join these folks on brewing day. If the process doesn’t interest you, you can still look for ways to sample the results. Homebrewers, who by law are not allowed to sell their beer, sometimes volunteer at local events where they give away their products. Some clubs have formal presentations at their meetings, and guests are generally welcome to attend at no charge, and there’s always plenty of beer to drink.

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If you find yourself getting more into craft beer, watch for events like the California Craft Beer Summit or the mammoth Great American Beer Festival held each fall in Denver. The CA summit just took place a couple of weeks ago in Sacramento, with presentations and talks by some of the state’s top craft stars. This year’s GABF, October 6-8, will include a Brewers Studio Pavilion with educational sessions and a Meet the Brewer area where you can talk with brewery employees. (For more information and activities, see these post from The Full Pint and Bottle Makes Three.)

In short, there’s no shortage of ways to learn about beer.



  1. I enjoy reading your post even though I’m not a beer expert. Certainly agree that a flight will give you some good options for tasting. BJ’s Brewhouse really takes time to explain their offerings. Thanks for all the good information.?

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