The first and most important thing you need to know about choosing a beer is that there is no need to overcomplicate the process. It's as simple as you want it to be, no matter what some beer snobs might suggest. You'll eventually settle into a beer that you like and are the most comfortable with, but there is no right or wrong choice. That won't usually be the only beer you'll ever drink, of course, unless you're one of those compulsive souls. The weather, the occasion, the food (or lack thereof), the company, the quantity, the city – even what nationality you are (or would like to be) – could all play a part. But the thing that overrides all those considerations is to just drink whatever you feel like having. If you fancy a Miller Chill, hoist it proudly. Only you know what you really want, but there are some general guidelines you could follow when you aren't sure.
There are almost endless types and varieties of beer. They invent new ones daily, or at least as often as Sam Calagione at Dogfish has another brainstorm. Go ahead and try to label his Midas Touch, or any of a number of other “interesting” beers from adventurous brewers. No matter how many varieties they come up with, though, there are really only two. A beer is either ale or lager. It can sometimes get a bit confusing, because eventually in the great mass of both categories, there are beers that could easily be mistaken as belonging to the other group. As a stepping off point, think of lagers as lighter and crisper, with a Czech-style pilsner such as Sam Adams Noble Pils as an example. Ales are generally bigger, heavier, complex and more flavorful (either oozing sweetness or crammed with hoppy bitterness). Try a St. Bernardus for the perfect big, sweet and complex example.
A very broad rule of thumb is big ales in winter, light lagers in summer. But there is no need to follow that religiously – or even at all. It's just that summers are hot and the sun is shining and people spend a lot of time outside. Lagers are those good, ice-cold thirst quenchers and usually have less alcohol. Grab a six pack of Brooklyn Lager and tackle the lawn. Fire up the grill and wash the BBQ down with some Anchor Steam. When it's cold and dark, warm up with a holiday ale like Great Lakes' Christmas or any of the giant Belgians. But never feel like you have to hold to this.
The activity is going to have an impact on your beer selection. I tend to prefer ales and am always in the mood for a Duvel when I'm just milling about the house. It's a great golden ale that works for me mainly because it's delicious, but also strikes a good balance of sweet/crisp and heft/light. It packs a punch, though, so you won't want it to feature in a multiple hour-long beer drinking session. That would call for something much softer, like a Goose Island 312 maybe. When you're just hanging out on a patio under an umbrella with friends, you'll probably want something cold and crisp, but still flavorful like a Pilsner Urquell. A quiet night in front of a blazing fire with a significant other might call for a big, malty Ola Dubh.
The biggest trend going on right now are those hugely hopped, tongue-shriveling IPAs (India Pale Ale). Bell's Hopslam is probably the quintessential example, but they're springing up everywhere you look. Even the old traditional Belgian brewers are hopping up some of their beers for the newfound American taste for the bitterest of the bitter brews. I think of it as a proof of manhood. It's like eating the hottest chicken wings. It seemed to start in California, with their pine-tasting Cascade hops, like the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, but it has almost been dominating the craft beer market lately. If you like crackling dry, sharp-tasting beers, there are shelves full of IPAs, or even double IPAs to choose from. They're not usually my cup of tea, but nothing washes down those hot wings better. And they're the ultra-hip beer right now, if such things are important to you.
One of the main activities we do while drinking is eating, and there general rules for pairings. Again, the main rule remains to drink what you want, though. A good, light-flavored lager like a Yuengling goes pretty well with most bar food. Or opt for a light ale like a Bass or Dortmunder Gold. The beer doesn't need to be the star; you're just looking for something complimentary. Spicy food generally calls for hoppy beer. With big, roasted meats, you're best with something on the sweet and slightly heavier side, maybe a Maredsous, or any decent stout such as Samuel Smith's Oatmeal. For fish and some lighter fare like salads, you'll want something light and citrusy, which means wheat ale such as a Blue Moon, or better, a Hoegaarden. Dessert calls for something big and dry. Old Rasputin is usually a fine choice.
Finally, there are some myths and just wrongheaded ideas that need clearing up. Don't be afraid of stouts just because they're black. There is less alcohol in a Guinness than in some light beers. Cans are a good thing – really. They're starting to make a comeback with some craft brewers and you'll be seeing more of them holding better beer. A can doesn't impart any additional flavors to the beer, and it keeps it fresher. Pour it in a glass and you'll never know the difference. Fresh beer is always better. Given the choice, opt for something you can be reasonably sure hasn't sat on a brightly lit shelf for the last 8 months. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try something unfamiliar; just be aware of what you're buying and where. Not all beer tastes like beer. If you think you don't like the stuff, you probably just haven't tried the right one yet. Try a lambic or a Liefmans Krieg for something completely different, but still very much a beer. Also, always try to support your local breweries. Their beer is probably going to be the freshest on the shelf and most of them now make enough varieties that any beer drinker should be able to find something they'd like. But, above all else, just choose whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it, and ignore any rules you don't like.
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