How to Pick a Real Beer

(Image credit: Scott and Zoe)

In college I considered myself pretty beer savvy because my drink of choice was Heineken while most of my girlfriends had yet to graduate from Smirnoff Ice. Though I really did enjoy some beers, I have to admit that those times I accepted a lukewarm can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, it was more about not succumbing to the stereotype of the girl who complains that beer tastes "icky" than an actual love for possibly skunked beer.

The watered-down stuff that college kids swill does perform an important function — Ping-Pong balls need somewhere to land, funnels must be filled, and flipping empty Solo cups isn't much fun — but I knew that once the era of kegs left in bathtub was over, it was time to find a more respectable standby alcoholic beverage.

After a few months of sampling all of the big-name beers on tap at most bars, I was left unsatisfied. That is, until I went on a local brewery tour. One sip of its dark, caramelly "session" ale — so named because it was developed in the 1700s for men who would park themselves in the local pub for hours at a time — and I knew that the drink of the Founding Fathers was good enough for me.

It turns out that for all the talking frogs and Clydesdale horses, the largest American beer companies aren't all that good. Real beer has flavor. Real beer is delicious. Real beer will impress your friends. Apparently, millions of Americans can be wrong.

Even if you're one of those people who have sampled many different beers, and still find them all "icky," there's a good chance the problem is that you haven't encountered a decent beer. Here's how to spot one: It looks, smells, and tastes completely different from any beer you're likely to find in a frat boy's repertoire. It's probably a little more expensive, but an extra dollar or two per bottle is well worth it for the quality. The hardest part will be realizing that you've been throwing your money away for all these years on the Cheez Whiz of beers.

The first tip to finding a better beer is to understand what beer is made of. Beer comes in two basic kinds: lagers and ales. Lagers have a lighter color and taste and are the most common. Ales are darker, more robust, and have a stronger, fruitier taste. The fundamental ingredients of beer are barley, hops, yeast, and water. Other ingredients are added to give each beer its unique characteristics. Winter beers often contain warm spices; summer beers may be brewed with wheat, or actual fruit may even be added.

Large American brewers often make their beers with unmalted grains like corn and rice. They say this is done to produce a "lighter" taste, but these ingredients are also cheaper and reduce the cost of brewing.

A better bet is to try a beer made by a microbrewery. Also known as craft breweries, these breweries are small, independent, and use more traditional brewing processes. To qualify as a craft brewery, the annual production of beer must be less than 2 million barrels, and less than 25% of the brewery can be owned by an alcoholic beverage industry member.

The recent movement to go local applies to beer too. Craft breweries usually only distribute to a small area, so when you are traveling make an effort to try out local beers. Better yet, some of these breweries offer tours, which are a great way to learn more about how the beer is made — and to try some free samples, of course.

When trying out a new beer, use the same basic principles used to appreciate wine. Look for color, body, smell, and taste.

Here are some tips on what to look out for:

Appearance: Look at the color — beers can be amber, red, brown, or black. Check the clarity of the beer. Swish it a little. If the head leaves trails on the edge of the glass it usually means it's a higher-quality beer.

Aroma: Try to pick out different smells — just like wine, beer has a bouquet. It may be hoppy, malty, floral, or fruity.

Mouthfeel: Does the beer have a light or a full body when it is in your mouth? Take time to taste it. You wouldn't wolf down a gourmet dinner, so don't just chug down a good beer.

Taste: While it may take a true beer connoisseur to fully appreciate the beer's color and aroma, even novices should be able to enjoy the taste. Good beer is complex and has a wide range of flavors in each sip.

Finding a beer you love, not just one you tolerate, is well worth the effort. In addition to finding a great new drink to enjoy, the look on your friends' faces when you order a Spaten Optimator hefeweizen will be priceless.

Want more tips like this?