Once upon a time – actually, just the other day – a good friend of mine triumphantly announced that he’d finally landed the job of his dreams, working for one of the area’s preeminent package stores.
I was happy to hear it. There’s a soft spot in this drinker’s heart for those local heroes manning the counters in places that sell liquid groceries. A package store is where I got my start, back when Samuel Smith, Chimay and Spaten were the top choices, and Dogfish Head was merely a gleam in Sam Calagione’s skateboarding eye.
Today’s wide world of beer offers a bewildering number of options for consumers, and although my newly hired acquaintance has enjoyed his fair share of Progressive Pints, it took only a few hours on the clock for him to realize that the store’s clientele is highly knowledgeable, and with such a large selection of beer on hand, he’d have to do some boning up on beer … and quickly.
(As an aside: Isn’t it a delightful sign of how the Louisville metro area has upped its good beer game when folks in the business must up theirs, too, just to remain level with the tide?)
His question to me was, “Where to begin?”
It would be easy enough to compare the acquisition of beer knowledge to the old gag about directions.
Q: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
A: “Practice, practice, practice.”
True, but if it ended there, I’d have no column to write, so let’s dig a bit deeper.
Many readers know of my periodic gigs teaching a non-credit beer appreciation class for IU Southeast, and as such, you’d imagine I would be able to produce a detailed syllabus to provide an outline of beer facts, but alas, no. My pedantic approach to lecturing involves oral history, streams of consciousness and drunken rants, in descending order of coherence.
If pressed, here’s my paragraph-length overview:
“In terms of human history, brewing goes back as far as religion and prostitution, and perhaps it even precedes agriculture, and yet most of what beer drinkers today need to know about beer inhabits a direct line to the European brewing heritage. Beverages fermented from cereal grain all are thought of as beer, but there are differences between ales and lagers, both in terms of brewing methodology and flavor characteristics. A basic working knowledge of beer styles and their general characteristics is quite useful in making sense of the whole epic story, and in this context, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that American-inspired craft brewing is to European brewing tradition what improvisational jazz is to formal musical composition.”
To begin filling in the blanks, here are some learning aids:
The Cicerone Certification Program exists to train a bold new class of beer sommeliers, and produces a syllabus, which I view as a handy outline to the essentials of beer. It can be viewed, downloaded and printed at www.cicerone.org
There are dozens of candidates, but one should begin with the acknowledged master, the late, great Englishman, Michael Jackson. His prose remains a pleasure to read, which makes learning almost effortless. If you can find a copy of “Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion: The World’s Great Beer Styles, Gastronomy, and Traditions,” get it. Some information will be dated, but remember that the idea is to get a firm grip on the rules as inherited from the European tradition.
Pioneering beer writers like Jackson sought to create a commonly accepted “Esperanto” language of beer style from numerous historical sources, as well as objective considerations of contemporary brewing reality. Even so, no two stylistic compendiums (Beer Advocate, RateBeer, World Beer Championships) are in complete agreement, and there is much elasticity to these and other organizational constructs.
It’s my personal belief that the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is the best place to begin one’s journey toward understanding beer styles, precisely because the BJCP tends to move conservatively and judiciously, resisting faddishness and whim as it constantly reviews and revises BJCP style guidelines. Visit www.bjcp.org – and there’s an app for your smart phone, too.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a classicist; learn the rules first, and then break them at will. True off-the-chart innovators in any field of human endeavor come 12 to a 1,000, and the rest of us only have our moments. That’s why my recommendation is for beer novices to avoid web sites that cater to the loud, active and vocal fringe of beer appreciation, such as Beer Advocate, RateBeer and others, which derive beer ratings and scores based on consumer choice. Carefully note that I have no intrinsic objection to consumer choice. It’s just that these sites are skewed toward self-assigned user proficiency levels, and to put it as mildly, these levels are extremely variable.
Rather than pontificate on the topic of web sites, of which there are thousands, I’ll merely list a half-dozen I frequent.
Follow the curmudgeon’s example
For the past twenty-odd years, my drinking weeks have combined to produce a wide-ranging, moveable feast of beer education. My common denominator is thinking, not just drinking. It can be yours, too.
Roger A. Baylor
New Albanian Brewing Company