In a universe increasingly crowded with good craft beer choices, here’s some advice from us to you on how to pick the best of ‘em.
Part One: At the Store
Read Labels: The labels will tell you everything from freshness to quality.
1. See if the beer is pasteurized or filtered. Believe it or not, unpasteurized beers will actually last longer.
2. Many craft beers including Sam Adams will have a vertical calendar on the side of the label, with a month notched off. This will either be the month it was brewed or the month it is best by, depending on the directions. Some nicer breweries will even give you the exact date it was brewed. Bottled beers can last 12 months if pasteurized and many can last years if intended to better with age (like wine) — those meant to age will tout it proudly on their label.
3. Birthplace. beers bottled nearest to the store will often taste the freshest because they haven’t had to go through the rigor and temperature changes of truck travel, or even airport customs. This is why people say you haven’t tasted a real Guiness until you’ve had one in Dublin.
4. Be wary of trickery. Larger breweries, Miller especially, will brew seasonal ales under different brewery names. But it will say Miller Brewing Co. on the bottle label or possibly on the six-pack label in very small type. Blue Moon is one common example.
Part Two: Price and Dust
Price: In New York you won’t find bottles of anything other than light beer for under $2 each. If you do, be suspicious. That being said, you can find great beers for $2 and $2.25 at bodegas. Boutique stores that specialize in high end meats and cheeses will charge a little more (and are often overpriced). Once again, I go local where you get the best bang per buck, along with freshest taste. Brooklyn Brewery products are often $2 anywhere in the city (don’t pay a penny more for their Lager, Penant, Brown), much less than you’ll find them even in Boston. This is because they need to fanbase at home — it’s so crucial they’ll take the pay cut to get you drinking it.
Another One Bites the Dust: If you can write your name on the dust on the neck of a bottle, then you are in a bodega and that beer has been there awhile. Back away. Your wallet will thank you for taking a few extra seconds to out the freshness of the beverage BEFORE you buy it. Just ask yourself if you’d like to put your lips on something that basically needs a maid to clean it.
Part Three: Beer Styles
Here’s a quick guide to standing in the store and staring at beers. Process of elimination can help you figure out what you’re in the mood for tonight.
Pilsner – A light style lager that is often crisp, dry, light golden in color and quite refreshing. When done well, it’s a drink with subtle flavor and effervescent like champagne. It’s also said to be the most challenging beer style to brew because it stands so naked.
Pale Ale – Light amber/yellow in color, it’s a style that tastes a little malty and is stable in taste. Widely appealing to beer drinkers of all tastes. It’s a very American style and is becoming hoppier and hoppier each year in the craft industry.
India Pale Ale (IPA) – First created by the British when shipping their beer to colonized India, this style was originally ultra-hopped for freshness. Today, IPA means a hoppy beer that is often bitter and either fruity, piney and earthy. If you see the styles Double IPA or especially Imperial IPA, you’re in for a hoppy ride.
Stout – Think Guinness, but don’t be intimidated. Many people think of stouts as drinking bread, but in fact they are suprisingly light in body, despite the ominous look of a black body through which no light ever passes. Expect a roasted, sometimes coffee-like maltiness and little bitterness. Often smooth but not syrupy.
Porter – Stouts younger, more adventurous cousin. Dark brown to light black often, porters tend to form a nice brown head, lends itself well to coffee flavors but also plays well with others — spices and other rustic flavors lke maple syrup work well.