It’s summertime, and I live in Grand Rapids, one of America’s beloved Beer Cities. I turned 21 this past winter and had little exposure to beer before the all-important birthday. Now, I’m discovering all the perks of living so close to dozens of craft breweries, but as a new-to-the-scene enthusiast, it can be tough to make sense of all this beer hype.
I was lucky enough to skip the college party phase (or in some cases, high school), and I jumped right into drinking craft beer and cider, ordering a Vander Mill Cider on my 21st at a local brewery. But it was tough learning about all the different styles of beer. I thought that after trying just one brewery’s version of, say, a stout, that I must not like any stouts at all. I’ve learned recently that this is not the case. While many domestic beers are rather interchangeable (similar to the Coke-Pepsi comparison), craft breweries mix, invent, create, imagine, and play around with a variety of ingredients, traditions, and processes to put their own unique spin on standard styles.
The basics, as Dave Engbers of Founders has said, are that beer is composed of a grain or malt and yeast. This produces CO2 and (wait for it…) alcohol! Breweries test out different combinations of grain and yeast to create anything from a lightly-colored amber ale to a hops-heavy IPA. Darker brews, like stouts and porters, are usually made using roasted or burnt grains. I see a lot of parallels between beer and coffee; Different amounts of roasting leads to vast differences in flavor.
I also had to learn pretty fast that when trying out a new drink, the three little letters “ABV” are crucial to how I’ll spend the rest of my evening. Now, you seasoned drinkers understand that Founders’ Dirty Bastard (“So good it’s almost wrong”), which is the first thing I drank (we won’t discuss whether this was during the legal phase or not), is a heavy hitter. This beer rings in at 8.5% ABV. As a fairly small person, I discovered that pacing myself applied in full to drinking craft beer.
Many of the breweries I’ve visited follow the motto, “We brew beer we like.” Brew masters know that if their seasoned palates can detect subtle variations based on yeast, water quality, and time spent in the fermenter, others will share their appreciation. And I’ve come to understand this distinction, this striving for quality that I don’t see in some other companies who brew the same batches of low-grade alcohol year after year.
I remember an afternoon I spent at Grand Rapids Brewing Co., sipping their blonde ale, reading a book. I had a few questions for the bartender but it took a few minutes before I worked up the courage to reveal my naiveté. I was hesitant to admit that I didn’t know the first thing about alcohol. I knew that wine coolers tasted essentially like juice and that liquor causes nasty hangovers when consumed too generously. But what were all these types of beer on tap? How would I know whether I liked them before paying for them?
I learned that it is fairly easy to get a recommendation from a bartender, especially when the restaurant or bar isn’t too busy. Bartenders enjoy offering suggestions and helping people fall in love with craft beer and spirits. They’ll ask what you normally drink and then offer you a few samples of similar (or different in a good way) beers. I tried Perrin’s Quadwood, a quadruple Belgian stout, with some urging from the bartender and was surprised that I really enjoyed the heavy, aromatic taste. It was the same story with Long Road Distiller’s house-made gin. While I had never considered trying gin at other bars, the crew at Long Road helped explain the where, what, and why of the spirit to me as I sipped its multi-flavored goodness.
Another reason I love supporting craft is their ground-up approach to their ingredients. The Mitten Brewing Co. and Tripelroot Brew-Pub use ingredients from local farms and change their menus based on what produce is in season, which means I’m guaranteed a new experience every time I visit. For example, Mitten’s coffee-flavored Black Betsy (named after baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson’s favorite bat) sources its beans from a Grand Rapids-based roasting company. If you’re ever curious where your local brewery sources their ingredients, just ask. Time and time again, I learn how passionate everyone in the field of craft brewing is, and they’ll love your enthusiasm for developing a deeper appreciation for their trade.
If you were to look in my fridge right now (and I had to in order to write this paragraph), you’d find a wide variety of beer: Soft Parade from Short’s, a growler of Leroy Brown, an English brown ale from Big Lake Brewing (and my personal favorite at the moment), Founder’s Centennial IPA, and Grand Rabbits cream ale. If I could, I would bottle up Big Lake Brewing’s Nitro Big Ben and add it to the shelf, but sometimes, you can only get specialty brews on tap. I pick up my mix-and-match six-packs from Siciliano’s, a local liquor store that is a brew master’s dream come true. Many chain stores also sell individual bottles, which I recommend for anyone wanting to test a few different breweries before settling down. Whether you order a new brew at your neighborhood bar or buy craft from the corner store, you’ll be glad you branched out. I’ve found it to be the only way to drink.