Many of us love wine, but what about beer? It can be just as versatile, fun and satisfying for pairing with meals or winding down after a long day, especially in the hot summer months. In fact, your favorite beer can say a lot about you, we think. But if you are just getting into beer, it can be a bit overwhelming. The store may seem to have endless options that change all of the time. That said, there are some easy, expert-approved ways to boost your beer IQ. We spoke with Kelsey Watson, a certified level one cicerone—a title that's akin to a sommelier for wine—about common misconceptions and beginner tips when it comes to beer (follow along with her Instagram @kelseywatson).
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Watson's professional entry into the beer world started two years ago when she began giving City Brew Tours in Washington, D.C. "Before the pandemic, I would get to lead tours in person," says Watson. "We would talk about beer brewing, the process, the history and the individual breweries we were visiting. We had a whole section on beer and food pairings." But her interest in beer started well before guiding the sought-after tours. "I got really into beer when I was living in Europe," she says. "I was living in Holland and that was my first exposure to different kinds of beer, and beer being a more common staple of folks' everyday lives." Now, she is working her way toward the second level of cicerone certification.
We spoke with Watson to learn about five most common mistakes people make when buying beer and how to fix them to upgrade your brews.
5 Beer-Buying Mistakes, According to an Expert
1. You Don't Have Fun When You Shop
"I have a lot of fun with beer shopping because I usually buy what I like and what I'm in the mood for. I really like to share beer with folks as well, so I'll buy different bottles," says Watson. Being adventurous is half of the fun of trying something new, and beer is no exception. "If I see a beer that is not as common, I'll take a look at that. I think the best way to learn about what you like is to see something that looks interesting to you and try it."
She also suggests buying a choose-your-own six-pack to split with friends who are interested in trying new beers. Not only will sharing help you save money, but also it makes the process social. You can even try adding some food pairings with your beers. "Think about intensity, depth of flavor and unique flavors. Get a pen and a notepad and think about what you taste and what you think tastes good together," encourages Watson.
2. You Don't Consider the Brewing Process
You can only appreciate a beer so much without considering the extensive brewing process that created it. "One of the things that surprised me the most [when I got started] is that beer is so incredibly scientific and technical and complicated. A lot of people just drink beer and don't have too many questions about how it's produced or comes to be, but when you really dig into it there is so much really intense science that goes into beer production," states Watson.
Watson explains that there are four main components of a typical beer: water, hops, malt (made from various types of grain) and yeast. Anything that is added beyond that is called an "adjunct." A lot of big breweries will use adjuncts like rice because it's a lot cheaper and easier on a larger scale.
Additionally, the type of yeast that is used plays a big role in the fermentation time and flavor of a beer. "There are technically two kinds of beer: ales and lagers. These refer to the strains of yeast that are used during the fermentation phase of producing beer. Ales are more common for home brewers because they require less temperature control and take a lot less time than lagers do. Lagers take longer to ferment and ferment at colder temperatures," elaborates Watson. "You will rarely find home brewers or smaller breweries doing lagers because it's very complicated. Plus, in the amount of time that it takes to brew one lager you could've brewed three ales."
3. You Don't Check Dates
While some foods can last long past their expiration dates, beer is not one of them. "It could be worthwhile for folks to take a look at expiration dates. Flavor profiles change with beer as it ages, and it varies based on the style of beer that you're drinking," says Watson. An India pale ale, for example, will break down much faster than a Belgian-style beer, darker beers or a beer with higher alcohol content. "The oils in hops break down more quickly, so for IPAs, try to drink them within a month of their production date," says Watson.
4. You Aren't Properly Storing Beer
Like any other food or drink, storing your beer correctly will help extend its life and improve its flavor. "One of the things that beer doesn't love is temperature change. It's best stored at cooler temperatures for a longer period of time. It's just best to keep your beer in the fridge as long as you can if possible," suggests Watson.
Besides temperature, light is another factor to consider. "Beer is also really susceptible to UV damage. It gets 'light struck' and what we call 'skunked,'" says Watson. "It changes the flavor of beer a lot. If you are buying something at the store, cans will usually be your best bet. They will last the longest. The darker the glass bottle for beer the better, like brown and green bottles. Avoid clear bottles if you can."
5. You Aren't Tasting It Correctly
"There is a proper way to taste beer and I would talk about this in all of the tours that I would lead. This is my favorite part of beer in general," Watson shares. "When we are appraising beer, we want to try and engage as many senses as possible."
Watson recommends first pouring your beer into a glass. "Being able to see your beer is a large part of being able to move through the process of tasting it. Also, you're able to smell more of the aromas when you pour it into a glass. When it's in a can or bottle you completely lose that." Smell is a big part of how we taste, so this is why it is the first part of "tasting" that Watson recommends. "My favorite way [to smell beer] is to cover the top of the glass and swirl the beer around a bit, then bring it by your nose and take really short sniffs."
Watson recommends tasting in a few different ways. Take a drink first and notice the flavors that immediately hit your tongue. "Here we are tasting for things that are sweet, salty, sour, umami and bitter—and fat can also be tasted here." Next, Watson recommends you take a drink, plug your nose and exhale. This allows you to pick up additional flavors you might not have caught the first time. Lastly, Watson recommends that you consider the aftertaste of a beer and the flavor and feel it leaves in your mouth.
If you really want to do a deep dive, Watson recommends the book The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food by Garrett Oliver (buy it: $19.99, BarnesAndNoble.com).
Even if you don't think you're a "beer person," Watson urges you to give it a try if you are interested. "I think there are a lot of folks who aren't into beer who could be. It's important to remember that beer is not just a Budweiser or Heineken. I have a whole backlog of things that I recommend to people who aren't into beers. There are so many beers that can taste pretty similar to wine, cider and cocktails if that's the route you want to go." Use these tips to explore the world of beer at the grocery store, local breweries and beyond. We can toast to that— happy tasting!