Drink The Best Beers

How to seek out and taste beer to figure out which is right for you.

You can get a roomful of people to agree on the words to "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," but ask those same people what the best beer is, and you'll get a different answer from each person. That's because good beer is totally subjective: it's all a matter of taste, and what's best to you might actually be worst to the person drinking next to you. But by figuring out what kinds of flavors and textures you prefer, you'll be able to find and drink the best beer for you.

But how exactly do you taste beer, and what is it you're tasting for? Tasting beer, believe it or not, is a lot like tasting wine, or any other food or beverage for that matter. How we smell is a big part of how we taste, so before you take a big gulp, pour your beer into a glass, swish it around, and take a whiff. It'll smell yeasty, but there may be other aromas too: malt, fruit, sugars, roasted grain, and so on. If it smells good to you, take a sip, but don't swallow just yet. Instead, swirl it around on your tongue, being sure to cover all parts of your mouth and noting the different hints of flavor. Then, swallow slowly and see if you can detect any sweetness or bitterness in the finish. Drinking a whole pint of beer in this manner might be time consuming and impractical, but taking your first taste or two in this way will reveal all of a particular beer's nuances and let you know if you truly like it or not.

Put glasses of different beers next to one another, and you'll notice that they don't all have the same color. There are different types of beer, and they range in color from a thin pale yellow to a deep muddy black. Knowing the different kinds of beer will help you narrow down the field to find your favorite.

Ales are usually the lightest beers. They're brewed at high temperatures with a yeast strain that doesn't ferment as completely as strains used to make other styles of beer. This results in a slightly sweeter drink with a hint of fruit, though some believe the flavor of ale is too weak for their preference. Lager is the style of most best-selling American beer, like Budweiser or Miller, and it is the most consumed style of beer in the world. The double fermentation process used to make lagers yields a clean and crisp brew, though some feel that the flavor is a little too neutral for their taste buds.

Stouts are dark as night and made with roasted barley. This creates a denser, richer beer; a pint of stout looks a little like motor oil, and some say that you can stand a knife in a good stout. They're popular in England and Ireland, and beer drinkers who enjoy a stronger flavor and thicker consistency swear that a pint of stout is the best beer around. But of course, many beer drinkers find stouts too thick and overpowering.

Not quite a beer but often still available wherever beer is sold, hard cider is a favorite among drinkers who prefer a very fruity, sweet beverage. It's a fermented apple drink that ranges from very sugary to very tangy, depending on the brand. Hard cider doesn't impart the bitterness that a more traditional beer might, and some even taste like soda. You'll find that many people who say they don't like beer do like a bottle of hard cider.

Once you decide which style of beer tastes best to you, the next thing to think about is if you're a beer purist, or if you like other flavors in the background. Beer purists generally don't want any unexpected tastes mingling with their hops, barley, and yeast. Still, there are hundreds of beers available with all kinds of other ingredients added, like cinnamon and nutmeg for winter brews, strawberry and other summer fruit for lighter beers, and pumpkin for fall beers. While choosing a beer with other ingredients may get you a few disappointed looks from beer purists, you should always go with what tastes best to you.

Another thing to consider when determining which beer is the best for you is how it was made. All beer is not created equal, and while brands that are made by large commercial breweries may be the most popular in terms of sales, many beer aficionados will tell you that microbrews are the only way to go. These are beers that are made in smaller batches by brew chemists, often with regional and seasonal ingredients. Because of these factors, many drinkers feel that these beers are superior.

Are microbrews best? Maybe an analogy is in order here. Take bread, for example. You can go to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread in the bread aisle. It's made by a large commercial bakery, it's in a printed bag, and there are hundreds of others just like it on the shelf. It tastes pretty good, but if you drive a little bit further down the road and spend just a little bit more money, you can get a fresh loaf from the local bakery. This bread has a better crust, better aroma, and better flavor. You know this is the case because this loaf was made in a smaller oven with someone you trust watching over it to make sure it came out right. You'll make sandwiches with the bread from the supermarket, but for the best bread, you'll go to the local bakery.

The same holds true for microbrewed beer, many drinkers believe. It's better because someone they trust made it more carefully than a factory brewer would, they believe. And then there's the factor of supporting the so-called little guy over big business, which may not have anything to do with taste but does have a lot to do with beer purchasing decisions. Of course, some drinkers, on the other hand, feel that microbrewed beer tastes too raw, unprocessed, and inconsistent from batch to batch; they prefer the clean and constant taste of a beer brewed on a large scale.

Then there's homebrew, which is exactly what it sounds like: beer made at home, probably by someone who really enjoys beer and wants to see how good or bad it tastes when they make it themselves. We can use the bread analogy again here. Your first loaf or two of homemade bread might not turn out right. It might be too dense, not yeasty enough, or burnt on the bottom. But with a little practice, your homemade bread might be better than any bakery's. The same holds true for homemade beer: first-timers often find that their homebrew is watery and lacking in good flavor, but after a few batches, they get the hang of it. An experienced homebrewer may create a beer that's the best you've ever tasted.

There are many places where you can seek out and sample all different kinds of beer. Aside from the supermarket and your local bar, many cities have brewpubs and microbreweries that are happy to bring you a pint of their house specialty. These establishments often offer a beer sampler: several small glasses of different house-made beers. This is a great way to figure our which beer is most pleasing to your palate. Microbreweries also frequently offer tours of their facilities, which show you how and where the beer is made. They also sometimes hold beer tastings, and these are a great way to sample a lot of different beers for a small price.

Ultimately, drinking the best beer is all a matter of taste. But, once you know what's out there, and once you figure out what things you like and don't like, you'll be drinking the best beer for you in no time. A big part of the fun in drinking beer is discovering new favorites. When you travel to new cities, see what the locals are brewing and have a taste or bring home a six pack. Finally, no matter what beer is best to you, be sure to enjoy it responsibly so that you and others can continue to seek out new favorites.

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