A Guide to Craft Beer

Have you been wanting to get into craft beer but don’t know how to talk about it?

This guide is intended for beginners who enjoy drinking beer but may not know how to talk about it. First, we’ll get you started on popular terms to describe beer, and then talk about common off-flavors that may affect the beer you’re tasting.

So let’s jump in!

Common Terms

Before we learn about beer styles, we need to know how to talk about them. Below are some terms to start you on your journey.

Light-Medium-Dark: In reference to color of the beer only. Light beers can be straw-colored, yellow, gold, tan. Medium-colored beers can be amber,copper, orange. Dark beers can be brown, black, opaque, or coffee-like.

Light-Medium-Heavy: In reference to the body and mouthfeel of the beer. Light-bodied beers tend to be clean and crisp. Heavy-bodied beers tend to cling to the mouth, feel oily, rich, or full.

Malty: Malted barley (or malt) is a main beer ingredient of beer. The level of roasting determines the color and flavor (like how roasting affects coffee beans). Lighter malts taste nutty, biscuity, like cereal; medium roasts like toffee or caramel; and dark roasts like coffee, dark chocolate, dried dark fruits.

Hoppy: Another main beer ingredient that imparts flavor and aroma. Hops can be fruity: apple, citrus, tropical fruits; or piney: resin, pine needles, wood; or floral, earthy, spicy, grassy.

Fruity: Common fruity flavors and aromas are lemon, banana, grapefruit, apricot, plum, cherry.

Spicy: Not spicy like chilies – though adventurous brewers use those too – but spicy like coriander, clove, pepper, star anise.

Beer Styles

In the interest of creating a beginner’s guide, the styles listed below are general descriptions, and some aren’t even mentioned at all.

Pale Ales/India Pale Ales (IPA)
All pale ales and IPAs use hops a strong dose of hops, but the American versions, especially those from the West Coast, are much hoppier. English and American brewers also tend to use different hop varieties, which results in distinct flavors. English ales lean towards spicy and green, while American ales lean towards citrus and pine.

Two Examples:   Frestone Walker  DBA (English style pale ale), Bear Republic Racer 5 (American style IPA)

Wheat
Most beers use 100% malt, but not so with these beers which use 40-60% wheat instead of malted barley and result in a lighter body and bright, clean taste. Prominent flavors come from the yeast and sometimes spices. German hefeweizens (or weissbiers) have strong banana, bubblegum, and/or clove flavors, while Belgian whites (or witbiers) rely on citrus, coriander and other spices for their flavor profile.

Two Examples: Schneider Weisse, Allagash White

“The Dark Beers”: Reds/Ambers/Browns/Porters/Stouts
Malts are the stars of this category. Reds, ambers, and browns tend to be light-to medium-bodied with toast, toffee, and caramel flavors, while porters, and stouts are medium-to-heavy-bodied with chocolate, coffee, and roasty characters. A lot of roastiness can come off as bitter, but sub-styles like an oatmeal or milk stout are creamier and sweeter to compensate.

Examples: Hangar 24 Alt-Bier Amber Ale, Alesmith Nut Brown, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, North Coast Old No. 38 Stout

Belgian
The distinctive flavors of these beers come from a combination of yeast and adjuncts (ingredients that are not part of the usual beer recipe of malt, hop, water, and yeast) like brown sugar and spices. Belgian pales, saisons, singles, and tripels are light in color and sometimes in body and tend to have bright spice flavors like coriander and pepper, while Belgian dubbels and quadruples are dark in color and almost always heavy in body with licorice, star anise, and dark fruit flavors.

Examples: Delirium Tremens, Saison Dupont, Allagash Tripel

Lagers and Pilsners
Most Americans are familiar with this style with the ubiquity of macro-brews like Coors, Bud, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Craft versions, however, typically use all malted barley and no corn. Light body, crisp and bright on the tongue, lagers and pilsners are clean in flavor with some spicy or herbal hop flavor and aroma. If you have an Oktoberfest near you, you’ll find caramel-like malts in the amber lagers.

Examples: Victory Prima Pils, Spaten Lager

How do you know when your beer has gone bad?

Did you hear someone raving about their favorite beer, but when you rushed to the store to try it, you found that it tasted awful?

That person may still be right, but something along the way has affected the beer. Below are some off-flavors to look out for and when they commonly occur so you know to try that beer again under better circumstances.

Oxidation: Tastes like: Papery, cardboard. This results from the introduction of oxygen into the beer. This can happen at the brewing stage but more commonly, from drinking old, stale beer. Try a different batch from a different store that sells beer regularly.

Diacetyl: Tastes like: Buttery, movie theater popcorn, butterscotch. This results from over-stressed yeast during fermentation. If that’s the case, try a different batch. But it could also mean a bacterial infection in the draft lines at the bar you’re sitting at right now. In that case, I suggest you leave immediately or stick with cocktails.

Skunked: Tastes like: Skunky, rubbery, burnt rubber. Skunked beer occurs when certain compounds in hops react with light. To prevent this, you need to protect your beer. Drink beer from clean draft lines and buy canned beer. Brown bottles offer some protection but not the greatest, so try to find those fully encased in boxes. Clear and green bottles offer no protection.

We hope this helps with providing a basic understand of the craft beer world!

Red Wine Information & Basics

With hundreds of varieties of red wine grapes, there is as much red wine information to learn about as there are red grapes planted in all corners of the globe. That being said, you’ll likely encounter only a handful of these grapes most often. Here, we cover the flavor profiles and regions of the most common red wine grapes. You can certainly choose to discover more beyond this short list, but for a quick and easy red wine 101, the following will fit the bill.

Red Wine & Food Pairings

Red wine’s diverse styles and structure make it the ideal choice for the dinner table. Red wine has a firmer structure than typical white and rosé wines supporting it when coming up against strong flavors. Steak and Cabernet is the tried and true pairing, fuller-bodied red wines in general pair well with denser, heavier foods, while lighter bodied reds with high acidity pair well with lighter fare, like roasted chicken and vegetable dishes. Matching the weight of the wine with the richness of the food leads to successful and harmonious pairings.

The old adage, “what grows together, goes together” holds true as well. For example, traditional tomato sauce Italian dishes pair well with the high-acid red wines of Chianti. In general, a region’s wine will pair well with the food and lifestyle of the area.

Red Wine’s Ageability

Bottles of wine in a cellar

Red wine is heralded for its ageability, but in order for a wine to age to its full potential, it must be stored properly. Factors that affect the aging process are temperature, light and humidity. Red wines should be stored at about 55° Fahrenheit, 10° F below the ideal serving temperature.

Wines stored too warm will accelerate the aging process, while wines stored in hot temperatures, above 75° Fahrenheit can be “cooked,” causing the fruit flavors characteristics to turn mushy and baked. A red wine stored too cold can also damage the wine, but is generally not as dangerous as overheating the wine. Low temperatures slow the aging process, but if your wine doesn’t freeze, there likely won’t be any extensive damage. Colder temperatures, like a 40° Fahrenheit refrigerator, are fine for short-term storage. Wines that freeze pose their own problems. As the liquid freezes it expands and can push the cork out, compromising the wine, or worse, cracking the bottle. While small changes in temperature are safe, it’s important to keep your wines at the most consistent temperature possible.

Red wines are bottled in green or brown tinted bottles to protect them from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Light-bodied wines are at a greater risk of being spoiled by light than full-bodied wines, but it’s best to avoid any long-term exposure to light, both natural and artificial. UV rays can break down compounds in the wine causing it too age more rapidly, and light carries damaging heat as well.

A delicate balance of humidity is also vital to red wine storage. Wines kept in a dry environment put the cork at risk, if the cork dries out it can shrink and allow oxygen to seep into the bottle or wine to leak out.

Red Wine Stemware

Glasses of red wine in a row on a table

There are many different wine glasses on the market from traditional to quirky. While a fun shaped or designed glass can be great for less formal occasions, having the proper glass will enhance your wine-drinking experience. There are two main shapes for red wine glasses: the tall, tapered Bordeaux glass and the wide bowl Burgundy glass. The tall, narrow Bordeaux glass has a tapered opening that concentrates the aromas of the wine. Its height creates distance between the wine and your nose, allowing sharp, burning ethanol aromas to dissipate. The Bordeaux glass should be used for fuller bodied, higher alcohol wines with spicier notes and is traditionally used with the Cabernet and Merlot based wines of Bordeaux. The wide bowled Burgundy glass is best implemented when drinking lighter bodied reds with more delicate aromas. The shape of the bowl helps trap and concentrate the aromas. Regardless of shape, wine glasses should be stemmed to prevent heat from hands being transferred to the wine.

There are numerous ways to cook with red wine. Whether you use it to glaze, braise or even boil pasta, choosing the right wine can be difficult. Forget the cooking wine. Grocery store cooking wine often has other additives like salt and should be avoided. Luckily most recipes offer suggestions for the style of wine to be implemented, even if it is as vague as “dry wine”. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of wine, consider purchasing a half bottle, which contains a little over one and a half cups of wine. Be sure to consider the dish when selecting the wine. If you are only deglazing the pan, leftover wine from the past few days will work fine. However, if wine is a key flavor component to the dish, the wine you select will have a greater impact. Dry wines should be used for savory dishes while sweet wines are better for desserts. When in doubt, select a dry red wine with low to moderate tannins to complement most dishes. Always cook with wine you wouldn’t mind drinking as the quality of the wine will affect the flavors of your dish.

Freshly Cut Grapes after being Harvested at sunrise in crates between the vineyards Stellenbosch South Africa

Cabernet Franc

Flavors: Violets, blueberry, earth, black olive, coffee

Along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cabernet Franc is part of the essential blending triad that makes up the majority of the Bordeaux blend (and Meritage) red wines produced in the United States. On its own, Cabernet Franc is a more tannic, earthy cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon. In warmer sites outside of Europe, its most distinctive attributes are its pure notes of violets and blueberry, and its ripe tannins often carry the scent of fresh roasted coffee. It is made (though rarely labeled) as a varietal in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny, where it is hard and tannic and can evoke an austere minerality. In Pomerol and Saint-Émilion it is featured in blends with Merlot, adding a spicy, pungent, sometimes minty note.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Flavors: Bell pepper, green olive, herb, cassis, black cherry

The primary component of great Bordeaux and the defining grape of the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown all over the world, but rarely achieves greatness. It ripens late and can be quite weedy and even vegetal in cooler climate regions such as Chile. In Bordeaux and Tuscany it is almost always blended to soften its intensely astringent tannins. The Napa style is dense, purple-black, jammy and tasting of currants and black cherries. Thick and ripe, layered with expensive new oak scents and flavors, it has almost single-handedly created the phenomenon of the cult wineries. In Washington, the best Cabernet straddles the border between the ripeness of California versions and the nuanced herb, leaf, and olive flavors of great Bordeaux.

Gamay

Flavors: Strawberry, raspberry, cherry

The grape of Beaujolais, Gamay is often made to be drunk quite young, and shows bright, tangy, fruit-driven flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and sweet cherries. When made by the method known as carbonic maceration, young Gamay has a slight effervescence and a distinct smell of bananas. Beaujolais Nouveau, released each year shortly after harvest, is the most famous example.

Grenache/Garnacha

Flavors: Spice, cherry

Old vine Grenache makes some of the greatest red wines of both Spain and Australia, and is an important component of Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and Côtes du Rhône in France. An early-ripening grape, it tends toward high alcohol and low acidity. At its best it creates very fruity, spicy, bold-flavored wines somewhat reminiscent of a softer, less-intense version of Syrah.

Malbec

Flavors: Sour cherry, spice

One of the blending grapes of Bordeaux, Malbec has risen to prominence in Argentina, where it makes spicy, tart red wines that take well to aging in new oak barrels. Elsewhere it remains a minor player, though a few varietally labeled Malbecs are made in California and Washington.

Merlot

Flavors: Watermelon, strawberry, cherry, plum

Merlot is the Chardonnay of reds, easy to pronounce, easy to like, agreeable, and versatile, but mostly lacking any substantive character of its own. The great exception is Chateau Pétrus, where it comprises 95 percent of the blend. Varietal Merlot rose to popularity in the 1990s but too many insipid, watery, over-priced Merlots have taken the bloom off the rose. Outside of Bordeaux, it is at its very best in Washington state, where it ripens beautifully and creates plump, powerful wines that can age for a decade or more.

Pinot Noir

Flavors: Tomato leaf, beet root, pale cherry, blackberry, cola, plum

Pinot Noir is the grape that winemakers love to hate; it is the prettiest, sexiest, most demanding, and least predictable of all. The template for great Pinot Noir is Burgundy, but even there the grape is flighty, fragile, and prone to obstinately weedy flavors. It is a principal component of many Champagnes and other sparkling wines, but can also be ripened to produce wines of surprising density and even jammyness in California, New Zealand, and warm sites in Oregon. Pinot Noir is best expressed as a pure varietal, and is often featured as a single-vineyard wine in Oregon and California, emulating the hundreds of tiny appellations of Burgundy. When at its best, Pinot has an ethereal delicacy yet can age for decades; it is most memorably described as “the iron fist in the velvet glove.”

Sangiovese

Flavors: Pie cherry, anise, tobacco leaf

The principal grape of Tuscany, where it is the primary component of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese is relatively light in color and quite firmly acidic. In Italy it shows distinctive flavors of pie cherry, anise, and tobacco; elsewhere it can be rather plain and undistinguished, though some promising bottles have come from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley. Many of Italy’s “Super Tuscan”  red blends marry Sangiovese to Cabernet Sauvignon, a combination that both strengthens the Sangiovese and smooths out the Cabernet.

Syrah/Shiraz

Flavors: Blackberry, boysenberry, plum, pepper, clove

Plantings of Syrah have exploded in California and Washington, where sappy, spicy, peppery, luscious versions are being made. Known as Shiraz in Australia, it is unarguably that country’s claim to enological fame. Australian Shiraz is made in every conceivable style, from light and fruity to dense and tarry; it is made as a deep red, tannic sparkling wine, and also as a fortified “Port”. In the northern Rhône, the most extraordinary expressions of the grape are produced, especially in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, where its peppery, dense, spicy fruit is layered into unbelievably complex wines streaked with mineral, smoked meat, tar, wild herb, and leather.

Zinfandel

Flavors: Raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, raisin, prune

For decades Zinfandel was California’s grape, though now it is grown all over the west coast of the United States, in Australia, Italy, and elsewhere, and its ancestry has been traced to Croatia. But California Zinfandel remains the model for all others, and it grows well and vinifies distinctively all over the state. Mendocino makes somewhat rustic versions with hints of Asian spices; Dry Creek Zinfandels are racy and laden with raspberry. In Amador and Gold Rush country it is hot, thick, and jammy, while in Napa it is plush with ripe, sweet black cherry flavors. California Zinfandels now commonly reach 15 or 16 percent alcohol levels; sometimes even higher for late harvest versions. Zinfandel “Ports” are also made.