What I learned Teaching Beginners About Beer
By David Nilsen
It’s been my privilege to lead a monthly beer class and tasting program called the Craft Beer Education Series in my small Ohio town. I started the class a year ago without really knowing what to expect. Would anyone sign up? Would newcomers be too intimidated to participate?
The response has been nothing but positive, and I’ve learned a lot during the last year of leading this class. The things my attendees have taught me are, I believe, valuable lessons for all of us who are deeply immersed in the craft beer world to keep in mind if we want this culture to continue to grow.
Here are five things I’ve learned from teaching beginners about beer:
1. Craft beer is no longer a rebellious subculture, and that’s okay. My town is overwhelmingly conservative (in every sense of the word). It’s a classic Midwestern small town, with festive downtown parades, enthusiastic high school football games, and way more churches than bars. It’s not a place that would have been very receptive to craft beer tastings a decade or two ago. But guess what? While many in the craft beer world might like to think our favorite drink represents the rebellious segment of the libation world, craft beer has gone mainstream. It’s not threatening or rebellious anymore, and that’s a good thing. Just ask the collection of grandmothers, church couples, and librarians who faithfully attend my class series.
2. There is no such thing as a typical craft beer drinker. When you picture a craft beer drinker, do you still think of a heavily tattooed guy with a long beard? You’re a little out of touch. My class is equally well-attended by men and women, and the median age is around 45. Several older couples attend, as do a few grandmas who love having something to discuss with their grandkids in Portland. The local chess master—who is also the local library director—is at every class. We might think craft beer is dominated by dudes with beards, and the industry does have a diversity problem to address, but anyone can get into craft beer these days.
3. You don’t have to get rare, expensive bottles to have a good tasting. Because my class is intended to introduce newcomers to the world of beer, I’ve intentionally selected beers they’ll have no trouble tracking down. As Zymurgy’s recent poll proved by ranking Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale—a beer you can get in a six-pack from just about any grocery store in the Midwest—the best beer in the world, you don’t have to drop serious cash on a rare, cork-caged bottle to drink great beer, and we’ve had excellent tasting sessions evaluating beers that are cheap and easy to find. Your favorite brewery most likely made their name on their flagship brands, not their rarities, so take some time to reconsider—and properly, thoughtfully taste—their six-pack offerings.
4. Everyone has a palate. It is so easy to feel intimidated or embarrassed when you’re first getting into beer, especially if you’re attending a tasting with people who knows more about this drink than you do. I’ve been careful in my classes to make sure everyone understands there are no wrong answers to the question, “What do you smell and taste in this beer?” While study and practice can certainly sharpen our sensory vocabulary, we all come to beer with different experiences, preferences, and cultural backgrounds that influence our palates and should be harnessed, not suppressed. Attendees have responded to that freedom by giving surprising and enlightening answers, at times expanding my own appreciation of a beer’s sensory offerings.
5. Craft beer shouldn’t be intimidating. While there is an enormous amount of knowledge available to be learned, beer—like cooking, gardening, or any other hobby—should be enjoyable at every step along the journey to mastery. My attendees know they can ask any question without feeling silly, and they can offer any thought or impression that comes to mind during the group tastings. That open atmosphere has allowed them to learn at their own pace, and is rewarded when I overhear one of them at the local beer bar correctly discussing the head retention of the beer they were just poured. If some expert had squashed my nascent (and probably misguided) musings about craft beer when I was first getting interested in this drink, I might have abandoned the whole enterprise. Learning about beer, like drinking it, should be fun no matter how much you know or don’t know. Otherwise, what’s the point?