Drink Like an Adult

If you're anything like me, you've been attempting to order drinks at bars, but just end up feeling like you did when you had to get braces-- a little scared about what the cool kids would think, and very confused. At a recent dinner out, a waiter asked my friend if she wanted her martini "dirty." "Yes," she replied without hesitation. Once the waiter left, we turned to her and asked in hushed tones what that meant: weren't all alcoholic drinks dirty? Isn't that just the way you're supposed to feel after you drink them? It turns out that the truly dirty drinks are spiked with olive brine; apparently they taste like seawater. As classy as it sounds to say, “I’ll have a dirty martini,” it’s not going to taste that sophisticated once you spit out your first sip in front of a hot date.

Unwilling to settle for my paltry knowledge of alcoholic beverages—which was limited to knowing to never drink red wine after that mortifying teeth-stain incident—I decided I'd do some field research to remedy my lack of wisdom. Let's face it: nursing a red Solo cupful of Natty Light only gets you so far in life... and that place is usually tasteless.

By no means do I intend this to be a comprehensive guide to every type of drink.  For both of our sakes, this article only serves as the most basic overview to choosing your next beer, specifically of the craft variety.

I began my research at Delray Beach, Florida's Coffee District. With 18 draft selections and over 150 types of bottles, it’s hard to find a craft beer selection in South Florida that can match this joint's. I couldn’t have chosen a better, more open environment to learn about craft brews.  In fact, I’d give Coffee District a 0 PBV (0 pretension by volume). With the assistance of Chung, the bartender and my personal sensei for the afternoon, I tasted my way to enlightenment.

Chung indicated the beers on tap listed on the nearby chalkboard. Boasting curious names like Blue Point RastafaRye and Sweaty Betty Blond Wheat, the list was a far cry from the usual TNC selection. I read a few of the menu descriptions and settled on Anderson Valley Summer Solstice, a beer advertised as a creamy, refreshing summer drink with notes of caramel. “I’m going to warn you,” Chung began, “it’s a very tart beer.” He pulled me a sample from the tap, and was spot-on with his warning. No way could I have consumed a full glass of that. “Some people like tart beers, but I’m not one of them,” he said with a grin. I decided that Chung was just the bartender to educate me.

So, when your bartender hands you an intimidatingly extensive beer list, what’s your first step? Do you inquire as to what they recommend, like at a restaurant? Really, don’t do this. The beer that he or she prefers may be too bitter, too fruity, or too heavy for your taste. Bartenders recognize this unsavory possibility, so they'll likely answer with another question: "What beers do you like?"

Since no one wants to end up  with 12 oz of a beer you hate, tell the  bartender the types of beers you have enjoyed. Since beer menus are usually organized by type, Chung recommends to begin by assessing which style of beer you like best. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification, or a brief description of each variety.  These include (but are definitely not limited to) ales (India Pale Ale, stout, Lambic, and wheat beer) and lagers (including Pilsner, Bock, Dunkel, etc.).

But how do you know which style you like best? Experiment! Start by trying each of the basics, which usually includes the beers we’re most familiar with, such as Bud Light (pale lager), Blue Moon (Belgian wheat beer), and Corona (pale lager). Tip: Many craft beer beginners start with the wheat/lager/Pilsner beers.  Consider these the gateway beers that will eventually lead you to connoisseur status. Soon you'll be indulging in more obscure ales, like brews made by monks (for real: Trappist beers).

Chung encourages everyone to explore, keep an open mind, and "find your palate" in the process. (Didn't I say he was a sensei?) He assured me that there is a beer for everyone, even for those self-professed beer-haters. For them, he recommends the lesser carbonated fruity ales, Lambics, and Framboise. If you’re a whiskey-lover, there are even beers that have hints of whiskey. Which leads me to my next point.

It’s important, Chung informed me, to talk to your bartender and to tell them what beers you like and what you don’t like.  The odds are favorable that he or she will let you sample a few beers before your make a final choice. Don’t be afraid to speak up; this will make their job easier, and your experience better.

Before I left Coffee District, Chung handed me the check, along with a sample of Belgian Tripel. “I think you’ll like this one,” he said coyly, as he slid the glass towards me. And the beer-sensei was right.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one learning about my drinking tastes that day. When it comes to deciding on your next craft beer, your bartender is your friend.

If you enjoyed this piece, you should also read Alcohol Policy Controversy, Circa 1992, Eureka!: Watch Out Back Abbey or With Alcohol Policy, Tradition Succumbs to Ebb and Flow.