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Busting Myths About Craft Beer

The Area Man Drinks Beer beginner's basics series continues, debunking some myths about craft beer strength, cost and audience.

Mike Loconto
Area Man Drinks Beer blog
Twitter: @Neighbeers

In last week’s Area Man Drinks Beer, Part 2 of the beginner’s basics series continued with some Neighbeerly Advice about how to get started enjoying craft beer around West Roxbury, Boston and beyond.  This week, let’s do some mythbusting.

Debunking Some General Tomfoolery

                “It’s too expensive…”

Let's start with a tough one because, well, just like shopping at Wal-Mart will save you money when you compare it to Whole Foods (or, Roche Bros.), it’s more about what you want to get out of your purchase.  Any craft beer is going to seem expensive when you compare it to a 30-pack of American light lager cans for $12.99.  There are bargains out there, relatively speaking.  Take the house beers at Trader Joe’s – where 22-oz. bottles start at $1.99, and you can get steals like the annual Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale – brewed by the venerable Quebec brewer Unibroue – for $4.99.  Or, head over to Blanchard’s for a half-liter of Hoponius Union, the India Pale Lager from Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham.  It’s $2.99, and the October leader in the clubhouse for my beer of the year – a crisp twist on “West Coast” IPAs benefiting from a lagering process (Jack’s Abby is an anomaly as an all-lager brewery).

Better yet – head to the source.  22-oz. bottles of most Blue Hills Brewery beers are available at the brewery, a 20-minute drive from West Roxbury down Route 138 in Canton, for $3 each.

                “Craft beer tastes funny.”

When you’re used to a processed American light lager, then the tastes and styles of craft beer can feel unapproachable.  Like many of us, I (mis-) spent my college days drinking keg cups of Natural Light, but in 1999 my move to Boston was an opportunity to reset those expectations.  First, almost every craft beer fan has someone who introduced him (or her) to a great beer.  A good friend and New Zealander, Jake, rescued me from the Boylston Street corridor with European bottles at Bukowski’s Tavern and Tremont Ale on draught at Delux in the South End.  There was a certain amount of experimentation involved, too.  We once even brewed a stout made with fresh raspberries, where the bacteria from the fresh fruit created a nearly hallucinogenic (and undrinkable) result.  The taste of a beer like the former Tremont Ale (brewed by current Notch Brewing brewmaster Chris Lohring) was near enough to what a beer was “supposed” to taste like for someone weaned on macros, but distinct and flavorful enough to know the care and attention to quality that went into the product.

So that’s why, when seeking a convert, I start with an approachable pale ale like the flagship Pale Ale from Sierra Nevada, or maybe a Brooklyn Lager that shows the depth and character of a truly craft brewed beer.  Once you start to recognize the familiar taste profiles – caramel in a brown, citrus in an IPA, bananas and clover in a wheat – you can become more comfortable in branching out to more experimental styles.  I only had my first sour beer last year – and I hated it.  Now, I cannot get enough of the sour styles, like the Apollo kristalweizen from Brooklyn, NY’s Sixpoint or the Somer Weisse (an adaptation of the German style, Berlinerweisse, a light, slightly sour wheat beer) from Everett’s Night Shift Brewing.

                “Craft beer is too strong.”

Session beer is the answer.  Remember what I mentioned about being gainfully employed and the father of three children?  Session beer.  It’s Dad Beer.  It’s the Workers’ Beer.  It’s the “it’s 9:30 and we finally finished dinner and got the kids to bed and OMG I have to get up for work in 8 hours” beer.  If you are going to have one to unwind: make it count – but not so much that you regret it in the morning.

There is considerable debate about the proper definition of a true session beer, but most define a session beer as one with an alcohol content by volume (“ABV”) of 4.5% or less (some go as high as 5%, and other strict constructionalists rely on British tax rates for a 4% ABV cutoff). Regardless of where you come out in the numbers game, the point is this: a “session beer” is one where you can have a few in one sitting without reaching for the bottle of Ibuprofen before bedtime. 

Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light fits the session label definition, at 4.2% ABV, and don’t get me wrong – the best of could use one now and again on a hot summer day.  But that’s why American light lagers are called “lawnmower beer.” 

At the same time, however, session beer is a fast growing segment of the craft beer market.  Ipswich-based Notch Brewing is wholly devoted to session beers, with the flagship Pils clocking in at 4% ABV, and the Session Ale, an American Pale Ale, at 4.5%.  Notch brews several seasonal and experimental beers, including the recent Tafelbier, a Belgian table (“tafel”) beer at a ridiculously low 2.7% ABV.  Each is flavorful, true to traditional styles, and nowhere near some of the 7% ABV+ “hop bombs” and imperial beers that have marked the “extreme” efforts of many contemporary American craft brewers.

Continuing with some other local suggestions, the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, based in Cambridge and brewing in Westport, has produced several more flavorful sessionable beers, including the delightful Belgian pale ale Magnifico! (3.4% ABV) and the February 22, 1945 English Dark Mild Ale from their Once Upon a Time series ( 2.8% ABV).  The Summer Rye ale from the Mayflower Brewing Company in Plymouth is another: a light, spicy white beer at 3.8% ABV.   Other session beers from further afield to seek out: Bitter American, a 4.4% ABV American Pale Ale from the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco; and, maybe I am cheating here with a hefty 4.7% ABV, but the seasonal Celsius from Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston, Maine is a delightful blonde ale with lemon-lime flavor – an easy-drinking  summertime shandy.  Here’s hoping we see a return in 2013.

                “Beer is for men.”

Being a craft beer drinker is to be something of an evangelist, and so when you have the opportunity to open someone’s eyes to the world of craft beer, you rejoice in your successes - or wallow in the regret of failing to bring someone over from the dark side.

My pride here is particularly strong when I think of my wife, who may now be more particular about beer than me – dispatching me to the store for 21st Amendment’s Brew Free or Die IPA and sincerely appreciating a four-pack of Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union for her birthday.  She once even professed a deep, abiding love for the banjo-playing Burton Baton on the Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales barrel-aged Imperial IPA of the same name (jokingly, I think).

Women are no strangers to the craft beer industry, with roots in the venerable Stoudt’s Brewery in Pennsylvania and its brewmaster, Carol Stoudt.  A 2010 Wall Street Journal article about the research one of the large beverage conglomerates, SAB Miller, discusses anecdotally that the feminine palette can better detect subtle flavor profiles in beer.  Just ask local brewers like Martha Holley-Paquette from the Cambridge-based Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, or Caitlin Jewell of the Somerville Brewing Company, makers of the Slumbrew line of a half-dozen ales.

For women looking for a way to get started, there are several groups devoted to increasing the presence of women in the craft beer scene, particularly in Boston with the Massachusetts Chapter of Girls Pint Out, the locally-based Girls Guide to Beer, and the Boston-Area Beer Enthusiasts Society (BABES).  Drink local.

Coming Up

Next up for Area Man Drinks Beer: a paean on the benefits of drinking local craft beer (week of October 8).

We have a rich craft beer constituency in West Roxbury (and beyond), and I want to provide it with a voice and a forum through this blog.  Send me your thoughts on the blog, event postings and ideas for future stories or reviews at neighbeers at gmail dot com or through twitter @Neighbeers.  And comments below, good or bad, are always appreciated.

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