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What is your Favorite Beer? The Ever-Changing Answer (and some Thanksgiving Recommendations)

It probably doesn’t come as any surprise to you that most people are not beer geeks. Nor are they connoisseurs. I however, make a point of letting those around me know that I am quite the geek, when it seems appropriate. The inevitable follow up question to that information? What’s your favorite beer?

I both receive and hear this question so often that I am forced to ponder its nature. From whence does this question emanate? I believe the question comes mostly from underexposure to the variety that craft beer has to offer. The breadth of style and flavor profile available to beer drinkers these days is truly astounding. When one is aware of this embarrassment of riches, calling any beer one’s absolute “favorite” begins to seem almost absurd.

Further, I consider beer a highly contextual beverage. My “favorite” beer at any given time is the result any number of factors. Let’s examine a few of those factors here.

Time of Day

Organized tastings and festivals aside, I’m usually going to drink a different beer at noon than I am at 9pm. That beer at noon will probably be with lunch. I’ll likely have things I’d like to accomplish later that day (other than getting intoxicated). Thus, my “lunch beer” will probably be something that hovers right around 5-6% ABV. Any more than that and I’ll have trouble accomplishing whatever happened to be my aim later in the day. In other words, I don’t often have Imperial Stouts with lunch.

However, if it’s later at night, or there isn’t anything particularly important on the docket, then I’ll dive into a bigger, higher ABV brew. The point is to taste enough different beers and educate your palate well enough that you can almost always find a desirable beer of either low or high gravity as befits a given situation.

Food

This is probably the biggest factor for me. Deep down, I am not just a beer geek, but a lover of food. For me, there is no greater pleasure than a perfect pairing of beer and food. The two elements cease to be individuals and coalesce into a whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. One recent experience was Black Tuesday paired with Deep-Fried Chocolate-Drizzled Bacon at The Bruery’s Reserve Society Barrel Tasting. Holy effing hell. The tannin and drying alcohol in the beer balanced out the thick fattiness of the breading and the big chocolaty flavor in the beer was amped up by the drizzle on the bacon. It was basically an umami-gasm.

That taster of Black Tuesday was my favorite beer at that moment. Had I not had the tempura-battered morsel of amazing in my mouth as well, my favorite beer would have been something else. The food I’m eating has everything to do with the beer I’m drinking. I am searching for an experience, not just a bunch of flavors.

If I’m eating something spicy, I’ll generally opt for a slightly maltier, more bready beer. I know some love IPAs and other hoppy beer with spicy food, but I find that hops just exacerbate the heat of the food. I want a beer that mellows out the spice and allows other flavors to shine through.

If I’m sitting down to a weekend breakfast and having an omelet made with goat cheese, I’ll probably opt for a Hefeweizen. The banana and clove flavors generally mesh well with breakfast and the high carbonation of the style helps scrub the palate clean. Indeed, my beer choices and food choices are inextricably connected.

Weather

As far as beer goes, I’m not generally a slave to season since I live in a very temperate region, but there are certainly times when it affects my drinking preferences. I love to cozy up to a big Belgian Quadrupel when the temperature dips a bit. By contrast, there are few things more enjoyable than quaffing a well-made Belgian Blond or Kolsch after a long bike ride in high heat. My answer to the “favorite beer” question can depend heavily on how much I’m sweating.

Lastly, I think the notion of having a favorite anything can be incredibly limiting. When one proclaims something a favorite, the proclamation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One thinks, “Well, this [blank] is my favorite beer, I have to drink it all the time.” Don’t get locked into that mentality. Taste lots of beer. Educate your palate. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a favorite beer in a given style. I’ll certainly concede that I have my favorite Imperial Stout(s) or Double IPA(s), and when I want something from either of those styles I know what to reach for. However, that’s about as tightly as I’m willing to cabin things.

When you’ve educated your palate, your favorites will not only be based in context, but I believe they will yield greater enjoyment. You will have a “favorite beer with beef stew” or a “favorite beer with pork tacos” or maybe even a “favorite beer with existential literature” (La Fin du Monde somehow seems appropriate). With beer as with most things, greater knowledge leads to greater enjoyment. There are few things more empowering than knowing and having access to exactly what you’re in the mood for. So get to learning. In this case that means drinking a lot of different beer, what more incentive do you need?

Turkey Day Recommendations

I didn’t want to do an entire post on Thanksgiving pairings since it’s a topic that gets beaten to death every year, so I’ll give some pithy recommendations here.

With Dinner

A saison is always a winner. They pair well with nearly everything. They are easily palatable to wine drinkers and they have enough carbonation to scrub the palate clean of all those dense Thanksgiving flavors.

A true fruit lambic or other fruit-forward sour beer like La Folie (not the Acesulfame-K sweetened Lindeman’s garbage) can also be a treat. The acidity can stand up to the richness of the meal and will cut nicely through the fattier dishes while bringing out the sweetness in sides like cranberry sauce.

With Dessert

What do we usually have for dessert at Thanksgiving? Pie. Glorious Pie. With pumpkin pie, I’d favor something sturdy since the dish has so much spice and such a thick texture. A Belgian Strong Dark or Quadrupel like Chimay Grande Reserve or Rochefort 10 would do nicely.

With apple pie I’d take a different tack. Apple flavor in beer is usually a flaw but is acceptable in Tripels, which can also be nicely dry and spicy. A tripel would be the perfect compliment to the spice and sweet/sour mix of apple pie.

Lastly, my girlfriend makes an awesome blueberry pie. I’ve paired both gueuze and saison with it and had great success. Both styles have some nice underripe fruit notes that balance out the sweetness of the filling and also bring out some of that great tang from the blueberry skin.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy!

Craft Beer: More Costly. Better Value.

When spending more makes sense.


To borrow from Sam Calagione’s business philosophy in Brewing Up a Business, it strikes me that education has to be a very large component of the expansion of the craft beer movement beyond the realm of the enthusiast. One reason that the consumer needs to be educated is because craft beer costs more, on average, than industrial commodity beer. If the consumer merely sees “Beer 1” and “Beer 2,” and Beer 2 is cheaper, then the rational decision is to buy Beer 2. Aside from price, the consumer doesn’t know the difference between the two products. Beer is just beer.

The craft beer community must continue its efforts at education in order to give the consumer a reason to buy Beer 1 where Beer 1 is the pricier craft beer and Beer 2 is the industrial commodity beer. The question then becomes what sort of education is necessary, or desirable. Now let me stop here and acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people who will never be ardent craft beer drinkers. That’s fine. I don’t judge them negatively. If they like to drink Bud Light that’s their business. All I will do is kindly tell them that I think there is beer out there that is a better value, even if it costs more. If they choose to inquire further, then I am more than willing to explain myself.

Also, I will acknowledge that for some, beer is merely a means to a drunken end. That’s also fine. As long you don’t hurt anybody but yourself I couldn’t care less. I will however advise you that there are cheaper and more efficient means to reach your desired result (read: clear liquor).

I suppose craft beer education for me comes down to a single concept: value. Every effort at education must be geared towards letting the consumer know why craft beer is a better value even though it’s more costly, perhaps even because it’s more costly (two italicized words in one sentence, eek!).

Why do I find craft beer more valuable than industrial commodity beer? First, craft beer has personality. I don’t just mean the hop-related pun names or the label art or the fact that the beer is generally more flavorful. What I mean is that there are people behind craft beer, rather than mega-corporations whose main goal is to raise their stock price. Where craft beer is your local restaurant whose owner cares about the food coming out of the kitchen, industrial beer is McDonald’s, a faceless entity churning out low-cost, low-flavor food designed more to make money than it is to satiate. In other words, part of the value of craft beer is knowing that my dollar is going to a person who cares about what they make.

Another portion of the value quotient is enjoyment. As I said above, if your enjoyment is derived solely from getting blitzed, there are better ways to “enjoy” (and they’re cheaper too). However, if you care about the contents of your glass and want to drink something that not only slakes your thirst, but dazzles your tastebuds, craft beer, almost regardless of cost, is a higher value proposition. Here’s how I explain it. Let’s take a six-pack of Budweiser and a six-pack of Deschutes Black Butte Porter. Each sixer contains 72 ounces of beer and roughly the same amount of alcohol (making degree of possible intoxication a nullity as far as decision-making goes). Let’s say Bud is on sale for $4.99 a six-pack and Black Butte is going for $8.99. I’m buying Black Butte every time because I derive greater value from Black Butte.

I will not enjoy a single ounce of that Bud sixer. Thus, every cent of that $4.99 is flushed down the drain as far as I’m concerned. However, I am virtually guaranteed to enjoy every ounce of my $8.99 sixer of Black Butte. Thus, it is a much better value. Beer is a luxury, not a necessity. No one needs to buy beer to live. So, if you’re going to spend money on beer, shouldn’t your dollar go farther? If thirst-quenching is the motive, buy a soda. If getting drunk is your motive, buy hard liquor. However, if your goal is to truly enjoy the beverage in your glass (and maybe catch a little buzz, which I willingly admit is quite pleasant) then your money is better spent on craft beer than industrial beer.

“But Alex,” you say, “I can get twice as much Bud as I can Black Butte.” I say, you’re missing the point. When drinking a beer with full flavor, satisfaction can come in a few ounces, rather than a few bottles. Greater enjoyment of the beer itself makes the beer a better value and also argues for more moderate consumption.

Let’s say you agree with me that craft beer tastes better, but you still can’t justify the cost. I would answer that good ingredients, and more of them, cost more money. You don’t expect to pay the price of a gourmet burger at McD’s. And why not? Because the components of the burger are of a lower quality and the labor to make the burger was cheaper and McD’s has no ambience and no personality. The same is true of your beer. Industrial beer is often made with one of the cheapest commodities there is in America: corn. The government subsidizes corn production to the point where farmers have no choice but to grow it. Since the price is artificially depressed, it makes a great substitute for barley; that is, if you don’t really care what your beer tastes like and you’re merely trying to capitalize on economies of scale.

Craft beer on the other hand, makes a point of using the best ingredients. Craft brewers must take this approach in order to ensure that their beer tastes good, because they can’t compete on price. Do some of them use corn occasionally? Sure. But they do so because it helps them achieve a certain flavor, not because they want to produce their product as cheaply as possible. They also generally use a helluvalot more hops than industrial brewers. Hops are expensive, but they contribute oodles of flavor and aroma in the hands of a talented brewer. Craft beer thus justifies its cost many times over.

So you say you can’t afford craft beer all the time and you want some booze in your life. That’s fine. Grab a handle of vodka. Take a few shots. Problem solved. Way cheaper per ounce of alcohol than buying industrial beer. However, if you aim to truly enjoy the product in your glass (and catch a little buzz), then buy craft beer (or fine spirits, which I also enjoy; pick your poison). You’ll spend more money, but you’ll get a better value.