What is Craft Beer?
American craft brewers are defined by the Brewers Association as meeting three key metrics. They must be small, producing less than 6 million barrels of beer per year. While 186 million gallons of beer sounds like a lot, it’s far less than the larger players in the field. In comparison, Coors Light, a single beer (much less an entire brewery) sold over three times that much in 2011. Craft brewers must also be independent and no more than 25% of the company may be owned “by a craft beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.” Finally, the brewery must use traditional brewing procedures and ingredients. The takeaway is that producers of craft beer are small, independent and traditional.
Glossary of Beer Terminology
Hops: Cone-shaped flowers used in beer to provide bitterness and aroma. Hop flavors can range from onion-like to pine to earthy or citrus. You’ll hear beers like IPAs being lauded for hoppiness, describing how much of the hop flavor is evident in the taste. Hops are measured by IBUs, which stands for International Bitterness Units. The higher the IBUs, the hoppier the beer.
Malts: Fermenting grains used to produce base beer, including barley and wheat. Less common grains include oats, rye and corn. Malts contribute to the beer’s sweetness, color and mouthfeel.
Yeast: The magical ingredient that ferments the wort to create alcohol. In many beers, the yeast is unnoticeable by design. However, in other styles, specifically many Belgian beers, wild or sour ales, the yeast is a key factor in the overall taste. Yeast flavors can range from banana to pepper or even a vinegar-like acidity.
Ales: Most common base-style of craft beers. A generic term to describe a beer that uses top-fermenting yeast that utilizes warmer temperatures. Pale Ales, Porters, Wheats, Stouts and Browns are all ales.
Lagers: The opposite of ales, in that they are bottom-fermented at cooler temperatures. This practice creates a cleaner, clearer beer. Pilsners, Bocks and Oktoberfests are all examples of lagers.
Imperial: Beers described as “Imperials,” or sometimes called “Doubles,” refer to an alcohol content of above 8% alcohol by volume. These “big” beers often feature a distinct alcohol flavor. However, some are sneaky and mask the obviousness of their potency, so watch out!
Barrel-aged: Typically darker beers that have spent time after brewing and fermenting aging in empty liquor barrels. The type of liquor, kind of wood, the length of the beer’s stay and the flavors of the base beer dictate how much of that barrel and alcohol flavor is imparted. Most barrels are oak and are either first-use or previously used to age wine, whisky or sherry. The most common variety is bourbon barrel aged beers.
Carbonation: Just like with soda or champagne, carbonation is all about the bubbles. Different styles dictate different amounts of sparkle. The effervescence can greatly influence the impact on the tongue.
Beer Cocktail: Typically blending of two or more beers together to create something entirely unique. The Savannah Craft Brew Fest will have a cocktail station with mixologists sharing their favorite blends.
Common Beer Styles
Pale Ale: American Pale Ales feature a good balance of malt and hops, making for a great gateway beer for new craft drinkers. British Pale Ales are often more malt-forward. Belgian Pale ales are typically less bitter and can be sweeter with mild spicing.
IPA: American India Pale Ales are very flavorful and feature bittering hops prominently. Golden yellow to amber in appearance, they can feature citrus flavors or more earthy characteristics.
Stout: Immediately recognizable by the dark brown to black color palette. Roasted malts dominate the flavor but thoughtful tasters can often pick out chocolate, coffee or dark fruits. The popular Irish Dry Stout variety is known for its subdued carbonation and and creamy mouthfeel.
Porter: Slightly lighter in color and body than stouts, Porters are highly drinkable and have become a playground for American craft brewers to try innovative hopping, smoking and aging techniques.
Witbier: White ales are visually identified by a cloudy, light golden appearance with a fluffy head. Witbiers commonly have herbal and fruit notes such as orange and coriander.
Brown: Brown ales are on the maltier and sweeter side with a full mouthfeel. Mild nuttiness and caramel notes are common.
Kolsch: Clean, easy drinking and refreshing are three ways to describe the light bodied, bubbly Kolsch. Often hoppy and dry, it can also be quite refreshing.
Sour: More a category than a specific type, sour beers are the laboratory of the innovative brewer who looks back on beer’s history to investigate wild fermentations and the power of yeast to push beer into strange, unexpected directions. Flavors can be all over the place, from tart raspberry Frambois to complex, barrel-aged Flanders Red Ale to the funky pepper and sour sting of American Wild Ales.
Cider: Fermented apple juice. It’s not actually beer, but you will definitely see it being poured at craft beer festivals. Naturally, it will be overall rather fruity and can range from dry to sweet. Fermented pear juice and other fruits are also available.
Mead: Sometimes referred to as “honey wine” as it is made from fermenting honey with water. Like cider, it’s not beer, but it is an ancient beverage that produces results varying from sweet to dry, fruity to spicy. The Savannah Craft Brew Fest will have a “Mead Garden” with many types available.
Evaluating a Beer
The first step is personal and subjective. Did you like it? If so, what were the aspects you enjoyed? If not, what turned you off? After considering those personal reflections, there are a few common evaluation metrics.
Appearance: Color and opacity match style guidelines? Does it look appealing?
Aroma: Floral or grassy? A great start to many Belgian beers. Or, maybe cooked figs or chocolate in an Imperial Stout? If so, that might carry over into the taste.
Taste: Funky can be good in the case of a barrel-aged sour and horrible in a Pale Ale.
Mouthfeel: Whether a beer is thin, rich and creamy or in the middle can influence your enjoyment. A cider should be fleeting and a stout will lean toward lingering.
Aftertaste: After swallowing, evaluate whether the taste lingers in the mouth. Is it the same as when it first touched your tongue, or does it evolve into something different? Is it pleasantly satisfying or unwanted and off-putting?
Another key aspect has to do with the atmosphere of the tasting. If you are having a good time, enjoying the venue and the people around you, you’re much more likely to impart that positivity on your reactions to the beer.