Beer-Ordering Tips Every 20-Something Should Know

Wine has a notoriously uppity reputation, what with the swirling, the sniffing, and the vague descriptions of tastes and colors. Beer, on the other hand, has always been more approachable — the everyman's drink. But that's all changing thanks to the rise of craft breweries and 16-page beer menus. Unlike wine, which is largely limited based on terroir, weather, and traditional production techniques, beer is sort of a free-for-all. "There are so many breweries popping up now, and they’re doing different things; you can't really make any generalizations," Nicole Carrier at Throwback Brewery says.

So what's a casual beer-drinker to do when faced with a menu book and 20 taps to choose from? We chatted with four experts — brewers, managers, cicerones (the sommeliers of beer) — to guide us through the ever-evolving world of hops, malt, and yeast. PBR might have to take a backseat.

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Repeat After Us: Malt, Hops, Yeast
The best way to think about beer is to remember the three main flavoring components: malt, hops, and yeast. Most brewers, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewing says, tend to focus their recipes on one of the three components, letting the other two balance things out.
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First Up: Malt-Focused Beers
Malt affects both the color and flavor of beer, and every beer has malt in its recipe. Flavors range from light malts (toast, nuts, bread crust, crackers, vanilla) to darker malts (coffee, chocolate, toffee, smoke). "You can get the darker, almost-cookie kind of notes with malt," Jarnit-Bjergsø says.

Styles to know: stout, porters, schwarzbier / black lager, doppelbock, amber ales, lagers, blonde ales / kölsch.
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Hops: Not Just In IPA
Hops are, of course, the ingredients that add bitterness to beer (they're the star of IPA culture). Thanks to the incredible number of hop varieties (more than 120), you can get a good range of flavors. "New-world hops are super-fruity, but older, English varieties are more herbal or pine-y," says Virginia Thomas, business manager at the Cicerone Certification Program.

Hop flavors (ranging from roasted coconut to pine) can vary widely, so if you find an IPA you're particularly fond of, make note of the main hops used in the brew. This could help you find your next favorite bottle.

Styles to know: IPAs, American pale ales, most American beers, maibock/helles bock.
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Yeast-Forward Beers
Yeast is a major player in the fermentation process, and it also adds flavor to the brew — such as fruitiness, flowers, or cloves. "Yeast-forward beers are the newest thing," Jarnit-Bjergsø says. "You can get banana, but you also get more spice than floral for the yeast flavor, like clove and coriander. I like how, in the yeast, you can taste the fermentation."

Plenty of brewers are starting to favor certain types of yeast (brettanomyces is a popular one nowadays) while others are going the route of "spontaneous fermentation," which exposes the beer to open air and allows for any type of wild yeast to get in and do its thing. The result is typically a funkier beer with a tang.

Styles to know: Hefeweizen, Belgian strong, wild ales (see also: sours).
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Know Your Regions...
Historically, certain regions (especially in Europe) made their names off of certain beer styles. "English breweries are known for making really crisp, good expressions of their water supply," says Alexander Pfaffenbach, a manager at Eleven Madison Park. "The [English] water supply is famous for [its] chemical balance." Think medium-bodied, crisp, slightly bitter brews.
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...But Don't Treat Them Like Rules
Belgium has a long history of brewing — trappist brewing, specifically, at monasteries that have been making beer for more than 150 years. Blondes, dubbels, tripels, and quads are all beers of different strengths; dubbels and tripels, typically brewed with sugar, tend to have a caramel flavor.

But of course, there are entire books about different styles of beers, and breweries combine techniques all the time, regardless of tradition (black IPAs, anyone?). So even if two beers are the same "style" and are brewed in the same region, based on the brewery, you could be getting completely different varieties.
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And Then There Are Sours
"Sour beers are a thing of their own," Thomas says. "You either hate them or you really like them... They can grow on you."

Sours typically have a fruity, mouth-puckering quality. First, there were Belgian lambics (fruity and sour, like a Warhead), which were originally made with cherries but have grown into a category of their own. There's also Berlinerweisse (light, low-alcohol wheat beer), gose (sour and salty)...the list goes on. "Everyone’s getting in the game of making sour beers," Pfaffenbach says.
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Follow The Beer Menu
A good beer bar will create a beer list accordingly: lighter, crisp beers up top and darker, smokier beers on the bottom.

Remembering which breweries you like is also a good bet; some will just have taste profiles you jive with more than others. Luckily, there's a slew of resources to help you keep track of beers you've tasted. "Untappd is a really, really great app to use if you want to check in beers you’ve had before," Pfaffenbach says. "It catalogues it all and gives you an opportunity to write notes, so if you see a beer you think you recognize, you can go to your app and see if you’ve had it before."
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The Rule: If You Like Food, There's A Beer For You
There are Sriracha beers, watermelon beers, coffee beers — think of something, and chances are there's a beer brewed with it. If not, someone is probably trying to come up with that recipe right this minute. This means that you can find beers that taste like pretty much anything.

Beers that aren't brewed with specific additions, however, can still take on familiar flavors. Are you in the mood for pumpkin pie while at a bar? Ask the bartender for a spicy, slightly sweet pumpkin beer.
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Know How To Ask For What You Want
Your best resource when faced with a hefty beer menu is likely the person behind the bar. But before you flag that person down, figure out what you really want. Pfaffenbach suggests asking for specific characteristics rather than a particular beer style: "Say, I want something light, crisp, and refreshing," or whatever it is your heart desires. Most of the time, getting the right type of beer for you is about knowing what you want and how to describe it.

Remember hops, malt, and yeast? Use those terms to help describe a drink you want. Care for something hoppy and citrus-y? Smoky and chocolaty? Chances are, the bartender can find something just perfect for you.