How To Pick & Taste Beer

How to sound like a beer expert without even trying

Believe it or not, the United States is now home to nearly 6,000 breweries. And with so many new players in the game comes an onslaught of experimental new products and beer styles (so fried chicken beer is a thing now, huh?). As any diligent beer geek will tell you, it's become nearly impossible to keep up with all of the latest trends and releases—the industry is simply growing too quickly.

Meanwhile, with standards of beer education and connoisseurship at all-time highs, a drinker can be made to feel like he or she must possess a Master Cicerone certification to appreciate a craft brew. (Is a "horse blanket" aroma a good or bad thing?)

Fortunately, we have a network of knowledgeable friends who can help keep you afloat: After consulting some of the beer world's leading experts, we've compiled a cheat sheet with their best insider secrets. 

For starters, Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster of Founders Brewing, suggests beginning with a flight to maximize your exposure to new flavors and "find a beer that you really want to drink." (Sounds reasonable enough, right?)

Here are 10 more tips on how to confidently talk beer like a pro—and drink like one, too. 

① Check the expiration date.

"To me, the sign of a true craft beer geek is knowledge of and appreciation for fresh beer. Like a loaf of bread, beer has a shelf life and can go stale, affecting the flavors a brewer works so hard to create. I always check the enjoy-by date on bottles and kegs before drinking a beer, and a true craft beer geek should, too." 

Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams

② Keep glasses at room temperature . . .

"Regardless of how appealing an ice-cold, frosty glass of beer looks, I absolutely cannot stand it when bars freeze their glassware. Not only does it cause the beer to foam excessively when pouring on draft (which wastes beer), but beer served at such cold temperatures numbs your palate and prevents you from actually enjoying the flavor." 

Chris McClellan, Guinness Brewery Ambassador

③ . . . And keep them 'beer-clean.'

"A less-than-pristine glass can destroy your beer's foam cap (i.e., head) and negatively affect its flavor. Aside from your glass being free of any remaining debris or residue (e.g., dust, lipstick marks), a proper 'beer-clean' glass should leave no bubbles clinging to the interior walls below the surface of the beer. Good head retention and significant Belgian lacing—the sticky wisps of residual foam remaining above the beer's surface as a pint is consumed—are signs that your barkeep is employing solid glassware-cleaning practices." 

Brian Reed, trade brewer/beer educator at Pilsner Urquell 

④ Go draft or go home.

"Five years ago, 30 to 35 percent of our beer sales were bottles; now, it is less than 10 percent. Why? Draft technology and maintenance is so good now that any reputable bar's draft beer is the freshest and cleanest beer in the house. When I started working in bars in the 1970s, draft beer systems were made from off-the-shelf components from hardware stores. Lines were rarely (if ever) properly cleaned, and unpasteurized beer was often stored warm. At breweries, keg cleaning was not always done well either. Draft beer was justifiably not to be trusted. Now, it's the best way to taste beer the way the brewmaster intended it." 

Michael Roper, owner of Hopleaf Bar 

⑤ Get your bartender's attention.

"I've gotten to the point where I've become immediately dubious of people who insist on tastes of every beer before they commit to an order . . . even in a jam-packed bar on a Saturday night! The question that always gets my attention is, 'What was the last beer you had on draft here that blew you away?' Being open like that will make me assume you're an adventurous, open beer fan who has already tried a thing or two." 

Zach Mack, owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. 

⑥ Know your sours.

"Don't just ask for a 'sour' beer, because that term can be used to describe a wide range of styles and levels of tartness. There are some cases—like Brettanomyces-fermented beers or Gose—that can have lighter hints of tartness. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, something like a Flanders red can have much more of a distinct sour note. Try different beers to find your preferred level of acidity (tartness)." 

Jason Perkins, brewmaster of Allagash Brewing Company

⑦ Ask (correctly) for a hazy IPA.

"Hazy and milkshake IPAs are getting a lot of attention right now. There's variation in the brewing methods, yeast strains and malts, but in general, you can expect a cloudy and unfiltered visual, strong aroma, juicy hop flavor (from dry-hopping), and a velvety mouthfeel. The style has been around for quite some time (especially on the East Coast), but the beers have really exploded in popularity in the past few years." 

Cody Reif, brewer for New Belgium Brewing

"I love hazy IPAs, but I also find it silly that so many now sell them as 'hazy IPAs' or 'New England IPAs.' Its an IPA that happens to be hazy! Sell it as an IPA. It's not necessary to put 'hazy' or 'juicy' in the name all the time." 

Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, founder/owner of Evil Twin Brewing

⑧ Follow this food-pairing rule of thumb.

"When you order a beer, don't forget about what you're eating. Your beer—as delicious as it can be on its own—can really make a meal pop or ruin it entirely. Order a big bourbon barrel-aged coffee stout with your ceviche, and you risk looking like a noob and losing your appetite."

Mark Hellendrung, president of Narragansett Beer 

"Beer-and-food pairing is easy if you use the age-old approach from the wine world: Ales are more like red wines, and lagers are more like whites. Ales are generally more rustic and robust, and lagers are more refined and mellow. Ales generally go great with stuff like steaks, chili and burgers, and lagers go well with stuff like grilled fish and curry. Also, the spicier the dish, the more you want to lean into a lower-alcohol beer as a pairing partner, since alcohol amplifies the spice on your palate." 

Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery 

⑨ Think local.

"When I'm ordering beer, I ask what the bartender or beverage person likes that's local. With the explosion of local microbreweries and small brewpubs, the options for drinking local are better than they have ever been, and there is so much innovation that the only way to keep up with the industry is to try as much as you can in a new market."

Brahm Callahan, master sommelier and beverage director for Himmel Hospitality Group

⑩ Get weird.

"You want to avoid being a beer newbie? Taste what you don't know. That style you had once and didn't like? Taste it again—50 times. It will be different every time. Try things you can't pronounce. That Doppelsticke Alt? Grab it. If you see a black ale or black IPA, jump on it, and everyone else at the bar will take notice. They'll start asking you questions. And next thing you know, you're the new beer hero at the bar." 

John Wilson, AGM beverage and events at Tupelo Honey Southern Kitchen & Bar

Ethan Fixell is a freelance beverage writer from New York City and the editor in chief of The Beer Necessities. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @EthanFixell.