GLASSES CLINK over the murmur of barside conversation. A pinball machine pings in the corner. The worn wooden bar is scattered with pint glasses and baskets of popcorn, lit by the flicker of a game on TV. On an ordinary block west of downtown Cleveland, Jukebox appears to be the classic American watering hole.
But look closer. On the grill: vegan pierogies filled with locally made kraut. And in the glasses: craft beer. Welcome to the modern neighborhood bar.
Craft beer once constituted a culture unto itself, with its own rituals and dialect; the beers themselves were obscure and hard to come by. Now craft brews flow freely in sports bars, strip-mall chains and convenience stores.
We’re awash in beer options: some 6,000 breweries and counting in the U.S., and near infinite styles, whether old traditions reawakened or stylistic blends unfamiliar even to snobs. Formerly independent breweries like Chicago’s Goose Island and Terrapin out of Athens, Georgia, are now owned in whole or part by big brewing companies, and industrial beers have been retooled in craft-like seasonal styles (see: Leinenkugel’s Watermelon Shandy).
The American craft-beer revolution started tiny, with a cabal of homebrewers, after 1978 changes to federal law made their basement operations legit. When craft beers first came on the market in the 1980s, they were distinguished from industrial-scale beers as much by the way they were distributed as the way they were made. Until recently, the beer industry’s distribution network consisted of a small number of family-owned companies, each devoted to moving a single mega brand. “Their business model was designed around moving boxes, not about what was inside,” said
a consultant who works with craft breweries. The craft sector’s challenge was to show that what was in those boxes mattered, at the bar and at the bank.
Big brands like Anheuser-Busch offered loyal distributors incentives such as partial refunds on marketing costs in exchange for carrying only its products. That kept traditional distribution channels closed to craft but prompted others to open up. Mr. Arnsten helped
CEO of Southern California craft pioneer Stone Brewing, to found Stone Distributing in 1996; three years later, they brought on their first affiliate brand. Today, the company’s fleet of biodiesel-powered trucks distributes beers from dozens of breweries, and other independent distributors have gotten into the game, too.
The smallest outfits still self-distribute. Where once Bud Light-branded tractor-trailers blocked traffic in front of corner bars, now it’s double-parked Sprinter vans emblazoned with the logos of different local breweries.
The market share of Bud Light itself, categorized as “premium” when it launched in 1982, has dropped from 19 to 16% over the last six years. Parent company Anheuser-Busch is now a subsidiary of transnational
and a “premium” brand looks more like Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout: high-priced, gift-boxed, fiery, potent and unlikely to be categorized in any respect as “light.” AB InBev bought Goose Island in 2011—one of the first of the acquisitions by global brands that continues to extend craft (and craft-styled) beer’s reach.
On a recent afternoon, Cleveland’s Jukebox offered Goose Island’s Four Star Pilsner on tap alongside a limited-edition barrel-aged winter warmer from a microbrewery around the block. The fridge stocked both Pabst Blue Ribbon and Bell’s Two-Hearted IPA—one of the flagship craft brands that arrived with that first wave of independent distributors. “People were introduced to craft through these category-defining beers,” said Jukebox owner
“Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Allagash White.”
“Craft,” defined by those flagship brands, once meant mostly IPAs and wheat beers; now the term extends to limited-run styles and seasonal flavors. In fact, flagship sales are falling for 15 of the 25 biggest regional craft brands, including Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. “Flagship fatigue,” some call it. “Now even chains like Applebees leave a handle open for a seasonal,” said Mr. Budin. “People are aware that when it’s fall we should drink something malty; if it’s winter we should have a stout.”
Even a beer drinker well versed in the core craft styles and flagship brands might be daunted by the seasonal and small-batch variety now widely available. This new world demands a new sort of drinker, less focused on brands than on flavors.
Start with what you know. Pick a favorite—maybe one of those staple brews that introduced you to craft beer in the first place—and identify what you find appealing about it.
“Flavor is the combination of all your senses,“ said
Lauren Woods Limbach,
cellar director at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. She started New Belgium’s sensory training program, where pros learn to sniff out such factors as parts-per-million diacetyl contamination. But she has plenty of advice for the everyday drinker too. For her, tasting a beer is a matter of “breaking it apart and putting it back together.”
Ms. Limbach walked me through how she tastes New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger, a brightly tropical IPA that appeals to those put off by overwhelming bitterness and drawn to fruitier flavors. The tasting process begins with a visual. “A beer’s color tells you a lot,” she said. “Pale gold means no roasted grains, so it’ll be light and bright tasting. A big layer of white foam could be a sign of the hops in it. Hop tannins help support that layer.” Less-hoppy sours and stouts often lack that foam.
A swirl of the glass breaks up tannins and distributes their bitterness through the beer. Now breathe deep. “The first thing you smell in almost every IPA is resinous pine from something called myrcine,” a flavor compound in most hops, Ms. Limbach explained. Many brewers amplify that flavor in IPAs by using lots of hops and boiling them vigorously, which drives off more delicate aromatic oils, leaving just the heavier resins behind. In Voodoo Ranger, though, the hops are added dry, to preserve their fruity notes. The first whiff of pine is quickly joined by sweet lemon curd, creamy mango and tropical guava. “That tells me I’m drinking a dry-hopped beer,” said Ms. Limbach.
It takes practice to pick up such subtleties, of course. Ms. Limbach offers an immediately accessible aspect to focus on: retronasal aroma. “Swallow with your mouth closed, then breathe in through your nose,” she advised. “When the hops’ essential oils hit your mouth, they flash off. Keep your mouth closed when you exhale, and you’ll smell those more delicate notes.”
Take another sip, and the bitterness builds, lingering as the hop resins coat your tongue. Voodoo Ranger is not a heavy beer, but the alcohol warms a little and the fruitier ale yeast provides satisfying heft while keeping things refreshing.
Now, identify the characteristics you like, and let them guide you to your next pick. “Order by the attributes you love,” said Mr. Budin. “Take someone who likes Blue Moon. If they dig deeper, they might find what they like are its citrus and spice notes. Instead of saying, ‘I like Belgians,’ they can say they like those particular flavors.”
Those qualities might turn up in a fruity Belgian IPA, say, or a zesty, old-world kellerbier. Either way, articulating what you like (and don’t) will help you get the most out of a helpful bartender. (See “Tap Talk,” above.) The corner bar may have more taps these days, but conversation remains the common currency.
SUNDRY SIPS // The Modern Mixed Six
From rich, smooth porters to light lagers with a sour kick, the craft beer category expands continually to include ever more varied and complex brews. Here’s a six pack’s worth of bottles that represent the range of options widely available now.
New Belgium Dayblazer (4.8%)
A so-called session beer (i.e., low-alcohol), blooming with sweet grains and dried out with light, bright bitterness from subtle Nugget hops.
Samuel Adams Amber Bock (6.0%)
A light-finishing lager with the sweet, satisfying chew of honeyed whole-wheat toast and the crisp edge of the crust.
3. Creature Comforts Koko Buni (6.8%)
Notes of Ethiopian coffee, Ecuadorean cocoa nibs, toasted coconut and a dash of vanilla soften this porter’s tannic corners with smooth, soothing sweetness.
4. Drake’s Dark Wing (7.5%)
An IPA like a pine forest: the bitter, barky bite of resinous hops honed by roasted grain to a sharp edge.
Left Hand Saison au Blé de Minuit (6.8%)
Milky smooth to start, with a roasty, twanging finish. A wheat beer cloaked in burnt black grain. Sharp dark chocolate in a creamy Hershey shell.
Flying Dog Numero Uno (4.9%)
Brewed with agave nectar, citrus zest and lager yeast, this session sour is light as a beach-cooler Pilsner with the refreshing tartness of Key lime pie.
Craft beer’s once-exotic lingo is now lingua franca at the corner pub. Talk the talk and use these terms, now commonplace on beer menus, to get the brew you’re looking for.
1. Esters are aromatic compounds given off by yeast as it ferments. They can be light and fruity, as in pale ales; warming and spiced, as in many Belgians; or practically nonexistent when beer is fermented cold, as lager is.
2. Unlike the more volatile, delicate oils in aromatic dry-hopped beers, resins are heavier hop compounds that give potent IPAs sticky, spicy bitterness.
3. You’re probably familiar with the mouth-gripping dryness found in some red wines. In beer, tannins often come from roasted grains that impart a toasty crackle and snap to darker porters.
4. Lacto is short for lactobacillus, the bacteria found in many sour beers, and also for the tangy acid it produces. In unaged sours—sometimes called “kettle sours”—the acid can be sharp and almost yogurty; when developed slowly, often in barrels, it’s funky and mellow.
5. Beer does go bad; treat it as warily as back-of-the-fridge milk. Beer on tap is almost always best: fresh, cold and unexposed to damaging light rays. If you do pick a bottle, check the “bottled on” or “best by” date, usually notched into the label or stamped on the neck.
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