Craft Beer 101

Craft Beer 101 - The Atlas Heart

It seems like everyone is talking about craft beer, hops, and malts these days. Or is that just me?  I first got into craft beer in college, a friend introduced me to big hop American IPAs via Stone Brewery and I was sold from my first sip. My Coors Light party days from freshman year were long gone by the time I started working as a bartender at the craft beer pub on campus my senior year.

I was blessed to go to school in San Diego, California. Not only does it have some of the best year around weather in the world, beaches, and people, but one of the best microbrewery scenes in the nation.

San Diego

Stone Brewery was the first brewery I ever visited, and it still holds dear memories for me of birthday drinks, getting lost in conversations in the rock gardens, and munching on the beer mac & cheese.

Getting lost in Stone Brewery

In Melbourne, I worked in a craft beer bar hidden away in the lawyer district of the CBD, and started my education of the best craft beers in Victoria and all of Australia.

Deja Vu Bar (Melbourne, Australia) Photo Cred: http://craftypint.com
Deja Vu Crew

In Sydney, again, I worked at a craft beer pub, one that was voted the best craft beer venue in all of Australia in 2013. A 3-story bar, with plenty of staff, and beer nerds galore, I fell even more in love with the craft beer scene in Australia.

The Local Taphouse - Sydney East - Sydney_original
The Local Taphouse (Sydney, Australia) Photo Cred: www.barsandnightclubs.com.au

As much as Kiwis like to say Australia has no good craft beer, I’d beg to differ. Although the craft beer scene in Australia isn’t as developed as what I’ve found in New Zealand, I found some of the most unique beers I’ve tried in my life in Australia, including one brewed with a whole chicken. Just look up Bacchus Brewing in Queensland and you’ll see what I mean.

Currently, I’m working as a manager at another great craft beer bar in New Zealand, and I couldn’t be happier to be progressing my knowledge in the never ending field of beer.

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Kendall, Sam, and I at the Bruhaus (Wellington, New Zealand) Photo Cred: http://jetsettingfools.com

I’ve become quite comfortable in American, Australian, and New Zealand beers, and can recommend and describe pretty much any style now and how it differs by country. For instance, the one thing I’m not a big fan of in terms of New Zealand beer is the big hop characteristics found in NZ Pale Ales. For me, if I want big hops, I’ll turn to an IPA, but that’s because I grew up with American style pale ales, which tend to be more subtle than their Kiwi counterpart.

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Liberty Citra Double IPA, drank in Bebemos. One of my favorite beers in New Zealand.

My beer journey in the past few years led me to take a Craft Beer 101 class last Saturday. I was able to attend the class for free in the name of “work”, and I loved it so much that I thought I would share what I learned. Although I know a lot about beer, I’m also lacking on a lot of the history behind how styles originated, this class taught me heaps about the background of beer culture.

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Getting ‘Murican with Behemoth’s APA

The class was held at a bar called Hashigo Zake, a place that calls itself a “cult beer bar”, and one of the best bars to get to know New Zealand craft beer if you happen to be in Wellington. The class was taught by Steph and Phil, who were friendly, knowledgable, and hilarious instructors that work at the bar. They have a whole series of classes about beer, including one on hops, yeast, and an advanced beer course. I would highly recommend even taking one of their classes if you have an interest in craft beer.

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Craft Beer College

Maybe you’re a beer nerd to the core, maybe just a casual beer drinker, or perhaps you just want to show your smarts at a party of hipsters. Here are a few basic facts to know and share about styles:

English Bitter

Essentially the birth of pale ales. The English bitter style came about through a change in malting techniques, which shied away from the intense roasting that used to be a part of brewing any beer. Beer used to be a sludgy, dirt black, thick liquid before a change in malting styles came along. This change allowed for a lighter beer in color to be produced. A more unique aroma and a better color boded well for the growing popularity of beer.

Wheat

A style that usually has more protein and yeast that is oftentimes left in the beer, especially for traditional German Hefeweizens, which is where wheat beers get their cloudy appearance. Wheat beers have a very unique aroma compared to most other styles because of the type of yeast used. The aromas you usually find are banana, clove, and even bubblegum. A Belgian style wit (wheat in Dutch) usually has less banana flavors and instead more spices of coriander, citrus and cloves. Wheat beer tends to be described as being the most refreshing, although the same can be said for Pilsners.

Pilsners

The default conception of what beer is. When most people think of the definition of a beer, they think of pilsners because that’s usually what they grow up with or what they’re first introduced to. The style itself is actually rather new, in fact, newer than the country of New Zealand. The style was created in the small town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. The town wanted its own thing to bring the community together and make them stand out from other towns, so they decided to create their own beer style. My kind of town.

It’s a very deliberate style that was engineered to make the “perfect” beer in a lot of different ways. It’s a clean, focused beer, and a great step up from the murky dark beers that were popular at the time. It’s more pale than an English style, but much more aromatic and tends to have more hops.

Pilsners sometimes get a bad rap in the craft beer world, because a lot of big corporate beer companies use the style loosely to produce watered down beer that doesn’t have much of a flavor. Granted, pilsners can be seen as boring because they don’t have all the crazy flavors, malts, and hops that some of the other styles have, but it’s a great introductory style to get someone into craft beer, or if you just want a lighter style to drink for the night.

IPA

India Pale Ales are big and bold. America has mastered the big hop IPA, and it has become popular again in New Zealand, especially in the last decade. There has been a lot of theories behind how the style began, but it’s safe to say that the style acquired its name from its beginning popularity with the East India Company traders.

Some theories say the brewers in England added extra hops so the beer would withstand the long voyage to India, others say that Indians and the traders simply had a fondness for the taste of new found big hops. Whatever theory is right, I’m glad that the IPA came about because it had a great impact in the craft beer world, and is probably my favorite style to date.

Fun fact: If you smell certain IPAs you may get a whiff of something you used to smoke in college (or maybe still do), because hops are closely related to Cannabis. The beer that has smelled the most like weed to me is Le Freak by Green Flash Brewing Company, you know those Californians…..

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Stouts & Porters

A black ale that doesn’t have a massive hop presence. Although a lot of people like to condone stouts and porters to all tasting like Guinness, there is just as wide a variety of black beers as there are of lighter ones.

The name for porters came about from the porters in London drinking a lot of black beers, which they would oftentimes drink instead of water. Stouts were generally thought of as a porter with higher alcohol, called stout porters. Guinness technically was the first stout because they were the first brewery to drop the name porter in the style.

Now the important part is the different between porters and stouts, which a lot of people get confused. Stouts have roasted barley, are generally more robust, slightly dryer, and tend to have a coffee bitterness in the aftertaste. Porters are slightly sweeter, and produce more of a chocolate flavor.

Belgian Strong

As my coworkers can vouch, it’s hard (for me) to drink a whole night on only Belgian beers, they’re called strong ales for a reason! And ridiculousness seems to ensue after a few too many of these babies.

Belgian strong ales are brewed with live yeast that eat up all the sugars and create a high in alcohol beer. The style started with monks and the popular Belgian brewery, Trappist, which was originally just a monastery. The Trappist monks would sell beer to rebuild monasteries after World War I. The monks quickly became very good brewers when they discovered the wealth they could gain for the monastery through beer.

Chimay Blue was originally brewed by a monk for a Christmas dinner. Clearly, they were serious about their good beer.

Barley Wine

Not all that common, but definitely a style that is incredibly unique and an adventure for the tastebuds. It’s usually very alcoholic, falling around 10-12%, the one we tried in the course was 18.9%. Wowza.

It was originally created by the English to compete with French wine. As with any ever present competition with the French and the English, barley wine was brewed to be bigger in everything compared to the French.

A generous amount of hops and sweetness (and ahem, ethanol) are considered to be the characteristics for this style. The Mikkeler Big Worster we tried in the course just tasted like straight alcoholic butter to me. I’m not a huge fan of barley wine, but to each his own.

Here’s the list of beers we tasted in the course:

Feel free to try these and let me know what you think, and if you think they follow the general guidelines of their style. I always love hearing another’s thoughts on interesting beer.

1. Fitzpatrick’s Fitzy’s Special – English Bitter – 4.0%

2. Mike’s Taranaki Hefeweizen – Wheat – 5.5%

3. Mata Hip Hop – Pilsner – 5.5%

4. Parrot Dog Bitter Bitch – IPA – 5.8&

5. Tuatara Black Stout: Toasted Malt – Stout – 7.0%

6. Chimay Blue – Belgian Strong – 9%

7. Mikkeller Big Worster – Barley Wine – 18.9%

These styles, of course, only brush the surface, but it’s a good place to start for classic beer styles that initiated the whole she-bang. Other favorites of mine include amber ales, American pale ales, and the odd Italian red ale.

Garage Project Brewery. yes.
Drinking American Pale Ales on 4th of July

Have you ever been beer tasting? What’s your favorite style of beer?

If you’d like to take one of Steph and Phil’s Craft Beer College courses in Wellington, head to www.craftbeercollege.co.nz. 

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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