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The Citizen

Don’t judge a beer by its color

By Anya Malkov, MPP ’13, Correspondent

Have you ever heard an adult say “I only eat pink ice cream?” Of course not, because everyone knows that “pink” is not a flavor. A pink ice cream can be strawberry, cherry, salad or crabmeat. Yes, salad and crabmeat-flavored ice cream does exist. Common sense dictates we not judge ice cream by color alone, but people fail to extend this same common sense to beer.

“I prefer light beer” or “Dark beers are just too bitter” are commonplace phrases. Ginger Johnson, founder of the organization Women Enjoying MP900314313Beer, terms this “beer racism.”

The reason for sweeping generalizations about dark beer is usually lack of experience. Many who came of drinking age in the US, started with the light, crisp and unobtrusive taste of American lager. Whether they snuck their first beer out of their parents’ refrigerator or chugged it from a red cup at a frat party, it was probably a Bud, Coors or Miller, in the denomination of “light,” “lite” or (the perplexing) “high life.” At some point, another beer completely shocked their senses, and not in a good way. Perhaps it was a pint of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, or maybe a sip of Imperial Stout from an adventurous friend’s glass. These limited experiences led to an assumption that “dark beer is heavy” or “dark beer is too intense.”

One problem with this heuristic is that it often fails. There are black and brown schwarzbiers and dunkelweizens that are crisp and refreshing. And, there are translucent IPAs with explosive flavor and golden tripels with serious punch. The other problem is that such assumptions keep people from exploring new flavors of beer. It’s like never trying pistachio ice cream, because you don’t like mint chocolate chip and both are green. That’s silly.

Suspected beer racists are usually just beer novices. If you are in this camp – no matter the quantity of beer you have consumed – with an open mind and some exploration, you can discover a beautiful new world of flavor and hue.

A smaller and more concerning category of beer racists are actually beer snobs. They too make blanket statements, but often go beyond color, like “If it isn’t hoppy, it isn’t worth it.” These people turn newcomers off. They claim to love beer, but get stuck on one style and scoff at anyone not sophisticated enough to understand. I too was a beer snob once. But now I choose to appreciate and educate. Rooting out beer snobbery can be one of the tougher fights in battling beer racism.

A person proclaiming “If it isn’t pistachio, it isn’t ice cream!” would have no friends. He would not only offend the devotees of butter pecan, but also find no sympathy from the ice cream connoisseur who embraces the full splendid spectrum of flavor. Yet in beer circles, folks who say “Did you really just order that wimpy beer?” or “Lagers are a waste of calories” are shockingly common and tolerated. It’s time to stop this nonsense and let our palates guide us.

In his book, Great American Craft Beer, Andy Crouch advocates the flavor approach to beer, and I am his disciple. Instead of memorizing the myriad different styles, think about flavors you like. Coffee? Fresh-baked bread? Fruit? Nuts? It’s just like choosing an ice cream cone! Unfortunately, most restaurants have not figured this out, and instead of pointing out beer flavors they assail customers with jargon. No wonder that a budding beer enthusiast faced with a dizzying array of saisons, bocks, amber ales, pilseners and heffeweizens will often give up and order the same old familiar pint.

Whether you are a novice on the verge of discovering flavor or a recovering snob interested in expanding sensory horizons, you can skip the restaurant and head to the liquor store. There you can take your time reading bottle labels and find six intriguing beers that you have never tried, preferably of six different styles. This should cost you no more than $15. When you invite a couple of people over and try the beers side by side, you will see that color is not a sure-fire predictor of flavor, and that no one style is inherently superior.

With any luck, you will soon find a hint of mom’s brownies in Southern Tier’s Choklat Stout, pick up on the wildflower bouquet in Odell’s IPA, and come to appreciate the subtlety of the Dortmunder Gold by Great Lakes Brewing Company. Ordering a pint will become as easy as choosing a scoop and you will never be mistaken for a beer racist.