Many of us will sip a cold one this Super Bowl Sunday, but on any other day of the year, beer might seem like the choice beverage for suburban dads mowing lawns on Saturdays or broke college students doing keg stands.
No longer. These days, there are more options than Coors versus Bud Light, and more women are making beer their drink of choice. Says Alison Grayson, producer of The Love of Beer, a film celebrating female craft brewers in the Pacific Northwest, “I choose beer over wine because it’s such a versatile drink…it can be warming, refreshing, light, dark, sweet, sour, and everything in between.”
If you’re bored with your go-to glass of Cabernet, here’s why you might want to reconsider beer—plus some tips for tasting like a pro.
A Brief History
Turns out, pouring yourself a tall one is a nod to women of centuries past. According to anthropologist Alan Eames, brewing was an essential skill for ancient women. Prestigious lady brewers in Babylon and Sumeria were even assigned their own deities (Ninkasi, “the lady who fills the mouth,” and the goddess Siries) to oversee daily beer-making.
In Colonial America, women brewed with local ingredients like corn, pumpkins, artichokes, and oats. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that these hand-crafted beers were replaced by large-scale commercial brewing—the big (and, ahem, much less tasty) names that we know today.
But now, we’re seeing a huge revival of small, independent American craft brewers. Many are returning to the use of local, seasonal ingredients and some have turned to exotics like coconut, mango, chocolate, fire-hot chili, and more. (An extreme seasonal example? Fort George Brewery’s 2010 Christmas-tree inspired ale included spruce buds, cranberry, and candy cane.) Tonya Cornett, the first woman to win the best-brewmaster award at the World Beer Cup in 2008, created Bend Brewing Company’s “Ching Ching,” a tart pomegranate and hibiscus-infused ale named after the sound of clinking champagne glasses.
It’s not all about using exotic ingredients, though. Today’s brewmasters “are really investigating the science behind beer and getting technical—we’re seeing more perfect beers,” says Sarah Pederson, owner of Saraveza, a Portland craft beer bottle shop. “People are making high end beers with good ingredients—really crafting the art of making beer.”
So, what do you need to know before you start sipping? For starters, beer is made of just four ingredients: water, malt (derived from cereal grains, commonly barley or wheat), hops (a flowering vine that provides a bitter taste and natural anti-bacterial action), and yeast (which consume sugar from the malt, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide).
Beers are divided into two categories: lager (where yeast sinks to the bottom during fermentation) or ale (where it rises to the top). Lagers, which include bocks and pilsners, are smooth, crisp, and clean in flavor. Ales are somewhat bolder and fruiter than lagers, and common types include pale ales, India pale ales (IPAs), porters, and stouts.
If you’re a first-time taster, or you’re not quite sure what you like, try these tips from Pederson:
- If you’re typically a wine drinker that doesn’t love beer, a sour beer is the easiest bridge. Try Cascade Brewery’s apricot sour.
- If you’re at a restaurant, ask your server if they have a beer served in a wine glass or goblet. You’re more likely to find a complex (read: delicious) beer if they’re serving it in the right glassware.
- Grab two beers in the same style but different brands. If you drink them side by side, you might notice a new flavor, like pineapple. Comparing is the easiest way to start paying attention and developing a tasting vocabulary.
- When you sip, check out the beer’s color, clarity (or lack of it), aroma, mouth feel (is it carbonated, crisp, thin, heavy, or chewy?), flavor, and alcohol level. When you taste something you like (or don’t), hand it to a friend to taste, and start a conversation.
Intimidated? Don’t be. “I have always believed that women are better beer tasters than men,” says Professor Barry Axcell, Chief Brewer of SABMiller, the company that owns Miller Genuine Draft, Peroni, and Pilsner Urquell. The group holds a yearly competition amongst its master tasters, and from 2008-2010, the winners have all been women.
Pair it Up
One of the best ways to try beer is with food—beer pairs well with many dishes, sometimes better than wine. Even Thomas Keller’s wine-centric French Laundry in Napa Valley commissioned a signature brew (Brooklyn Brewery’s “Blue Apron” Ale) for its menu.
Start out with pairings like a good old Irish Stout (Guinness anyone?) with oysters, a warm grilled cheese with a chilly pale ale, or a rich coffee porter with a slab of dark chocolate. Or for a more surprising combination: “A pairing that I particularly love, and that’s rather unexpected… is an ice cream float made with beer. An Imperial Stout with a scoop of good vanilla bean ice cream is a fantastic dessert,” says Cornett.
Just like wine, the more you try, the more you’ll know what you like. And if you decide you like it all? Check out the Pink Boots Society (an organization for beer industry women) and its Barley’s Angels club—there’s a chapter near you dedicated to educating the female craft beer enthusiast. Cheers!