Don't Worry Be Hoppy


With craft beer being all the rage, beer drinkers now have more choices than ever. Even though I thought I knew a little about beer, I found myself very confused by all the new options of craft beers. Come to find out, by expert Brian Gilstrap, owner of ETX Brewing Company in Downtown Tyler, you don't necessarily have to be a “hophead” to get in on the craft beer scene. Let’s face it, there is nothing more intimidating than when all your friends are spouting off these obscure beer names and you don’t know most of them. “Um, I'll have a, well um,” you find yourself mumbling. You then go back to what you know, a tasteless glass of one of those big name brands. Not because that’s what you really wanted, but because of the uncertainty within all those tap handles that you know nothing about.

What I've come to learn is that craft beer is a social beverage. It is hand-crafted and intended to be shared with friends and family. Every day, more and more new beers hit the shelves, and taps are surrounded by people getting together and socializing. At this rate, if you don’t know anything about beer, now would be a good time to start educating yourself. It should be fun getting together with your friends and comparing different beers, but you can’t do that if you are the only one that doesn’t have a clue. Knowing more about beer flavors and profiles can help build your confidence in trying something new. I took it upon myself to research, with the help of Gilstrap, so that you are well-prepared the next time your friends invite you out to grab a pint.

So, what is beer? Beer is a fermented beverage containing only four key ingredients; water, yeast, hops and grains. Now, in the ever growing world of craft beer, the ingredient list is limitless, but none the less it is comprised of those four basic ingredients.  The grains are mixed with warm water to convert starches to sugars, and the liquid is then boiled and hops are added. Once the liquid is cooled to room temperature the yeast is introduced to the sugary liquid where fermentation commences.  In as little as a week, like magic, the yeast has done its work and created beer. Now, there is a lot more than that going into the overall process; however, for simplicity sake, that is pretty much all there is to brewing beer.

First up, let's take a history lesson at beer varieties. There is the "ale," with which styles include pale, brown, porter, stout and hefeweizen. Then there is a "lager," smoother than an ale, also most commonly known as the Coors, Bud or Miller beers.

Next up is the question that ultimately brings people to love or hate beer. What does beer taste like? To a discerning and trained palate, there are hundreds of flavor descriptions. To the average consumer, like the majority of people, you can break it down to just a handful of things to be looking for: appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.

As far as appearance goes, what are you seeing? Is it clear or cloudy? Some of the typical color descriptions are golden, amber, copper, red, brown or black. Too many times people say "I don't like dark beers,” or “I’ve had an amber beer before and didn’t like it, so I probably won’t like that one either.” When people say this, first ask them what kind of beers they do like. With a few more questions, more often than not, it is not the appearance they are discerning against. It might be something else less appealing.

Once you have taken a good look at your beer, put your nose to the glass and take a whiff.  This is recommended to do as soon as possible. The full aroma of a beer can quickly subside as the head settles. Think about what flavor you smell.  Is it malty, hoppy, fruity, spicy, roasty, earthy, sour or smoky? Malty aromas can be anything from caramel to sweet. Hoppy aromas depend on the amount, so the smell varies. It can be described as the more outdoorsy smells. For example you may get a whiff of grass, floral, citrus, pine, or a herbal smell. If you're smelling cheese, that is also a hop aroma. Don't be concerned if you do not know some of these flavors. What you are looking for is the dominant flavor that shows through. Don’t immediately judge the beer with the first flavor that comes up. Some of the more complex beers out on the market will have many layers of flavors that show through at different times To sum it up, think about the flavors during first impression, middle,and finish. Here's an extra tip for you: If the beer smells rotten, eggy, or like a wet dog, do not drink it! It may have been stored for a long period of time, or badly made.

Once you have decided what flavors you are picking up, think about the body or mouthfeel of the beer. Some ways to describe this are as carbonated or flat, watery or thin, malty or bitter, and thick and heavy.  For example, a light American lager might be described as watery with high carbonation, where as an oak aged barleywine could be described as thick, heavy and lightly carbonated.

Now that you have learned the basic sensory aspects of beer, it is time to put it all together and describe your overall impression of what you are drinking.  How drinkable is it? What is your impression of the overall style compared to other beers you taste in the same style?  For example, it is not fair to the beer to compare a stout to a pilsner. Pilsner is a lager, where as a stout is an ale. One is hoppier, while the other is dry and bitter. That is like comparing a race horse to a dolphin. 

With so many beers available on the market today, you can take these basic guidelines with you on your next outing. Make it fun, try something new and enjoy the craft ... and then challenge your friends.

To learn more about craft beer, just ask a friendly face at one of the local breweries in the area. Why not stop in and visit Brian and Matt Gilstrap at ETX Brewing Company. Located at 221 S. Broadway in Tyler, their tap room and manufacturing facilities are open to the public, and their passion for craft beer is absolutely contagious. While at home, there are a countless number of beer quizzes you can take online, and that'll take out all the hard work by telling you exactly what beer drinker you are. Don't wait any longer and get to learning!



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