I seem to have a knack for meeting people who say that they don’t like beer. I’ve also developed something of a talent for convincing them otherwise, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about this with others out there in the hopes that you, too, can open doors for people to expose them to beers they might enjoy.
My main philosophy that I’m working from is that saying you don’t like beer is like saying you don’t like food. There are just too many textures, body styles, carbonation characteristics, serving temperatures, hop varieties, grain variations (and, within that, different roasts), and yeast effects available, which combine to create an exponentially larger number of beer tasting experiences… it’s just not believable that a person doesn’t like “beer”, as a blanket statement. In all likelihood, they just haven’t had a broad exposure to different beers, and never came across one by chance that they liked. So…
When someone tells me they don’t like beer, what I tend to really hear is that they haven’t had a beer they enjoyed, and that’s perfectly valid. So I ask them what kinds of beers they’ve tried. Most will reply with some mass-produced American Pilsener like Bud, Miller, or Coors. Others get slightly more exotic, throwing in something like Ice Beer, or Sam Adams. At this point I ask them if they’ve ever tried beers like Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Guinness, any Belgian beers, any of the Schneider beers, any British, Scottish, or Irish Ales, etc. I mix up the beers I suggest, but I’m trying to get a read on the taster’s overall experience while at the same time letting them know that there’s a huge universe of beer out there that is available to them… just not on tap at the local high-volume restaurant chain or sports bar. So far, nobody has ever said that they’ve tried any of the beers that I inquire about.
Is it the Fizz?
At that point, it’s probably safe to assume that the taster just doesn’t like American Pilseners, or perhaps Sam Adams. Let’s stick with the American Pilsener as an example, since it’s common and pretty simple to address. There are multiple things people might not like about BMC-style beers (BMC is how home brewers refer to all beers similar to Bud, Miller, and Coors). First, it’s pretty darn fizzy. Some people (particularly girls it seems) don’t like overly fizzy beers, and BMC-style beers tend to be highly carbonated when compared to most other beers on the market, with the possible exception of Lambics (which most girls I’ve ever met tend to like, because the fruit ones can be a little wine cooler-ish, without being cloyingly sweet).
If it’s just the fizz they don’t like, great! That means they don’t have a particular problem with hops. Point them at a more British-style bitter like Fuller’s, or if you want a more pub-style ale with a head that’s more creamy than fizzy, try Boddington’s. Both are good beers, inoffensive, but of decently high quality. From there, you can move on to get more adventurous – the point initially is just to let them see that it’s not all beer they don’t like, it’s something about a beer, or a particular beer that they’re not fond of.
More about fizz
Beers are carbonated beverages. As such, they have bubbles. However, both commercial and discerning home brewers who keg and carbonate their beer tend to keep a close eye on just how carbonated their beer is. Carbonation can be done with carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen, or a mixture of the two called “beer gas”. The cans you see in stores that are equipped with “widgets”, like the Guinness Pub Draught cans (and bottles), are carbonated with nitrogen. Nitrogen forms bubbles that are far smaller than CO2, and it forms a head that is more creamy than fizzy. This can have a dramatic effect on the overall body and “mouth feel” of a beer, making it feel distinctly less watery in some cases than beer carbonated with CO2.
Outside of the handful of different beers available in the US with nitrogen widgets (less than a dozen brands are available, in my experience, between Philadelphia and New York), all other beers are carbonated with carbon dioxide (CO2), and the level of carbonation is measured in “volumes of CO2″. Breweries obsess over insuring that the level of CO2 across their various batches of beer is perfectly consistent. Since most of them (there are exceptions) inject CO2 into the beer, it’s a pretty simple thing to regulate. Even home brewers can purchase a CO2 canister and regulator inexpensively from a welding supply shop or online brewing supplier and carbonate their beers as much or as little as they like.
I mentioned that there are exceptions: some breweries (like Sierra Nevada, for example) do not inject the CO2 into the beer. Also, home brewers who do not keg, but instead bottle their beers, do not inject CO2 into their beers. What they do is known as ‘bottle conditioning’, and it’s a way to naturally carbonate the beer after it is in the bottle. It’s beyond simple, really: yeast produce CO2 in addition to alcohol. Before beer contains any alcohol, it is known as “wort”. Yeast is added to the wort, and it eats the fermentable sugars, and produces CO2 gas and alcohol, and creates what we know as “beer”. Once the yeast have done their job, they fall out of suspension to the bottom of the tank, but this is never a 100% proposition. There are always some yeast still in suspension, so when home brewers bottle their beer, they also add a minute, and measured, amount of sugar for the yeast to eat. They cap the bottle, the yeast eat the sugar, give off CO2, and since the bottle is capped, the CO2 has no choice but to be absorbed into the beer, carbonating the beer.
When you see “Bottle Conditioned” on a bottle of beer, it means that yeast in the beer created the carbonation, not a tank of CO2. In most if not all cases, you wouldn’t really know the difference between a beer that was bottle conditioned and one that was injected. On some bottle conditioned beers, looking at the bottom of the bottle, you *might* see just a tiny ring of residue. It’s mostly vitamin B compounds from yeast that have fallen out of suspension during conditioning. It’s perfectly safe to drink, and some even insist on pouring it into their glass, but be forewarned that this stuff has the potential to give you some horrific gas. Usually, only home brewed beers have enough residue to cause a problem. Commercial brews contain far less residue. Especially Sierra Nevada, who seems to have perfected the science of bottle conditioning beer without leaving a trace of residue in the bottle. Genius.
Is it the hops?
Though it’s hard for me to believe, some people don’t like the flavor of hops. No problem!
There’s more than one way around this:
- Try a beer that doesn’t rely on hops for its flavor
- Try a less hoppy beer and drink it very, very cold
- Try beers that use more interesting hops
Not all beers rely heavily on hops. For example, Guinness, and most other traditional Irish stouts (Murphy’s, Beamish, etc) hardly use any hops at all compared to something like Sam Adams. Also, Hefeweizens have very little hop character to them at all. In addition, both stouts and Hefeweizen styles offer up flavors resulting from interesting grains, ester-producing yeast strains, and sometimes mysterious brewing processes, that tasters might like! My mother-in-law is a noted beer hater, and said that when she was in Dublin and more or less forced to drink Guinness, she found that it was not nearly as disgusting as some of the pilseners that made up most of her beer drinking experience.
How many times have you heard someone say “I like beer, but only if it’s extremely, extremely cold”. As a former bartender, I can tell you that people have asked me multiple times how cold my beer is. Most of the time, people who insist on the iciest of ice cold beer are trying to let the icy coldness hide some of the flavors in the beer they find undesirable. In BMC-style beers, it could be some of the corn and/or rice adjuncts used in the brewing process (these beers do not pass the German Beer Purity Laws, in spite of the heartfelt mottos on their labels), or it could be the hop flavors! As much as I am *NOT* an advocate of drinking beer ice cold (specifically because you can’t taste it), if you’re at a party and all they have is beer, try to sneak a bottle or two and put them in the freezer for NO MORE THAN 10 MINUTES. It’ll be freezing cold, but if you leave it in there any longer, the bottle will very likely explode as the CO2 gas expands beyond the bottle’s abilty to contain it.
I take no responsibility for results of you trying this bottle-in-the-freezer trick. I have, myself, exploded bottles of beer in my freezer. Note, too, that beer never freezes hard like ice at normal freezer temps. It typically just gets syrupy. So don’t think you can wait for it to harden and scrape it off. It’s messy. Deal with it.
Finally, the other option is to drink beers that use more interesting hops. There are tons and tons of hop varieties out there. Over 100 to be sure. Matt and I have been brewing for years, and are still coming across hops we’ve never even heard of, let alone brewed with. We recently brewed with Simcoe hops, and they’re so distinctive and interesting that they’re worth seeking out and giving a try. One beer that is pretty widely available is Magic Hat’s Roxy Rolles. A healthy dose of Simcoe hops offers a very nice, earthy hop characteristic, different from any beer you likely have ever tried.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are some beers where hops might be balanced differently and given less prominence in different beers. I urge you to try a Scottish Ale to get a hint of a beer that doesn’t use any of the same grains, hops, or yeasts as a typical American Pilsener. A widely available commercial example is Belhaven Wee Heavy, which I think is a wonderful commercial example (though Scottish publicans will almost certainly differ – but then we can’t get their beer without taking a $4000 plane ride)
More about hops
Hops weren’t always used in beer. Instead, brewers used widely varying combinations of herbs, flowers, and other things indigenous to their locale to provide bitterness in the beers they produced. Why is bitterness desirable? Well, to balance the sweetness provided by the grains. You see, if there were no hops in your typical English Bitter, it would taste kinda like you took Maple Brown Sugar flavored Instant Oatmeal, put it in a bowl with some water for a few hours, and then strained, filtered, and chilled (and carbonated) the water. I’m not kidding.
Hops caught on quickly, though, quickly replacing every other form of bittering vegetation in beer. In addition to bitterness, hops also have both preservative and anti-bacterial qualities. In days before refrigeration, this meant that loading in the hops would allow beer to travel longer distances without spoiling. When the British needed to send beer to colonists in far away India, they added an abundance of hops to preserve the beer on the journey. They wound up producing a very distinctive ale still known today as “India Pale Ale”. The style didn’t originate in India — it was a result of the British sending beer to India. At that time, most beer was not heavily hopped.
Bitterness in beer is measured in IBUs (International Bittering Units). Some American craft brewers actually list the IBUs right on the bottle. A decently hopped American Pale Ale will probably have somewhere between 40-50 IBU. “Imperial” beers are typically higher, sometimes near 90-100 IBUs. As hops are a relative of the hemp plant, a beer with 90-100 IBUs has the potential to make you feel as though you have “cotton mouth”.
“Just Not a Beer Drinker”
Some people seem to defy your every move as a beer advocate. They won’t commit, or can’t explain, what it is they don’t like about beer. There are some perfectly understandable reasons for this:
- They don’t want to admit that beer gives them horrible gas, abdominal pains, or headaches.
- They don’t know how to label or describe the flavors they aren’t fond of.
- They don’t want to get into a long discussion about how they have Celiac disease, or an intolerance for glutens created by wheat and barley products.
- They think you’re weird and want to change the subject.
First: Do not underestimate the probability of #4.
There are a zillion chemical compounds in beer, some of which bother some people. Gas is caused by different things in beer: yeast, and bubbles. Bottle conditioned beers may not be high on their list of good beers to try if their gas is really out of hand. Abdominal pains can be caused by gas, so they fit that recommendation as well. Headaches are always a mystery, and unless someone actually enjoys beer and has recent onset of headaches, only when drinking beer, it’s probably best left alone. One reason people can get headaches from beer is that beer, like all alcoholic beverages, dehydrates the body (counterintuitive as it may seem). But if they say they get headaches ONLY when drinking beer, you might have to look to other things. I have not yet identified anything specific to beer that would lend itself to headaches, and what conditions need to exist, so I’m not much help there. Sorry.
People who don’t know how to describe what it is about beer that they don’t like aren’t uncommon, and there are lots of things peoples palates are sensitive to in beer that yours may not be. For example, Matt and I brew beer together. We both enjoy probably most styles of beer. However, we’ve brewed a couple of batches with slightly high phenol levels, potentially as a result of too much grain husk exposure in the mash. Whatever the reason, Matt can drink these beers without complaint, whereas I have to suffer through a pint of it. His palate just lumps the sort of bitter character in with the hop flavors, whereas to me it’s a completely different flavor that drives me bananas.
The best thing to do here is take note of the beers they’ve tried, and try to steer them in another direction. If they’ve tried BMC-style beers, Blue Moon, and Sam Adams, well, those are all really fizzy American beers, pretty light-bodied, and they all have flavors that can sit badly on one’s palate (the adjuncts in Bud, the coriander in Blue Moon, the yeast esters in Sam Adams). Try pointing them to beers that have cleaner or different yeast profiles, less fizz, and no adjuncts, like the aforementioned English bitters, Irish ales, or Scottish ales. You might also point them at more “pure” pilseners, such as Czechvar.
As for item #3, you’ll be happy to know that people with Celiac disease or other intolerances to gluten can drink beer made from a variety of other types of grain, the most commercially available being beer made from sorghum. This style has its roots in Africa, but has been marketed in the US as well. The most popular brand seems to be Red Bridge, which attempts to be Budweiser made from sorghum.
Beer of Last Resort
When all else fails, go for the gusto! Females who drink, but don’t drink beer, tend to really enjoy the Belgian fruit lambic beer. There are a variety of flavors, including peach, cherry, strawberry, apple, raspberry, and more. You might think that these are gimmicky beers targeting a female non-beer-drinker audience. Not so. These beers are very high quality beers, created by a process specific to the style, using yeast and fermentation conditions specific to the style. As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find any beer that is similar to them in flavor, character, or quality. I’m not a huge fan of them myself, but it’s not because they’re not well made. Women who try them adore them.Those who don’t really hate fizz. They’re probably the only beers more highly carbonated than American Pilseners.
There are lots of other fruit beers that are not lambics, as well. Magic Hat’s #9 is a very nice ale with a very pleasant hint of apricot. Abita makes a beer called “Purple Haze”, which is a Raspberry Wheat beer. Pumpkin ales and spice ales are also popular in the fall months as “special edition” brews.
There are also lots of fantastically exotic or “dessert beers” that I sometimes can get people to try. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout is one. There are several chocolate stouts on the market. Brooklyn also makes a good one. There isn’t necessarily chocolate in a chocolate stout, by the way — the overall character of the beer is chocolatey, and you might even be fooled by the flavor, but it comes from highly-kilned malts used in the mash, perhaps along with yeast strains that accentuate the chocolate flavors through ester production.
Over the years, brewers have attempted to brew with seemingly every conceivable ingredient known to man. You can still find some of these radical brews, but generally only in brew pubs where they have a bit of license with the beers they brew. A few really great beers I’ve had have been made with hemp seeds, habenero peppers, caraway seeds, and watermelon.
Go forth, and find the beer for you!