When I sat at the bar of three local breweries, I had no idea where to begin when a flight of beer was put in front of me.
In honor of Virginia Craft Beer Month, I tasted beer at Tradition Brewing Company in Newport News, Virginia Beer Company in Williamsburg and the Oozlefinch Craft Brewery in Hampton.
A bit of a novice when it comes to beer, each tasting featured its share of of sour expressions, grins of satisfaction and sometimes, a confused look.
Mike Donovan, who, like me, was just 22 when he first began drinking craft beer. Donovan is now the brewmaster at The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery on Fort Monroe.
He said he started visiting breweries after college to acquire a taste for craft beer and expand his palate. The brewmaster didn’t sugar coat his first experience — he didn’t like most of them.
“I was coming out of college and I was used to drinking all of the beer I just listed (Natural Light, Rolling Rock, Bold Rock Hard Cider) and a friend of mine and I decided to join a mug club and we had to drink IPAs, Belgian sour beers, imperial stouts and we did not enjoy a lot of them,” Donovan said.
The complexity of beer is difficult to understand when your are new to beer drinking.
Whether you’re just turning 21, transitioning from wine to beer or exploring your palate, it never hurts to sit knowledgeably at a craft brewery ready to order with confidence and taste with an open mind.
So if you’re like me, don’t worry. As I explored my own palate and learned about craft beer from owners, brewmasters and tap room managers, I created a beginner’s guide for anyone just starting out.
Finding your palate
Beer is ever evolving just like a new beer drinker’s tasting palate, said Virginia Beer Company tap room manager Luci Legaspi. She’s right.
As I explored the three breweries, I found myself more open to discovering the flavors and excitement that comes with being a new craft beer drinker.
I owe it to Legaspi, Donovan, Oozlefinch owner Russel Tinsley and Tradition brewmaster and partner Dan Powell for the patience they and the staff at their breweries showed me along the way.
According to them, patience is key, especially when a new beer drinker walks through the door.
Each staff member is trained to help customers develop a flavor palate. Sometimes it can be a daunting process but they agree it’s rewarding.
“We try to match them up with something that they are familiar with,” Legaspi said. “We also try to open their minds by sharing our passion for craft beer."
Since I’m new to drinking craft beer, each suggested I order a flight to try a wide range of flavors and styles. Since I was on the job, I tried three at each. Full flights usually range from four to eight beers in 4- or 5-ounce glasses. Flights give customers the opportunity to try multiple types of beers without burning out their palates.
“If you come in and you are a 22-year-old Natty Light, Rolling Rock, Bold Rock Cider drinker, I’m going to take you on a journey. I want to give you a flight,” Donovan said.
The samples are positioned from the lightest tasting beer to the strongest. That doesn’t always mean the beer is positioned from lightest to darkest in color, Powell said.
Heavier IPAs, such as Tradition Brewing Company’s double IPA Continental Divide, typically will be at the end of a flight because of the acids in the hops.
“It’s not necessarily by color but by taste of the beer. What’s going to ruin your palate last,” Powell said.
New to beer but love wine? Powell said chardonnay drinkers are compatible with hefeweizens, pilsners and cream ales. Merlot drinkers probably will prefer an Irish stout, Irish red or a porter.
“We like to find out what you like in not just beers but in wines,” Powell said. “What do you normally drink? If you like darker wines, it tends to work that way with beers because you like a little more tannin and flavor in your wine.”
Powell said there is really not much of a correlation between wines and IPAs unless a drinker likes spicier flavors. Rarely will Powell or his bar staff start someone who is coming across from wines to beers on a double IPA.
For cider drinkers, Legaspi and Tinsley suggest a saison-style beer, such as Oozlefinch’s “Snorky” or VBC’s “Saison Tournante” because they are more tart.
“The longer you’ve been a beer drinker the more you begin to recognize flavors,” Legaspi said. “We’re all trying to develop our palates every day. You can't have enough beer."
Storing craft beer
I was surprised to learn craft beer needs to be treated differently than beer you buy at a store.
According to Donovan, he likes to make his beer ready to drink straight off of the tap, allowing taproom customers to experience the fresh, full flavors. The general idea, he said, is “keep it cold and keep it fresh.”
You can take craft beer home in a crowler or growler, but it needs to be stored in a cold place and is usually at its top condition only about a week or two after it’s been tapped.
“Ideally, especially for hoppy things, once beer is fermented out, oxygen is its enemy and there’s always going to be a little bit of oxygen the head space,” Donovan said. “You’re going to get oxidation of hops and it’s just not going to taste as fresh.”
ABV: Alcohol Beverage Content. Measurement of how much alcohol is in the beer per volume.
American pale ale: Beers that are typically light in color and include pale malts and hops.
Barley wine: Strong ale with 6 to 16 percent alcohol.
Hops: A member of the cannabis family (Humulus lupulus). Hop flowers range in types and add flavor and stability to beer.
IBU: International Bitterness Units. The international standard to measure bitterness.
IPA: India Pale Ale.
Lager: Beer fermented at a low temperature. Can come in many colors.
Pilsner: Pale lagers originating from the Plzeň region og the Czech Republic.
Saison: Highly carbonated pale ale.
Stout: Dark beers made with hops, roasted malt or roasted barley, water and yeast.
I took tasting notes to help understand what I liked and didn’t like about each style. I tried a different style at every brewery.
Tradition Brewing Company (700 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Suite 103/104, Newport News)
Rockpile Pilsner: Traditional Czech pilsner, ABV: 4.8 percent, IBU: 31
Color: Blonde. Smell: Slightly floral. Single hopped with Plzeň barley and a low-kilned malt. Light and refreshing for first-time beer drinkers.
“It’s very light and crisp and dry but it has a lot of texture. It also has this kind of cracker taste to it and sometimes a little bit of biscuit in there,” Powell said.
Invicto: Mexican lager, ABV: 5.5 percent, IBU: 24
Color: Golden. Smell: Chocolate. Amber lager (amber refers to the color) with caramel and German-kiln malts. Dry up front with sweetness on the back end, a lot like a chardonnay. Refreshing.
“When you taste it you get a little bit of caramel note into it. You get the crispness of it but you get a little bit of sweetness to it,” Powell said.
*This was my favorite at Tradition.
Continental Divide: Double India pale ale (IPA), ABV: 7.8 percent, IBU: 101
Color: Golden. Double hopped and double the alcohol content.
Powell said double IPAs can be hard for first-time craft beer drinkers because they are over-hopped, giving them a higher IBU. He suggests new drinkers ease their way into double IPAs but give them a try.
“The American palate, or just about any palate, can only handle about 90 IBUs. This is 101, so really your palate kicks out at 90 and can’t really taste the other 10 IBUs,” he said.
More info: traditionbrewing.com or 757-592-9393.
Virginia Beer Company (401 Second St., Williamsburg)
Saving Daylight: Citrus wheat, ABV: 4.9 percent, IBU 25
Color: Golden. American Wheat Ale with citrus flavors make it crisp and refreshing. Good starter beer.
“You can kind of get a distinct, soft sweetness from the wheat and that’s balanced by the citrus peel that we add. Those kind of hit you more on the finish,” Legaspi said.
*This was my favorite at Virginia Beer Company.
Elbow Patches: Oatmeal stout, ABV: 6.2 percent, IBU: 26
Color: Deep brown. Brewed with flaked oats that give it a creamy texture. The flavor is also “roasty,” almost like the fullness of coffee.
“The roasty flavors when they’re added to the malt come out as coffee and as chocolate. The flake oats help keep it nice and smooth,” she said.
Wrenish Rye: Dry-hopped amber ale, ABV: 6.0 percent, IBU: 39
Color: Brown. A perfect balance between an amber malt and a rye malt. The rye malt adds a spicy, (seasoned) character.
“You also get some peach characters in this one,” she said. “Those come from the type of hops we add.”
More info: virginiabeerco.com or 757-378-2903.
The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery (81 Patch Road, Fort Monroe)
Spy Balloon: Hazy India pale ale (IPA, ABV: 6.7 percent, 30 IBU
Color: Cloudy with a light brown haze. Smell: Fruity. New England-style IPA with a creamy texture, citrus flavors and a juicy finish.
“This beer uses three different kinds of hops,” Donovan said. “One gives off a tangerine, orange feel.”
Snorky: Tart red saison (kettle sour), ABV: 6.4 percent, IBU: 20
Color: Brown. Low bitterness allows the tart flavors to shine through the sweetness.
Donovan said this a great introductory to beer for cider drinkers. The malt saison allows for an apple flavor perception that makes it refreshing and smooth.
“A large majority of people come in here and try this beer and didn’t know it (beer) could taste like this,” Tinsley said.
*This was my favorite at Oozlefinch.
Wandering Shadow: Dark American wheat, ABV: 5 percent, IBU: 10
Color: Dark brown. Dark American wheat with spices. It is similar to the red saison, but allows the spices to shine through instead of the tart flavor. Light, refreshing and doesn’t leave a heavy feeling in your stomach.
“If you like licorice, this beer is for you and if you like dark chocolate with fruit added to it, this beer is for you,” Donovan said.
More info: oozlefinchbeers.com or 757-224-7042.
Joseph can be reached by phone at 757-374-3134.