A well informed diner generally knows how to read a wine label. They can extract quite a bit of information. Maker, Year, Alcohol Percentage. The average wine label also usually indicates the type of grape OR the region (wherein the type of grape is a product of the region — i.e. Left Bank Bordeauxs are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Right Bank Bordeauxs are generally Merlots, etc.). Since the craft beer movement is relatively new, there isn't as deep a stylistic pervasiveness amongst consumers.
The question we hear most often from our customers is: “What kind of lagers do you have?” They know what they want. I know what they want. What they're actually asking for is: “What sort of light bodied beers do you have?” And we all know how this synecdoche has emerged. The pervasive beers in America are the yellow fizzy waters we see commercials for on TV. They are all lagers. Hence, we come to think: Lager = Light Beer. And it's true, to some extent. Many lagers are light. They are refreshing and easy to drink. The perfect summer beer. I'm not trying to be ticky-tack or didactic because we all know what we're talking about. And while I could write an entire article on the various styles of lagers (Bocks, Doppelbocks, Rauschbiers, Dunkels etc.), the truth is that when someone asks for a lager, we know what we're all saying.
The question we hear almost as often is: “What ales do you have on draft?” This one is extremely difficult to answer.
Here's the skinny. Memorize this and you're good. There are two main brewing styles: ales and lagers. Most people think: Ale = dark bitter stuff. Lager = light refreshing stuff. The truth is that the names refer to the brewing method and not to the final product. Lagers are made at cool temperatures with bottom fermenting yeast. Ales are made at warmer temperatures with top fermenting yeast. From the consumer's point of view, most of the beer in the world is a lager. There are a LOT of countries making that yellow fizzy stuff. That's what the majority of the world drinks. From a stylistic point of view, though, there are more ale varieties than lager varieties. The average beer drinker probably runs into 3 or 4 lagers. The most common ones are Pilseners, Bocks, Doppelbocks and Dunkels. Germany makes a ton of different lagers and if you've ever been to a German Biergarten, chances are you've tried a lot of different beers, most of which were lager varietals. While there are but a few lager types that you'll encounter, there have to be at least 15 ale varietals that the average beer drinker sees. Saison, Pale Ale, IPA, English Bitter, Brown Ale, Porter, Stout, Sour, Geuze, Lambic, Scotch Ale, Barleywine. The aforementioned styles are in no way comprehensive — they are merely some common examples that you can see around town.
In the burgeoning world of craft beer, I encounter many people who are incredibly excited about these new products but don't feel they possess the language necessary to speak about it. While it's useful to understand the (somewhat arcane) terminology associated with craft beer, I always say that it's better to articulate the flavors you like and don't like — you're more likely to get what you want.
Jason Bernstein is the co-owner of Golden State.