Oktoberfest, the annual German beer bash celebrated everywhere, is a perfect excuse to try a better brew. And that doesn’t mean ordering a Heineken instead of your usual brand; instead, grab an American craft beer. It’s the trend—so much so that the industry saw a 22-percent growth in sales last year—and the libations now outsell Budweiser.
Cool, but exactly what is craft beer? Technically, it’s defined as a traditional (largely malt-based) or innovative brew created by a small, independently owned company. And sensually speaking? Mmmm. Craft beer has a rich, full taste, usually heavy on hops (a bitter cousin of cannabis) with other unique flavors.
“The beer that was around when I became of drinking age was the Wonder Bread version, this bland, fizzy liquid,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at New York City’s Brooklyn Brewery. “People are now discovering that beer is the most diverse, delicious beverage in the world.”
All people? Despite the fact that some data points to African-Americans being behind the curve when it comes to the craft trend, “I don’t pay any attention to that White-guys-with-skinny-jeans thing,” says Julian Riley, president of Harlem Blue, a small NYC-based brewery.
Riley and Oliver aren’t the only Black brewers. Upstarts including Cajun Fire in New Orleans; 18th Street Brewery in Gary, Ind.; and Black Frog in Toledo, Ohio, are among the country’s 3,700 craft breweries. In fact, most Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery (find one near you here: brewersassociation.org), so enjoying these smaller batches also means supporting community.
At $10 to $12 per six-pack, these beverages are no doubt pricier than your average brand, but “We’re not talking about a $70-bottle of burgundy,” says Oliver. Yet, like wine, craft beer can truly complement food. One key pointer: “Match intensity with intensity,” counsels Cajun Fire brewmaster Jon Renthrope. “Strong-flavored foods overwhelm light-flavored beers, and vice versa.”
To learn more, read up online (CraftBeer.com, BeerAdvocate.com), check apps (UnTappd, Ratebeer) and talk to people: bartenders and cicerones (the beer equivalent of sommeliers). Listen for cues such as “hearty,” “refreshing,” “lighter,” even “sweet” or “fruity.” Visit a brewery tasting room or a brewpub for a flight, or host a tasting yourself: Put together a few “mixer sixers” of several varieties, and invite buddies to give ’em a try. Start small, be open-minded, and above all, advises Riley, “Trust your taste.”