Tips for Tasters
If you sense that Maine is going through another brewery growth spurt, your intuition is correct. Since the beginning of this year, four new breweries have joined Maine’s ranks. That leads me to a staggering statistic: the number of breweries in our state — 73 at the time of this writing — has doubled since 2011. And there are at least 10 more slated to open before the end of 2016, seven of them by this summer.
Although this sounds like a fantastic problem to have, the profusion of breweries does make it difficult to keep up with them all and to describe their beers to visitors and friends. With each brewery making, on average, about a half dozen varieties, we’re talking about hundreds of options.
How do you know if the beer in your hand is actually a “great beer,” or if it’s just OK or has some problems? Here are a few simple guidelines. Ask yourself the following:
- Do you like it? (I know this sounds obvious, but stick with me here.) Does it taste good and bring a smile to your face? A beer’s color and aroma and mouthfeel are all part of the experience, but your taste buds are the most important decider. If you can’t answer this question in the affirmative, stop there. Likewise, if the style doesn’t suit you (e.g., if you don’t enjoy sour beers or particularly hoppy ones) or if you’re just not in the mood for that kind of beer that day, it’s completely fair to throw in the towel and move on. Peer pressure is a real thing in the craft beer world. I encourage you to resist it.
- Is the beer true to its style, or does it taste as it was described to you? Not every beer has to be a perfect archetype of its variety — brewing and tasting would be boring tasks if that were the case — and some breweries toss these guidelines out the window to come up with new, experimental combinations that defy traditional definitions. But if someone hands you a beer, tells you it’s a really hoppy IPA, and it tastes more like, say, an Allagash White (a Belgian-style wheat beer), that’s a bit of an issue.
- If you’ve had this particular beer before, does it taste the same as you remember it? One of the most challenging aspects of operating a successful brewery is keeping beer consistent from batch to batch. It takes more precision and attention to make the same beer twice than it does to make two different high-quality beers. I have seen many breweries in Maine struggle with this. Usually I’ll reach out to a brewer and say, “Hey, I noticed this isn’t the same as last time. What’s up?” Often those brewers tell me the recipe is changing, or say they’re still working on consistency or breaking in new equipment. I don’t give up on a beer at that point, but I will wait for a few batches to come and go before I give it another try. A little leeway is OK, but when you’re paying for a product you should expect (and demand) that it’s consistent.
- Is there anything “off” about it? In the beer world there are actual classes you can take on “off” flavors — their causes and the solutions to eliminate them. But some are easy to identify without any training. There are a host of problems at every step in the process — from sourcing ingredients to pouring a pint — that manifest themselves as skunky, buttery, soapy, vegetable-like, fruity, wet cardboard, metallic or medicinal flavors. If you notice any of those, bring them to the bar’s or the brewery’s attention immediately. Some “off” flavors can be caused by lack of sanitation or dirty tap lines, others by rushing a beer to market or taking other shortcuts. Though such flavors won’t hurt you, drinking “off” beers is almost the equivalent of eating spoiled food. Don’t tolerate it, especially if it happens more than once.
If you finish your pint or taster glass and its contents have passed all the tests above, then congratulations, you’ve found a great Maine beer! Tell all your friends and people “from away” to seek it out.
If the beer falls short in one of those areas, don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts with the brewer or bartender. If the beer gets better over time, you can always put it back on your list. If not, take heart that there are more choices than ever these days, so you’re bound to find a Maine beer that tastes great to you.