Americans have always been hearty drinkers. W.J. Rorabaugh—author of "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition" and a history professor at the University of Washington—suggests that travel and immigration have influenced our beer-drinking habits since the 1840s, when Germans arrived with lager in tow.
"When beer returned in 1933 after Prohibition, Americans no longer had a taste for the heavy, flavorful beers available before 1917," Rorabaugh says. "For many years, brewers turned out very light colored beer that had little flavor. Only in the 1960s, when Americans began to visit Europe in large numbers, did they rediscover flavorful beers."
Seeking out breweries and pubs
When traveling to new cities, consider that the best beer is often found at the source of production. There are thousands of opportunities to visit breweries. I was just in Brussels and recommend the Brasserie Cantillon, which brews lambic beer—using an old-world production method of spontaneously fermenting beer from airborne yeast—and runs tours in English, French, and Dutch. Near Antwerp, the Moortgat family brewery, which produces Duvel, also has a fantastic tour. If it's a pub you wish to visit, ask locals where they drink. They often can recommend pubs and bars that are less tourist-centered and more down to earth—you'll find the experience vastly different than heavily commercialized offerings.
— Tomme Arthur, director of brewery operations, Port Brewing Co. and the Lost Abbey (Motto: "In illa brettanomyces nos fides" or "In these wild yeasts we trust")
Pouring and enjoying
Begin your beer pour down the middle of the glass and, as the head forms to your satisfaction, slow down as you shift to pour from the side. Leave a little open air at the top of your glass in order to smell the beer and swirl it in your glass. This releases carbon dioxide fizz, which carries the aromas of hops, malt, and fermentation out of the beer, into the foam and to your senses. Gently inhale as you quaff your brew—you'll notice exciting shifts in flavor and aroma balances as you drain your glass. Look for floral and spicy-herbal hop character, sweet malt, fruity fermentation, bold, complex alcohol, and other intended surprises.
— Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association
People ask me all the time what my favorite beer is, and I always reply that it's the freshest beer wherever I may be. Check freshness dates like you do when buying milk, and purchase beer within 90 days of being bottled or within the manufacturers Best Before date. (Most brewers provide a freshness date on their package.) Buy from the refrigerated section, only buy what you will consume in a week, and keep the beer in your fridge. Remember that beer is liquid bread—you wouldn't buy a three-month old loaf and expect it to taste good.
— Matthew Brynildson, brewmaster, Firestone Walker
Judging a good beer
If a beer is really sweet or made with fruit syrup, you can most likely cross it off your list. Most good beer should be unfiltered and unpasteurized, and served as fresh as possible. Taste is subjective, but the real craftspeople of the beer world don't make sweet, artificially flavored muck. If you've seen a lot of advertising for the beer in a magazine or on TV, that is a reason to question where the money is being spent. Small breweries don't have money for marketing, and spend all of their money on making great beer. Look to small breweries for better products; they tend to be in business because of their passion for great beer.
— Matt Dinges, sales manager, Shelton Brothers
Every brewer wants you to fully experience the pleasures they have brewed in each of their beers. For aromatic, hoppy, or strong ales and lagers, try glassware that resembles a brandy snifter, trapping the complex and tantalizing aromas released by the carbonation. Elegant beers are enhanced by slender and thin-walled glassware. Hearty ales and full-malt lagers do you well in hearty straight-up glasses or handled mugs. For barrel-aged and/or very strong brews, try short-stemmed wine-type glassware. — Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association
Yes, ice cold light lager does taste great on a hot summer day at the ball park, but when enjoying a well crafted American brew, English style ale, or a spicy Belgian-style beer, make sure that you serve the beer between 45-50F (not 35-40F where most American's set their refrigerators.) Lower temperatures may add to refreshment, but it lowers the perception of flavor and aroma—numbing the tongue. Allowing a beer to warm up a little will go a long way to releasing the flavors locked inside. — Matthew Brynildson, brewmaster, Firestone Walker
The most famous that comes to my mind is Carbonnade, a traditional Flemish dish. It's basically a beef and onion stew that simmers in a dark beer for hours. Acidic beers, like Flemish sours, tend to work best as they soften the meat. But dark Abbey type beers can be used too, just with the addition of a touch of malt vinegar. You do need to be careful about cooking with bitter beers, especially in a reduction or long simmer of any sort as the bitterness will override the other flavors of the dish. India Pale Ale makes a good chicken marinade. — Matt Dinges, sales manager, Shelton Brothers
Going the distance
Pubs in Britain offer session beers: low-alcohol brews that you can drink throughout a long session with friends without becoming incapacitated. Such brews have less than 4.0 percent alcohol by volume (abv) and some get down to just 3.0 percent. While you'd have to search hard to find a beer with alcohol that low in the U.S., you can find a number of beers with less than 4.8 percent. One of the best is Guinness Stout on draft, which has a modest alcohol content of about 4.2 percent with a rich, roasty flavor. Others are Goose Island Honker's Ale, widely available in the Midwest (4.3 percent); Anchor Small Beer (3.3 percent) and Oliver's Best Bitter (4.8 percent). — Ray Daniels, director, Cicerone Certification Program
Alcohol dehydrates you, and much of the discomfort from over-consumption can be avoided by drinking a good dose of water before bed and each time you get up. (Drinking water during the course of the evening helps, too.) I recommend two pints (or one liter) of water before bed and an additional one pint (half liter) each time you get up. (The astute observer will realize that this is repeating pattern.) This generally works wonders, and if you still develop a headache, then aspirin is usually very effective. — Ray Daniels, director, Cicerone Certification Program