I didn’t used to be a beer drinker. The awful yellow, rancid tasting warm cans of my youth really turned me off to beer in general. Then my husband and I got into the local food movement, and where there is local food, there is local drink. And that’s a very good thing, because it changed my opinion of beer entirely. Artisan beer is like artisan wine– it is an art form of the highest order, turning a few very basic ingredients into something spectacular nearly by time alone. It is the ingredients (of the highest, most distinctive caliber) and the place that make a beer what it is. Who ever thought the process of fermentation could do such wonderful things?
There are two main types of beer– ales and lagers. Within these two types, there are a variety of distinctions. The difference between the two is the way the yeast ferments. In ales, the yeast ferments from the top creating an intensely flavorful beer. With lagers, the yeast ferments from the bottom, creating a sharper, clearer taste. For more on the specifics, Wikipedia outlines it very well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_style
I tend to gravitate toward ales, because I appreciate the well-rounded flavor and intensity. My husband favors ales also, as this category includes stouts– which are very deep, heavy, rich beers. I find the stouts to be a bit heavy, but there are so many variations within ales (and lagers for that matter) that everyone can find one that appeals to the palate.
It seems as though we are going through a beer renaissance of sorts lately– no matter what part of the country you live in, you are bound to have an artisan brewery (also known as micro-breweries) nearby. Here in the Great Lakes region, we have several. Two of our favorites are Two Brothers Brewing Company just south of Chicago in Warrenville, IL (www.twobrosbrew.com) and the New Glarus Brewing Company (www.newglarusbrewing.com). Two Brothers makes my all-time favorite beer– Domaine DuPage, which they describe as a “well balanced beer [that] is full and sweet up front with caramel, toasty, and fruity characters. The finish has a gentle floral and spicy hop balance that cleanses the palate”. I would absolutely agree. New Glarus also makes several excellent brews– Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel are two of our favorites there. If you’d like to discover a great artisan beer in your locale, the Brewers Association has a brewery locator on their website at http://beertown.org/craftbrewing/locator/breweries.aspx.
Additionally, if you’re intersted in learning how to craft your own artisan beer, several excellent resources are available. For an excellent and brief (but jam-packed) introduction to home brewing, I would recommend the Brew Not Bombs zine by the Baltimore chapter of the activist group of the same name. If you can’t find it at your local zine/comic shop, you can buy it online at Microcosm Publishing (http://www.microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/zines/1465/). For a more in-depth read, I recommend the Complete Joy of Home Brewing and The Brewer’s Companion, both by Charles Papazian.
Whether you’re brewing it yourself or buying it from a local craft brewery, give artisan beer a try– I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised!