The craft beer biz is booming. The evidence is everywhere: on tap, as more bars and restaurants diversify their offerings; at the stores, where shelves are crammed with a dizzying array of product; and on the ledger sheets. Sales increased 14 percent in the first half of 2011 (meanwhile, the big brewers' output was its lowest since 2003), and there are more 1750 craft breweries in the US (and another 700 or so on the way) — the most ever. "It's like Silicon Valley right now, or Florence during the Renaissance," Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch observed.
So it seems like an ideal time to ask local beer honchos a few questions: What was your gateway beer to the craft world? What beer would you recommend to open the door to better beer? And if you had to choose one beer to take to a desert island (or bomb shelter), what would it be? The replies came pouring in, with tempting suggestions for novices and veterans.
BREWMASTER/CONSULTANT, REVIVAL BREWING CO, NARRAGANSETT BEER, AND TRINITY BEERWORKS INC.My first gateway beers were Sierra Nevada, Long Trail, and Geary's Pale Ale and Porter. I was working at the old Cactus Grille before I was 21 and these were the beers I sneaked on when no one was looking. When I was finally legal, Ipswich Oatmeal Stout was my jam — 22-ounce flip-top bottles!! Those guys were killing me back then. Loved all their beers . . . .
For gateway beers, I could promote the brands I work for, but instead I would recommend that you go to the store and mix a six. Nikki's Liquors is great for this; you can get a lot of sampling variety that way. If you need more direction than that, then just buy local!
If I was trapped on a desert island, I would choose to bring a steel pot with me. That way I could source whatever I could on that island that would ferment and I would never run out of beer (or I could just say Revival Dry Irish Stout).
CO-WRITER [WITH TIM CALDERARA] OF THE "WHAT'S BREWING IN RHODE ISLAND" COLUMN IN YANKEE BREW NEWS
My transition to craft beer was a series of events rather than a single epiphany. The early West Coast pioneers such as Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam certainly influenced me by the mid- to late-1980s, but the most important experiences during that time were thanks to local New England breweries: drinking Geary's Pale Ale in Maine, my first brewpub visit to the Commonwealth Brewing Company in Boston, "discovering" Samuel Adams and Harpoon. I paid more attention to microbrews after that. It wasn't just the West Coast anymore. New England was developing its own craft beer history. That really changed the game for me.
Instead of offering a single gateway beer, I'd suggest ordering a sampler at a local brewpub or craft beer bar. It's a great opportunity to figure out what you really like by trying small samples of different styles. Of course, then you should order a full pint of your favorite!
SALES MANAGER, CRAFT BEER GUILD OF RHODE ISLAND
Funny, I never liked beer as a teenager (16, 17), I always had the guy going to the package store grab me a pint of Southern Comfort. Now, I don't think I could stomach SoCo and all I drink is beer — craft beer. I went to college at UVM when the drinking age in Vermont was still 18. Needless to say it was a big party. I can't remember what my "gateway" beer was (might have been a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), but if I had to suggest one today to a domestic premium drinker it would be Sixpoint's Crisp. The pilsner style is the most approachable beer style and anyone who drinks a [macrobrew] could drink this beer and would hopefully appreciate the "crisp" bite of hops and absence of the sweetness of the domestic premiums.
It's almost impossible to pick a "desert island" beer. I always have a wide variety of styles in the fridge so I can choose based on time of year, time of day, pairing with food, sharing with friends, etc. But if forced to select just one beer, I would say Lagunitas IPA. IPAs are my favorite style, and I love a real bitter, extra-hopped one every once in awhile. However, the Lagunitas IPA is a citrusy IPA that is refreshing and sessionable, and could be consumed under any circumstance.