One thing that always scares me about ordering a beer of a style that’s unfamiliar: What if it tastes like shit? I mean, there’s a lot of styles that most people haven’t heard of, like Sahti, Gruit, or Chicha, and styles that aren’t as rare but aren’t always made in very traditional ways such as Roggenbier or Rauchbier, so there’s room for breweries to make them better or worse. And some beers, just by their official judging guidelines, sound terrible (from the German Helles Exportbier: “A slight sulfury note at the start that dissipates is not a fault, neither is a low background note of DMS.” So a little bit of green bean and freshly struck match in your beer? No thanks …).
So what’s a casual beer nerd to do when confronted with the possibility of trying something new, but doesn’t want to get a master’s degree in food and beverage history to know what he’s ordering? First, trust your bartender. If a bar or brewery is brave enough to serve a medieval throwback beer or rustic Andean concoction, they should be into training their bartenders well enough to explain the style, describe the beer, and walk a customer through the experience of drinking it.
Also, don’t be afraid to consult your smart phone. A quick Google can shed light on whatever beer is being poured. This doesn’t just end at crazy weird styles, this can go to different types of hops, malts, or yeast that you may be unfamiliar with. Maybe you’ve never heard of Waimea hops, but a quick search tells you that Waimea hops are “dual purpose” meaning they’re good for bittering as well as flavor and aroma, and they have a good tropical and citrus profile.
Even when all your efforts at knowledge-before-experience fail, just go for it with an open mind. Think of it like confronting a piece of fine art you’ve never seen, or watching a foreign sport you’ve never watched. How does it work? What could be different or better or worse? What do you actually like about it? You don’t necessarily have to have a prescription for what the beer will be like; you can rely on your own description of the beer – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yeah? So even if it’s absolutely terrible, you can get some kind of enjoyment or sense of accomplishment out of it. Just like how bad sex is still sex, bad beer is still beer.
Honestly, the most fun I have when drinking new beer is not in the actual drinking but in the description of the beer. A good way to get in the mood of describing beer is performing a dramatic reading of the beer description on the bottle (based on the words on the side of most beer bottles, brewers must often think of themselves as poets) or the reviews from Ratebeer.com (beer reviewers definitely think they’re poets). If you do this in rounds, making sure everyone gets a turn reading their beer description/review, it can get really fun by the third or fourth round, as your subtly-slurred speech begins to sound like a public performance of Shakespeare’s sonnets (if Shakespeare had been a bro-ish hop-enthused beer nerd).
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.