Traditional stereotypes portray wine as the preserve of elitists, the type of people who can talk about a wine's "legs" or terroir; while beer is the choice of the everyday drinker, uncomplicated and easy to understand. If this was ever actually true, it certainly isn't any longer. Given the bewildering variety of craft and specialty brews available, mastering the art of beer appreciation can seem daunting. Although the process is time-consuming, it's far from impossible.
Your journey to connoisseur status begins with beer tasting. Initially, you want to taste as many different beers as you can. Most everyday beer drinkers have a favorite brew and tend to stick to it; veteran beer lovers may have a few classics they always fall back on. For the new enthusiast, however, the best option is to start out with lots of diversity. With each new beer you try, just ask yourself how it differs from the previous ones. Test out your boundaries by experimenting with a few of the basic categories of beers: Try stouts, bitters, IPAs, sour Belgian beers, wheat beers and more, adding each one to your catalog of flavors.
Once you can spot the differences, it's time to learn what causes them. It's at this point that a good beginner's guide will come in handy. Look for a beer guide targeted toward the novice rather than the veteran; there are good online guides, but a recent book will often be more informative. At this stage, you want to understand the different styles of beer and their various characteristics. By the end of this phase, you should know your milk stout from your imperial stout or your IPA from your best bitter.
Don't Geek Alone
Drinking is always better with friends, and that's also true for educational drinking. Search your local area for clubs, societies or just monthly meetings. If you have local bars that specialize in craft beers, they may be the best place to begin your search for fellow beer lovers. Another social way to develop your palate is with a beer tasting, where you'll get to sample and discuss a wide range of different beers under expert guidance. Beer festivals are another great way to meet like-minded drinkers and sample brews you might otherwise not get to try.
One Step at a Time
Now that you understand the basics of beer, pick one or two more areas of knowledge to expand. Ideally, these should just be your favorites; if you like fruity Belgian beers or subtle English milds, you'll enjoy learning more about them. Keeping the number relatively small to begin with helps make the task manageable. Once you've developed your knowledge of a particular type of beer, you'll get a feeling of achievement that will help keep you motivated. Now you can expand your knowledge to a new area. Eventually you'll develop a broad knowledge of many types of beer.
Take a Class
You don't have to commit to the course of study required to be a cicerone -- also known as a beer sommelier outside the United States -- to benefit from a little education in the ways of beer. Short classes cover everything from the alchemy of pairing beer and food to the science of brewing. Some of these courses are aimed at professional qualifications, but others are just for beer lovers who want to improve their knowledge.
Like any field where there's a lot of information available, learning about beer can be challenging. Some days, it seems like there's more homework than drinking, and your first encounter with a genuine beer snob can be off-putting. If your quest for beer savant status seems dull or frustrating, just take a break and go back to enjoying beer however and whenever you feel like it.