Dave Hoops: How to Navigate the Beer Store

By Dave Hoops, For the Duluth News Tribune

Now that there are over 6,000 breweries in the U.S. and more than 140 in Minnesota, the trip to the store to pick up a six-pack has changed considerably.

During a recent discussion with some folks about beers and styles, some great points came up about the vast selections of beers now available at liquor stores. “I just can’t keep up with the brands.” “There are so many choices!” “How do I know what’s really good?” All great points, and seriously, nothing to complain about! So let’s begin.

First, let’s talk about storage and freshness. A big consideration when entering the store is cold vs. warm. Most stores have a cold section or even a walk-in beer cooler. But some beers are on the shelves at room temperature. On the surface, this seems like a no brainer: always go cold. While that is a decent rule of thumb, many beer brands and styles are totally great even if stored warm.

When looking at unrefrigerated selections, there are a few things to keep in mind to be sure you’re getting a fresh product. First, lighting; hopefully the bottle is not under a spotlight, as light quickens the staling process in beer — cans are always a good option, as no light gets in. Second, there are many styles to look for on the shelves outside the cooler. Here are a few:

Strong Ales. These beers typically age well at room temperature. They include stouts, strong porters and barleywines.

Sour Beers. Sours are very stable at room temperature with a long shelf life.

Spiced Beers. Many spices add a preservative component to beer.

Heavily Hopped Beers. Hops also serve as preservatives. So double, triple and imperial IPAs have better shelf lives.

Belgian Lambic. This ancient European beer style has fantastic shelf life and is not affected by room-temperature storage.

For cold storage, it’s a basic truth that many beers you buy will be in the cooler. This is good, but to ensure you’re buying a fresh beer, check the dates. Most beers sold at the shop have either a born-on date or a sell-by date. For American beers, three months is a pretty common window. For certain stronger styles, up to six months is the norm. Many imported beers have sell-by dates up to one year from packaging. This is because of the pasteurizing processes and other stabilizing techniques used. Without disparaging these brands, I have to say through my beer travels, I’ve enjoyed a lot of these fresh and young at their home breweries. More often than not, they were completely different, and usually vastly better.

So, I guess I’m saying look for fresh beer. Most should be less than three months old unless they’re a style that was brewed to age. This will make a big difference in taste and enjoyment.

Now on to the bounty of brands and styles.

When you go to a beer store, you might be looking for an American light lager, or the latest beer from your neighborhood brewery, or the crazy hot chocolate, marshmallow, Baltic porter your friend told you about. There are so many great beers out there! Here is my advice: Take some time to look over the options.

Usually, beer brands are kept together, and often, there are sections such as “local,” “rare,” “limited” or “craft,” and many more. You’ll be able to see very quickly if the beer is made in Minnesota from smaller, local selections like Blacklist, Castle Danger or even Hoops, to larger, regional breweries such as Schell, Surly, Summit and Bent Paddle.

Of course, you’ll see national brands like New Belgian, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Odell. Maybe you’ve developed some brand loyalty based on past experiences, and with that, a “brand identity.” Sticking with that is generally a good idea. Trust me, loyalty earned is worthy loyalty. With so many choices, finding a buddy and sticking with that brand is really important — everybody needs their “go-to.” Equally important?

Trying new things, challenging your palate and discovering new buddies. With so much great beer out there, the tasting adventure is there for the taking.

Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at dave@hoopsbrewing.com.

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