In many respects, it’s never been a better time to be a craft beer consumer, especially in a market like Boston. Gone are the days where there were a few “destination stores” where people would make pilgrimages to do their craft beer shopping; the proliferation of the segment means that nearly every store that sells beer has a section devoted to craft, and those sections tend to be decent at the very minimum. Pretty much every style can be found year-round, and there have never been as many breweries to choose from. Dozens of different breweries like Harpoon and Trillium jockey for limited space, and new ones are entering an already crowded market all the time. Great news, right? Well, sort of. Craft sections can be intimidating for the shopper who’s just starting to broaden their beer horizons, and even seasoned craft drinkers can sometimes shop with blinders on. Here are a few basic guidelines to make the most of your beer shopping experience:

Take a deep breath and put down your phone.

There are many apps and sites that are chock-full of information about the beer you’ll be potentially buying and they’re generally comprehensive resources. Users provide ratings, descriptions, and pictures, so all you’ll really be discovering is how the beer tastes to you—and that’s a good enough reason to not rely on those platforms when you’re making your selection. Drinking beer is a subjective thing: not all recipes taste the same to everyone, people’s individual preferences differ wildly, and when confronted with a whole bunch of reviewers who think one thing about a beer, those who think differently might not be as eager to offer up that information (who wants to look like an idiot on the internet?). Developing your palate takes more than cross referencing a potential purchase against a database; it involves noticing what you see, smell, feel, and taste and using that information to determine where your particular taste lies.

Get to know your friendly neighborhood beer merchant.

Don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation with staff members who spend a lot of time in the beer section. They’re often working there because, just like you, they love beer. Talk to them about what you like, and ask for their opinion—the more information you give them about what you’re into, the better suggestions you’ll get. They also talk to supplier and distributor reps like it’s their job, so they’re always privy to cool releases coming down the pike. This could come in handy the next time Really Big Deal Brewing Company comes out with their small batch, tightly allocated Tickle Me Elmo DIPA— instead of being one of the many nameless rare-beer hunters who call or show up only looking for that one beer, be the regular who scores a six pack because you’re a loyal customer.

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Drink for your occasion.

Whether it’s a 12 pack of low-ABV lager (like Turtle Swamp’s Nik’s Bitter) for a cookout or a cork-and-caged 750ml bottle of Russian Imperial Stout to drink by the fire on a cold, late night, think about what you’ll be doing when you drink the beer you’re about to buy. How long you’ll be drinking for, the time of the day, any activities involved, and even the weather are all potential factors to consider when you’re making your selection. If you’re planning on pairing the beer with a meal, keep in mind “the three Cs” of beer and food: flavors that complement each other, flavors that are accentuated through contrasting elements, and how physical characteristics of beer like carbonation can cut through physical aspects of the food you’re eating (think a highly carbonated pilsner up against the grease and sauce from BBQ chicken wings).

Take a mix-six for a test drive.

Many stores have designated shelf areas which hold loose beers that customers can select from to build their own 6 packs—some shops, like locally-based Craft Beer Cellar, extend this option to every beer available in the store. It’s an excellent, low-stakes way to explore different styles and breweries.

Code dates are important, but…

Nearly all breweries offer dates on the package, and it’s important to know how old your beer is. Beer is a perishable product, after all! You might not want to buy a six-month old IPA as the bright hop flavors and aromas will have degraded past anything the brewer intended. However, there are many high alcohol (usually 8% ABV or higher), darkly malted, sometimes barrel-aged beers available that benefit from a little bit of aging. This isn’t exactly news to most, but this practice can be watered down into everyday buying. With so many different beers in and out of rotation all the time, stores can sometimes be sitting on a few six packs of something that’s about to code out, or a couple cases of something that’s perceived to be out of season. This is good beer, but if a store is trying to move through it and puts it on the discount rack at a couple bucks less, that’s better beer.

Header image courtesy of Craft Beer Cellar.

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