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Craft Beer 101

Ranging from extremely basic light lagers to wild bacteria infested and barrel aged flavor extravaganzas; beer, or more specifically, craft beer, has taken hold of even the diviest of establishments. Learning to navigate the modern beer scene is a huge advantage in the hospitality world. Exploring this not-so-niche market is also a great way to expand your own palate and more likely than not, find something you never knew you loved. Here we will only scratch the surface, so consider this just an introduction to the realm of craft beer.

craft beer 101 for servers

The Movement

Brewers have been keeping our water safe from nasty bacteria for thousands of years. Only recently has there been more of a focus on ingredients and a concerted effort to improve the fuel of the masses. Ancient history aside, the modern craft beer movement has homebrewing to credit for its expansion. By the mid-60’s there were fewer than 50 breweries in the US and pervasive marketing was driving the country toward cheaply produced, flavorless light lagers. It was the homebrewers that began brewing styles from the old world and reviving interest in quality beer. As the decades rolled on and heroes like Anchor Brewing, Sam Adams, Dogfish Head and Allagash began to get the ball rolling, smaller operations started to pop up at a massively accelerated rate. As of 2018 over 6,000 breweries exist in the US, brewing every style of the past and experimenting to create new ones for the future.


The myriad of styles that comprise traditional beer categories are constantly evolving but at their base we have two main groups; those that use ale yeast (ales) or lager yeast (lagers). There are also hybrid yeasts and beers that use blends or exclusively avoid traditional beer yeasts all together but they’re for another lesson. Ale yeast prefers a warmer temperature range (60-80F) and lager yeast prefers a cooler fermentation (48-58F). What this means can vary dramatically depending on the yeast strain used but generally we will find that ale yeasts provide more complexity to the beer, sometimes even very strong flavors and aromas (like banana & clove) and lager yeast provides little to none. If you’d like to learn more about official styles, the BJCP has a fantastic style guideline that will help you understand what a certain beer should taste like.

As concise and detailed as the BJCP is, brewers aren’t required to stick to the guidelines. Stouts can be white, ales can be fermented at lager temperatures and all sorts of crazy ingredients ranging from berries to chicken bones can be added to beer and brewers can call it whatever the hell they want. That being said, having a good understanding of the classic styles (stout, pale ale, hefeweizen, west coast or New England IPAs) will give you a good grasp on most beers and help you understand the unique ones better.

craft beer 101 production


Beer is pretty damn easy to make but harder to make well. Very simply put, beer is made by soaking grain in hot water, draining that water while rinsing the grain with more water and then boiling all the resulting extracted liquid with hops. Once the wort (unfermented beer) is cooled to its desired temperature the yeast is added and it begins to chew away at the sugar in the wort. After 10-14 days your average beer is done fermenting and most of the sugar has been converted into CO2, alcohol and other compounds. The beer is then packaged either after it has been carbonated or with a small sugar addition, so that it can self-carbonate in the package.

Unfiltered beer is the norm. Don’t be fooled by packaging that touts how cool their unfiltered beer is - 99% of craft beer is not filtered, they can’t afford the machines nor do they want them. Essentially the only beer out there that is filtered is from a macro-brewery like the shifty favorite, Champagne of Beers.

Beer can be packaged in many ways but anything that’s hoppy begins to degrade from the moment it is ready to drink, regardless of container type. Ideally, hoppy beer is consumed within 2 weeks, after that and it begins to lose its aromas and complexity. Aging some beer, however, can be a bonus or a necessity depending on the style. Barrel aging is an exciting addition to the mix and can be a great way to add complexity to a beer either through the barrel type, bacteria within or simply the process of oxidation that occurs within the imperfectly sealed barrel.


With any subculture comes enthusiasts that are just a bit too, fanatical. You’ll absolutely encounter them and they don’t always have a neckbeard but you’ll know them the second they ask about your beer offerings. They’re not all bad and they probably have a fun fact or recommendation to share but like any eccentric guest, take them with a grain of salt and give them a smile. It’s ok if you don’t know as much as they think they do, no need to get flustered, it’s just beer.

neckbeards craft beer 101

Tasting & Off-Flavors

Like wine, there is a thesaurus full of ridiculous words you can use to describe the aromas, flavors and mouthfeel of beer but what it really comes down to is - do you like it? If you do, why do you like it? Is the beer crisp and refreshing, acidic and bright or roasty and warming? Don’t stress over finding the right terms, just be honest with it and be open to the experience. The more beer you taste, the better you will be at describing, so get to that arduous task and start drinking!

As someone who is providing beer you’ll also want to be sure that you can smell and taste when something is wrong. There are certainly more bad beers out there than good so you may not always have control over which beer you sell but you will definitely have control over which you recommend. MoreBeer, a fantastic homebrew store, has a great off-flavor list that any beer hawker should study.

Branch Out

Even in this era of rapid craft beer acceptance, there are still plenty of stalwart light-lager-only drinkers out there. Although some may be too stubborn, with the right gentle guidance it’s pretty easy to introduce these folks to new things, just try to stay within their wheelhouse. Much like when you began (or begin) to explore different foods, wines and now beers the key is to take it one step at a time, especially with pickier palates. There is a beer out there for everyone, even the self proclaimed wine-only drinkers will one day find a beer they love, it’s just a matter of kindly guiding them to it.

Really learn your beer by making your own! - Absolutely Everything! for making your own beer at home.

First Hand Experience

Homebrewing is probably one of the most rewarding and fun hobbies out there and a great way to learn more about the intricacies of beer. If you really want to explore the topic of beer there really is no better way than to simply start making your own. A great place to get started is by checking out resources like All Grains, a homebrewing site dedicated to helping everyone from beginners to pros.

craft beer 101 for everyone

A Beer for Everyone

Hospitality and alcohol go hand in hand, nothing makes for more warm and fuzzy feelings than a great chat with a bartender over a pint. Knowing your beer and making an effort to learn more doesn’t take much energy and the worst that can happen is that you get a bit drunk. So get going and start expanding your palate and beer knowledge today!

written by Alex Navarro