Aleheads are, by their nature, an evangelical lot about their favorite beverage. As members of a small minority (and it still is the minority, despite the wonderful world of craft beer we exist in today), we are proud of our taste and our hobby, and I find that most Aleheads have a strong desire to share how much they enjoy beer with the other people they are close to.
The question, then, is what is the best way to actually go about introducing people who are not craft beer drinkers to better beer? What kind of beers should be used in order to expand the horizons of drinkers who may be initially skeptical? I don’t purport to know all of these answers, and you surely have strategies of your own (please share them in the comments), but these are some general guidelines that I have come to over the course of about five years of beer geekdom. And if you ask my friends and family, they’ll tell you that these have been some very effective introductions.
Naturally, this is completely dependent upon the personal tastes of the people you know, but for the sake of making these arguments, I’ve divided drinkers up into a few categories. I also introduce this rule: Always start off by asking “Okay, what do you like already?” You need to know what their general tastes are. Do they favor fruity drinks? Is this person a coffee addict who would get a kick out a similarly flavored stout? The more you know, the better you’ll do. And now, the categories.
Category 1: People who drink macro beer
I find that this is actually the easiest group of folks, on average, to introduce craft beer to if you compare them to people who “don’t like beer” entirely. The thing to remember about a macro drinker of Budweiser, Miller or Coors is that they’re used to things that are very bland, and extreme flavors can often be a turn-off. Hand one of these people your favorite IPA and they’ll probably scrunch up their face like they’re sucking on a lemon. It’s possible that something very strongly flavored might work on a few of them, but for the majority it comes as complete system shock.
This means that starting slow is often best. You want to let them try something that offers more flavor than the watery crap they’re drinking without frightening them off. You might start off with something very similar such as a golden ale (like Half Acre Gossamer) or German Helles/Dortmunder (Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold). That’s the basement level. From there, you can try other options. If they respond to things that have a bit more sweetness, you can wean them on non-hoppy American amber ales (Boulevard Amber Ale or Fat Tire), or lightly hoppy American pale ales (Boulevard Pale Ale, North Coast Acme Pale Ale). Hefeweizens and wheat beers can offer other new flavors that are both comparably exotic and accessible. There are many choices here, but my advice is to make accessibility the highest priority.
Category 2: People who don’t drink beer at all
This is more difficult, because someone who says “I’ve never had a beer I liked” will be less likely to believe there’s something out there for them. Therefore, my advice is almost opposite from the last category: If this person complains that they’ve found all the stuff they’ve had bland or gross, introduce them to something that forces them to completely redefine their understanding of what “beer” means. You’ll be amazed at how often someone who turns their nose up at Budweiser will pick up a great American stout and say “I didn’t realize beer could taste like chocolate and coffee and caramel.” In general, the last thing you want them to taste is something that reminds them of what they’ve already had and didn’t like, lest you confirm their already present confirmation bias.
And you can do this with much more out-there beer styles as well. Sours, for instance, were the very last major style of beer for my own taste to come around on, but I’ve successfully introduced people who like zero beers to sours before simply because they don’t have any prejudices in place on what a good beer should taste like. Consider wine drinkers, who are used to a certain level of acidity in their drink and also intense, vinous fruit flavors. There can be a lot of parallels in a glass of wine and a Belgian sour ale (especially a fruit one), but also enough differences (like refreshing carbonation) to make it an interesting experience for them.
Category 3: The womens
This is a crossover category because all the observations in the previous categories apply to both men and women. I write this one because I’m guy, and because a lot of the people reading right now are guys, and almost all of us have been in the situation before of trying to introduce a girlfriend or other female friend to craft beer.
It is a mistake to make any assumptions here. Try not to pander like this shit. Not all girls want to drink fruity stuff…although I admit that I keep some on hand anyway. Once again, I recommend exposure to tastes that are far from any preconceived images of macro beer. Why? Because one glance at Big Beer’s average ad campaign should be enough to make any woman want to swear off beer forever. The misogynistic “man up” commercials for Miller Lite were perfect examples, and female viewers could scarcely help but take away the message that “beer is a boy’s club.” And so, the last thing you want to do in order to show a young lady that beer can be so much more is have her sample something that is barely different from her misogynistic Miller Lite. You need to show her that there’s a whole other world out there where beer is made to be enjoyed by everyone, where women can even–gasp–become brewers themselves!
EDIT: Someone on Reddit pointed out that it might be helpful to think in terms of beers that complement specific flavors or foods that women may like. So in the case of someone who is a chocolate-lover, a cocoa-flavored stout or porter might be your way in. Keep in mind that chocolate-flavored beer runs the gamut from over-the-top (Southern Tier Chocolat or Creme Brulee) to a well-balanced dry stout with just a hint of cocoa powder. You’ll have to figure out how much is too much, but it’s a mistake to lump all “chocolate”-style beers together.
Other tastes that might be complemented:
— White wine: Zippy Belgians with plenty of carbonation and a decent amount of booze can replicate this kind of drink fairly easily. Think tripels or golden strong ales like Duvel.
— Fruit-forward cocktails: This goes without saying, but fruit beer can be extremely appealing to someone who typically favors fruity cocktails or island drinks. Fruit beer is also fun to make at home, and you may be able to entice your lady friend with the prospect of making high-quality, unique fruit beer using ANY fruit you want in a homebrew setting.
Category 4: People who don’t drink
Could be a tough sell. Ummm…the occasional drink seems to be good for your heart?
These are general rules, as I said before. There’s no surefire way to introduce someone to better beer, and you can’t force it on anybody. If someone doesn’t care to learn about it at all, you’ll just have to accept the disappointment of having one fewer drinking buddy. But I hope that a few of you are able to apply these principles effectively to create one or two new craft fans. There’s change brewing in this industry, and it’s the evangelists of barley and hops who are leading the way.
How about you folks? Any beer-introduction strategies that you’d like to share?