Five Questions for The Beer Babe

Carla Companion, better known to many as The Beer Babe, is, in her own words, “a woman who loves beer (and learning about beer).” She’s been writing beer reviews for over three years now, and has geeked out over awesome brews both on her own site and in many other places across the Web and in real life (see her site’s About page for a list).

  • How did you get so into beer? What is the secret origin of The Beer Babe
    When I was in college, I drank very little beer, and in fact it wasn’t until I moved off campus with a few friends after graduating that I got exposed to the wonders of the beer world. My boyfriend, Mike, was into craft beer and we lived with 4 others in a crazy duplex in Dover, NH. It was within walking distance of Smiley’s Beverage, which has a great craft beer section. So, being the adventurous souls that we are, we used to regularly bring home a six pack of something we’d never tried, then share and discuss it with the roommates. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot just by doing a little tasting, discussing and some Googling on the side. After a year of doing this, we’d kept 1 bottle from each of the different kinds of beer we’d tried, but were really unable to remember much about them—even which ones we liked or disliked. So I decided to start writing my thoughts about beer down and a blog seemed like the easiest way to do so. My secret origin is that blogging really acted as a substitute for my own terrible memory!
     
  • In interviews—and, I’m sure, in random conversation over drinks—you are often asked about the relationship between women and beer. Why is beer seen as such a male drink in our country? Is that changing? And, if it is changing, is something being stolen from the “Nascar/Football/Toughman” in order to effect that change?
    Even though in ancient times it was women who were doing all of the beer brewing, modern beer brewing is still considered by most to be a male-dominated business—but this is mostly a reflection of the “macro” brewing companies such as Budweiser, Miller/Coors, etc. When brewing became a business as the beginning of the century (pre-prohibition) it was male business owners opening breweries, saloons, and bars, and like many other industries, it mostly stayed that way until recently. Until a recent merger, Anheuiser-Busch was actually passed down through a patrilineal line of male heirs!

    To compound this, advertising for macro beer (think Superbowl ads) is extremely male-centric, and usually focuses on sport themes, features sexy women pouring and serving beer for men (instead of enjoying it themselves), or is just sexist altogether. To this end, they’ve done a really excellent job as a whole convincing men that beer is their beverage and, until recently, that a woman drinking beer must be some sort of a tomboy, or would at least stick out a lot. Craft beer brewers (small, usually independently-owned brewers) have changed that perception in a lot of ways. There are several well-known female head brewers at craft breweries, craft beer websites, and blogs with huge readership from both genders. Also, craft beer has the distinct advantage of having a ridiculous variety of flavors within beer (way more than wine), which means that pretty much anyone can find a beer that they like to drink if they’re willing to give it a try.

    The craft beer brewers also want everyone to drink good beer, and find beer that they enjoy—they are less concerned with making sure that you fit a stereotypical perception of what a person who drinks a particular beer should act like or what lifestyle they should have. No craft brewer claims that you will attract more potential mates, win more beach volleyball competitions, or do anything of the sort while drinking their beer. The craft brewers are focused on the ingredients, artistry, and ultimately the taste of their beer. I think that this is naturally why women will continue to increase their participation in the craft beer community as consumers—it’s about taste—not about perception. I also think that the more normal craft beer drinking/brewing/enjoying females that are “seen” either through blogs, breweries, or other media, the more that segment will continue to grow.

    That being said, sure there are some who wish that all the Bud Light drinkers of the world would come over to craft beer, but if you add up all the volume of craft beer that is being produced in the U.S. currently, it is only 4.6% of the total amount of beer sold in the U.S. So while that number is creeping up there, it’ll be a long time (if ever) before there is more volume of craft beer going out the door than the macro brews. Though, personally, I wouldn’t be sad to someday see beer ads that show a woman actually enjoying a beer without having to have a guy there to choose it for her or ogle her while she drinks it.
     
  • What are the men who sit in front of their TVs on Sunday drinking nothing but Bud and Coors missing?
    That’s kind of a trick question. I’m going to back up and talk about beer styles for a moment here. Just like wine, or other things such as fruits & vegetables, within the broad category of “beer,” there are more than 150 different kinds or “styles” of beer. And, unlike wine, they can be radically different from each other depending on how they are brewed (even when using very similar ingredients) and there are brewers that also make a living either inventing or just ignoring styles altogether to make even more different things and injecting tremendous variety into the craft beer market.

    Now, your TV-watching guy on the couch has tried one style and has found it to be what he enjoys drinking while watching the game. This type of beer actually does have a style—the American Light Lager—and is basically what’s been brewed by this country since German and Czech immigrants began brewing their beer in the US at the turn of the century. It tends to be dry and have a relatively thin taste, and has that very “beer-y” smell to it (think the smell of a bar or Fraternity house the day after a party). Brewed well, this style can be refreshing and great for a hot summer day. However, the objection most craft beer geeks have with the Bud/Coors crew is that to save costs, instead of brewing with real beer ingredients, the companies substitute rice of corn for the grains typically found in a beer. That makes it kind of a half-beer, and basically the least beer-like beverage you can get, ironically.

    A lot of light lager drinkers say that they don’t want to drink anything “heavy” (and most are envisioning a tall thick pint of Guinness when they say that), but there are many beer styles that are either very similar in taste to what they’re drinking now (try Pilsners, Lagers, Pale Ales for the closest matches) or just as light that are very pleasant to drink. The difference is genuine ingredients and small-batch care that is taken with each beer, and the tastes associated with the different styles, which may changed based on seasonal tastes as well. Essentially what the couch guy is missing is variety and better quality—and I think that most people who drink these styles would be surprised to find out just how much more they could enjoy their beer if they tried other kinds. A caveat to that, though, is that craft beer can be higher in alcohol and isn’t really meant to be consumed in large volumes—so it might mean having only one or two while watching the game instead of downing a six-pack. But for craft beer drinkers it’s about enjoying the experience of drinking the beer, instead of a fast-track to inebriation.
     
  • Gary Vaynerchuk, the host of Wine Library TV, is pretty adamant about describing wine in layman’s terms. You seem pretty determined to do the same for beer. How have you avoided intimidating jargon and developed a vocabulary for beer that will make sense to just about anyone?
    I completely agree with the principle that Gary is referring to. Craft beer has made it a point to be very inclusive (instead of exclusive)—we want people to drink great beer, not be intimidated by it! The last thing I want is for new craft beer drinkers to think they have to sign up for a class before they can “properly” enjoy or describe a beer. Your tastes do the talking anyway, and I think that craft beer is attracting a new audience quite well, even with a lack of highly-specialized jargon. The way I’ve tried to keep the terminology simple on my blog is to explain a beer as best I can using the words I know, and stumble right along with everyone else grasping for a description of aromas and tastes. Our vocabulary is pitifully lacking in words for non-visual senses (especially taste) so sometimes it is actually very difficult. Bitter, for example, is a really useless word. So I tell you a beer is bitter—Do I mean like vinegar? Licorice? Hops? Coffee??

    Knowing the basic beer components (grain, hops, yeast) helps—and having some familiarity with what a hop tastes like will also help you understand my descriptions (I do tend to say “hoppy” a lot). When I review beer I try to pick out some key ingredients in the beer, and also refer to other beers (or foods or anything else) that may have similar characteristics that a reader might relate to. At the end of the day, the best I can hope is that my description may have piqued your interest to try a beer—which you can then think about describing yourself. I think even the best tastings and ratings are subjective to each person, so if I can get you interested then I’m satisfied. I just like sharing great beer with people who I think might enjoy it.
     
  • I’m on record as being kind of a beer hater. Do you have any go-to beers for creating converts? A top five?
    This is a more complicated question than it seems. The real question is—why do you dislike beer and what kinds of beer have you tried that have lead you to that conclusion? That’s the fun part to figure out. Like I mentioned earlier, there are more than 100 different “styles” of beer and probably hundreds of different companies making each of those styles so it’s really almost infinite in variety. What I try to do when introducing people to beer is to have them try a few beers that taste as little like a typical macro beer as a litmus test, and then go from there. But when someone says they don’t like beer, it’s like saying you hate every type of vegetable. My response is usually, “Really? All vegetables? Ever?”

    So, here’s my little cheat list:
     
    • If you really dislike the bitter/skunky/fratboy aftertaste:
      • Try a hefeweizen. They are sweet, have a little bit of orange/citrus taste and might even have a little spice.
      • Similar styles: Blonde, White Ale, Weissbier
      • Good example: Windmer Bros. Hefeweizen, Sebago Brewing Co. Hefeweizen
    • If you can’t stand anything super sweet:
      • Try a brown ale. Tending to be a bit more bready, nutty or malty, these aren’t too bitter or too sweet but have a lot more flavor than a macro brew.
      • Similar styles: Porter
      • Good example: Brooklyn Brown, Smuttnose Old Brown Dog
    • If you love coffee:
      • Try a coffee stout or porter. The taste of coffee goes great with the ingredients of beer (which are already roasty and nutty like a good cup of coffee).
      • Good example: Red Hook Double Black, Southern Tier Jah-va
    • If you really want to know how complex and interesting/weird beer can get:
      • Try a Belgian-style beer. These have spices and awesome sugars and yeast that make them taste unlike anything else in the beer lineup. You’ll know what I mean when you try one.
      • Good example: Delerium Tremens, Omegang Rare Vos, Allagash Dubbel, Unibroue La Terrible, Saison DuPontThere are a lot more examples like this—the thing is that usually the best way to go is to start in one direction, re-assess, and then keep going. That’s why brewery tours (like Red Hook, etc.) are fun, because you can taste all the styles they brew without having to commit to buying a pint or a 6 pack, and you can then go elsewhere and say, “Have anything like that great Blonde Ale I had at Red Hook?” when you continue to look. I’d be happy to meet you (or anyone) at the Portsmouth Brewery to have a beer tasting experiment if they’re willing. And, in the end, if you still don’t like beer, then hey, not everyone likes vegetables