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My Beer Journey: An Auto-Ethnography of Beer

I have been drinking beer since I was 21, the legal drinking age in the United States. It’s not that I was waiting for my 21st birthday to have my first legal drink (I won’t say any more on that), it’s that prior to that, I hated beer. Even the smell of it vaguely wafting across the room bothered me. The few tastes my parents allowed, I found disgusting. At college parties, light beer flowed freely, and I learned to wince and drink it for the sole goal of getting drunk. But I didn’t enjoy either the taste or the buzz.

These days, beer is a big part of my culinary experience. I drink beer to relax — surely not the healthiest habit, but I also don’t drink to get drunk. Beer-drinking is part of my identity, a way in which I celebrate humanity’s creativity and knack for crafting something unique out of what the Earth has to offer. Beer is something I pair with food, or treat as a dessert.

So, what changed? How did I go from being completely disgusted by this drink to a full-fledged beer snob?

I was on tour with a theatre production to Dallas, Texas, and we went to the local BJ’s Brewhouse to eat. I was intrigued by their brews’ descriptions, which included words such as “toasted,” “crisp,” and “rich.” Could a beer be those things? My only experience had been with Bud Light and Rolling Rock, both of which were malty, bitter, and bland to me. I opted for a brown ale, a type of beer I had never tried, and was blown away. It tasted nothing like the watery stuff I’d been drinking; it had more body to it, indeed a “toasted” taste, with a hint of chocolate. How could a drink have so many layers to its flavor?

Shortly after that, I moved to Gainesville, FL, which featured pubs exclusively devoted to craft beer. It was a bit of a culture shock from my usual stomping grounds that proudly poured Yuengling, Coors, and Budweiser and offered Samuel Adams as its “craft” brew. In Gainesville, I started to learn about the different types of beer. I was fascinated by the wide variety and historical context of beer’s varieties, which seem to be ever expanding, with goses, milkshake IPAs, and brut IPAs being the latest trends.

I started with hard ciders, which actually were the drink of choice in the Old West, due in part to the proliferation of crabapple trees that settlers planted to claim land. I found that I preferred English ciders, which boasted a higher alcohol content, but I also loved Angry Orchard.

When I wasn’t drinking cider, I explored pilsners, a type of pale lager hailing from Bohemia, and learned that lagers were the type of beer that most people think of/drink. What makes a lager a lager is a cool fermenting process that discourages the buildup of diacetyl, which gives a buttery, Chardonnay-like taste that many brewers avoid. Historically, such beers were brewed in caves, which allowed the fermenting yeast to stay at a cooler temperature. Pilsners use bold Pilsner malts that are both pale and sweet, giving pilsners a distinctive taste, while the cool fermentation removes extraneous flavors to allow a “clean,” refreshing taste. For me, drinking pilsners was a natural step from ciders, while still being a departure from the Rolling Rocks of the world.

In studying the ingredients of craft beers, I started to gain an understanding of what makes beers like Budweiser so cheap, yet so bland (to me, anyway): they featured relatively high concentrations of corn syrup, corn, and even rice. Rice adds sugar that the yeast can “eat,” but does little to add flavor. Similarly, corn syrup, a mass by-product due to U.S. government subsidies of corn production, provides that source of sugar but imparts a “cheap” taste that many Americans admittedly have gotten used to. Increasingly, though, Americans are wary of corn syrup, and indeed Budweiser championed their use of rice and called out competitors Miller and Coors’ use of corn syrup in a 2019 Super Bowl ad.

I moved on to try stouts and porters, which featured darker malts akin to those I’d had in that delightful brown ale at BJ’s. Stouts are top-fermented, meaning that the yeast is fermented at the top of the wort (the liquid extracted from the mashed malts in preparation for brewing). There’s a reason many people think of stouts as being “liquid bread” — it’s usually the same species of yeast. Most Americans are familiar with dry stouts, a style associated with Guinness, which gained popularity during World War I, when Britain restricted beer production while Ireland did not. Now, Guinness is the staple dark beer throughout the British Isles and America. Personally, I have never been a fan. I preferred the hoppier profiles of many porters, which are essentially stouts + hops.

Guinness pioneered the use of nitrogen in drafts. I remember having my first nitro poured for me and being instructed to allow the pour to “cook” — the nitrogen, which is insoluble in liquid, rises to the surface and forms a lush head that tops the ultra-creamy beer below. I actually prefer a bit more fizz to my beer, but nitro drafts are still delightful to watch.

I then was introduced to “Belgian style,” which I quickly learned is a bit of a misnomer, given the incredible range of brewing techniques in Belgium. Apparently, actual Belgian brewers dislike the term because they pride themselves on using unique combinations of ingredients for each of their brews. I learned that Trappist beers must be brewed in monasteries to be called such (if not actually Trappist, they’re called abbey ales), and that they are warm-fermented, meaning the beer is not the lager that many American domestics are, but an “ale.”

My last stop on my beer journey was the infamous IPA. Initially, the bitter hops put me off in a big way. After all, I’d abandoned the bitter light beers that my college friends had shoved my way. Why would I go back? In time, though, I became what beer snobs call a “hophead” — my tastes evolved to not only accommodate, but actually prefer the “zing” of IPAs. IPAs, or India Pale Ales, are so called because they were designed for transport via the East India Trading Company. Common wisdom is that they were boozier than most brews of that time due to their high hop content; however, that’s not necessarily true. These days, IPAs do tend to have higher alcohol content and inspire a love-it or hate-it mentality.

Now that I was a connoisseur of beer, I was curious to know what my friends who weren’t currently my drinking buddies thought of it. After all, beer is as American as apple pie, no? I was surprised by the findings of my informal survey: not only was beer not as popular as I’d expected, but the beer styles that I currently preferred were largely hated, while the initial stops on my beer journey were more commonly liked. I suspect that beer drinkers’ tastes follow a somewhat predictable trajectory from light beers and lagers to ciders to darker beers to specialty beers. With practice, one learns to love the skunky, spiced, and sour. Here are some of the comments I collected:

Me personally? Hate it. I can only stand the cider stuff. I don’t like it because it is way too bitter.

I am not a fan. It makes me feel bloated and sloshy and I’m not partial to hops. Occasionally I like a good, earthy dark beer that doesn’t rely on hops for the predominant flavor.

I only drink La Chouffe [a Belgian Strong Pale Ale]. Outside of that, only time I ever finished a beer was on a date with a scotsman. I’m more of a cider person.

I have told numerous people that it feels like drinking a loaf of bread. I can appreciate it somewhat but I don’t understand why people prefer beer over cocktails if their goal is to get drunk. I seem to like porters and stouts and on the opposite end, radlers and shandies. Also, one time I made a Guinness float and posted a photo on facebook and people were UPSET. [Author’s note: I do not understand that at all.]

I generally don’t like it, though I can drink one socially. I do like cider and hard liquors — rum, vodka, and particularly whisky. Given I like whisky and occasionally like darker beers, it’s probably the hops that I don’t like.

Love it. [My favorite is] Guinness. Hate most IPAs and real skunky beers.

I hate most of it. I kinda like really wussy hefeweizens, some citrus beers like Shock Top, or skunky beers like Corona. I prefer cider when I can get it at a bar. (I found this to be a fairly consistent trend with other zookeepers when I was still in that field.)

Of course, there were a couple of other advanced beer drinkers out there:

I liked playing drinking games with beer. I love the great taste of beer! Sometimes, there’s just nothing better than a frosty mug 🍺 while I am watching sports or hanging with friends….like trying different flavors — tasting. It was an acquired taste — didn’t like it at first. I like fun kinds like Naked Ed’s, cool names and cool looking bottles. Once snuck across the border to Canada with friends so we could buy a case before we were 21…. oh, did I just say that out loud??? Lol

I love a good beer! I’m more on the Belgian and blonde side of beers (Delirium Tremens, Stella, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Harp) but also enjoy stouts for the right occasion. American beers are mostly bleh to me, Yuengling and Sam Adams are good (Sam Adams cherry wheat yum!). IPA or anything pale is nasty to me. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Clearly, beer inspires some strong feelings even if one is not a fan. Although I hear a lot of negativity toward certain beer styles, I hear a lot of great stories about beer in general. Beer is an opportunity for bonding, whether it’s with my fellow beer snobs or my friends, family, and colleagues. Beer, much more so than liquor, provides both the venue and topic for conversation. When I visit breweries, I’m always intrigued by the brewers’ stories of how they got into brewing and what’s important to them. Beer seems to represent the core of humanity: a fondness for gathering in one place, swapping stories, and appreciating each other’s ingenuity and craftiness. In my beer journey, I learned to try new things and appreciate the little things in life. And that’s something I’ll always raise a glass to.

Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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