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Craft Beer 101 

If you don't know a porter from a pale ale or a pint from a growler, ordering a craft beer at a microbrewery can be intimidating. But fear not, Triton Brewing Company's Operations Director and Founder David Waldman wants to show you the way. He chatted with Sky Blue Window this week to lend his expertise.

click to enlarge Triton Brewing Company's taproom is located in the Fort Benjamin Harrison area of Indianapolis.
  • Triton Brewing Company's taproom is located in the Fort Benjamin Harrison area of Indianapolis.

Q: OK, let's just start from the start. What's the difference between a craft beer on tap and a keg of Budweiser at a bar?

A: The biggest difference is the amount of time and the quantity of product we make.

The big macros [macrobreweries or big beer companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors] make much, much bigger quantities than we do per batch and they make it much more quickly by using modern technology to speed the process along a little bit. We make much smaller batches and give each one a lot more attention.

Each batch is much more important to the small brewery, because it's really the lifeblood of what we do. It's kind of like the difference between imitation American cheese slices and a nice piece of aged cheddar that you'd buy at a farmer's market. You have a lot more flavor, a lot more attention to the detail and it's made in much smaller quantities.

Q: How small? Can you give an example?

A: The big macros are making probably hundreds of thousands of gallons per batch, and I'm making about 600 or so.

Q: So how much does a pint of craft beer go for these days? And how does that compare to macro prices?

A: Our beer is more expensive. But if you look at the raw ingredients that go into it on a per-serving basis, we add a lot more malt and hops than they do, so you get a much bigger flavor profile with ours. I'm not sure what a glass of macro goes for in the marketplace. [SBW research found that Bud Light runs about $3.75 per glass, which is a pint, at downtown bars.] You can expect to spend between $5 and $6 on average to get a pint of locally made, fresh craft beer.

Q: Is it true that craft beers can pack a punch if you're not careful?

A: Definitely true. Craft beer tends to be a little higher in alcohol by volume, so you don't have to drink a six-pack of craft beer to start feeling good. After one or two, generally you can kind of get where you're going.

click to enlarge Craft beer connoisseur David Waldman
  • Craft beer connoisseur David Waldman

Q: If I've never had a craft beer and I walk into a microbrewery, what should I ask for?

A: Advice. I think if you're willing to have a conversation with whoever it is that's providing the samples or offering the beer, they're going to be able to guide you. Our breweries in Indiana do this particularly well. And it's really OK to not know.

Everyday someone comes in and says, "Hey, I love such and such beer. What do you have that's similar?" Or someone might say, "I love Blue Moon; what do you have that's similar to it?" We know that it's a particular style and that it's made with a particular kind of yeast. So I can guide them in the right direction to finding a similar beer we make.

In Indiana and in the craft beer industry in general we very much love to have people who are willing to be adventurous.The truth is, even those of us who have been drinking craft beer for 15 or 20 years, we always love something new. If I go to a pub I'll say, "I know I like this particular style, what do you have that's like this? Or what do you have that has these characteristics?" And they're going to guide me.

Q: That said, isn't there a microbrew that's a safe bet for beginners?

A: Sun King's done a really nice job of providing entry-level beers. The Osiris and the Cream Ale are great beers for starters, because their craft beers are exceptionally well-made. They're made with a lot of care. They have all the same pluses that our brand has. Maybe they're a little more available. Their goal is to try to reach out and be a bridge to the non-craft beer drinker.

Q: So what do you need to know from me to help select a good match?

A: All of us breweries want to make it as easy as possible for people to enter into the category. I want to know what you like to drink. For example, If you like big bold red wines, I'd say, "Wow, I've got two or three beers that I can guide you to. You like a Bud Light? Then we'll start with the wheat or something a little lighter." We're not going to find you anything like the Bud Light here, but maybe we can find a beer that has the characteristics you like. Maybe it's the crispness. Maybe it's the fact that it doesn't feel heavy after you drink it.

Q: Here's a tough one to admit, but what if I honestly don't like the taste of beer? I'm more of a vino drinker?

A: You don't like beer at all? You just haven't tried the right one. Eventually we'll get there and figure out which flavor characteristics appeal to your taste. Maybe it's gingerbread. Maybe it's the chocolate stout. I've known so many people who told me, "I don't like beer." Well yeah, all you've had is the big macros. I don't really like those beers either. But if you give me a Jungle Room from Sun King or a Bleeding Heart IPA from Flat12, I'm happy as a lark.

Q: For people new to craft beers, what should they avoid at first?

A: The India pale ales (IPAs), the big hop flavors that are present in those beers a lot of times really turn on the Cabernet drinkers. [But like big Cabs, these are bold beers, maybe too bold and too hoppy (or bitter) for some.] Something like a stout or even an imperial stout, a Belgian strong ale or a Belgian dark strong ale, because folks that like the Cabs and the bigger, bolder flavors generally gravitate to big bold flavors in the beer too.

I would give them a taste of the Sin Bin, which is a beer we give everyone a taste of when they say, 'I love Blue Moon.' Well Sin Bin is a Belgian pale ale, but it's made with Belgian yeast. So you'll find some similar characteristics from the flavor profile in there.

click to enlarge Waldman recommends that new craft beer drinkers take advantage of the diverse selections available at local restaurants including Twenty Tap (pictured) and the Aristocrat, as well as visiting brewery taprooms. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Waldman recommends that new craft beer drinkers take advantage of the diverse selections available at local restaurants including Twenty Tap (pictured) and the Aristocrat, as well as visiting brewery taprooms.

Q: What's a growler?

A: A growler is a 64-ounce, generally glass (but sometimes steel or ceramic) container that is actually made for beer-to-go. You can bring it into any brewery ... well, not all of them fill other establishments' growlers. But a lot of them do. Sun King will fill other people's growlers, for example. Bring it in clean to a brewery. You purchase a fill for the growler, and then we'll fill it up, package it, and let you take it home with you for off-premises consumption. A lot of us also have 32-ounce growlers. So half growlers or "howlers" are an option in case you don't want to commit to a full 64 ounces. But 64 ounces is only four beers. It's not that much.

Q: What's my first step to getting into the craft beer scene?

A: Find a craft beer bar or a restaurant or pub that does a lot of craft beer, like Twenty Tap or ... lots of places are doing it now. When you go out to dinner, if you see something on the menu that you've never heard of, ask for a taste. Aristocrat has 60 taps. Twenty Tap has more than 30. And they're very happy to let you sample and to have a conversation to help you find the right beer. You can always come in to one of the taste areas in the breweries too. As long as we're not completely swamped and overly busy, at Triton we're happy to take whatever time people need to kind of learn the roadmap a little bit.

Q: What do you drink when you go out and the establishment doesn't have craft beers?

A: A number of people say, "I can't drink the macro beers anymore." And I'm one of them. I went out to eat with a friend, and the server said they had a good assortment of beers on tap. I got excited. "What's everything?" I asked, to which she replied, "Coors, Coors Light, Bud, Bud Light, Miller and Miller Lite." And I was like, "Okay, Thanks, I'll have water." My friend said, "Are you kidding?" I told him I absolutely wasn't. I knew I had a growler of Rail Splitter in my fridge. Why would I drink that and waste the calories on one of those beers? I'll save myself for the big flavor, thank you.

Q: What does ABV mean?

A: It stands for alcohol by volume. That's a really important term to know. It's basically a measurement of how strong the beer is. The bigger that number, the stronger the beer. A lot of the big beer companies' beers come in the threes. Most of our beers tend to be higher in alcohol content. Right now I think my lowest one is 4.5 and my biggest one is 11.2.

We have a Belgian-style triple, which is really phenomenal. It's the biggest beer that brewer John has made outside a barrel. He's made some bigger and aged some out in a bourbon barrel and in a wine barrel that were a little bigger, but it's phenomenal. It drinks like it's maybe 7 percent. It goes down really easy, which makes it very dangerous. We pour it in an 8-ounce glass, and usually we limit you to one. Unless you've got someone to drive you home, and then we might pour you a second one. But we also sell it to-go so people can take it home and enjoy it.

Q: And IBU? What's that?

A: International bitterness unit. That basically is a guideline to how bitter on the palate a beer might be. It's a deal where the bigger the number the more bitter it is. Craft beer drinkers will pretty quickly learn what their tolerance is for hops and how big a beer they like to drink from a hop perspective.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Dark beer is not stronger than light beer. It's a different color. Everybody has this perception that a dark beer is stronger, but that's not the case at all. The smallest beer that I have is a porter, 4.5 percent. The 11.2 percent beer I have looks like Bud Light. The color of the beer is not a good judge of how strong it is.

Q: How do you avoid becoming a craft beer snob?

A: Oh I think it's inevitable.

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About The Author

Jami Stall

Jami Stall

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Jami Stall, editor of award-winning Sky Blue Window, loves discovering all the arts and cultural activities around Central Indiana. When she isn't writing or shooting pics, she's out and about meeting the people and enjoying the events featured on SBW.

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