I have a confession to make: I, Simon Thibault, a 37-year-old maritimer, did not drink beer until last year.
Ever since I was legally old enough to buy the stuff, I always passed by it in the liquor store. I didn't get the appeal of drinking something that tasted bitter, yeasty and questionably palatable. But over the years, I would hear people wax poetic on the complexities of various beers, talking about flavours and aromas, tasting notes and visual appeal.
I've been working as a food writer for a few years now, and I felt like I was cheating myself out of some kind of wonderful gastronomic experience. So over the past year, I have made a conscious choice to enjoy beer. Not just as professional research (just like a political writer should know his politics, a food writer should know his food and drink), but also because beer can be quite nice, if you know how to approach it.
"The problem with beer is that if you're not used to malt flavours, you're shit out of luck," says Alex Pearson, the retail manager at Garrison and a self-professed professional beer appreciator. That toasty flavour can be a big stumbling block for beginner beer drinkers, he says. Over at Garrison, the staff usually suggests a Raspberry Wheat Ale for novices to the world of beer. And indeed, a fruit-flavoured ale was the first beer that made me ask "Please sir, can I have some more?"
"There are flavours other than the malt or the hops," says Pearson. "It's almost there to distract you from it. It's a little easier because there are flavours to wrap your head around."
But this is but one entry points into the world of beer, and the one thing I kept hearing over and over was not to limit myself in my options.
It's advice that Andrew Connell from Stillwell echoed when I asked him for his thoughts on the matter. "Don't decide straight away that you don't like dark, hoppy or bitter beers," he says. "There's a massive range of beer styles and thus flavours that you're missing out on if you're that hasty." Connell notes that he used to drink exclusively cider, but that his foray into beer soon became an obsession. "Open-mindedness is key," he says. "I wouldn't avoid anything."
Leaving the door open to all kinds of possibilities also leaves it open to perhaps more critical judgment. That's where Jeff Pinhey comes in. He's a BJCP national level beer judge, co-founder of the Brewnosers Home Brewing and Beer Appreciation Club in Halifax and is well known amongst beer circles in town. Pinhey suggests that one should approach beer the same way that one would approach any food or drink–with a discerning palate. "The taste should be balanced in a good beer," he says. "Yes some beers are designed to exhibit a specific element like hops, malt or an added specialty ingredient. But even then you still have to enjoy it. The finish should be clean. Crisp even for some styles." But the most important thing of all, he says, is that it should leave you wanting more.
It seems that the need for more is the key to understanding and appreciating beer. It's a common refrain heard over and over again. "There are so many available here in Nova Scotia now it will take a while to try them all," says Pinhey. "I guarantee you'll find something amazing. Maybe something that challenges you preconception of what beer is. And that's something a novice gets to experience a lot more than an old beer geek like me."