You’re not imagining it: There are more styles and brands of beer than ever before. Not only does the United States currently have its highest number of breweries in history—at more than 8,800—but the variety of beer sold in stores has exploded.
Beer distributors, who buy beer from breweries and deliver it to stores, have vastly increased the mix of beers they sell. In 1996, the typical beer distributor carried 196 kinds of beer. By 2018, the typical beer distributor carried 1,174. For shoppers who don’t consider themselves beer aficionados, the sheer number of options on the shelf today can be overwhelming.
We know flummoxed shoppers don’t always make the best purchases. Whether it’s at the butcher counter or in the beer aisle, you want to come prepared with an idea of what you like, what you’re looking for, and where to find it.
Here are a few simple steps to become more confident in the beer cooler.
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1. Shop with a Plan
It’s difficult to grocery shop without a list, or without at least a general idea of the type of meals you’re going to be cooking that week. Likewise, staring at the beer aisle without a game plan increases the odds of feeling bombarded by too many choices.
Before you enter the grocery store, take a minute to think about the occasions during which you’ll be drinking the beer you're shopping for. Are you shopping for a backyard cookout? A romantic dinner? After-work unwinding? A camping trip?
The occasions you’re shopping for will help determine the packaging and styles of beer you want to focus on.
2. Consider Packaging and ABV
Just as there are more beer brands than ever, there are also more beer package styles than ever: six-packs of 12-ounce cans and bottles, single-serve cans of varying sizes, four-packs of 16-ounce beers, etc. Each is suited for certain occasions.
Beer in glass bottles, for example, isn’t ideal for beaches. Beer packaged in larger, 19.2-ounce “stovepipe” cans might be a convenient choice for a hike or bike ride when carrying multiple smaller cans would be unwieldy. Larger packages of 15 or 30 cans make sense for a party.
Also consider beers’ alcohol by volume (ABV) and how that fits into the occasion you’re shopping for. (Legally, the vast majority of beer you’ll find on grocery store shelves has to list its ABV somewhere on the package.) Mass-produced lagers such as Budweiser, Corona, and Coors generally have an ABV of 4.5 to 5 percent. But craft beers and some hard seltzers can have ABVs in the range of 7 to 10 percent, nearly double that of a standard beer. Packaging matters, too: A 12-ounce can of an 8 percent ABV beer packs less of a punch than a 16-ounce can of the same beer.
Keep in mind how much of a buzz you intend to feel from your beer, and check ABVs accordingly.
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3. Translate Flavors into Style
With occasion, packaging, and ABV in mind, you can begin to narrow down the beer shelf. The next step is to consider what types of flavors—and therefore, beer styles—you’re looking for.
- Do you prefer something roasty, with notes of chocolate and coffee? That would suggest a stout, porter, or a dark lager.
- Or maybe you like a beer that’s tart and fruity, in which case you might enjoy a gose brewed with fruit.
- Perhaps you want something clean, crisp, refreshing, and relatively neutral in flavor—steer yourself toward blond ales, kolsches, or pilsners.
- With IPAs as the most popular craft beer style, many drinkers are interested in the myriad tropical fruit, citrus, pine, herbal, and floral flavors that specific varieties of hops deliver to IPAs.
It’s not always obvious what a beer will taste like just based on its name or packaging. But more breweries are, thankfully, adding “flavor cues” to packaging. Sometimes that’s via images of fruit or other foods or descriptors such as “tart,” “tropical,” or “juicy” on the packaging.
When in doubt, ask a store associate or friend for suggestions. Once you’ve identified the flavors you like in beer, you can better ask for recommendations. “I’m looking for a beer that’s a little toasty, not too hoppy, and not too high in alcohol” will yield better recommendations than “What’s the best beer you have?” (By the way, I’d suggest a Vienna lager.)
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4. Seek Freshness
Like other groceries, beer is a perishable product. When beer goes “bad,” it won’t make you sick the way old meat or eggs could, but it will taste stale. Beer becomes stale through exposure to light, oxygen, and heat, which degrade the organic compounds that make beer smell and taste great. Stale beer generally tastes like paper or cardboard; light-struck or heat-struck beer can taste “skunky” or like a musty basement.
What this means for shoppers is that how beer is handled and stored matters. In a perfect world, beer would be kept refrigerated from the moment it’s packaged to the moment it’s consumed. Given the current supply chain, that’s not always possible, though more breweries are insisting their beer be refrigerated in warehouses and stores. If you can, purchase beer that’s in a store’s coolers rather than on warm shelves. And if the packages are stacked by a window in the sunlight? Beware.
Also, check date codes if you can. Most breweries stamp a date on their beer cans or packages indicating either when it was packaged or when it’s best consumed by. Some of these, unfortunately, aren’t presented in the standard date/month/year format but in Julian dates or other codes that make them less scrutable.
Certain beer styles can withstand aging or even improve with age, but most don’t. Generally, consume beers within three to six months of packaging or before their best-by date.
A final word of advice: You know your palate best. If you like a certain beer or style, write it down or snap a photo on your phone. Over time, you might see that you consistently like beers of a certain type or that a handful of breweries produce reliable hits. Not every beer is going to be the best beer you drink, but you can certainly stack the odds in your favor.