Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the world with over 117 variations and styles to choose from, according to Taste Atlas, and that doesn't include beer brewed from a frat house or someone’s apartment. Beer, like all things alcohol, is an acquired taste. It might taste bitter for the first time, but it’s supposed to be that way, depending on the type and style. The main thing to focus on is the flavors you like. In time, you’ll find the right beer for you and get used to the bitter taste. This beer guide is full of tips and food pairings to help choose your first drink.

#SpoonTip: No matter what you're drinking, make sure to always drink responsibly. Spoon does not promote binge or underage drinking.

The Beer Basics

“The more chances you have to drink different beers, the better way to understand what you like,” said Beth Demmon, a freelance writer, author, and certified beer and cider cicerone.

With that in mind, don’t let pressure or overthinking get in the way of trying something new. Demmon assures there’s no room for judgment when it comes to drinking beer, cider, wine, or anything.

“Don’t listen to anybody but yourself,” said Demmon. “You’ll never know unless you try it.”

Before we get into tips, let’s do a quick vocabulary lesson. Just like in school, vocabulary is important! These are a couple of “beer terms” to be familiar with. 

ABV: Stands for alcohol by volume and measures how much alcohol is in a contained drink. You’ll see this percentage on cans, bottles, and containers. According to the American Addiction Center, a beer contains between 4 to 7% alcohol, with a standard 12-ounce bottle having 5%. Some drinks’ ABV is much higher than 7%, making them more alcoholic than average, but it’ll get you drunk pretty quickly.

IBU: Stands for “International Bitterness Units”. Brewers use this to measure a beer’s bitterness by the number of bittering compounds from hops. On the IBU scale, five is very low and 120 is very high. According to the Brew Enthusiasts, most beers fall between 15 to 80.

Hop: A green cone-shaped flower from the plant Humulus Lupulus. It brings flavor, bitterness, and stableness to a beer, adds aroma, and increases shelf life. Regarding taste, it depends on the type of plant a hop grows from. For example, Cascade and Centennial hops have a fruity and floral flavor, the Citra hop has tropical and citrus flavors, and Chinook and Mosaic are piney hops with some fruity undertones.

Malt: A grainy, caramel-like ingredient that makes a beer sweet or dry.

Body: This is the mouthful of a beer, which is a way to describe the beer's thickness and thinness. So, if a beer has a low body, it’s a thin beer. If a beer has a high body, it’s a thick beer.

Craft beer: These are beers from independent breweries, not those under corporate giants like Molson Coors and Heineken. Samuel Adams, for example, is a craft beer under the Boston Beer Company.

When drinking alcohol, it’s important to practice moderation and drink lots of water to keep you from being too dehydrated.

“Have one less beer than you think you’ll need or want,” said Demmon.

Beer Types

Now for the fun part! As mentioned earlier, there’s a multitude of beer types, and with that comes a different taste, some fruity, some bitter, some sweet. There’s no need to pick a random option off the menu the next time you’re out and want a drink. Finding the beer for you will take some time, but knowing the taste beforehand might make it easier. 

Ale is one of the major beer categories and styles. They are fermented or brewed at high temperatures between 60 and 72°F with top-fermenting yeast, yeast that floats to the top of a drinking tank to ferment. Generally, ale is fruity, aromatic, more flavorful, and robust. Types of ale include a porter, stout, and IPA. Ale goes great with a wide range of food, but you can never go wrong with a classic hamburger or cheeseburger. 

Lager Beer is the other major beer category and is the most popular. Unlike ales, lagers are fermented or brewed at low temperatures between 41°F and 50°F with bottom-fermented yeast, yeast that sinks to the bottom of a drinking tank to ferment. Types of lager include Dunkel, Schwarzbier, and Czech Lager to name a few. American-style lagers’ alcohol content typically ranges from 4.5 to 13% with a bitterness between five and 15. Because this drink is a bit heavy, pair it with light dishes like a salad, fish, or grilled chicken.

IPA (Indian Pale Ale) is a “hoppy beer style” within the pale ale category. It was popular in England in 1815 and was known for exporting beer to India. IPAs have a variety of styles like West Coast, New England, American IPAs (APAs), English, double and imperial. Best pair them with tacos, steaks, and anything spicy to balance out an IPA’s sweetness or bold desserts like carrot cake to compliment the sweetness.

Taste, alcohol level, and bitterness vary, but IPAs overall have a malty flavor and full force of hops, masking the taste of alcohol. If you want a smooth, creamy-ish beer with a rich blend of pine and grapefruit flavors, try a Belgium Voodoo. Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing’s beer can reminds me of Sierra Mist’s soda can before rebranding to Starry. It’s a bit bitter, but if you like tropical fruit juices, you’ll love this drink.

Pilsner is under the Lager umbrella with a recognizable figure with dense white foam at the top, and the body is a golden color. The alcohol content is around average (4 to 5.3%), and its bitterness is slightly higher (25 to 40), making it easier to drink. A Pilsner Urquell is a great one to start and pair with light dishes like veggie sandwiches and salad to feel full, buzzed, and refreshed.

Dunkel is a pub classic from the German state of Bavaria. It’s a lager-style beer made with dark-roasted malts, and a light touch of hops, and comes in flavors like nuts, chocolate, coffee, and bread. The alcohol level is around average (4.8 to 5.3%), and bitterness is around average (16 to 25). I recommend Erdinger Weissbräu’s Dunkelweizen for those who like the taste of caramel, nuts, and fresh bread. I recommend pairing a Dunkel with hearty, spicy dishes to balance sweet with savory, or a pomegranate tart with walnuts for a sweet touch. 

Stout is a dark, sweet ale made of roasted malt. Stout has many varieties like Dry Irish, milk, oatmeal, coffee, and chocolate. The alcohol level is higher than average (7 to 8%), and bitterness ranges from 25 to 80. Well-known stouts include Guinness, Murphy’s, and Marston’s Oyster Stout. For people with a sweet tooth, stouts are the best beer to pair with dessert. For example, a Guinness Draught, a classic dry Irish stout with a low ABV and hints of chocolate, roasted malt, and grains would go perfectly with a piece of chocolate cake.

Beer is a diverse and complex drink with a rich history and many variations. But picking your first one doesn’t have or needs to be complicated. It's important to drink responsibly and take time to explore the different types and flavors of beer to find the perfect one for you. Whether you prefer ales or lagers, IPAs or stouts, the key is to focus on the flavors you enjoy and never let anyone judge your choices. So, go ahead and try something new, and remember to always drink in moderation and stay hydrated. Bottoms up!