When April was officially proclaimed NC Beer Month, it gave me the perfect excuse to corral some friends and set out to investigate exactly what makes beer so wonderful.
As it turns out, just about everything.
To start, beer is plentiful and affordable. You can buy it in grocery stores and gas stations. Order a couple with a restaurant meal and it will cost a fraction of what a bottle of wine will set you back. If your encounters with beer never went any further than that, you could still rack up plenty of enjoyment.
But enticed by the news that North Carolina is now home to more than 300 breweries and brewpubs, four intrepid tasters joined me for several evenings to sample a bunch of local brews.
We sipped lagers and pilsners and porters and ciders and ales. Some were pale as a lemon peel and at least one looked as sludgy as old motor oil. One was brewed with coriander and another with coconut. Two were flavored with peanut butter and jelly; one had hints of raspberry jam and the other had notes of chocolate.
Coffee. Caramel. Jalapeños and poblanos. At which point someone asked: “What exactly is going on with these weird, new flavors?”
Well, they’re not really new. That’s according to Julia Skinner, the founder of Root, a food history and fermentation organization.
“Even though we think creative flavor profiles are a new thing, we’ve been experimenting with flavor for as long as beer has been around. There’s an absolutely endless variety throughout history, everything from medicinal to flavorful additives (or both),” she explained.
I knew fermented beverages had been part of ancient cultures, but I didn’t realize some archeologists believe beer played a crucial role in the rise of civilization itself.
Mesmerized by the sheer number of options at each stop we made, I relied on our servers’ recommendations. “Do you like ‘hoppy’ flavors?” one asked. “Citrusy?” (Yes and yes.) Lively discourse ensued.
My strategy was to order flights of four small glasses each. So did my friend Stephy.
“I'm picky,” the former home-brewer said. Robert, “a casual appreciator,” preferred to settle in with a single selection. Kristin pointed out something I hadn’t noticed before: the IBUs (international bitterness units) listed next to each beer’s name on the menu. The scale goes from 1 to 100; my favorite was a staggering 84.
If Tim, a well-traveled connoisseur, was embarrassed by all the questions I asked our servers, he never let it show.
As we sat on barstools, our conversations spilled beyond what was in our glasses as we laughed and joked and even got serious for a moment or two.
“Why don’t we do this all the time?” I asked.
Why don’t we? It was a day or so later when it dawned on me: The remarkable beers I’d sampled were as different as the people I’d chosen to accompany me on these tasting adventures. And that was the very best thing about the entire experience: spending time in the company of good people who both produce – and appreciate – something that’s truly great in our home state.
For info about NC Beer Month events by region, visit ncbeermonth.com.
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.