A Guide to Navigating the Craft Beer World

Tips for discovering and tasting new brews from Brix Bottleshop’s Raymond Dickinson

This beer is rounded, it has that silky mouth feel to it,” Raymond Dickinson said, swirling the hazy yellow beer in his glass. “There’s a core of pineapple juice going on and you can smell it, too. It’s got that tropical nose.”

Dickinson’s descriptions are detailed and vivid, like listening to a certified sommelier sip on a Boudreaux red. Which makes sense, because Dickinson is also a certified sommelier.

But in this instance, he’s describing a beer poured from a neon-labeled can. It’s a hazy oatmeal IPA called Lost in Space that showed up at Brix Bottleshop in downtown Kalispell two days earlier, and he is hooked.

If you selected a different craft beer every day, you might be able to make it through the selection at Brix Bottleshop within a year, if it were static. Instead, not a day goes by that a new brew isn’t delivered for Dickinson to try.

“A lot of people are surprised — they don’t have any idea this world of beer exists,” said Dickinson, manager and soon to be owner of Brix. “Their mind just explodes.”

Entering a brewery taproom and deciding between a dozen different taps can be daunting for a casual beer drinker; gazing at the 350 options lining the shelves of Brix seems impossible.

Rather than a harrowing trial, Dickinson sees it as a celebration of the possibilities that abound in the world of beer.

“We’re really living in a golden era,” he said. “The quality level of beer is super high.”

When customers are first figuring out their beer taste, Dickinson tries to determine what kind of palate they have and instill trust that he knows what he’s talking about.

“People can be insecure — they don’t like to come across as ignorant — so they tend to be a little guarded,” Dickinson said. “But they have to realize that everyone has different levels of learning and different levels of appreciation. Just because I like certain things doesn’t mean you have to.”

One tip from Dickinson is to find a higher quality version of what someone already drinks. For the old-school drinker accustomed to a six-pack of Coors, that usually means a pilsner, or cream ale. The lighter beer emulates the style of the standard domestic: light body, muted flavors.

Once customers are accustomed to drinking quality craft beer, Dickinson advises trying as many different brews as possible. Instead of returning to a favorite brewery or specific beer, he recommends constantly seeing what’s new and different.

“The more chances your palate has to experience something new, the better off you’re going to be,” Dickinson said. “It’s like explaining what a strawberry tastes like to someone who’s never eaten a strawberry. You only really know a flavor or style if you’ve tried it yourself.”

The current trend in beer that has customers searching for the newest options, and pushes breweries to release those options, is an evolution of India pale ales (IPA).

Dickinson often sees beer drinkers who avoid IPAs because of the association with a hoppy, bitter flavor profile. Many taprooms keep up this outdated perception by listing the International Bitterness Units (IBUs) of a brew on menus. IBUs are an inexact, perception-based measurement of the bitterness of a beer that don’t indicate actual flavor at all.

“People got tired of having bitter beers,” Dickinson said. “So now there’s this move to hazy and juicy IPAs, clean refreshing beers that don’t leave your mouth with a bitter aftertaste.”

Brewers experimenting with this style of beer change how and when they add hops to beer and can mess around with the different grain bills during the fermentation process.

“Once you soften the bitter notes, you let other flavors squeeze through and become more prominent,” Dickinson said. Regarding the Lost in Space hazy IPA he’d finished, he pointed out the addition of oatmeal, which limited the bitterness to a subtle aftertaste. Instead, the tropical pineapple flavor is dominant.

Figuring out flavor profiles might seem a little overdone for someone just looking for a good after-work drink, but Dickinson tries to counter that idea.

“With wine, and now with beer, there is this air of pretentiousness that scares people a little bit,” Dickinson said. “We want to alleviate the pretentiousness and just bring it down to a basic level.”

One layer of seeming pretention in the world of craft beer is glassware.

“Don’t buy a beer like this and then drink it out of a can,” Dickenson said, indicating most of what he sells. “You’re not doing it justice.”

It seems a small change, but it makes a difference. If you can, explore beyond a pint glass and opt for glasses specifically designed to highlight different qualities and styles of beer.

Pilsners or German wheat beers are often poured in tall slender glasses to focus the nose and show off the color. Bulbous glasses, or tulips, offer wide dispersion in the glass and funnel the aromas of IPAs and dark beer.

Each shape unconsciously changes the way a drinker tilts their head and purses their lips to drink, enhancing each sip.

“A big portion of the beer is being able to smell beer,” Dickenson said, holding up another bulbous glass, this one filled with a dark beer.

“It smells like coffee, it’s nutty and roasty, and there might be some toffee in there,” he said. “That enhances what I’m going to taste.”

If you don’t want to sniff and swirl your beer, that’s OK. In the craft beer world, there’s something for everyone. Don’t like the taste of beer? Try a sour ale. Want a true classic? There are German breweries that have operated for a thousand years.

No matter the drinking preference, beer culture continues evolving.

“Four months ago, I tasted a beer and thought it was the cat’s meow, the peak, but because someone else is upping the bar, that’s already changed,” Dickinson said. “The more consumers experiment and push their palate, the more brewers have to keep raising the bar.”