Most craft beer drinkers didn’t always drink craft beer. In fact, the vast majority of beer consumers still don’t drink craft beer. But it’s likely that someone you know – maybe even yourself – now drinks craft beer.
When you ask a craft beer drinker to pinpoint the beer, or style of beer, that inspired their craft conversion, most can recall the beer that started the switch. This “gateway beer” is often described as transformative and unforgettable.
[See Sharon Cantillon's photo gallery of local craft beers]
“A gateway beer would be a beer that both appeals to novice craft beer drinkers as something they would like to try and still meets their expectations of a good tasting beer,” said Matt Kahn, president and co-founder of Big Ditch Brewing Company.
“For me it was Guinness. I remember drinking that beer and thinking, ‘Wow, so this is what beer is supposed to taste like?’ ”
Jason Crossett, lead brewer at New York Beer Project in Lockport, said a gateway beer is “an easy-drinking beer that has just enough flavors and aromas to pique your interest.
“Initially, I found the bitterness of India pale ales to be distasteful, but as I continued to try them, I became accustomed to the bitterness and eventually grew a real liking for them,” Crossett added.
Some people have developed a deeper appreciation of the gateway beer.
“It opens the pearly gates of beer heaven and one reaches ‘beervana.’ Or maybe a gateway beer segues from one beer preference into the appreciation of another style of beer,” theorized Matt Redpath, head brewer at Woodcock Brothers Brewing in Wilson. “When I enjoyed my first authentic German beer, it was like a light went on.”
Nationally, craft breweries have averaged an 11 percent growth over the past decade, and continue to chip away at a market share that remains dominated by “mainstream lagers” such as Budweiser, Coors and Miller.
Locally, Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian still occupy significant space in your local beer store, pubs and at sporting events. This is not unusual, as nearly nine out of every 10 beers sold in America are not craft beer varieties.
Chris Herr, head brewer at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, said a gateway beer involves a departure from normality.
“It might be a beer you’ve never tried because you’re convinced you won’t like it – until you try it. The beauty truly lies in the eyes of the beer holder,” Herr said.
A gateway beer should be close to what you would normally drink in terms of color and style.
“It puts you just out of your normal comfort zone and shifts your tastes in a new direction,” said Andrew Hardin, brewer at Community Beer Works. “For me, it was an Amber Ale called Fat Tire. This was the first time I really appreciated a beer I was drinking for the aroma and taste.”
There’s a good chance you can now find that gateway beer here. With about 20 breweries now open in Erie and Niagara counties, and each having anywhere from eight to 20 rotating beer selections on tap, your choices are essentially endless. Deciding to purchase a local beer has advantages, as well.
“Comparing locally made craft beer to other beers is like comparing fresh bread you buy at your local corner bakery to Wonder Bread,” said Kahn of Big Ditch. “The Wonder Bread will be more uniform in flavor but likely more devoid of it as well. Locally made craft beer is fresh and exciting to the senses.”
“Nobody can tell you what you like, but if you want a beer that is a real experience with complexity, depth, culture and soul you may enjoy a well-made, local beer,” said Clay Keel, chief brewing officer at 42 North Brewing in East Aurora.
Herr points out the economic reasons to consider, as well.
“The local beer producer lives in your community. When you buy his or her beer, you help pay a salary and contribute to the local economy,” he said. “You may even find your new favorite beer. It’s truly a win-win.”
From a business perspective, it makes sense that breweries always offer a gateway beer.
“Breweries should keep a balanced portfolio of beers on tap and try to have at least one beer that is not quite so strong in flavor and/or alcoholic strength,” Kahn said.
But offering a gateway beer does come with a risk. Producers of craft beer are aware that if a customer has a beer they don’t enjoy, they are unlikely to return.
“The No. 1 focus when serving a beer is the quality of what’s in the glass and how and where it’s presented,” Keel said. “Craft beer is an experience – not a social club or elite group to join.”
For the adventurous person, craft beer can provide emotional satisfaction, as well.
“Life is supposed to be a fun, radical journey, right? Craft beer is a part of that magic,” said Jared Lewinski, brewmaster at New York Beer Project in Lockport.
The term gateway beer may soon be a phrase of the past. Craft beer is readily available and there is an increased focus on awareness and education. Customers are switching to craft beer at a younger age. Soon, there may not be a gateway beer at all – just good beer.
So how do you find that gateway beer?
“You can totally taste around and find a beer you love. The only way to know for sure is to get out there and try it,” Hardin said.
To help you with that, here is a list of local gateway beers that you may enjoy.
(4.2 percent ABV, cream ale)
From: Community Beer Works
Cream ales are about as American as baseball and hot dogs. The recipe for Larry has been tweaked by Community Beer Works over the years. Larry contains a tad more body than you would normally find in a cream ale and makes an appropriate summer thirst quencher.
“Larry is very friendly to those just trying to break down the wall to the world of craft beer,” Hardin said.
Try it if you like: Genesee Cream Ale
You may also like: Hamburg Brewing White Corner
Coffee Milk Stout
(5.8 percent, stout)
From: New York Beer Project
Several different types of coffee beans and roast levels were tried for this beer. Ultimately, a blend of two lighter roast beans – Mexican and Brazilian – were chosen.
The brewery adds coffee beans that are freshly roasted by New Day Coffee in North Tonawanda within a day of brewing, and serves this beer on nitrogen for a creamier mouth feel.
“Stouts have always been one of my favorite styles, and really helped propel me into the wider realms of styles that craft beer has to offer,” Lewinski said.
Try it if you like: Guinness Stout
You may also like: 12 Gates Brewing Coffee Porter
Read more: Feature on the New York Beer Project
(4.8 percent, hoppy golden ale)
From: Big Ditch Brewing
Low Bridge was originally brewed as a German-style Pilsner before the brewery opened, but Big Ditch found it could make the beer as an ale and still achieve the flavor profile it was looking for. This beer is brewed to be bright and crisp, with a light biscuit and cracker malt flavor, and floral and lemon hop notes.
“Low Bridge is the beer our brewers reach for at the end of a long day; easy drinking, and super refreshing,” Kahn said.
Try it if you like: Molson Golden, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
You may also like: Old First Ward Brewing Not a Pale Ale
(5 percent, lager)
Woodcock Brothers sought to design a beer that would allow customers to approach not only this beer, but craft beer in general. Niagara Lager seeks to capture the imagination of the blue-collar and light lager drinker by providing a local product.
“I incorporated much of my understanding of German brewing techniques and used Pilsner malt to create a beer that is easily approached and full of flavor,” Redpath said.
Try it if you like: Labatt Blue, Coors Light
You may also like: Pan American Brewery Lackawanna Lager, Gordon Biersch Golden Export
(4.5 percent, German amber/altbier)
Trainwreck is an Oktoberfest-style beer with a clean finish that’s sweet and malty with a hint of chocolate.
“It’s great for experienced beer drinkers and those looking to get into craft beer, which is why it has been our best seller since we opened,” Herr said.
Try it if you like: Sam Adams Boston Lager
You may also like: Flying Bison Rusty Chain
Read more: Bar Tab on Pearl Street Grill & Brewery
(5.4 percent, Belgian wit)
From: 42 North Brewing
This beer was designed to be as authentic as possible and true to Belgian roots. Wallonia Wit is brewed with a blend of barley and wheat and is supplemented with orange peel, coriander, a pinch of ginger and a twist of New Zealand hops.
“Wallonia Wit is a dry, drinkable and approachable beer in any season,” Keel said.
Try it if you like: Blue Moon, Shock Top
You may also like: Resurgence Brewing Loganberry Wit, Ellicottville Brewing Blueberry Wheat
Read more: Photos from 42 North's grand-opening party
Kevin Wise, Ph.D. is a professor of Biology at Trocaire College who maintains a blog on beer science and beer reviews and can be reached at: www.buffalobeerbiochemist.com; Twitter: @BuffaloBeerBio; Untappd: @BuffaloBeerBiochemist