Working behind a bar as a craft beer server, I get asked what my favorite beer is all the time. Unless I'm enamored with a particular beer at the moment, it is a difficult question to answer, with more factors weighing into my response than there are beer styles in the world. To choose a "favorite" beer is to elevate it above thousands of others, and in my case, the most noteworthy beers I've had the pleasure of experiencing have been "right place, right time" affairs with conditions impossible to recreate. Of course, there are some craft beers guaranteed to strike the right note with me, but for most, the following factors play the biggest roles in how I enjoy them.
Seasons and Weather
Though science says alcohol doesn't actually warm us up, my experiences suggest otherwise. When it's dark and cold outside, I reach for a Russian imperial stout or boozy winter ale to warm my bones and my soul. Take the same beer into the dripping heat of an Arizona summer and it'll turn to syrup, so when the mercury begins rising, I'll spring for a citrusy IPA, tart wheat beer or lager instead. The next time you're faced with bitter cold or extreme heat, try a few different beer styles to see if your palate has changed.
Food and Pairings
One of the first rules of drinking alcohol we learn—if not through advice than from experience—is to avoid drinking on an empty stomach. That imperial IPA may smell lovely, but if I haven't eaten for six hours, it's going to be a very short drinking session. Better to go with a session IPA. Food pairing is equally important, as you certainly won't taste the subtleties of an acidic fruit sour through beef stew or chocolate volcano cake. But take that same cake and pair it with a sweet raspberry lambic or a hefty imperial stout and you'll experience something bordering on bliss as the sweetness of the dessert conceals that of the beer, giving the brew's subtler flavors room to blossom on your palate.
I don't have many rules when it comes to beer, but "flavor escalation" is one I always respect. If I plan to drink more than one beer, I generally begin with the lightest to ensure I experience all of its subtleties before moving on to more intense beers. Avoid palate fatigue by changing up styles, drinking water between beers, and saving boozier brews for later in a session. You'll see the same approach used in wine and beer tastings around the world.
Price and Research
Not to be forgotten is the ever-present matter of price, which for craft beer can increase tenfold from one beer to the next. Few things put a bigger damper on a drinking session than discovering that the twenty-dollar sour ale from the funky brewery with the cool label needs more aging before it's worth revisiting. Ask for advice from store/bar employees, look up beers on websites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, and when in doubt, find someone to split pricier beers with you so you're not stuck with twenty-five ounces of disappointment.
Perhaps the most important aspect of craft beer, the company we take when consuming "the people's beverage" can shape everything about how we enjoy it. Though few beers are likely to rival that rare beer your friend brought home from that experimental brewery outside Portland, there's likely a cornucopia of world-class beers awaiting you and your friends at the nearest beer bar or bottle shop. Whether you're ordering by the glass or sharing bottles, a good set of drinking buddies will ensure every beer is an adventure worth remembering.