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The craft beer aisle can be a dizzying place, especially if you don’t know what you want. Worse, if you have the unenviable task of having to pick up beer for a mixed group of friends, the pressure increases exponentially in direct proportion to the number of people you’re buying beer for.

Many of us want to please people with our craft beer selections, even if they aren’t normally our “thing,” but there can be an intimidation factor with so many different beers to choose from.

However, let’s take a second to appreciate that sentiment. A decade ago no one cared what beers a person brought to a get-together, but in the intervening years craft beer has become something of an inroad to conversation.

The very fact that many people think about what beer to choose and bring to a party is a cultural shift that is worth noting. Increasingly, craft beer comes with a statement about the person that bought it, in the way that bringing a wine you like has said something about your tastes at dinner parties for decades.

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There is an important difference, though, in that craft beer is a little more communal and a little more diverse. Moreover, people still are pretty comfortable trying beers, deciding they’re not for them and not feeling bad about it. With so many choices, people aren’t afraid to keep trying different beers but also are comfortable dismissing a beer they’re not nuts about. It says a lot about how far craft beer has come.

Unfortunately, that you might worry you’ll disappoint with a selection shows how far craft beer has gone (it also shows that you totally need new friends). With beer as much as with any gift, it truly is the thought that counts.

Learning to get a sense of what you are likely to enjoy takes practice, but there are some approaches and attitudes that can help make the next trip to the store a little less intimidating. The most obvious one is to treat yourself to a tasting at a local brewery. Ask the server which beers are available in bottles and cans and try them first.

Here on Delmarva, there are very few breweries that don’t have a few super-accessible beers on tap that also are pretty widely distributed. Think of it this way: brewers are a little like musicians. If you generally like what they do, then even when they surprise you it will be a pleasant surprise.

While brewers aren’t afraid to fail big in the tasting room, pretty much anything a brewery bottles or cans is going to be well within the parameters you experienced at the brewery itself.

Of course, there is something to be said for the pleasant surprise of having no idea what a beer will be like. If you can find a place that allows you to make your own six packs, that is always a great way to go. It takes the pressure off by a factor of six (although it makes it tough if you still have to choose from 30 different beers).

Trying a bunch of different beers over time will give you a baseline idea. If you are among the unfortunate people who still are looking, and there are millions of you, remember that it is supposed to be fun to try new things, not a chore. 

That is what sets craft beer apart at everything from a football party to a potluck dinner: the attitude of adventure and exploration. It is one of the few remaining meal experiences on which we’re willing to take a chance with the full knowledge that we might be disappointed. On the upside, this might be one of the best seasons in the history of brewing to decide to try and get a handle on craft beer.

As the porters and stouts start coming out of the woodwork in anticipation of cooler weather, we likely will have access to an unprecedented number of beers that are not just variations of an IPA. If you have been put off by craft beer in the past, this is the season to try it. Porters, ambers and stouts are not all high-alcohol, heavy beers. There are a bunch that are, though, so check the label.

Not all dark beers are very bitter. Many will have a chocolate, coffee or caramel flavor. Some will have all three. When they are bitter, it is much more black coffee bitter or high-end chocolate bitter, which is something people find more palatable than the “hoppiness” that turns some would-be drinkers off.

It is really hard to find a bad porter or stout, but it is a lot of fun trying.

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