Beer 101: Tips from a Local Expert

Ray Swerdlow
Ray Swerdlow (Courtesy of Ray Swerdlow)

Ray Swerdlow has an encyclopedic knowledge of beer.

How did this nice Jewish Philly boy acquire such vast expertise? It began when he bought a business 20 years ago.

“I bought a beer store on Roosevelt Boulevard. This was at the cusp of the craft beer movement. So, in addition to stocking the typical macrobrews like Budweiser, Heineken and Coors, I began learning about microbrews from the brewers themselves, who were just starting out,” he said. “People from places like Victory and Yuengling would come to my store and do educational tastings with me, my staff and my customers. It was a wonderful time to get into the beer business.”

In addition to getting to know the brewers personally and cultivating strong relationships, Swerdlow took a deep dive into the procedure of tasting.

“Tasting beer is a process. It starts with the front end of your tongue, where your taste buds perceive sweetness,” he said. “As it rolls back, you appreciate the complexity and get the bitterness from the hops — the back part of your tongue tastes bitterness.”

The process of tasting beer differs from wine in that there is no expectoration corner. Swerdlow continued: “Wine professionals spit during tastings; that is part of their process. But beer needs to be swallowed to appreciate the whole flavor and determine the ‘finish.’ Is there a long finish? Does the flavor linger or is it a short finish in which flavor fades quickly?”

One of the biggest changes Swerdlow has observed in his two decades in the industry is the sheer volume of choices, with 7,000 brewers in the U.S. alone. Stouts, ales, India pale ales, lagers, doppelbocks — and that doesn’t even touch things like lambics, which are often infused with fruits or vegetables. And beer has become seasonal.

“Summer beers, which we also call ‘lawn mower beers,’ tend to be lower alcohol Pilsners and pale ales; they are light, bubbly and very straightforward,” he said. “Winter beers are heartier — often higher alcohol, sometimes spiced, complex and darker.”

In terms of emerging trends, Swerdlow describes the prevalence of session beers. These are lower alcohol brews, around 4 percent, which deliver a more interesting flavor and depth than many of the other lower alcohol beers. These are designed to be enjoyed over a longer period of time with less risk of intoxication — hence the name — a long “session” of drinking beer.

He also has seen growth in sours and goses, the latter of which contain salt. A particular favorite gose is Sea Quench by Dogfish Head, a New Jersey microbrewery. This type of beer is best served as an aperitif or palate cleanser.

“Goses and sours have such a unique and particular taste that they stand best on their own,” Swerdlow said.

But there are endless possibilities in pairing beer with food.

Swerdlow waxes poetic here: “Beer pairs beautifully with food if you do it right. You can go in one of two directions; you either contrast or you complement.”

So, for example, if you are serving a rich, saucy Indian or Thai curry or spicy Mexican food, he recommends a crisp, clean, spritzy Pilsner or lager. This cleanses your palate, and washes the intense flavors and oils of the food.

For German dishes like sausages, wursts and schnitzel, choose a lager.

Hearty traditional stews warrant a dark, toasty stout.

Lighter dishes like simply baked or grilled fish pair best with pilsners or pale ales, which don’t overwhelm the food.

Tomato-based dishes like spaghetti with marinara sauce do best with richer lagers, which cut the acidity of the dish.

Shepherd’s Pie, potpie, or beef Wellington do best with porters; these are strong, dark and robust beers but not terribly heavy.

For the classic burger and beer marriage, Swerdlow recommends a Märzen lager.

Märzen lagers are Bavarian beers traditionally served at Oktoberfest. They are brewed in March, then placed in barrels to age for six months. Märzen lagers are medium- to full-bodied and vary in color from pale to amber to darker brown. They are robust enough to hold up against burgers, steaks and other meaty meals. For lamb dishes, lager is recommended; for chicken, try a lighter doppelbock or IPA.

Beer with dessert? Yes!

For a flourless chocolate torte or a rich chocolate dessert, Swerdlow recommends an oatmeal stout or imperial stout. They both have a slight sweetness and sufficient body to hold up against the cake, but they cut through richness.

For Middle Eastern food like hummus and kebabs, Swerdlow recommends the classic Israeli brew, Gold Star. Anderson Valley Lager out of California is another good match for the flavors of the Levant.

Schmaltz Brewing and He-Brew are two noteworthy labels that are strictly kosher.

Swerdlow unpacked the kosher angle: “By definition and ingredients, all beer is kosher. Malt, barley, hops and yeast are kosher. The issue arises when other ingredients are introduced, such as different types of yeasts to boost the fermentation process or fruit syrups for flavor. These may contain elements that render them non-kosher. And, of course, the facility itself has to be certified kosher.”


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