The production and purchase of craft beer continues to rise despite a decline in overall beer sales. Although beer has been consumed for thousands of years, it is the recent explosion of highly versatile and unique brews that have many wondering what exactly is craft beer. According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewery is defined as an innovative, community-based brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels of beer annually, which is only about 3 percent of the annual beer sales in the U.S. In comparison, Anheuser-Busch, one of the nation’s largest brewers, produces around 125 million barrels each year and holds almost 50 percent of the retail sales in the U.S.

Despite the stronghold that larger breweries have on the U.S. and global markets, craft beer continues to grow in popularity. What is it that makes craft beer so special? The name in itself is the first clue to why these brews have such a stronghold in today’s market. Beer making is truly a craft and those who dedicate themselves to the production of small batches of brew are able to create extremely distinctive flavors that often merge traditional ingredients and recipes with new and favorable elements. These small batches of fresh, artisan-made brews entice beer drinkers to take a sip of something new while expanding their beer-drinking palates.

With all their uniqueness, fruitfulness and variety, craft beer is beginning a new era in the dining experience. Wine and spirits once dominated food pairing, but craft beers have now taken the spotlight. People are experimenting with food and beer combinations and quickly realizing that the diversity of craft beer makes for an endless blend of food pairings. To get started, choose combinations of beer and food that either compliment or contrast with one another. Keep sweet beers with sweet foods and tart beers with tart foods. Another good rule of thumb is the more hoppy bitterness a beer has, the livelier the meal needs to be in order to hold its own according to the Brewers Association. We’ve listed a few examples of food and brew combinations below, but for a more complete and detailed list check out the Brewers Association website at: www.brewersassociation.org

Amber Ales – Burgers, wings, pizza, chicken, seafood

Hefeweizen – Soups, salads, sushi

Lagers – BBQ, hamburgers, chili

India Pale Ale – Spicy foods and curry

Pilsener – Salad, chicken, salmon, sausage

Stout – Roasted, smoked and grilled foods, oysters, chocolate

Although beer is far from being touted as a health food, it does have some unappreciated nutritional benefits when consumed in moderation. Red wine often steals the spotlight when it comes to alcohol and health, but ounce-for-ounce beer contains more protein, B vitamins and silicone, which has been linked to strong bones. Like red wine, beer may contribute to heart health and it also provides compounds called polyphenols and flavonoids, which are well-known for their antioxidant powers.

If you haven’t been convinced to give craft brews a try before, now is the perfect time to give these diverse brews a try. The market selection is rich with brews from around the country and you’ll be surprised by the number of local breweries that are on the map. You can find over 100 craft breweries in Florida alone. Visit www.beerinflorida.com and check out their interactive map for brewery locations near you.