Is 2012 the year you discover great beer? If so, you’re in an optimal place. North Carolina leads specialty brewing in the South, and we stand at the perfect intersection in time when commercial capacity meets public enthusiasm.

Since our state has a fairly thin brewing history, this is our Golden Age. Of course, given the strong temperance streak that runs through North Carolina culture, almost anything would constitute progress. (The state Legislature outlawed alcoholic beverages in 1908, 12 years before Prohibition was nationally enshrined in the 18th Amendment.)

Still, from the mountains to the coast, our brewing industry has experienced growth in the past two decades that any state could envy, as five or so early breweries have grown to 10 times that number today, with more in the planning stages. Other states may have caught the beer bug earlier and boast a greater number of brewing companies; but I can’t help but think that an entrepreneurial brewer would rather set up business in the Tar Heel state, where excitement greets every new opening, than in the beer meccas of Colorado or Oregon, where the citizens practically expect to have great beer delivered like morning milk. (Hmmm, not a bad idea … )

Yet despite the impressive expansion, craft and specialty beers still account for less than 5 percent of the beers purchased, which means there are a lot of people out there who are ripe for recruitment.

What if you missed the beer bandwagon when it began to roll? Is 2012 too late to climb aboard? With beer geeks chatting happily about hop varieties and bourbon barrel aging, newbies may get the impression that the world of beer is too rarifiedtoo wine-like, possiblyfor a novice to enter. Not at all. It is, after all, beer.

Here are a few beer basics that can make exploring easy in our beer-friendly state:

  • With more than 1,900 breweries in the U.S., you are probably within striking distance of a locally owned company where you can show up for a tour, taste the freshest possible beer and meet the person who brewed it.
  • When most people think of beer, they imagine the yellow, fizzy style of lager beer that is the world’s dominant style. “Craft” or “specialty” beer generally refers to everything else: the 70 or more defined styles outside the mainstream, each with its own distinctive profile. There really is a style for every taste; the fun lies in finding it.
  • Ales and lagers are the two great beer families, based on the temperature at which they ferment. You may find you prefer lagers (which ferment at cooler temperatures) for their cleaner, crisper flavors. Or you may enjoy the ale family of beer styles, which are fermented at warmer temperatures and tend to be fruiter. Both ales and lagers can come in any color or strength.
  • Malt (converted barley) is the source of beer sweetness. Hops, a cone from a climbing plant, are the source of aromatics and bitterness. Beer drinkers generally find they have a preference for beers that tilt either to the malty (sweet) or the hoppy (bitter) side. Any decent bartender should be able to give you a beer you’ll enjoy if you ask for one that is accented one way or the other.
  • Dark beers are not necessarily strong, heavy or calorific. All the color in beer comes from the degree of roasting of the barley grain as it is made into malt, much like roasting coffee beans. A dark beer may turn out to be your go-to drink for a long, relaxed evening.
  • Many good beer bars will offer “flights,” mixed samples that will give you a taste of five or six contrasting beers. It’s an affordable and enjoyable way to compare flavors.
  • Most good retailers will let you buy mixed six-packs, one bottle each of six brands, which will give you 12 ounces to get acquainted with each. But if you choose a stinker …

… The good news is that beer is cheap. Even expensive beers are cheap when you compare them to other adult beverages. This means that mistakes won’t break the bank; you can pour that too-hoppy/ too sweet/ too funky brew down the sink and not feel bad.

Finally, for whatever reason, beer people are a friendly lot. Strike up a conversation with the guy at the bar who is drinking something that makes you curious, and he’ll probably generously share his information. Brewers love to talk about their creations, and well-versed servers may seize the opportunity to tell you what’s new and why it’s special. If it’s local, all the better. With new breweries cropping up every month or so, there’s a lot of enthusiasm about new selections.

As I said, this is the Golden Age of North Carolina brewing.