Sometimes I wonder what itís like, starting into the world of good beer today. Is there the same sense of wide-eyed wonder as when I started? Okay, Iím a bad example because I went from being a dumbass underage beer-hater to beer geek basically in the span of five minutes. But back then you actually had to search for good beer, even in beer meccas and thatís not the case at all in a lot of places. But Iím sure people are still being told the same old things. You MUST drink these beers! They are crucial, critical foundations for your beer knowledge. In a lot of cases, this is true. But there are exceptions. For the most part, these are beers that are pitched to novice beer drinkers are being somehow representative of better beer, even definitive examples of classic styles. But either they were never worth your time, or their value to the novice beer drinker is greatly overstated. Many of them trade on reputation more than what they actually bring to the drinker. Which is why one of the qualifications I used to determine this list was surprisingly simple Ė if I brewed this, would you need to try it? Take away the history, the label and the sexy backstory. Do you need to try this beer? For the following beers, no. Next week Iíll tell you about some beers you do need to try.
But for now, clear the altar and hide the Hindus, cause Iím about to sacrifice some sacred cows.
Guinness Stout Ė Sour brown water. Thatís it. Guinness today is swill, plain and simple. When I started drinking, this had 40IBUs, plus bitterness from roast malt. Well, the hop bitterness is barely perceptible and the roast is almost gone as well. This is not your fatherís Guinness. Itís not even my Guinness Ė the famous pint that tuned me into beer as something other than foul-tasting yellow mineral water is no more. Diageo has leveraged the famous brand to promote an entirely different product, with emphasis on cold temperature and nitrogen-induced foam. In terms of what it does to a beer, nitrogen is a disaster. It kills the aroma and by extension mutes the flavour as well. It looks pretty, but thatís it. And after youíve the great naturally-produced heads on Belgian ales, youíll never look at those fake nitro heads again. You want to learn about stouts, grab something local.
Pilsner Urquell Ė Unlike Guinness, I still drink Pilsner Urquell. I even enjoy it. You see, we donít get many Czech beers here. PU even retains most of its former bitterness and malty depth. So it is good beer. But it is not something you cannot live without tasting. Itís just another decent pilsner, like dozens of other beers on the same shelf. Iím not an expert on what this beer used to taste like so I wonít make up a bunch of stuff about the old wood lagering tanks and all that. But itís not as bitter, I donít think. Moreover, there are issues with production Ė itís not always made in the Czech Republic anymore, but under contract in Poland, Russia or wherever. Plus, the freshness aspect comes into play here. Pilsner is not a style that travels well, though lord knows a lot of breweries try to make it so. Urquell in particular can be quite lovely when really fresh, and if you happen to be in the Czech Republic donít hesitate to track down a fresh mug. That would still qualify as a Must Try, I think. But some light-struck green bottle Urquell from your local grocery store Ė that isnít going to be anything like the world classic itís billed as, and it will diminish your opinions of this great style if you think it is.
Anchor Steam Ė A beer put on way too high a pedestal by the earliest beer geeks, back in the 70ís and 80ís. OK, it has a sexy story, and all the old time beer geeks justly venerate the brewery. But take the beer at face value. Take away the story and all the nonsense about it being a ďclassic exampleĒ. What have you got in your glass? A decent amber ale. Thatís it, dude. Spare me the emails about the ďsmoothness of a lager with the fruitiness of the ale yeastĒ. Like Iíve never heard that line before. You see, you can parrot those dusty beer books in your basement Ďtil the cows come home. The fact is, itís not there. If you tasted this blind, without ever having tasted it before, you would not identify it as a different beer style, nor would you identify it as anything of note. Oh, and the world classic bit. Yeah, thatís by default, which pretty much takes away all the specialness of it. Steam beer existed before Anchor. There have been hundreds of them. How do we know that this one perfectly exemplifies the style? We donít.
Newcastle Brown Ale Ė Terrible stuff. Really terrible. One of the worst beers to ever be considered ďspecialĒ. If you want to learn about brown ale, thereís lots of decent ones out there. Just because this was one of the first beers to use that term and happens to be sold all over the world does not make it worth your time and money. Itís too light, too fizzy, and has hardly any malt character. Move on.
Budweiser Ė Easy target? Not really. The myth persists that this is a well-made beer. Yes, itís light, the apologists cry, but its consistent batch-to-batch and factory-to-factory. Well, thatís not true. A-B holds an internal competition to see which brewery makes the best Budweiser. They wouldnít do that if all Budweisers were identical. But even if you took it to be true, there is one crucial flaw in this argument. For some reason, when macrobrews are the subject of conversation, the definition of "quality" changes. No longer are things like aroma and flavour a part of ďqualityĒ, but instead "quality" refers to production consistency. Hmmm. Okay. Donít get me wrong Ė I grasp the usage of the word. I studied quality control in school, I know what they mean. But the point is that quality from an engineerís or production managerís perspective is not the same as quality from a beer loverís perspective. And we need to remember that the rules donít change when the size of the brewery changes. The objectives of the brewer? So what? I reiterate - we are beer lovers, not production managers. And when beer lovers talk about quality in beer we have to use a consistent definition of the word. This is me doing a little QC on the beer world. Consistency, man! And being consistent, there is no question that Budweiser is unbalanced to the side of water and CO2 (you know, all things that are added to make a beer are ingredients and they all need to be in balance). It does not have an appealing flavour, appearance or aroma. In short, poor quality. So no, unless youíre a student of macrobrewery production management, you donít need to drink any Budweiser.
Bass Ale Ė This is merely the top name in an entire category you can forget about. Big name English ales, sent all around the world, served too cold under forced carbonation from the keg. Theyíre all more or less the same. They have some malt, a bit of soft English hop, and not a whole lot else. The subtlety and character of English ale is so easily lost in the translation. Case in point Ė one of the reasons why English beers donít rate very highly overall on Ratebeer is that the English themselves have a hard time agreeing about which ones are the best. This is the variability of cask ale at work. If twenty English raters all went to the same pub at the same time and had the same beer drawn in 20 consecutive pints, if it was on form it might make the top 50. Maybe. But with the variability of cask ale, it can be absolutely brilliant for one taster in one pub on one day, but mediocre two weeks later for a different taster at a different pub. So with beer this subtle and variable, what chance does it have when youíve pasteurized it and shipped it overseas? Most of the English raters get a bug up their butts about Sam Smithís but I wonít go that far. But Bass, BoddyísÖanything served in faux-English pubs billed as being from Ye Olde Country. Give them all a wide berth. Leave learning about English ale until you visit England.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Ė The quintessential American Pale Ale. 20 years ago. Itís not that the mighty have fallen. I canít say this beer has slipped so much as an inch. But it has been surpassed. Iíve always maintained that I donít care who made it first, I care who makes it best. Maybe it is a good idea to try SNPA, to see where Americaís obsession with hops came from, but then again, itís not going to show you anything you wonít find in 1000 other beers. So really, you wonít be missing much. Itís kind of sad that SNPA seems to be the beer that some people stop at in their appreciation of beer and that nobody really remembers its importance, but thatís how it is these days. Take this beer for what it is, not what it was or what it stands for, and itís not all that vital these days.
Oktoberfest Ė all of them. One of the big myths in beer is that the Oktoberfest is some sort of a beer festival. And that they serve Mšrzen there. Yeah, no. Oktoberfest by all accounts is a piss-up, which is fine if thatís what you want, but you wonít find much of a beer selection there because thatís not what itís all about. You will find Oktoberfest there, but it wonít be the ones you get in bottles in the US. Those are usually different beers, and worth trying. The ones at the Oktoberfest, on the other hand, are lighter and much less interesting, After all, they have to sell these beers to thousands of people all with different tastes. Youíve had Coors Light, you know how that goes.
Widmer Hefeweizen Ė I donít mind this beer, actually. But thereís a few things that make it worthy of inclusion here. Itís an American Wheat, first and foremost. The pre-eminent one maybe but this is not a style to get excited about. You wonít learn anything about beer drinking it, and if you are destined to be a beer geek you wonít find it all that enjoyable either. It appeals to a crowd that likes the idea of microbrew more than the taste. Like I said, I donít mind it, for what it is. But I donít have it all that often and if you never did, despite it being an icon for PNW beer and for the American Wheat style, you wonít be missing anything.
Negra Modelo Ė How many times has this been held up as a stellar example of the Vienna style? I think thatís a misunderstanding. Itís a fairly standard caramel-and-corn macro dark lager. Itís perfectly drinkable. But the Vienna connection, just as a point of knowledge, was based on an obscure connection to brewers who fled Germany and Austria in the early 20th-century. They didnít specifically promote any sort of ďViennaĒ style, and if anything theyíd have made Dunkel. So over time Negra Modelo becomes a macro dark lager. Thereís a lot of them in South America, too, but they didnít have the benefit of press and US distribution. If you like a macro-dark, knock yourself out. But you wonít learn anything about Vienna lager here, so donít try.