Last week I offered guidance to newcomers to the beer world as to what beers they didnít really need to try. Beers they wonít learn from, are overrated or just arenít what they used to be. This week, another feature for those new to the world of good beer, this time focusing on beers you do need to try.
First a bit on why these beers were chosen. These beers are not for beer geeks. Most beer geeks already know these beers anyway. This list is also not a list of ďgatewayĒ beers, those theoretical beers that allow people to move from macro lagers to better things. Those who know my opinions on gateway beers wonít be surprised by this. I have a hard time believing in gateway beers as such. I donít think the way to attract people to the potential of beer is to give them something only marginally better than what theyíre currently drinking. You certainly wonít attract non-beer-drinkers to the fold that way. I guess there is a difference between the two audiences (swill beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers) but I definitely tend towards blowing minds than going half-assed.
These are beers that you can learn a lot from. Some of the lessons will seem rather self-evident to beer geeks, yes, and maybe all of them are. But this isnít the list for beer geeks. Thatís next week.
One lesson that transcends this list is that I truly believe to be a beer lover, you must shop like a beer lover. I could have selected ten beers that you can find at any decent grocery store. Itís not that beer lovers donít buy anything at the grocery store, but they all go to specialty beer stores as well. So I want to encourage that, and any decent beer store in the US should carry a good selection of these beers.
All that said, here goes:
Christoffel Blond Ė This beer will knock off a few of the most common misconceptions. The first is that BMC, Heineken, Corona et al have anything to do with the pilsner style. Thinking like that will leave you avoiding pilsner for years. You donít want to do that. Pilsner, if nothing else, is an easy-to-find fallback style that offers crisp bitterness and usually some bready pale malts. Itís not complicated, but itís good to have around if you need it. Macro lager swill is sometimes described as pilsner, or some derivation thereof, but that is 100% incorrect. You donít imitate a rich, hoppy brew by taking out all the hops. Another misconception is that lagers arenít interesting. Youíll get this from random beer geeks and again the notion is ridiculous. If the rich hoppiness, full pale malt backbone and added complexity and body of the suspended yeast in Christoffel Blond doesnít work for you, you might end up one of those poor, bitter souls one day yourself. But chances are, youíll love this beer. Just make sure itís fresh when you buy it. Pilsner never did travel well.
Oskar Blues Daleís Pale Ale Ė There may not be a definitive American Pale Ale out there, but this is up there. Itís in the Ratebeer top ten for the style (amongst ones youíre ever likely to see) and in my top ten for the style as well. Itís really well made beer. But more importantly, itís really good beer in a can. There are a few other good canned beers as well (Singaporean Guinness comes to mind), but this is one that has some distribution and that I can personally vouch for. Cans have this bad rap amongst beer geeks, like they are only good for Keystone, or that they make the beer taste metallic. They may have made your grandfatherís beer taste metallic, but there have been advances in the technology and this is just clean, flavourful beer in a can. Iíve seen a lot of beer geeks act like total snobs when it comes to microbrew in cans and thatís something I would ask all you future beer geeks to avoid. Weíre beer drinkers, not snobs.
Anchor Porter Ė Again, a very well made beer, and you wonít regret drinking it even without the knowledge you will gain. I want everyone to try this beer because itís got a lot of the old porter character, which is something you donít see much of these days. A few other beers have this character as well, like Stegmaier Porter, but for the most part they are either really hard to find or not as good as Anchor. A lot of beers out there billed as porters are not porters at all, but stouts, owing to the use of roast barley or roast malt in the production. Porter, in a more traditional form, doesnít have black malt, and isnít hopped-up either. It demonstrates the subtleties and complexities of different types of dark malts, and hopefully the influence of yeast as well (sometimes resulting in a touch of acidity). Learning about what beers were like before American brewers starting hopping everything up to the eyeballs is good. Learning how to study and appreciate subtle, malty flavours is good.
Arrogant Bastard Ė Notice I didnít say you didnít need to learn about hops, too. You do, trust me. What I like about the Bastard is that not only is it big, complex, bitter and rich (and well-distributed) but it exemplifies what 21st century American brewing is about. Read the label and soak up the arrogance, the brashness, the confidence. Then drink the beer and taste those same qualities. The Bastard is not the most envelope-pushing beer out there. Youíll taste those later, believe me, but from the liquid to the marketing it really spells out more clearly than any other single beer what American brewing is all about these days.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Mšrzen Ė Ahhh, sweet smoked beer. What a great learning beer. First, you may as well learn if you like smoked beers. Not everybody does. Most of those people have deep-rooted psychological issues, so donít worry about them. Now, if you turn out to be the type of person (ie. normal) who does like smoked beers, you will love Schlenkerla. But thatís not the only reason I want you to try it. First, itís a real proving ground for your palate. Smoked beers are made with smoked malt, regular malt, hops, yeast and water. No pork, no salt, no eels, no barbeque sauce, no whatever else. So if youíre tasting bacon, ham, smoked eels, barbeque, etc, youíve got some work to do on your flavour identification skills. One develops a better palate for beer by making mistakes and learning from them. You will always taste fruits and spices in beers that werenít added by the brewer, donít get me wrong, but there is logical explanation for that. With smoked beers, all youíre tasting is smoke and thatís all you should identify for your notes. The other thing with this beer, is that as a beer is that it has a great lager base. Again, a chance to appreciate a beautifully clean, subtley complex lager in its full glory. As an added bonus, you get a chance to reflect on a flavoured beer that is balanced, something that will come in handy the next time the searing sun has you tempted to throw a high score down on some syrupy raspberry wheat.
Cantillon Gueuze Ė I could put any traditional (oude) gueuze down here, but Iíll roll with Cantillon because itís a little easier to find than the others. Youíll generally have to go to a serious beer store to find it and the store clerks will be able to guide you if they donít happen to carry Cantillon. As with smoked beers, sour beers are something that not everybody likes. People who donít like sour beer probably fried their taste buds with too much crack smoking when they were younger. For the uninitiated, even those who go own to whore for the stuff later, the notion of sour beer is pretty frightening. Any macrobrew that is sour has gone way, way off. Most microbrew thatís gone sour is way, way off. Sour beer is something best left to sour beer professionals like Cantillon. When done right, not only do you get a bracing acidity but staggering complexity, the likes of which most wine drinkers have only read about. There are sweetened examples of gueuze, or sweet fruit-flavoured ones if you really want to start small, but I think you should jump in with both feet. Get the real stuff. You might hate it forever. You might hate it at first but be intrigued and eventually fall in love with the stuff. Or you might call the brewery tomorrow and order enough to bathe in. But no matter what, it will pin your ears back. And if youíre interested in having your eyes opened to the possibilities that beer offers, thatís exactly what you want.
Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic - If I am going to write this list, there has to be some IPA in there somewhere. Itís a great style, and the staple beer of a lot of beer geeks, especially on the west coast. It is the style that above all else showcases what hops can do for a beer. IPA is why beer lovers are so well-versed in hops and hop characteristics. So why this one? Aside from the fact that itís stunning, it also pays homage to the styleís origins with its period of aging in cedar. Cedar isnít common in beer, but wood-aging is very traditional. Most of todayís wood-aged beers are gimmicky flavoured things (some of which are exceptional, mind you) but this beer uses wood in a more traditional sense, to provide accent and round out the flavour profile. Itís a progressive beer, but with a sense of history. Moreover, itís a great beer from a country not traditionally known for great beers. Beer geeks have been harbouring a great secret for a few years now and itís time the rest of the world knew about this, too Ė there are amazing beers from countries you never thought would brew an amazing beer. Japan is just one example. I could have picked a Scandinavian beer just as easily, or Swiss, or South American, or some obscure Asian brewpub beer. Great beer isnít about a small cadre of beer geeks sitting in the corner at your local beer fest. Itís a global phenomenon.
Ayinger Celebrator - It would be a stretch for someone who hasnít travelled the backroads of Bavaria to suggest that this is the greatest doppelbock on Earth, but for my money itís up there. Hearty, warming, smooth and sweet, Celebrator also has a great depth to its flavour and aroma. Despite something of an anti-lager bias amongst beer geeks (rather unfounded, I think) this beer has remained a favourite of the entire community for a couple of decades now. It also ages well, and Iíve had five year old bottles that developed just that little bit of fruitiness to add to its immense character. Like a lot of lagers, itís kind of hard to write about, but Iíve included it because I know youíre going to love it.
Rochefort 8 - This massive beer is a fine introduction to the world of monastic brews. It showcases how beer can be a brute that punches you with silken hands. Superbly crafted, with startling complexity of dark malts, fruity esters and alcohol, Rochefort 8 is a fabulous dessert beer. The big, dark monastic beers and their imitators are some of the most treasured brews in the world. There are bigger ones than this Ė Rochefort 10 for starters Ė but for balance and just a great introduction to the world of massive beer, this fits the bill very nicely.
Orval - Orval is beer. To love beer is to love Orval. It has everything you can find in other beers Ė gorgeous colour, dense rocky head, lots of malt, lots of hop, lots of yeast, and as an added bonus, brettanomyces. Brett is one of those little cool things you have to know about if youíre going to be a beer lover. Itís one of the things that makes lambic so sour, but it can be used to great effect in other beers as well. Orval takes all the components that make beer the worldís greatest and most diverse beverage and puts them all in one handy, bowling-pin-shaped bottle. (Yes, the bottles do vary, even within the same case, but itís not that hard to find an Orval in top form). It is a challenging beer. If you love it at first sip, youíre a born beer lover. But if you donít love it right away, keep working at it. Peel back the layers and study the nuances. Itís a masterpiece and you must try it.