If you were putting together a box of beer for a newbie who wanted to get their heads around the key styles, what would be in it?
Despite quibbles, beer styles remain a handy framework for learning about beer, offering beginners obvious broad differences to latch onto before digging down into the subtleties.
When we were first getting to know about beer in the mid-00s we had our Bible, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, and a taste for the hunt.
We explored the sub-types of lager at the Greenwich Union and Belgian beer in Brussels.
We haunted Samuel Smith pubs in central London in pursuit of porter and imperial stout.
These days, though, we reckon we could get a pretty good sample of all the key styles within an hour’s walk of our house in Bristol.
Wondering about this gave us the idea of ‘reference beers’ – single examples of each style that could instantly give a newborn beer geek a handle on, say, saison or German wheat beer.
Of course styles are complicated – “You can’t really understand stout until you’ve tasted the following seven beers…” – but we’re talking about quickly getting it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean
- the best example of a style
- or the most famous.
But it probably makes sense for each beer to be reasonably widely available, in bottles or cans, and to taste decent as well as characteristic.
Altogether, we don’t think the reference beer thing quite works for every style, but it helped sharpen our thinking in a couple of areas.
So, here it is – another of our beer ‘playlists’: let’s imagine a pal who has just now decided they’re into beer; here’s what we’d put in a 24-bottle mixed box to help them understand styles.
1. Belgian Wit | Hoegaarden
It’s not the beer it used to be etc., except as far as we can tell it tastes the same now as it did when we first encountered it. Available everywhere – we think our local petrol station sells it – and great value, it embodies this style well.
2. German wheat | Franzkiskaner
Like we said, not the best (everyone seems to agree that is Schneider) but bang in the centre of the style parameters – banana, bubblegum, yeast-defined – and dead easy to find.
3. Czech Pilsner | Urquell
NTBIUTB, apparently, but still distinctive and satisfying. A good, fresh bottle will smell excitingly sulphurous and weedy, in our experience. Probably best drunk side-by-side with…
4. German lager | Bitburger
This might be a controversial one – sorry, Germany. The point here is not so much about the style as the very broad national tendency towards drier, lighter-bodied beers. Yes, we know there are way more characterful beers out there – but we started here c.2005 and it certainly helped us make sense of things.
5. English bitter | Butcombe Original
Clearly best enjoyed by the pint in a pub, only a purist would deny that you can get a pretty decent idea of what distinguishes bitter from other types of beer with a bottled example. It’s generally brownish, usually balanced and… beery. This one has all of that, and we think tastes decent from a bottle, but of course you could sub in almost any similar mainstream example.
6. Pale n’ hoppy | Oakham Citra
Again, pub, ideally, but in bottles this stands up well and gets the point of what exotic hops do to session-strength English beer. It’s also no hardship to drink. Not at all.
7. Stout | Guinness
Sorry. Not sorry. It kinda has to be. Yes, it has steadily been made more palatable to a mass market, and thus less distinctive, but it’s still the beer we refer to when trying virtually any other stout. And for all the talk of its blandness, when people tell us they can’t stand stout because it’s just too dark, heavy and roasty, this is usually the beer to which they’re referring, so it can’t be all that dull.
8. Saison | Dupont
Saison is mysterious, elusive, complicated… But nobody is attempting to imitate Lefebvre Saison 1900, are they? No, Dupont is the reference for most of the new generation saisons. Tastes good, too, and still excellent value.
9. Belgian strong golden ale | Duvel
Invented the style – hell, it is the style. Always a joy to drink, of course, and available everywhere including Tesco.
10. Dubbel | Chimay Rouge
If you don’t like this beer, you maybe won’t like this style. Consistent, characterful, but without any deviation from expectation.
11. Tripel | Westmalle
Happily, the best beer in the world is also the perfect reference example of the style. Again, we know this because it’s literally the beer we measure every other take against.
12. American pale ale | Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada, the gateway beer that launched a thousand breweries and blogs. Again, put yourselves in the shoes of a newbie, not a grizzled, hopped-out cynic: you’ve been drinking Doom Bar, then you try this… We saw it happen recently and know this beer can still cause eyes to pop with its hit of pine and citrus.
13. American-style IPA | Thornbridge Jaipur
There are lots of beers we could suggest here but Jaipur is widely available in the UK, will usually be fresher than imports, and has a good backstory: it’s the child of Goose Island IPA, the parent of BrewDog Punk, and arguably patient zero in the craft beer boom of the past decade.
14. Silly dessert beer | Tiny Rebel Stay Puft
Your hypothetical newbie needs to know how weird things can get and this marshmallow porter does the job, pointing down the rainbow road while keeping one foot in reality.
15. Imperial stout | Samuel Smith
The first imperial stout we ever tasted, the one that kept the flame when Courage disappeared, and one that is available in normal pubs without fanfare. Not the best, nor the most interesting, nor the most pleasant of companies, but… Reference!
16. Porter | Fuller’s London
More or less brewed as a reference for this hard-to-pin-down style which might accurately be described as a side view on stout.
17. Kriek | Boon
This accessible take on Belgian cherry beer gets the point across without being too scary – no need to keep Rennies on hand, but also not excessively sickly.
18. Rauchbier | Schlenkerla Märzen
Any other choice would be clever-clever. It’s pleasingly unsubtle which is what you want when you’re trying to understand styles.
19. Hazy-juicy IPA | Choose your own adventure
We’re copping out on this one. Is there a reference? As the dominant style among British craft breweries (def. 2) right now it would seem daft to suggest a specific beer here – go to your shop of choice and choose something fresh and ideally local with ‘hazy’ in the name or product description, with an ABV north of 6%.
20. Mild | Banks’s
Mild is another style you can only really understand in the pub, and even then the few remaining examples are so varied that the idea of a reference doesn’t quite make sense. Still, focus on that imaginary newbie: a dark, sweet, straightforward example is the way to go. Some are lighter, some are stronger, but this gets the point across well.
21. Brown ale | Mann’s
The point to be made here, and why this is a good reference, is that ‘brown ale’ sounds really exciting but for most of England, for most of the 20th century, it was a low-key, low-intensity bottled beer designed to give sweetness and an extra dimension to those with which it was mixed.
22. Barley wine | Fuller’s Golden Pride
Similar to but better than what ought to be the reference, the classic that is Gold Label; not wacky, not but subtle either; relatively easy to get hold of, too.
23. Doppelbock | Ayinger Celebrator
Does a newbie need to know about this style? Well, we reckon it’s good to be aware of the sheer range of German beer and bottom-fermenting beer more generally. We’ve always loved this one and it seems easy to find. Also, it comes with a plastic goat.
24. Brettanomyces | Orval
Finally, not a style but a distinctive characteristic that once you know, you know. Orval is the style, the style is Orval.
We’ve had to leave a few styles out. There doesn’t really seem to be a decent reference for Gose, for example, at least not that anyone in the UK can actually buy without a huge amount of effort.
And Kӧlsch really does seem to be too subtle to ‘get’ with a bottled example, which will inevitably just taste like standard lager, even to someone with a fair bit of experience tasting beer.
Still, we’d be happy to give this box to someone on Christmas Day with a decent reference book to accompany it – something like Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, for example.