BOX SET: Twenty-four beers to teach a newbie about styles

Box Set: shelves full of beer.

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 planned jour­neys via Leipzig and Goslar so we could taste Gose.

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.

Between Bot­tles & Books, The Brewer’s Droop (ugh) and, of course, super­mar­kets, we reck­on we could put togeth­er a hell of a selec­tion box.

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.

10 thoughts on “BOX SET: Twenty-four beers to teach a newbie about styles”

  1. This is a great list. I think if I was to pick one hazy, juicy beer as an intro­duc­tion to the style though, I’d prob­a­bly pick Deya’s Steady Rolling Man. Although it’s ABV is in the mid fives, it’s tasty, con­sis­tent, and unlike many one off beers pret­ty easy to get hold off as it’s brewed reg­u­lar­ly. If I had to pick a fall back option Pale Fire by Pres­sure Drop would prob­a­bly fit the bill.

  2. Some of those prob­a­bly not read­i­ly avail­able to large areas of the coun­try, not sure I’ve come across gold­en pride recent­ly and assume porter is still only sea­son­al­ly avail­able?
    Salty kiss as gose? Not true to style as fruit­ed but will give the right idea of ball­park. Boon gueuze may be a bet­ter sub­sti­tute for orval. Yes orval is an excel­lent beer but depends on age as to how much Brett you’re gonna get.

    But gen­er­al­ly a good selec­tion that would show peo­ple the breadth but not nec­es­sar­i­ly the depth avail­able in the beer world

    1. Gold­en Pride bot­tles have become a lot more avail­able just recent­ly (Asahi?) but they have fair­ly ran­dom dis­tri­b­u­tion in Wait­rose – the one at the north end of Lon­don Bridge seems to have it fair­ly con­sis­tent­ly but the one oppo­site Can­non St sta­tion, just down the road, does­n’t (but does have Black­cab).

      Not sure how avail­able But­combe is out­side the SW – it’s cer­tain­ly rare in cask and I’m try­ing to think if I’ve seen it in super­mar­kets up north. [just looked at Mysu­per­mar­ket which sug­gests that Tesco and ASDA have it, at least online, but there may be region­al vari­a­tions in stores).Something like Pride or Land­lord cer­tain­ly has bet­ter dis­tri­b­u­tion.

  3. Say­ing Guin­ness is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Stous is like say­ing Bud­weis­er rep­re­sents lager. Just because it is mass mar­ket­ed does­n’t make it the best exam­ple.

  4. I can under­stand why you chose Banks’s for Mild, as it’s by far the best-known and most wide­ly avail­able. But, as I said on Twit­ter, it’s not real­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the style in gen­er­al. When it was still being pro­duced in its orig­i­nal home, I might have said High­gate was a bet­ter exam­ple, at least for dark milds. Very few milds are avail­able in bot­tle or can, full stop.

    1. We had this debate on Twit­ter. Our view is that Erdinger isn’t actu­al­ly typ­i­cal – it’s too bland, with less banana and bub­blegum char­ac­ter than most main­stream exam­ples. On the flip, Schnei­der is too dark and spicy.

  5. Excel­lent idea and list!

    Gose? Try ‘Gose Train’ from the excel­lent small Kip­pen-based (west Stir­ling­shire) Fall­en Brew­ing. May have been a one-off spe­cial?
    Prob­a­bly not wide­ly avail­able out­side Scot­land but a brew­ery worth seek­ing out. Wait­rose stock at least here in Scot­land.
    Their ‘Local Motive’ ses­sion IPA is superb…

  6. I ran a beer tast­ing a few months back on that theme. I was sur­prised how many “ref­er­ence beers” I could get from the super­mar­kets. I think the list varies, accord­ing to where you are in the coun­try, on styles as well as beers. My list was:
    pale & hoppy/initial beer for tast­ing prac­tice: Tyne Bank Sil­ver Dol­lar (local to New­cas­tle)
    pale ale: Marston’s Pedi­gree
    lager: Dry­gate Bear­face – I had­n’t had it in can before this, so prob­a­bly would­n’t use it again, but it was £6 for 6 at Tesco
    non-alco­holic: Brew Dog Nan­ny State (super­mar­ket) & Fit­beer
    hefeweizen: Wei­hen­staphan­er – Schnei­der tastes a bit dif­fer­ent from most of them, this is the ref­er­ence for me & at Wait­rose
    stout: Tiny Rebel Stay Puft – I agree, fills the sil­ly biref. Would take M&S Irish Stout over Guin­ness, though, is eas­i­ly avail­able & shows stout does­n’t have to be Guin­ness.
    IPA: Wylam Jake­head, local beer avail­able in many places round here.
    Tripel: Bosteels Karmeli­et Tripel – not typ­i­cal I know, but I’d for­got­ten how love­ly it is. Was pop­u­lar.
    Wit­bier: Estrel­la Damm Ined­it – I think it’s bet­ter than Hoe­gaar­den, but also in most super­mar­kets
    fruit beer: Fruli. In the end I avoid­ed sours for a first time out.
    dark lager: Bud­weis­er Bud­var Dark – it’s real­ly hard to find dark lagers at the moment, that was an online order.
    sil­ly dessert beer: Tyne Bank Stal­in’s Cow, again local
    sai­son: Dupont
    whisky/wood: Innis & Gunn – I went for this over smoked, & it went down real­ly well, espe­cial­ly when I told them it was £1.50 at Wait­rose.
    bit­ter: I went to a pub & picked up cask rather than bot­tled, want­ed to go local, but of 10 pumps only 1 was Bit­ter & was Hawk­shead.
    A New­cas­tle tast­ing should real­ly have a brown ale in, but I didn;t man­age to find one on cask in time.

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