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

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.

Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Century Pub and with middle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop nearest our house and marvel at the ever-changing selection of obscure beers from Eastern Europe. It’s fun to see unfamiliar names on unfamiliar labels – a kind of alternate reality, a world where Carling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were startled to see three very nicely packaged beers in unusual styles from Vilkmerges of Lithuania – a stout, a dark lager and a witbier. Vilkmerges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Royal Unibrew of Denmark.

They sat alongside products from a craft beer sub-brand of Russian brewery Baltika, ‘The Brewer’s Collection’, one of which, with a striking orange label, all in English, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The latter looked gorgeous in the glass – that very pale yellow that seems almost green and somehow signals refinement, perhaps hinting at Champagne. It tasted drier and paler than standard Baltika with maybe a touch of floweriness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Perhaps the lorry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the better end of bog standard and a fascinating thing – the beginning of the Camdenisation of Russian lager?

The Vilkmerges witbier is called Kveitinis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fading head and not quite enough body. It reminded us of a witbier we homebrewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sickly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would probably be nicer with a slice of lemon floating on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Serbentų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace yourself – like blackcurrants. It was ruddy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reaching for the obvious; like the medicine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more originally. It’s 5.5% but tasted basically non-alcoholic. We poured this one.

Tamsusis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a classic Bavarian Dunkel. And, in fact, is considerably better than most bottled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hinting at the lusciousness of double stout, in fact, so perhaps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imagine getting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuckles.

One odd thing, though: beers from Eastern Europe often come in larger than usual packages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilkmerges products were in 410 millilitre bottles and the Baltika came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hardly bank-breaking but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been corresponding on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we interviewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Britannia. When Tom came into possession of several bottles of a strong ale produced by Watney’s in 1987 to celebrate the supposed 500th anniversary of the founding of the Mortlake brewery.

(You can read the inevitable Martyn Cornell takedown of that story here.)

We set aside a little time to enjoy the experience of drinking this beer, 137ml each, even though we suspected it was going to be rank. After all, Watney’s beer wasn’t well regarded even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a suburban sideboard.

The label told us that the beer had an original gravity of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giving us a hint that it was probably around 10-11% ABV.

Popping the foil covered cap, we were treated to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid covered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bubbly head that drifted away in seconds.

There was a whiff of roasted malt, we thought, or perhaps even smoke, and then a big punch of sherry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of balsamic vinegar. There was also an almond nuttinness and a layer of dark chocolate.

Running through all of this, stopping it from quite being out-and-out pleasant to drink, was a beefy, Marmite line.

If you’ve read any other tasting notes on old beers, none of the above will be surprising. We probably could have written them before we even opened the bottle.

Still, it was special, and an experience we can now tick off our wish list.

A Tale of Three Pours

Mural at the Poechenellekelder, Brussels.

There’s a certain ceremony to the way beer is poured in Belgium, except when there isn’t, and no two waiters have quite the same technique.

At the legendary Poechenellekelder in central Brussels, opposite the statue of the wee boy, we watched a clownishly expressive waiter turn the pouring of a beer into performative professionalism.

He popped the cap with a flourish, almost seeming to pause for applause, angled the glass, and began to pour slowly.

Assessing the development of the head, he frowned and gave the bottle a sudden jerk 30 centimetres into the air, for just the briefest moment, causing the foam to surge, but not much.

When he put the beer down on the table, smooth white sat half a centimetre above the rim of the glass, as solid as a macaron, and there wasn’t a speck of yeast in the body of the beer.

The Worrier

Sitting outside a cafe that seems to be called Primus Haacht with portions of blistered, gilded frites from Maison Antoine, we saw a Belgian waiter get it wrong. He poured Westmalle Tripel too vigorously and sighed with dismay as it flowed over his hand like milk, splattering on to the paving stones.

“It’s fine, we don’t mind.”

“No, no, it’s not acceptable… I’m gonna change it. I have to change it. Please, I’m sorry, wait here.”

The second attempt was over-cautious and, sure, we ended up with more beer in the glass, but it didn’t look anywhere near as good.

The Casual

At Beers Banks, our local on Rue Général Leman, we marvelled at burly, efficient barmen who treated Trappist beers and alcohol free pilsner with about the same level of respect.

They upended bottles and flung the contents out as if they were emptying tins of tomatoes into cooking pots, glancing over their shoulders and talking, slamming glasses down on the bar to save seconds here and there.

But do you know what? Somehow every pour was PR photoshoot perfect.

Leffe — the new Gold Label?

Half pint beer glasses and a bottle of Leffe.

We’ve had another beer mixing breakthrough: Leffe Blonde mixed with cask bitter does wonderful things.

This idea came to us as we struggled through two miserably buttery halves of Bath Ales Gem at one of the stops on our #EveryPubInBristol mission.

On the table next to us two French speakers were having animated business discussion over a laptop while swigging bottles of Leffe, one of a handful of a big brand beers on offer in the fridges behind the bar.

We fired thoughts back and forth in quick succession:

“Maybe we should ditch these and split a bottle of Leffe.”

“Huh. It’s funny how you can’t get a bottle of Gold Label barley wine in the pub these days but you can get Leffe.”

“Hmm. They’re quite similar beers, really — strong, golden, fruity…”

“Are you thinking…?”

“It can’t hurt to try.”

The bottle cost about £4.50 and we ended up with about a 50-50 mix each. It immediately looked appealing — fluffy head, amber hue — and gave off the familiar Leffe banana aroma.

One sip was enough, we knew it had worked.

Leffe is too sweet and syrupy for us these days, but like this, the cask ale lightened the body and added bitterness.

The ale, which had seemed lifeless and dominated by one off-flavour, was revived.

Did it remind us of something like Palm Speciale? Maybe.

Leffe isn’t a perfect substitute for Gold Label because, though Belgian beer aficionados might not rate it, it does have a distinct Belgian yeast character. But based on our experience, it is in fact better than Gold Label, which can, even when blended with draught beer, seems merely boozy and sugary.

We’ll be trying this again when we find ourselves in pubs with off-the-peg bottle ranges and mediocre cask beer.

We can also imagine some interesting supermarket mixing opportunities — Banks’s Bitter + Leffe Blonde might make for an interesting and cost-effective combo, for example.