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.

BWOASA: Marble Barley Wine from a dusty old can

One of the good things about this little project has been the nudge to go to different places, such as Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green.

Though we still think of it as that new bar we must get to at some point, it turns out to be five years old, and now part of a substantial chain. Time slips away.

We had formed the idea, perhaps based on murky social media photos, that it was a small, dark space on the corner of a back street. In fact, it’s in a large railway arch with a decent beer garden and, on a sunny April afternoon at least, perfectly airy and bright.

Though Mother Kelly’s does have draught beer, its selling point is really the wall of fridges on the customer side, packed with intriguing beers from sought after breweries. We figured there might be at least one barley wine lurking in there.

There were three, but they took a while to find, during which squinting, bent-backed hunt we concluded that fancy packaging designs and quirky names are great and all that but they don’t half make it a challenge to work out what you’re buying.

We chose the cheapest of the three at a drink-in price of £12 for 440ml. It was the 2017 vintage of Marble’s wonderfully clearly-named 12.4% barley wine, BARLEY WINE. Being an antique, the can had spots of rust across its top, and crumbs and dust, so we asked for a quick clean up before pouring. We got it, albeit grudgingly – maybe a bit of filth on your tinny is considered all part of the fun these days?

Marble Barley Wine in the glass.

Sitting down to drink a beer that you already resent is a good test of quality. Any irritation we felt in this case passed the moment we tasted it, which really was fantastic – almost, maybe, perhaps £6-per-nip good.

It seemed positively luminous in the dainty glassware, cycling orange, red and gold depending how the light struck it. The condition was also excellent proving that cans can work for this kind of beer.

Between appreciative purring, we talked it over: on the one hand, it did rather resemble Gold Label, but it also reminded us of a very particular beer: an attempt to recreate Ballantine IPA using Cluster hops. Raspberry jam, marmalade, chewy syrup sweetness, clean-tasting and double-bass resonance. Just wonderful.

And one more small twist: because of the difficulty of pouring two clear glasses from one can, we got to try this with and without (a tiny bit) of yeast haze. On balance, though it was hard to resist the sheer visual appeal of yeastless, slightly yeasty actually tasted better – softer and silkier, with a little less jangle.

We continue to hold Marble in high regard and will probably go back to Mother Kelly’s some time, when we’ve saved up some pocket money.

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.

BWOASA: Bear Essentials Barley Wine

Barley wine on a bookshelf

A canned 13% barley wine with raspberries and vanilla at £5.99 for 330ml? If we weren’t engaged in this BWOASA mission for April, we’d have gone nowhere near.

A collaboration between Aberdeen’s Fierce and Newport’s Tiny Rebel, Bear Essentials turned up at Bottles & Books, our local craft boozatorium.

We drank it at home last night, approaching with some nervousness. This is where the twist is supposed to come, right? Well…

We didn’t really like it. It was strong, but tasted thin. It was complex and weird, but not in a way that pleased us – a jumble rather than a cavalcade.

Specifics: it was red, had low carbonation and a loose head, and smelled like Bakewell tart. The suggestion of almond and biscuit base carried through into the flavour, joined by a subtle mouth-tightening sourness, and a heavy layer of vanilla.

White chocolate stout? Pastry Framboise? Maybe. Barley wine? Only because the label said so. Nothing about the look, texture or flavour suggested any connection to Golden Pride or Gold Label.

So what does barley wine signal in a craft beer context? High alcoholic strength, sweetness, and the absence of either hops or roasted flavours, we think.

Out of the loop

A milk carton of IPA.

I ended up sat in Bottles & Books on my own on Friday night, hovering around the edge of a conversation about beer that made me feel totally ignorant and out of touch.

Bottles & Books is our local craft beer phantasmagorium, with fridges full of cans, a wall of bottles, and a few taps of draught beer served by the third and two-thirds measure.

On Friday, the discussion turned to IPA, and it was when I heard this sentence that I knew I was out of my depth:

Brut IPA died a death fairly quickly, didn’t it? And NEIPA just tastes a bit… old fashioned. It’s all about the Hudson Valley style now.

Hudson Valley? Is that a region? Yes, but it’s also a brewery, as profiled in this article, which has a headline apparently designed to annoy conservative beer geeks who already think brewing has been fatally compromised by the amateur tendency:

Hudson Valley Brewery Makes Beer Based on Instinct, not Instructions

Sour IPA is, I gather, the long and short of it, and sure enough, when Jess and I went to the Left Handed Giant taproom yesterday, there was one on the menu.

We gave up trying to stay on top of trends years ago but there was something intoxicating about all this new information, all the names and details, that made me think… Should we try?

The odd educational eavesdropping session probably wouldn’t do us any harm, at least.