Craft beer can be daunting for people; not only can the beers be intense, intricate and downright strong, but there’s also a pretentiousness often associated with it. I’m really not about that – craft beer is for everybody. You may, at this point, be wondering what craft beer actually is – well, in many ways, it isn’t. There’s no real definition yet, and while it’s easy to relate it to checkered shirts, swear words on bottles and, well, blokes being blokes – it means, to me, little more than good quality beer made with love and care.
If your bearded, BJCP guide-wielding crafty friends keep shoving Imperial Stouts under your nose and expecting you to enjoy it as you sip disapprovingly, or perhaps you want an interesting beer to pair with food for guests – or, if you’re just not sure how to break the mould and step into a craft beer bar or specialist shop, that’s all okay! This quick and simple lowdown will prime you on 4 easy to enjoy styles that most discerning craft beer stockists should carry, and won’t make you feel like you’re chewing hot trash instead of enjoying a beer. It’ll also give you some food pairing examples so you can enjoy the style with a meal if you wish – plenty of these beer styles can be found in trendier restaurants.
Remember, most craft bars let you try samples of their beers if you ask – don’t be afraid to go through a few before you find one you like!
1) Steam Beer/California Common Beer
Originally brewed for cheap mass consumption before the 1900s, Steam Beer or California Common Beer (a term coined by Anchor Brewing Company) is a beer that can range from light and refreshing to malty and caramelly – it’s a style that allows just enough room for brewing creativity in today’s rebellious and fast moving craft beer market, and you’ll be pushed to find a commercial example that doesn’t use hops and malts that you can find in any self-respecting lager.
In some examples you might find a restricted amount of crystal/caramel malt in a medium body, with hop bittering and flavour pushing this beer just beyond the uh, Stella Artois range. It’s generally light in colour, and this style hits a forgiving 4.5% to 5.5%, meaning it won’t have you smashing glasses and drooling in your beef nachos when you’re 3 pints deep – but, as with all craft beers, breweries might push the limits on that from time to time. I’ve heard these referred to as Bridge Beers before, and with good cause – it’s a beer that sits nicely inbetween a lager and an ale – so if you’re a lager drinker looking to try an ale without a real commitment, this is probably your best shot.
Try if you like: Mass Produced Lager, Malty German Beers, you like what you like but you’re open to a little tweaking.
Easy Commercial Examples: Anchor Steam Beer by Anchor Brewing Company 4.9% – Old Scratch by Flying Dog Brewing Company 5.5%.
Crazy Commercial Example: Oscura by Furthermore Beer 5.3% (brewed with Coffee.)
How to brew it: Pale or lager malt with a little toasted/crystal malt if you want. Traditionally Northern Brewer hops, but any noble hops are fine. Lager yeast, but brewed in the cool region of ale temperatures, around 12c to 15c.
Food pairing: Salads and Seafood, Spicy foods, Hot dogs and Simple Burgers.
2) Vienna Lager
That’s right – Lagers can be considered craft beer too. The Vienna Lager style originated in – you guessed it – Vienna in Austria, and it’s a somewhat traditional and regular lager by today’s standards, a little sweet, a teenchy bit hoppy and mostly set aside from “C word” lagers by the use of Munich and Vienna malts, which add a little syrupy roasty caramelly flavour and an amber colour. You might even be tricked into thinking you were still at the Red Lion drinking an old favourite, if you wern’t surrounded by bloggers, morris dancers and sandals.
The Vienna Lager is gradually becoming a staple in UK bars, and is already well indoctrinated into US bars by the likes of Sam Adams and Brooklyn Brewery. You might already have had one, if you were non the wiser at the time (weisser? See: 4. haha). It’s also readily available in supermarkets at a good price, so you can even pick one up without damaging your bank balance too heavily.
Try if you like: Lager, Caramel, Drinking from bottles.
Easy Commercial Examples: Boston Lager by Samuel Adams (4.9%) – Brooklyn Lager by Brooklyn Brewery (5.2%) – Negra Modelo by Grupo Modelo (5.4%)
Crazy Commercial Example: Hopfuzion by Sprecher Brewing Company (5%) – Hopped with fresh hops for an extra bite.
How to brew it: Pale and Vienna/Munich/Caramel malts, Noble Hops to 20 IBUs and Lager Yeast.
Food pairing: Carbonation cleanses the palette to allow meats to taste good. Hearty foods such as Jambalaya or Jamaican Curry – Chargrilled Vegetables and Pizzas. Any other plain foods such as pasta.
3) Super-Fruity Pale Ale/Session IPA
I mention this not as a specific beer style, but as a group of flavours that many people in the bar I work at are looking for – a fruity, “lagery” Pale Ale. It can be referred to as a nonsense term by beer snobs and with good cause, being a complete oxymoron and something of a bastardization of a historic UK style, so you’ll need to crush your inhibitions about what a Pale Ale – or an India Pale Ale – or an American Pale Ale is for a moment.
What they mean by this is a fizzy light ale with little to medium sweetness, a slightly watery body with a low amount of bitterness, but a good old lathering of tropical and citrus fruit flavour from the aroma hops. With ABVs often reaching a staggering 4% and a wonderfully refreshing fruity flavour devoid of the “old man” flavours of pub bitters, it’s a beer that you might just enjoy – if you’re feeling like letting your adventurous side out – and. to boot, it’s usually a big hit with the girls too.
Try if you like: Fruit salads, Relaxing in the beer garden and really over-emphasizing your “AAH I’ve earned that” on a hot day, Fruit ciders (but they’re too sweet for you).
Easy Commercial Examples: Dead Pony Club by Brewdog (3.8%) – All Day IPA by Founders Brewing Co (4.7%) – Table Beer by The Kernel Brewing Co (3%).
Crazy Commercial Example: Citra Noir by Mallinsons Brewing Company (Black in colour, roastier taste.)
How To Brew It: Pale malt, bitter to around 30-40 IBUs, at least 20g dry hops to the gallon of any American or Australian citrus type hop, ferment with an American Ale yeast such as Safale US-05.
Food Pairing: Indian/Thai Curry, Tangy and Fruity Cheeses, Strong Seafood
4) Wheat Beer/Weissbier (pronounced Vice Beer.)
Yes, we’ve all heard of Wheat Beer. You’ve also probably said that you like or dislike Wheat Beer on the strength of Hoegaarden, but with all craft beer styles, you can’t judge a beer style on a single beer. There’s a few really, really great things about Wheat Beer – for one, it blends amazingly well with Raspberries. Now, couple that with the fact that if you drink it on a hot summer day it’s nearly as good to chill you out and cool you down as a Mr Whippy and Cold Shower, finish it off with a divine fizziness and the orange peel and coriander seed additions that create a citrus flavour in the beer, and it quickly becomes a strong contender for the summeriest summer beer that ever summered its way into summer…summer.
With a simple malt setup (varying degrees of Pale and Wheat malts) and small amounts of Noble Hops like those used in Lagers, there are only really a few simple flavours in a Wheat Beer, and that makes it easy to like. Whether you want a strong, full bodied clove-and-banana-bomb like Weihenstephaner’s Vitus or a next-to-no-flavour Erdinger Weissbier, there’s a world of wheat out there just waiting to be tasted that varies in flavour as much as any other beer style.
Try if you like: Bananas, Creamflow beers, Huge head on your beer, European Lagers, Bratwursts.
Easy Commercial Examples: Weissbier by Erdinger (5.3%) – Hefeweissbier by Weihenstephan (5.4%) – Unser Original Tap 7 by Schneider Weisse (5.4%)
Crazy Commercial Example: Meine Hopfenweisse Tap 5 by Schneider Weisse (8.2%) – a unique red Doppelbock (strong wheat beer) packed with wheat beer flavours.
How To Brew It: A blend of Wheat and Pale Malt, Noble Hops to 20-30 IBUs and a little for flavour at 15 minutes if you want, between 4.3% and 5.6% – this beer really benefits from a great quality yeast such as those made by White Labs, but Danstar Munich can be used to good effect. Try to control fermentation temperature for yeasty goodness.
Food Pairing: Mexican Food, Cured Meats and German Sausages, Cheesecake, Meaty Salads.
5) The Super-Strong Distilled Beer
Okay, to some people they’re something of a joke. To others, they’re the best thing since…well, fermentation. Distilled beers are slowly taking the world by storm, and between the somewhat ridiculous race to be the strongest, there’s also some great quality “beers” being produced. They’re usually to be consumed by the measure like a fine liquor or whiskey – a big tulip or whiskey glass helps capture the aroma and depth of the beer if you’re drinking at home, and if you’re already into good spirits, there’s really no reason not to try one, for bragging rights if nothing else. If the ABV is daunting, add a little soda or still water to stretch out the flavours – just don’t “shot” them at the bar – it’s not Sambuca, you’re not 17, and you are a bad person.
Try if you like: Whiskey, Port, Imperial Stouts, Smoked Bacon and Chargrilled Meat, Strong blue cheese.
Easy Commercial Examples: Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) & Tokyo (18.3%) by Brewdog – Struise Black Damnation VI by De Struise Brouwers (39%) – Armageddon by Brewmeister (65%)
Crazy Commercial Examples: Brewmeister Snake Venom, the current world’s strongest beer at 67.5%.
How To Brew: Not by illegally distilling it at home, that’s for sure – but you can get up to around 22% using traditional fermentation. It’s proably best to use plenty of dry malt extract and hop it heavily – feed any additional sugars in gradually until the yeast dies, then finish it with a high tolerance wine yeast. You can also brew a strong beer and fortify it with spirits if you want to cheat. In terms of a recipe, the world is your oyster.
Food Pairing: Anything you can actually taste through the beer most of the time – the stronger flavoured, the better. Big barrel-aged Blue Cheeses, intense Curries, spicy Chinese food, Buffalo Chicken Wings, Five Ways Chilli, chocolate Truffles, rich desserts. Good luck!