The Current Ground Beer Cheat Sheet
Check out the second part of this series here: Part 2
Twenty or thirty years ago, America was a desolate beer wasteland, a place utterly devoid of flavorful and creative brew. Our friends in Europe were enjoying plenty of good stuff, while your average American threw back a few Banquets and assumed there was no other way. Well, gone are the days of American beer inferiority. We may be slowly and steadily declining in just about every other category, but I’d argue that we’ve got the world’s best beer. Sure, Belgium and Germany and a few other countries are still making unbelievable stuff, but for pure innovation and craftsmanship, USA is number 1. We may still have a terrible reputation across the world, but that will soon change.
If we’re to stay on top, we must do our best to stay educated and informed about beer, and the generation that’s going to do that is ours. I love wine and liquor, but there’s something about beer that makes it much more satisfying. As you probably know, there are a ton of different types of beer, and sometimes, it can be hard to pick just one (which is why I rarely pick just one). Most people associate food pairing with wine, but I maintain that a good beer can be an even better companion, as long as it’s the right combo. I hope this cheat sheet helps with any tough decisions you might have in the future. I didn’t include every beer style on earth, but most of the big ones are here.
Each type of beer will have some description, some pairing advice, a sexy picture, and some recommendations for different prices (i.e. mid level and high. I’ll skip the crappy ones, since I already talk about those too much).
India Pale Ale (English, American, Double/Imperial)
I thought about doing this in alphabetical order, but my brain doesn’t do “order” very well so this is going to be listed in the order that I thought them up. IPAs are my favorite beers, so I guess it’s appropriate to start off here. IPAs began, like most anything, in 19th century England. These beers were prepared with a ton of hops so that they’d better survive the long weeks at sea. One particular variety that was tremendously popular in India became a “flagship” beer, and that’s why they’re called IPAs to this day. IPAs are easily identifiable, but it depends on where the beer was made. British IPAs are bitter, and generally weaker (as in, less alcoholic) than American IPAs. The American IPA, in fact, is an entirely different monster, and they’re a lot hoppier and stronger. These beers are very, very bitter, and there’s nearly always a strong herbal/floral nose. They’re usually a pale gold color, but some of the crazier IPAs are almost red. The double/Imperial IPA adds twice as many hops, so these beers are some of the most bitter available.
What to eat with them: Spicy, bold flavors are absolutely the best for IPAs, especially the really hoppy American IPAs. If you’re eating anything that you’re afraid might overpower your drink, try for a double IPA. I think the spicier, the better. You’ll find that the hop flavor cuts into the spice and complements it perfectly. I also love barbecue with an IPA, especially a Carolina pulled pork. The vinegar in the sauce does very well with an IPA.
Easy to find, low price: Sierra Nevada IPA is a good choice if you’re looking for a balanced American IPA that isn’t too crazy. It’s available everywhere, and it really isn’t too expensive. Some other good choices would be Victory Hop Devil, Brooklyn East IPA, and Green Flash West Coast IPA.
Harder to find, high price: The Maharaja above is great, but for my money, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is the best beer in the world. It’s a double IPA, and probably the most complex beer I’ve ever had. Be warned, it’s hard to find in bottles, nearly impossible to find on tap, and it’s pretty expensive. If you see it, get it. You’ll be hooked.
Pale Ale (American, English, Belgian)
An easy, if not entirely correct, way to think of pale ales is an IPA with less hop flavor. Generally, these ales are a lot more balanced, and they don’t assault your palate the way an IPA might. These too are British in origin, and unfortunately, they don’t have a cool story like the IPA does (if it does, I’ve not heard it). Pale ales are probably the most popular beers in the world, and with good reason: they’re easy to drink, refreshing, and even when they’re bad, they’re still drinkable (for the most part). Belgian pale ales are sweeter and fruitier than American or British PAs, which are hoppier and more bitter (especially the Americans). Your average pale ale, no matter its origin, will have less alcohol than other types, like the IPA or American lager. British PAs are the lowest in alcohol, and a lot of them are “session beers,” which means you can drink a lot of them in one sitting without getting too drunk.
What to eat with them: Pale ales are very easy to eat with. As long as you’re not going overboard on spice, you’ll find that pretty much any food will pair nicely with a pale ale. I especially like bar food, like burgers and other sandwiches. Pale ales and burgers are a perfect match.
Easy to find, low price: Bass Ale is a great example of the British pale ale, and you can find it everywhere. Belgian pale ales will be a bit more expensive, but Leffe Blonde is readily available in most stores. As far as American, I’d once again recommend the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Victory’s Headwaters is another good option.
Harder to find, high price: I’ll go with a Belgian-style here. Ommegang’s Rare Vos (which is made in New York, not Belgium) is a perfect BPA, and the closest you’ll get to some of those super-rare Trappist beers that never leave Belgium.
Stout (American, English, Irish)
Here’s our first dark beer. Stouts are a traditionally English and Irish style of beer, but it is also very popular in America. Stouts are made from roasted barley and malt, and come in a few distinct varieties. English stouts tend to have a “roasted” taste and have a rich mouth-feel. They’re easily identifiable by their thick, creamy heads, and brown-black color. The roasted barley creates any number of different flavors, but there’s often a pronounced coffee flavor. Irish dry stouts, like Guinness and Murphy’s, are very similar to English stouts but a bit drier, hence their name. They also don’t have much carbonation, which is sometimes a turn-off for American drinkers. Guinness in particular is very creamy, and almost feels like a milkshake at times. These Irish dry stouts also have a stronger hop character than others. American stouts are similar, but they’re brewed with chocolate or another odd ingredient. Stouts can take a lot of strong flavor, so you’ll see a ton of American coffee & chocolate stouts.
What to eat with them: I’d actually recommend not eating with a stout, since they can feel like meals in and of themselves. That said, they do pair nicely with rich, hearty meals, like stew. Stouts are also a great complement to oysters, hence the “oyster stout” you’ll see now and then.
Easy to find, low price: Guinness is an easy one, since it’s very easy to find on tap anywhere in America. Sly Fox Oatmeal Stout is relatively easy to find, and it’s a great example of a traditional English stout. Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout is an interesting American take on the stout.
Harder to find, high price: I really like the Rogue Chocolate Stout out of Oregon. I can’t ever find it, but when I do, I make sure to have a few. Rogue is an excellent brewery in general, but their Chocolate Stout might be my favorite.
American Adjunct Lager
Okay, so I’ve included this category partly as a joke, and partly because I used to wonder what kind of beer your average crappy “big beer” really was. Turns out, it’s a style unto itself. American Adjunct Lagers are what most of the world thinks about when they think about American beer. These beers are flavorless, sweet, and incredibly bland. They’re not made for taste, but rather for profit. You’ve had a few of these, I’m sure. I know I have. Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller, PBR, Landshark, Coors…it’s all the same. Stay away from these things at all costs. If you see a friends drinking one, tackle them and buy ‘em something decent. They’ll thank you one day.
What to eat with them: I don’t know, glass and rat poison?
Easy to find, low price: ALL OF THEM.
Harder to find, high price: NONE OF THEM.
Saison (Belgian, American)
Okay, back to the real beers. Saison, or as it’s sometimes known, farmhouse ale, is a primarily Belgian style that has become very popular in America. Most American craft-breweries have a saison, and some have more than one. These beers were traditionally brewed during the winter and then consumed in the summer. They’re generally very refreshing and a bit fruity. There isn’t much hop character or bitterness, but they’re often brewed with spices to help with the complex flavor. Saisons are often bottle conditioned, and they’re very cloudy. Like gueuze and lambics, saison is fermented out in the open to allow wild yeast into the brew.
What to eat with them: Saisons are great with lighter food, like salads, seafood, chicken, and some sandwiches. The flavor will make anything interesting, so try a saison with food that’s not as bold.
Easy to find, low price: Smuttynose Farmhouse and Yards Saison are two good choices. Most Belgian saisons are hard to find for cheap, so stick with American breweries if you don’t want to spend too much.
Harder to find, high price: Saison Dupont is a popular choice, but I think Foret, another true Belgian saison, is every bit as good. They’re made by the same brewery, but I think Foret is much harder to find.
Hefeweizen (German, American)
The hefeweizen is a great summer beer that is mostly made with wheat. These beers have pronounced banana and clove flavors, but the flavor profile never stops there. They’re usually served in 23 ounce glasses, and since they are relatively high in alcohol, can be lethally smooth. There’s almost no hop taste, so if you don’t like bitter beers, you’ll probably love hefeweizens. In a way, these are similar to saisons. Hefeweizens have a simpler flavor, but a good hefeweizen is one of the more satisfying beers you can drink.
What to eat with them: Stay with lighter foods on this one too. I tend to have this at places that specialize in sausage, and I never found that they mixed particularly well. I think salad and seafood will be fine. This beer would probably hold up nicely with a light desert as well.
Easy to find, low price: Brooklyn Weisse and Weihenstephaner are easy to find. Look for a beer garden or German beer haus and you’ll find a few hefeweizens.
Harder to find, high price: Schneider Weisse is probably my favorite hefeweizen, but it is generally a pain in the ass to find.
Tripel (Belgian, American)
Tripels are a traditionally Belgian style. There are a few theories on how they got their name, but my favorite is that it’s from the Trappist designation “tripel,” which means three times more malt than a regular Trappist beer. Tripels are always very strong, and golden in color. You really can’t drink these all night, but they’re delicious, so it’s hard not to. If you’ve ever seen a “dubbel” or a “quad,” the tripel is the sister style. Tripels tend to be sweet and surprisingly bitter. They also have some unique spice aromas, so they’re often a very complex drinking experience.
What to eat with them: I’d drink this with some bolder, spicier flavors. They won’t cut heat quite like an IPA will, but their flavor is strong enough to hold its own against almost anything. Whatever you do, make sure you eat something. These beers are powerful.
Easy to find, low price: Victory Golden Monkey is a very popular tripel, as is La Fin du Monde, which is made by Canadian brewery Unibroue. Neither is what I’d call “cheap,” but they don’t really make cheap tripels.
Harder to find, high price: If you can find Allagash Curieux, get it. It’s a very different take on the tripel. It’s actually aged in Jim Beam barrels.
Weizenbock (German, American)
Weizenbocks are essentially a really strong dunkel weiss, which in turn is a dark wheat beer. These are similar to hefeweizens, but are darker and more complex. They have more pronounced fruit flavors and can be quite high in alcohol. This is German style, but there are a few American breweries that do one. If you like hefeweizens, you’ll probably enjoy these. The beer above, Aventinus, is a legendary beer, and probably one of the top five in the world.
What to eat with it: Pork, steak, anything roasted. This beer can really hold up to a lot, so if you feel like having braised pork loin, have a weizenbock with it.
Easy to find, low price: Like tripels, these are pretty expensive. Victory’s Moonglow is the cheapest I’ve seen, and it’s damn tasty.
Harder to find, high price: Aventinus, obviously, but if you can find it, try the Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen Weisse. It’s a beer collaboration between Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider & Son. One of the greatest beers I’ve had.
I’ll update the cheat sheet in a day or so with some more common styles, like lagers and pilsners, but hopefully you saw a few things you liked here. If you can find some of the “hard to find” beers on this list, try them. Thanks for reading.