Building a palate is a time consuming and wallet emptying task. It takes years of devotion to delve deep enough into any food or drink culture to fully appreciate the nuance involved. My granddad put it this way, “No one likes scotch the first time they drink it. You have to learn to love it.” And that’s usually true of a super hoppy IPA or Belgian gueuze too. You build up to them.
Since you have to start somewhere along the amber-brick road, we’ve compiled a list of “gateway beers” to help you get closer to drinking the sudsy stuff. Trying these lagers and ales will teach you about ABV (alcohol by volume) and IBU (international bittering units), taste, and form. So let us be your beer somm and help you find a beer you’ll love.
BUDWEISER BLACK CROWN LAGER
Let’s get the beer snobbery out of the way. It’s as trendy to sh*t on Budweiser as it is to sh*t on ketchup. But the facts and sales point to another reality. Bud Light alone sells 270 million cases yearly. So this pick is based on the fact that the average beer drinker is already likely drinking a Bud. And in that spirit, what better place to start than with something that will taste familiar and open the door to a wider world of beer.
This beer is a very mild red lager that has a slight hop and malt edge to it — think of it as Budweiser PLUS. It’s on the lighter end so it’s feels like a session beer (low alcohol), but still comes in at six percent ABV. Basically, you’re starting to open your palate up to some beer-y flavors with this one, without the wicked headaches the next morning.
This is a Pacific Northwest favorite from my past. So, yes, nostalgia is one of the reasons it’s here. This beer will forever remind me of drying off next to a fire after a day of crabbing or shrimping on the Hood Canal. The main reason, however, is that an Alaskan Amber is a beer that brings a mild confluence of bitter, malt, and fizz into an old style beer.
A pint of this amber-colored beer relies heavily on the malt and that makes it really smooth. The under-notes of slight hop give it a long lasting taste. And it goes wonderfully with some nourishing clam chowder.
AUGUSTINER LAGERBIER HELLES
This is arguably the mountain top of light lager beer. The Bavarians have been brewing beer for eons and Augustiner represents the sum total of all that craftsmanship. The beer itself is a shockingly smooth and light lager that allows notes of local hops and malt to shine through without ever overpowering your palate. Once you have one, you’ll never again question why the best way to drink this beer is one liter at a time.
Also, if you’re in Germany and can find Augustiner from the holzfass (wooden keg), you’ll be in for a rich and smooth lager that will likely go down as a peak memory from all your beer hounding days.
Okay, so what’s the difference between a pilsner and a lager? Nothing and everything. Pilsners are a sub-group of lagers. Think of lagers as Beer 101 and pilsners as Beer 201. They’re more refined. The amber hues are deeper. The foam heads are more important to the texture and taste. Most importantly a good Czech pilsner is very hop forward. So this is where IBUs start coming into play in a serious way.
Where an Augustiner has an IBU around 16, Pilsner Urquell has an IBU of 40, which is on the low-to-middle side of a pale ale, much less a lager. And that’s why Pilsner Urquell is a great gateway beer. If you’re digging all that hoppy flavor, pale ales will be on your beer tasting horizon.
DESCHUTES BLACK BUTTE PORTER
Now we’re getting into heavy territory. A porter can be a good bridge between lagers and ales. They should be on the lighter side with hints of cocoa, coffee, and smoke. You can throw vanilla into the mix as a cornerstone flavor as well. From that foundation, porters branch out into a endless flavor combinations. Overall, they don’t have the heaviness you’ll get from a stout and that makes them easier to down.
Deschutes Black Butte is a classic version of the style and worth every cent — hell, it’s even worth a trip to Bend, Oregon so you can drink straight from the source. It’s an easy way to leave the lighter lagers behind and start chewing on the bigger beers.
I’ve made my love for Guinness known in the past. It’s a big beer with a lot going on that remains devilishly easy to drink. The nitro tap is what gives the Guinness its signature creamy texture. However, you can get straight Guinness in the bottle, often labeled “Guinness Export.” You’ll find that without the nitro it’s just a heavier porter.
Guinness is low on the ABV (4.2 percent) so you can drink a few and not get a heavy head the next morning. Oh, and it’s delicious, which is a nice perk. There are hints of charcoal coffee and bitter chocolate with a light twinge of bitterness from the hops (the IBU hovers around the 30s), and I would say it carries the ever-so-slight taste of toffee. Which, yeah, if you don’t like chocolate toffees, then maybe this isn’t the beer for you.
LA FIN DU MONDE TRIPEL ALE
When the world ends you’ll need a great beer to drink. This is one of them. I would have put a classic Pajottenland Belgian here, but I think this is a better gateway into that world. La Fin du Monde adds a Belgian brown sugar to the mix that layers the sour and bitter into a sweet, dark, blissful tipple. This is what all beer should taste like when it comes to complexity — nothing overwhelms anything else and the floral essence of the beer remains intact.
Belgium is considered by many the Holy Land of beer, and this is a great way to dive into the shallow end to test the waters before you start investing in $50 bottles of Lambic.
Let’s swing into some white ales. Germany is known as lagerland, but Hefeweizen, or Hefe, or Weissbier, or Weisse (depending on where you are and how drunk the German you’re talking to is) is a wheat beer that packs a hefty punch. It’s often considered a meal unto itself and still drunk for breakfast in parts of Germany and Austria.
Schneider brews a stand out Hefeweizen, actually several of them. They have ten “taps.” Each tap represents a slightly different hefeweizen style. Tap 7 is their standard original. Tap 1 is a blonde. Tap 10 is a special. And so on. Tap 7 is the best place to start with the slightly darker hefe that hints at hops, but really indulges in the yeasty with a bit of citrus texture in a nice, smooth ale (truth be told, I can only drink about two of these before I’m full).
ELYSIAN LOSER PALE ALE
As we move away from malt and into IBU territory we should start with the lower end. Pale ales are the best place to introduce yourself to the style. If you jump in the deep end of IPAs with IBUs near triple digits, you may never drink a pale ale again.
Elysian has been a Seattle institution for decades. They recently teamed up with another Seattle institution, Sup Pop Records, to release the Loser Pale Ale. It’s the perfect place to start your pale ale journey. The ABV is up at seven percent and the IBU is a solid 57. It’s hoppy without being overbearing or (worse yet) soapy, and it’s got a nice alcohol kick to it. Overall you’ll get some tropical floral notes and a satisfying hop finish. Not bad for a Loser.
RUSSIAN RIVER BLIND PIG IPA
If you make here, you’ll be a beer lover. This is the mountain top. Blind Pig is often cited as the best IPA on the market (for now). It’s complex and will challenge your palate with notes of pine, citrus, lemongrass, dank, hop, and almost a cannabis nose (which makes sense since cannabis and hops are florae cousins).
Although Russian River Brewing is probably best known for their now iconic Pliny the Elder, Blind Pig is where the company is headed. I recommend this one specifically because it’s the perfect IPA to judge every other IPA against.