Beer, among man's oldest forms of intoxicants, is both complicated and simple. At its core, it's nothing more than roasted grains soaked in hot water, bittered with hops to offset the sweetness of the sugars washed off aforementioned grains, then fermented and carbonated by yeast. Yet to try and encapsulate the entire world of beer is a task as challenging as reading the collected works of Joyce and Milton, albeit immensely more satisfying and worthwhile.
It represents one of man's highest achievements. Proof, indeed, as Benjamin Franklin is widely quoted, that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
Beers can be roughly divided into ales and lagers, determined mostly by the type of yeast used to ferment the beer and at what temperature the yeast works. Ales warmer, lagers colder. Ales tend to be more strongly flavored. Lagers form a smoother, more subtle beer.
Enough with the learnin. On to the drankin.
I'll just throw out some thoughts on things I've drunk recently and see if we can get some discussion going about the nectar of the gods. I'm not going to discuss Shiner products till the very end of the posts, so just skip right down HJ.
Let's start with what beer snobs call American Adjunct Lagers (aka Pale lagers), the catchall name for your Budweiser, Miller Light, High Life, Coors Light, etc. Like vintage porn on the web, they'll get the job done, but with much better stuff out there, unless you've really got an Ginger Lynn jones-ing, the question is "why?" With the rise of canned micro-brews, the remaining argument for mass produced lager is even weaker, as you can enjoy a tasty brew safely while telling those troglodytes from Oklahoma to fuck off at the next RRS.
Having said that, I got completely shit faced on Miller Light not two weeks ago, and when served ice cold on a hot day or with spicy foods, these beers can shine. If you don't mind being labeled a hipster, Pabst Blue Ribbon is probably the best of the widely available pale American lagers. It's damning with faint praise, but put your skinny jeans on, groom your ironic mustache, and crack a PBR instead of a Bud next time. A good alternative in this category is Yuengling Lager; it's pretty tasty and family owned, which is nice.
If you drink any ultra light beer, stop right now. Seriously, don't ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, do that again. Hit the gym and at least have the balls to step up to Miller Light.
A special shout out to Lonestar which isn't really a good beer, but it was the beer of my Texas youth and holds a special place in my heart, kinda like Chasey Lain.
In the craft perspective: Huge props to the Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. Smooth but with enough hop to make a beer geek happy; lager at it's finest. Also, the Scrimshaw Pilsner by North Coast Brewery and TX based Saint Arnold Brewery Summer Pils are great pints. The Brooklyn Brewery Lager and Maryland's Raven Special Lager are also superb. Raven can be hard to find, but Brooklyn is widely available, so drink up, butter cup. New Belgium's Blue Paddle Pilsner is yummers (as the vacant blond across from my office likes to say) and definitely available in Austin. Not in DC sadly.
From Europe, as mass German beers go, I favor the Paulaner Original Lager, and in the real heat of the summer, Warsteiner Premium. Czech? When you can get it fresh, Pilsner Urquell is one of the finest beers on earth, light, golden with a hop bite on the back end. Unfortunately, it travels poorly, as does it's compatriot Budvar. Stella? Meh.
I don't drink Canadian beers. Sue me. Eh.
Pacifico, Bohemia, Negro Modelo, and Dos Equis Amber are my Mexican beers of choice. For all the garbage cerveza that our brothers to the south produce, they keep alive the tradition of Vienna Lager, a darker style mostly extinct in Europe, surviving only in kissing cousin form as Marzen or Oktoberfest seasonal brews.
A number of good US vienna style lagers exist, however. I outgrew Sam Adams products many years ago, but if you're a beer snob and staring at a truly depressing beer list, the Boston Lager is still very drinkable. Abita Amber is also particularly good when wandering the streets of the quarter or working on your sun burn at Jazz fest.
Lagers have become the predominant brew for the masses due to the smoothing qualities of the lagering process, which entails allowing the beer to rest for a long cold fermentation. It reduces the number of things a brewery can do flavor-wise and requires cold storage space, explaining why so many home brewers and micro breweries tend to favor ales. Ales can be brewed, fermented, and cask conditioned or force carbonated in a month, allowing cash strapped breweries to respond to orders and fickle consumer tastes far more readily. Imperial Stouts are what's in? Fire up the mashtun. Now it's Black IPA's? No problem. OTOH, you're stuck with fermenting tanks full of cherry lager for months, whether you can sell it or not. All but the most well off microbreweries carry one year around lager, and a selection of rotating ales.
Before I go further, our West Coast Barkers will just have to make do if I don't mention the tiny micro IPA brewed near your house and only sold in three stores and one strip joint in Portland.
Despite all the mythology surrounding India Pale Ales, mostly false, IPA's remain the royalty of ale brewing. I favor the Bell's Two Hearted Ale, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, and New Amsterdam Ranger IPA. My favorite right now is probably the Dogfish 60 minute IPA, which can be drunk in quantity despite the massive hop flavor. All of these varieties are significantly more hoppy than their English counterparts, which do not use the new varieties of American hops.
Traditional Pale Ale? Bass is a solid drink, but a better alternative, is Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale. The Great Lakes Burning River and Stone Pale Ale also shine. If you can find it, I recommend Geary's Pale Ale from Maine.
For bitters, a form of English beer not actually bitter and intended to be drunk in quantity, Fuller's makes a nice pint. Goose Island's Honker Ale also manages to be tasty and poundable. Redhook ESB is good and readily available, but dangerous when drunk in quantity, as I found out over the holidays.
SoCal's Stone Brewery, progenitor of the potent Arrogant Bastard Ale, brews a revelatory red ale called Levitation. Possessing a citrus-y hop nose and deep red color, it manages a full flavor on an absurdly light 4.4% alcohol. A truly amazing brew. Feeling Irish with St. Paddies Day looming? Make sure you down a few pints of Harpoon's seasonal Celtic Ale.
Amber lager, in many ways, is the classic gateway beer, a craft brew to the untrained palate in a way that will not pucker the mouth like hoppy IPA's. Similar to Greg Robinson's 2004 defense, craft amber ale introduces competence without dominating. Try the New Amsterdam Fat Tire and Troeg's Nugget Nectar.
For Brown Ale's, I favor Newcastle on draft (not in bottles), Bell's Best Brown, and New Hampshire's Smuttynose Old Dog Brown. The Dogfish India Brown Ale is damn fine, but its high alcohol content can be daunting.
Porter's? Stouts? Not my typical cup of tea. Guinness is good. And if you are trying to maintain your girlish waistline, like magnus, Guinness is also low calorie and low alcohol content, despite it's robust appearance. The truth is: Guinness is shockingly mild compared to the vast bulk of stouts, so you may find that if Guiness is all you know in the dark beer department, trying something new could be a bit eye opening.
I enjoyed Bell's Double Cream Stout recently and have sessioned Yuengling's Porter on occasion. Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, Anchorsteam's (maker of Anchorsteam Beer) Porter, and the Rogue Chocolate Stout are all excellent beers. The darkly roasted malt used in Porters and Stouts covers a lot of brewing errors, so there's a good chance you've got a tiny local microbrew wherever you live that's making tasty porters and stouts.
I won't get into Belgian beers, because there are thousands of beers. If your new to craft brews, Chimay is solid. Find a Belgian restaurant and start trying things. Word of warning: Belgians add sugar during the fermentation process, boosting alcohol content while maintaining a smooth brew. As anyone that has made the mistake of ordering a third Delerium Tremens will tell you: Belgian beers will put you flat on your ass, so careful if your driving (Let's not pull an Augie, o.k.?)
Take a moment to remember Celis Brewing. Pierre Celis reinvented Wit beers, creating Hoegaarden, got screwed by InBev, took his show to Austin and for a glorious time in the mid nineties, brewed some of the finest beers in the World at Celis Brewery. Then he got screwed by Miller, and is now retired. Celis reportedly still exists, being contract brewed in Michigan, but I've never had it. In its day the Celis White, Pale Bock, and Grand Cru were as close to the mythical ambrosia as your likely to find.
On Shiner Bock
Like most reading this, I've drunk oceans of Shiner Bock. It helped me out with a lovely A Chi O right before I left for my year abroad. I still have the empty bottle of Shiner I was drinking during 4th and 5.
The problem is, Shiner Bock is really not a very good beer. If sold PBR cheap, then it's o.k., but when sold as a microbrew, which it frequently is outside of Texas, it's outrageous. Plus it gives some of the WORST hangover's on earth.
In the end, I hope you enjoy beer, be it Coors Light or a $20 a four pack Belgian. Whatever your poison, tell me what you're drinking and maybe give a good story to go with it.