BeerGraphs recently posted about their difficulties with overlapping beer styles, especially as it pertains to their ranking system. They discussed the idea of grouping styles into “mega styles” to deal with the overlap, and possibly make their rankings more useful. With only a basic understanding of their ranking system and its goals I can’t really speak to the wisdom of that change. Off hand it seems like they could just use multiple styles and mega styles, and people could sort whichever was useful to them.
This got me thinking about Stephanie‘s frequent interactions with craft beer newbies working as a bartender. She helps many people who have only really had Bud Light or Coors, prefer wine to beer, or claim to not like beer. We’ve discussed her system for finding a beer that these people are likely to enjoy. There are so many beer styles, you can probably find a beer for anyone.
The BJCP currently has 23 beer style guidelines. Each of these style guidelines consist of a few style sub categories. These guidelines are meant for brewing competitions and you can’t just start listing off beer styles to help someone identify a new beer they will like. Instead it is best to start with much broader categories of beer styles. BeerGraphs came up with these mega styles: Heavy Pale Ales, Light Pale Ales, Pilsners and Lagers, Heavy Dark Ales, Light Dark Ales, and Sours. It’s a good start but we need go even broader to help our beer newbies. Lets get to the fundamentals of beer flavors: Hops, Malts, and Yeast.
Hops, malts, and yeast along with water are the four ingredients found in almost every beer. While all beer will have attributes from each of these four ingredients, most beer styles are dominated by flavors associated with one of either hops, malts, or yeast. It gets much more complicated than that when these ingredients interact, but lets keep it as simple as possible. An IPA is dominated by hops flavors, a stout is dominated by malt flavors, and for our purposes we’ll say Belgian style beers and sours are dominated by yeast flavors. Most people prefer one of these three fundamental beer flavors, whether they realize it or not. You can use this as a starting point to find a beer for anyone.
Now, you can’t really just ask someone who is unfamiliar with beer whether they prefer hops, malt, or yeast. Instead ask them what they do like. What beer have they enjoyed? Do they like wine? Cocktails? What type of wine or cocktails? What do they like about their favorite drink? Depending on their answers you can start with one of the fundamental beer flavors. The next step is to try to find a characteristic of what they like that matches a beer characteristic. You can match sweetness/dryness, mouth-feel, body, pH level, fruitiness, or bitterness.
If they’ve enjoyed a Belgian style beer like Blue Moon, don’t give them an IPA. They probably like the fruity, funky, or spicy flavors imparted by the belgian yeast. Stick with another Belgian, a Wheat Beer, a Fruit Beer, or a Blonde Ale. These will share some of the fuity or estery characteristics of the Belgian style beer they previously enjoyed. If they like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale they’re going to like hoppy beers. See if they want to branch out into a hoppy IPA. If they’ve enjoyed Guiness Stout they like malty beers. Give them another Dry Stout or see if they want to try out another Stout variety, a Porter, or a Black Lager. If they like a less roasty or lighter bodied malty beer like Newcastle Brown Ale then give them another Brown Ale or have them try out a Märzen, or even a Pilsner or Helles Lager. These will match the bready, toffee maltiness without getting into the roasty flavors of a darker brew.
If your newbie claims to only like wine, their preferred wine style can point you in the right direction. A Chardonnay drinker might like a Saison, Gose, Berliner Weisse, or a Tripel. These beer styles would be lumped into the Yeast category for the ester flavors and dry finish. They’ll share light fruit, dryness, and possibly oak aging. A Cabernet drinker might like something rich with dark fruit characteristics and tanins like a Quad, Flanders Red, or a Biere de Guarde.
Cocktails tend to be sour, sweet, or boozy. You can have a Daiquiri or Margarita drinker try a Berliner Weiss, Gose, or Witbier. Someone who likes Manhattans, Old Fashions, or Sazeracs should try a Quad, Barley Wine, or a Belgian Strong that can match the boozy flavors they’re accustomed to.
For an inexperienced beer drinker looking to expand their beer horizons, it’s all about getting them in the right ball park. If you can find them one beer they like, and try to help them understand what they like about it, they can explore similar beers and styles from there. Like most of us, they’re palate will likely expand from there.