Traditionally, the way people have tried to get people into craft beer has been a gradual escalation of intensity. Everything starts with American lager – if you like Budweiser, try a pale ale. If you like pale ales, try an IPA or a brown ale. If you like those, try stouts and porters. Go on from there to the extreme world of barleywines and “imperial” beers.
Basically, it’s a gradual shift from what people think of as typical or American beer to the stuff us beer geeks salivate over. The path certainly gets some people drinking better beer, but it doesn’t really take taste into account. Instead, it’s a focus on a repeated refrain of “oh, this is like what you’ve had before, but a little bit different.”
This year, a couple of great beer writers have turned me on to a much better way to turn beer non-drinkers into beer lovers. In The Naked Pint and Great American Craft Beer, the authors suggest that the best way to match people with beer is finding out the flavors they like. Not flavors like hoppy or malty – terms even beer geeks can’t seem to agree on – but lemon, caramel, espresso, plum, scotch or apple pie. It’s a fun way to discover beers, and a testament to the huge variety of flavors that exists across the dozens of beer styles (or even within a particular style). It also makes discussing beer with people new to the stuff much easier, as people can point to flavors in foods and drinks they like instead of in particular beers.
So, for everyone from beer neophyte to beer devotee, here’s a list of some familiar flavors you can find in some of my favorite beers.
If you like a hot cup of coffee in the morning, try the Smuttynose Robust Porter.
Stouts and porters have pretty significant notes of coffee, chocolate brown sugar and molasses – not a fault of those things being added, but a product of the dark roasted malt used to brew the beer. Smutty’s Robust Porter is heavy on the coffee flavor, and tastes a bit like a cup of cold French Press coffee.
If you like sugar cookies, try Southern Tier Pumking.
Ever had one of those sugar cookies they sell right around Halloween? The kind with some pumpkin pie spices? This is like that.
If you like banana cream pie, try a hefeweizen like Three Floyds’ Drunk Monk.
The esters from the funky yeast used in most hefeweizens make for intense aromas and flavors of banana, clove and bubble gum. The banana notes are usually stronger in the nose of a hefe than the taste, but the Drunk Monk has a serious banana bread kick.
If you like a grapefruit in the morning, try Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA.
A lot of the hops in the Pacific Northwest – cascade, simcoe and centennial, for example – create strong smells and flavors of citrus in a beer. A particularly grapefruity hop is simcoe, and this double IPA from Weyerbacher cranks the hops and citrus taste up to 11.
If you like warm biscuits with butter, try Alaskan Pale Ale.
While the dark roasted malts in stouts and porters make for coffee and chocolate flavors, the lighter malt in an American pale ale makes for tastes more akin to fresh bread or cookies. Most APAs have a hop bite that can almost overpower the malt end of things, but the Alaskan tastes like the product of a local bakery.
If you like chocolate syrup, try the Mikkeller Black.
There isn’t any chocolate in Mikkeller’s insanely intense imperial stout, but you wouldn’t know that from the taste. The Black is all luscious milk chocolate, and the brew has a a hell of a thick body – not exactly the consistency of Hershey’s Syrup, but not far off.
If you like a stack of waffles with maple syrup, try the Dogfish Head Immort Ale.
The masters of unique flavors over at Dogfish put a ton of interesting ingredients into the Immort Ale, including maple syryp, peat-smoked barley, juniper berries, and vanilla. Of all of those, the syrup comes through with the most intensity, and everything mixes to a breakfast doused in maple and fresh berries.
If you like bacon, try the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen.
Rauchbier – German for “smoked beer” – is a beer that’s been made from malt smoked over a flame. The process makes for BBQ flavors, slightly sweet with a smokey kick. The Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen comes out with more bacon that most, which this drinker certainly appreciates.
If you like honey, try a braggot like Brother Adam’s Bragget.
Braggots exist somewhere between mead and beer, and are brewed with honey, malt and hops. This leaves the brewer with a sweet beer, and the honey flavors are particularly powerful when the beer is fresh. The Brother Adam’s is a great introduction to the style, and forgoes the spices that muddle up the flavor in some other examples of the style.
I’ll end with two questions; Are there any beers that remind you of a particular food, drink or flavor? What are your favorite flavors, either in a beer or in general? I might be able to match you up with a brew if you haven’t found the right one for you just yet.