This is a perennial topic on any online message board dedicated in any degree to craft beer or home brewing, but I’ve yet to give it any attention in this space. Time to correct that oversight.
The typical question that usually gets posted on craft beer message boards goes something like this: “My buddy is a hardcore Miller Lite (or Bud Light, or Coors Light) drinker and he’s coming over for the game on Saturday, what should I give him to introduce him to craft beer?” The ensuing thread of replies is typically long and unwieldy.
Of course there is no one correct answer, only opinions. In my opinion, the best gateway beer depends on the nature of the drinker needing the introduction. Here are a few suggestions:
For the avid light beer drinker, any American craft lager is probably best. There are two big differences between a mass-produced domestic lager (“light” or otherwise) and a craftbrewed lager: 1) domestic lagers typically use some portion of corn or rice in the grain bill to lighten the body and flavor, thus making them appeal to the widest possible audience, while craft lagers use only barley and 2) craft lagers typically use more hops. So a craft lager is going to have more body and a bit more intensity of flavor, but it will be a pretty gentle step up for people used to the big brands. I’ve seen this work on more than one occasion. Easy-to-find examples of craft lagers in Birmingham are Gordon Biersch Czech-Style Pilsner, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and Bell’s Lager.
Another possibility for a step away from a mass-produced lager would be a mass-produced ale, such as a Newcastle or Bass. That’s a bit farther along the spectrum from a craft lager because in general, ales tend to be stronger-flavored than lagers. So it may be too big of a jump. But many a beer drinker has taken his first step away from lagers by trying (and liking) a Newcastle, so that’s not a risky move.
But not everyone likes domestic beer. Lots of folks (too many, in my opinion) prefer wine to beer. And for someone who thinks they don’t like beer at all, a craft lager is probably not the best place to start when looking for a gateway beer. It’s too similar to the sort of thing they don’t like.
For the white wine drinker, I’d recommend a Belgian strong pale ale, or a mildly tart lambic. Belgian beers have more in common with wine than most other styles, largely because they tend to have an abundance of fruity esters produced by distinctive Belgian yeast strains, and they are usually not as hoppy and bitter as most other beers. Pale Belgian-style beers are very champagne-like, with apple and pear notes. Some finish dry and some finish sweet, so it may take some experimentation based on what sorts of wines the person prefers. Good options in Birmingham include Delerium Tremens, Duvel, Avery Salvation, and Chimay White. More adventurous options include Orval and Lindemans Cuvée René, which both have a tart, funky style.
For the red wine drinker, take the advice above and then turn up the dark malts— go for a Belgian strong dark ale. Rather than pear and apple, dark Belgian-style beers have dark fruit notes, such as plum, raisin, and even grape. Many of them have an alcohol content comparable to wine, and they are the most complex beverages on earth. The perfect stepping stone into beer for a wine snob. Around here, look for Rochefort 10, Chimay Blue, St. Bernardus Abt 12, and Avery The Reverend.
For the whiskey drinker, reach for a woodaged beer. This is a pretty small leap since whiskey begins its life as unhopped beer before distillation. Throw some oak character into a reasonably strong beer and you’re simply not that far away from whiskey. Although woodaged beers are rapidly gaining in popularity across the country, they are still pretty rare in Alabama, and most of the ones we see are seasonals. Great Divide uses oak in several seasonals, including their Anniversary Ales, Rumble IPA, and Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout. Terrapin occasionally releases Oak-Aged Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout. And Rogue has a “John John” series in which they age their beers in the barrels they use in making their spirits. Most of these are only packaged in bottles that exceed Alabama’s container size limit, so you’ll only find them on draft.
And finally, for the cocktail drinker, I would suggest any fruit or honey beer. Some fruit beers barely taste like beer to me. Which should make them pretty appealing to someone who has a preference for mixed drinks. And Birmingham is overrun with fruit beers: Sweetwater Blue, O’Fallon Wheach, Abita Purple Haze, Sea Dog Apricot Wheat and Blue Paw Wheat, Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, and Wild Blue are a few. Honey beers are also promising here because of the sweetness. Orange Blossom Pilsner Squared is probably a safe bet because its 11% alcohol content puts it in the range of cocktail strength. Even Back Forty Truck Stop Honey Brown might prove tempting for some cocktail lovers.
Of course taste is subjective and in some cases, every last one of my suggestions might fall flat. But the brews listed above are a pretty good place to start if you want to introduce someone to the wide world of craft beer.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org