Sir John Barleycorn

I’ve taken it into my head lately that I want to try acquiring a taste for beer. I’ve never liked it, but haven’t really had it since high school, and back then I drank whatever domestic, mass-produced swill my friends and I could get our hands on. I hear it’s gotten better these days. I see these enormous beer selections at stores and think that there might be a whole world of alcohol out there that I have yet to explore. It would also make going to certain pubs easier.

So last night I went to the store in search of something that looked interesting enough to try. I have no idea what I’m doing, or what I’m looking for, so I pretty much just based my choices on where they were brewed and what the labels looked like. I ended up getting two 32oz bottles of locally-brewed ale, one raspberry flavored and one amber. I don’t know if ale is what I wanted, exactly, but I don’t really know the difference between ales, lagers, stouts, etc. See above re: “no idea what I’m doing”.

We drank the amber ale with dinner last night. I didn’t like it much and didn’t even finish my pint. Maybe the raspberry one will be better. It might help to kind of ease into it, starting with the flavored varieties until I get used to it. The problem is, I don’t know where I should start.

What I think I need is some kind of beginners guide to beer drinking. What kinds of beers would be good for someone who likes traditional cider, but not the overly-sweet types like pear cider, fruit flavored, or anything by Ace? What is the actual difference between ale, lager, etc?

The title of this post, John Barleycorn, is from an English folk song about making beer and whiskey. Fire + Ice recorded it on Gilded by the Sun. A few weeks ago I found a nice pub in San Francisco by that name.


eliane says:

i dont know. I think you just have to try various beers and see what you like, dont like.

If you ever see old speckled hen (esp in the can–those ones that have a widget), get it. Its my favorite.
I personally like the really foamy head that british beers often have. I do like guiness quite a bit.

I dont think you can ease yourself into liking beer through flavored ones, or that your taste in cider really has much of an impact. I will say some of the seasonal ones are good. occasionally at this time of year you can get pumpkin beer!!!

Next time you come to town you and rob can go to this great beer place he found and get lots of beer. With four of us (assuming sarai is into trying beer too) we can drink a wide wide variety!

choralone23 says:

i think a good start to flavored ales may be the lindeman’s framboise lambic. they have peach, currant, and raspberry flavors. another favorite flavored beer of mine is the pyramid apricot ale.

i really don’t know the difference between ales, lagers, etc. i just know that i prefer ales and stouts.

kscaldef says:

I would say that some of the mass market British beer are probably better introductions than most west coast microbeers, which tend to be heavily hopped and a bit on an acquired taste. Guinness and Boddingtons are both fairly mellow, but tasty, beers. On Guinness, though, get the cans with the widget or get it from a pub that does a good volume in it (so it is fresh). Bottled Guinness is a little rough, even the new bottles with widgets. It’s hard to find in the US, but Caffrey’s is similar to Boddingtons, but better.

If you want to explore the more local stuff, I think I’d recommend trying some hefeweizens. These tend to be fairly mellow and smooth, with subtle fruit flavors appearing in some. Generally these are served with a wedge of lemon that you squeeze into the beer, but give it a try both ways to see which you prefer.

There’s a lot of India Pale Ales and Bitters produced locally. You probably want to work up to those, as the heavy hops flavor takes some getting used to. Ambers and Reds will tend to be less hoppy, with a smoother, mellow flavor from the malt. (Not like soda fountain malt… totally different but hard to explain in words.) Porters tend to be heavier, with some smoky or slightly sweet; if you like Scotch, those might be good to try. Stouts range from mellow beers like Guinness to some real monsters of smoky bitterness. A good stout can be an incredibly rich, dense beer with coffee or chocolate accents, but they are hard to find, especially on the west coast.

On process, I think that you will do better a good pub than at the supermarket. Find a place with a big selection and a good reputation, then get a seat at the bar on a quiet night and talk with the bartender. See if they have some sort of tasting option, where you can get a small quantity of 3 or 6 beers.

Technically speaking, ales use top-fermenting yeast and lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast. The different yeasts work at different temperatures, so historically ales tended to be summer brews, while lagers were winter brews. I have never really been able to explain the flavor difference between ales and lagers. Honestly, there’s much more variation within them than between them, so it’s sort of pointless, in my opinion. The major flavor dimensions from the basic ingredients are from the hops and the malt. Hops give floral or herbaceous flavors, as well as bitterness. Malts give typically smooth, earthy flavors, sometimes smoky which can also get bitter in the extreme. Because hefeweizens are unfiltered, the yeast also contributes some flavor in those beers.

kchrist says:

Wow, that’s very helpful. Thanks.

I’ll keep in mind what you recommend about local brews. My first impulse was to buy something local because, well, it’s local and therefore more interesting than a larger brand. It didn’t occur to me that there might be other differences.

My original thought was to do what you suggest and ask a bartender for recommendations. I decided to go the supermarket route for purely economic reasons: I’d rather spend three dollars on a beer I don’t end up liking than five or six (after tip). The sampler suggestion is a good one though. Our local pub, The Starry Plough, is pretty laid back with a friendly staff. I can’t speak to their selection’s quality, but it seems pretty large from what I’ve seen. It would be a good place to do something like this.

eliane says:

i like the lindeman’s stuff but it is REALLY sweet.

It is not “beer” tasting at all, so I don’t know that it would help you work up to liking beer, and if you don’t like the sweeter ciders, i’m not sure it would appeal to you anyway.

(I don’t mean to criticize your suggestion, I thought of it as well, but decided against mentioning it for the aforementioned reasons)

hexed says:

I used to HATE beer when I was younger. The first three beers/ales I actually ever liked, in this order, are Newcastle, Asahi, and Steinlager. I think Newcastle or Asahi are a good way to “ease into” beer/ale drinking. Newcastle is smooth. Asahi is light and crisp. Steinlager is kinda’ lightish, but more flavorful, still a bit crisp, and somewhat strange. Asahi is even the only beer I will drink warm [ie. at the beach]. After these three, I’d suggest trying Bass Ale. That is what my fridge is always stocked with. [except for right now because I had Taco Night and bought Pacifico to be more "on topic". Pacifico is like Corona, only not made with dog urine. =P]

And I’d recommend avoiding the local and microbrews in the beginning. Sure, you’ll definitely stumble upon the more “girly” beers that way, some of which are actually quite good, but you’ll also stumble upon the “holy crap! Is this a burnt stick covered in oatmeal I’m drinking?” beers as well. The latter of which are enough to put even me off of beer.

angeldye says:

I will also say, lambics are really the way to go. Both you and Sarai are to be liking them.

also to be liking Youngs Double Chocolate

but totally have a looksee at bevmo as they will tell ya more. BEER IS GOOOOD!

molarade says:

Try for A LOT of information. The site is a bit overwhelming at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it. I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago and joined (it’s free). There’s a handy beer reference section at the lower right of the home page. And the reviews are often astounding. Many get very specific about aroma & taste notes, much like descriptions of wines you might read. Most of these people know what they’re talking (or rather, writing) about.

kscaldef’s previous comment is definitely a good primer. I would only warn you against American microbrews to the extent that many of them favor pale ales (specifically IPAs) which tend to be heavy on the hops. I happen to like hoppy beers. Of course, I also happen to like malty beers. And certainly there are balanced brews as well.

Perhaps you can get your hands on some English imports that try to simulate the texture of a draft beer in English pubs through the use of the ‘widget’ (which others have mentioned). It is a much less carbonated beer with a gorgeously creamy head. Different than most Americans are accustomed to, but since you’re a ‘babe in the beer woods’, you might find it right up your alley. Forget about the argument that the nitrogen used to give it that creamy head possibly detracts from the taste — you will not notice it. And hey, the majority of beers sold here add CO2 for carbonation anyway (rather than only containing the natural carbonation formed during the brewing process a la cask-conditioned ales).

kchrist says:

More good info. Thanks.

Mot says:

Well, after almost a year…What do you think of beer?

Kenn Christ says:

Well, I’m still not drinking a lot of it, but I’ve had a few that I liked ok. I’m not going out making an concerted effort to try lots of beer but I’ve been sampling different kinds when I have the chance. I’m not drinking it enough to have any favorites just yet.

I did have a Newcastle recently that was pretty good. That was your drink at one time, wasn’t it?