The Essentials: Five Essential Beers

We gave Alamo Drafthouse beer nerd Jim Hughes an impossible task: list the five most essential beers. Here’s his list. Your disagreements, complaints and hearty applause goes in the comments section.

There are hundreds of variations on the four-note theme of water, barley, hops and yeast, so pinning down just five beers is a near-impossible task . If you get three beer geeks talking about the subject you’ll probably find five different opinions on what those beers should be. Ultimately it’s down to personal preference and experience, so this is by no means a definitive list, and nor could there ever be. This isn’t intended to be a best-of for each beer style, but beers that typify five styles that this particular beer geek thinks are important. Of course, a list of ten essential beers would have been even better…

Or twenty. Or thirty.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Of all the beer styles in the world, one of the most popular has to be pale ale and no list of beers would be complete without at least one example. It includes everything from the relatively mellow English bitter, to the sweeter, more malty Scotch ales, to the aggressively hopped American Double IPA. In the 30 years that Sierra Nevada has been making beer the Chico brewery has established itself as one of the top craft breweries in the US, and in terms of production is second only to the Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams. Its flagship beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is widely regarded as the quintessential American pale. A citrusy, floral character from the liberal use of Cascade hops overlays a strong, bready malt backbone for a well-balanced pale ale that leans in the direction of the hoppier end of the flavour spectrum. As a go-to beer after a day’s work, SNPA is hard to beat
A stepping stone to: Amber, English Bitter/ESB, Irish Red Ale, IPA, Double IPA

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

Draft Guinness may well be one of the most ubiquitous beers in the world. As a mass produced Irish Dry Stout it’s not bad, but have you tried one of its sister stouts - Guinness Foreign Extra? This is Guinness as it should be, without the mesmerising, but ultimately beer-wrecking effects of nitrogen dioxide. High-roasted malt aromas of coffee, chocolate and dark fruits infiltrate the nose as the glass is lifted to the mouth, then the first sips add a hop bitterness to that of the dark malt. Being an export beer this is a little stronger than regular Guinness and weighs in at 7.5% ABV. Export beers were made to be a little stronger and more robust than the domestic version so they would stand up to the long sea voyage, and this tradition has stuck, even though shipping beer around the world these days is far removed from the time of the sailing ships. Guinness FES has recently become available in the US again after a hiatus of three or four decades.
A stepping stone to: Brown Ale, Porter, Oatmeal Stout, American Stout, Russian Imperial Stout

Stone Brewing Arrogant Bastard

“Are you worthy?” asks this beer. Are you up to a full-on assault on your taste buds? Well, there are beers out there with more bitterness than Arrogant Bastard (both the IBUs and hop varieties are declared as ‘Classified’ on the Stone website), more alcohol and more malty sweetness, but AB puts it all together and does it oh so well. Arrogant Bastard is usually described as an American Strong Ale - a sort of vague, nebulous style that’s more than a pale ale but not quite a barley wine. With masses of malt and hops it’s a brute of a beer, a junkyard dog among ales. There’s nothing subtle about this one but it has plenty to offer and appreciate… one sip at a time.
A stepping stone to: English/American Barley Wine, Old Ale, Wheatwine.

Duvel Belgian Pale Ale

It just wouldn’t be right to have a list of essential beers that doesn’t include a Belgian ale. The late, lamented Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, had a particular fondness for Belgian beers, noting that they’re often called the Burgundies of Belgium because the Belgians give their beer the same sort of respect that the French give to their wine, even to the point of naming some of them ‘Grand Cru’. Where do you begin in a country that has so many fine breweries, a different glass for every beer and monks who brew some of the best beers on the planet? Duvel is a pretty good gateway into the world of Belgian ales. A crisp, clean pale ale with a foamy white head that leaves plenty ‘Belgian lace’ clinging to the inside of the glass. Hints of peppery spiciness, maybe a little apple in there, plenty of clean malt flavours and hops too, but beware of that 8.5% ABV. It’ll sneak up on you and smack you hard.
A stepping stone to: Tripel, Saison, Witbier, Belgian Dark Ale, Dubbel

Live Oak Pilz

I would like to have included a German- or Czech-brewed lager in this list, but the fact is that we have a world class Czech Pilsener right here in Austin in the shape of Live Oak Pilz. The Pilsener (or Pilsner if you prefer) originates from the town of Plzen in what was once Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. The original Pilsener - Pilsner Urquell - is still brewed there in a massive, sprawling complex, and they still use the same open fermenters and pitch-lined barrels to make the stuff. Live Oak Pilz, on the other hand, is made in a small building on East 5th Street in Austin and proves the point that less is more. Y’know, this one might be an even better go-to beer than Sierra Pale, especially on a triple-digit day during August in central Texas. All the refreshing qualities of a Pils with the added benefit of Saaz hops from Europe and an alcohol content under 5% add up to the perfect session lager.
A stepping stone to: Vienna Lager, Helles Lager, Dunkel Lager, Bock, Doppelbock, Oktoberfestbier