The world of beer is wonderfully diverse, and getting increasingly so. As the late lamented drinks writer Michael Jackson said, “you’d not go to a restaurant and ask for ‘some food’, so why would you go to a bar and ask for ‘a beer’?” This highly personal selection of 15 beers to try before you die is thus deliberately eclectic—to pique interest if any are new to you, or elicit comment if you disagree (you will). It is not an attempt to name the world’s best 15 beers, as I haven’t tried them all yet.
Given taste is necessarily subjective and influenced by context, every experienced beer drinker will have his or her own favorites unlikely to coincide with this litany, and unless you suggest lite-beer I won’t refute your choice.
Don’t please read anything into the order—like your children, it is surely wrong to love one great beer more than another.
See all 15 beers on the following page.
by Martin Pilkington
My introduction to Belgian beer came in France when I taught there, one of the happiest days of a generally happy life. A friend and I worked our way slowly through a café’s beer list until money ran out. They’d take a check if we had food, so a sandwich each and back to the beer, of which Mort Subite was the most striking.
This beer is made with a blend of old and young lambic beers—fermented with wild yeasts. It is sharp, vinegary even, but with a complexity beyond that of the vintage champagne to which it is lazily compared, thanks to its natural fizz. A Belgian specialty that will shock the uninitiated, but worth persevering with, the name Mort Subite—”sudden death”—refers not, by-the-way, to the beer’s effect, but a dice game and a cafe named after it.
Anchor Steam Ale
San Francisco’s finest, made in the brewery saved from closure by Fritz Maytag in the Sixties. It deserves to be on everyone’s list—a unique survivor of a 19th century style, it is as refreshing as lager, with nice spritz and loads of flavors from slow fermentation in shallow vessels and from being hopped three times. When I had to introduce this to a Frisco resident who worked for me he plummeted in my estimation.
Guinness Extra Stout
Many of the beers here will take some finding, but not this one. It seems every town in the world has an Irish bar. But which Guinness will you find? The bottled and draught versions differ, and a stronger special brew for tropical climates is different again. Satisfying—malty-smoky-roasty—with lots of creamy texture and flavor. You can even be forgiven for chilling it.
Traquair Jacobite Ale
The lovely Traquair House in Scotland’s border country (its gates closed until a Stuart regains the throne) has a tiny brewhouse, as once all great country residences did. Revived in 1965 it makes batches a few barrels at a time. This bottled beer is powerful, at about 8-percent ABV, but the strength doesn’t overwhelm the spicy flavor—coming in part from the coriander (cilantro) seed used in it. Sweet, dark and a bit vegetal, but in a really good way.
Cooper’s Sparkling Ale
Another unique survivor, both in terms of style and as an independent in a land of big brewers (Australia). Your bottle comes with a layer of sediment—some shake it in, others (sensibly) prefer not to. Either way, contrary to the name, it generally emerges cloudy. In wine terms it is a big white Burgundy, with lots of banana and pear flavors and a real crispness on the palate. You can taste it for minutes after downing your glass, unlike many more famous Aussie beers that you can’t taste even while drinking.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Magnificent and easy to find. Strange that a very British style should have been revitalized, and dare one admit improved, over the pond. This has lots of blowsy Cascade hops, steady fruitiness and an indefinable rightness about it. First tried during a business trip to the States, it was love at first sip.
Don’t try pouring this into a standard glass—it is re-fermented in the bottle to give it real fizz, so use a bigger glass than you think it needs. However steady your hand, you’ll end up with a foamy head. Its golden coloring could fool you into thinking ‘lager’ but it is a complex top-fermented ale that somehow doesn’t feel like its roughly 8-percent ABV, though it will if you have more than one. Probably my desert island beer.
Hailing from Plzeň (Pilsen) in the Czech Republic, this is one of the great lagers. Though made far from the sea it somehow has a tang of the shore—a tiny hint of salt, or sea air? There is a restrained but insistent flowery bitterness too (no wonder, there are three additions of Saaz hops), though the overall impression is of a velvet soft and easily quaffed beer, though not too easily as it is a respectable 4.4-percent ABV. Great with food too.
Marston’s Pedigree Bitter
This is from England’s brewing capital Burton-on-Trent. Actually, it’s a pale ale, with little bitterness to it, but lots of complexity said by some to derive from the special strains of yeast used. The bottled version is 5-percent ABV. Some of the beer is made in the old-fashioned Burton Union system, mixed with more conventionally brewed stuff, producing a rather genteel pint—flowery, a touch of hazel-nut, soft on the palate and very drinkable. Happy memories of The Albion, my student local, where they kept it beautifully. It is so easy to ruin cask ale.
Cologne, Germany gives us this beer that looks like a golden lager but is top fermented, and rather more complex than most lagers—a touch of summer berries and a lovely balance between hops and creamy malt. In Cologne you drink this in small cylindrical tumblers, maybe to keep the beer at the right, slightly chilled, temperature, and never less than fresh.
Im Füchschen Altbier
Germany has laudably retained its brewing traditions—the usable ingredients limited by the Reinheitsgebot (purity law)—and local styles proudly guarded. There is a beer-drinking culture too, at its best in places like the rambling Im Füchschen pub-restaurant, whose own Altbier—top fermented, round, clean, malty—is a classic of the type. It is easy to drink too many and even the substantial Schweinhaxe (pork hock) they serve won’t soak it up.
Adnams Tally Ho Barley Wine
From a brewery in Eastern England close to my heart, partly because it was local to me in formative years, (a champion of real brewing at a time when the majors thought we wanted watery tasteless rubbish), partly because it is beautifully situated in the characterful seaside town of Southwold. Their bitter is flowery (nettles I always think) and appetizing, but this is the jewel, a rich coffee-caramel-and-sultana brew made for Christmas—though at 7.2-percent ABV, it keeps for years. The Madeira (Malmsey) of beers.
Wheat beers, which this is, are for sipping pensively not gulping, and Hoegaarden spiced with Curaçao orange peel and coriander (cilantro) seed repays the restraint. Arguably too the most refreshing of beers, with both a creamy mouth-feel and paradoxically sharpness from the yeast that provides secondary fermentation in the bottle, and inevitably clouds the brew. There is bubblegum flavor, and citrus, and vanilla and something subtly flowery, with only a hint of hoppy dryness. One of those drinks the taste bank recalls with ease.
Chimay is brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium, following in the footsteps of their medieval counterparts. The other five Trappist houses making beer in Belgium and the Netherlands produce very fine ales, some to rival Chimay, but the latter is my choice—and it is personal. The range is red, the weakest (a relative term as it is 7-percent ABV), white (8) and blue (9). My choice the red because of its perfectly balanced vanilla-fruity and malty flavors that don’t need the distraction of more alcohol, and for sentimental reasons, as this was discovered in the French cafe mentioned earlier.
Enchanted Rock Red Ale
From Fredericksburg Brewery in Texas—let us end with an oddity. Rodenbach from Belgian would generally get the red ale nod, but on a couple of visits in 2009 to this brewpub in the Hill Country I was smitten with Enchanted Rock because of its un-Texan moderation: nice deep color without going overboard; good head likewise; a hint of coffee, malty caramel, a nutty depth and length of flavor. And at around 5-percent it is neither weak nor strong. Some brewpubs are tempted by extravagance, this one managed civilized modesty. Even the poor service first time didn’t put us off. Who would choose Lone Star over this? Sadly, probably millions.
Your experience of each of the beers listed above won’t chime with mine, as no palate is alike, personal preferences differ and things like whom you are with, how relaxed you are and even the weather will feed into the result. Temperature, too, is a matter of choice, though none of these deserves to be chilled to the point where actually tasting something is rendered impossible. The Hoegaarden, Früh Kölsch, Pilsner Urquell, Im Füchschen and Mort Subite may be at their best at around 48-degrees Fahrenheit, the Duvel and Cooper’s at 50-52 and the others about 53- 55. Guinness is down to the individual—the best I ever had, watching the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Sydney, was chilled. In American fashion the Enchanted Rock was very cold, but then the weather was very hot.
What would you add to this list?