Congratulations: With that first delicious sip of Fat Tire or Arrogant Bastard, you’ve taken the first step toward beer nerdom. Through the next few months, you’ll raid the supermarket fridge for every major craft beer, get an “in” with the beer guy at BevMo, and create an Untappd account to detail your suds-soaked story. But what then? Where does your now-adjusted palate go from this beautiful beginning, so full of promise?
These hand-picked, accessible ales are the next hurdle on your path to craft beer enlightenment. They’ll clue you into the many flavor profiles, subtleties, and complexities that arise in world-class beers. Think of them as high school AP classes—if you put in the hard work, you’ll be able to skip your basic education classes in college.
We’ve categorized these beers in four distinct styles that we think are essential to your enjoyment of the hobby as a passionate enthusiast and eventual king of craft beer.
No one style is both as reviled and beloved as the India pale ale, or IPA. With a polarizing flavor profile and often-overpowering finish, the learning curve for enjoying these hoppy brews can be steep. Not all IPAs are created equal, however, and single hop beers can mitigate that intimidating hurdle by giving you a good barometer of which hops you’ll generally enjoy and which hops you’ll want to steer clear of.
A rye IPA brewed exclusively with New Zealand-born Nelson Sauvin hops, some consider this juicy, grapefruit bomb to be the best IPA in the world. A citrusy, tropical flavor profile with a clean, dangerously drinkable finish highlights the Nelson Sauvin hop in a way no other beer can.
While not a traditional IPA per se, this American pale ale was single-hopped with the legendary Citra hop, a deliciously tropical variety of the dank bud that makes even the most staunch hop-haters writhe in thirst-quenching submission. With much of the same characteristics as the Nelson Sauvin hop, expect to kill a sixer of this by yourself very quickly.
As the name suggests, this huge double IPA is hopped exclusively with a heaping helping of Simcoe hops, imparting a floral, herbaceous profile that could best be described as dank, resinous, and outdoorsy. If you like biting into a fresh pine tree, this is your jam.
As craft beer gets bigger, so does the prevalence of the much-revered barrel-aged beers. Huge in flavor and ABV, these big brews are aged in varying liquor barrels for anywhere from a few months to a few years. In that time, the spent barrels impart their flavor onto the beer, creating incredibly complex flavor profiles that may take some getting used to. Best drank at a warmer temperature than most ales, this is high-class hooch meant for snifters, not Solo cups.
A now-infamous yearly release from Goose Island, this imperial stout is aged in bourbon barrels to give the base beer an incredible aroma and taste reminiscent of caramel, coffee, and rich, savory umami flavors. While the truck-chasing hype for this beer is certainly unwarranted, it is definitely a solid beer worthy of the 100 rating on BeerAdvocate.
Big on flavor and huge on adjuncts, this imperial stout is a more dastardly version of the original Bomb! by Prairie Artisan Ales. Aged in rum barrels with coffee, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and chilies, this seemingly “kitchen sink” beer gives off incredible coconut toffee characteristics that can only come from spent rum casks.
Microbes make the world go ‘round, and the same is true for craft beer. Without the delicate harmony of yeasts eating sugars to create alcohol, we wouldn’t have beer as we know it today, which is why some breweries dedicate their craft to making these little bugs the main star. Beers such as saisons, farmhouse ales, and lambics are spiked with special yeasts and bacteria (or spontaneously fermented in barrels, vats, or metal trays called coolships) to impart some downright funky characteristics to the final product. The result is an artfully crafted beer that’s complex on the palate, like no other beer you’ve had before.
This spicy Oregonian interpretation of a classic saison is spiked with Brettanomyces yeast to create a delightfully complex, funky beer reminiscent of a rain-soaked barnyard. Musty, grassy, and fruity all at once, this crisp ale has a dry finish that’s delicate, delicious, and surprisingly drinkable.
Perhaps the most celebrated saison in the world, this farmhouse ale is complex yet simply enjoyable. With a cocktail of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus freely roaming within each bottle, this spontaneously fermented ale is bursting with flavor characteristics that range from dry and crisp to tart and fruity. Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure—it’s incredibly delicious and not a beer to be missed.
For those looking for a beer that shatters all expectations and preconceived notions of what beer could possibly be, there is the sour. A beer fermented with acid-producing bacteria and yeast, these mouth-puckering brews are all the rage right now, with most prominent breweries coming up with their own sour beers to meet consumer demand. We don’t mind. While some can be so tart they induce heartburn, for the most part these are delicious and serve as a perfect replacement for those who aren’t keen on champagne.
This is a wonderful interpretation of the traditional gose style that’s been making waves recently in the U.S. Originally brewed in Germany, this tart ale is brewed with a touch of coriander and salt. Yes, salt. That may sound peculiar, but one sip of this delightfully refreshing beer will have you jonesing for more.
This is the quintessential American wild ale, a blonde ale aged in used Chardonnay barrels for anywhere from nine to 15 months. Liberal amounts of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus in the barrels impart a puckering tartness to this brew, while the white wine barrels give it intensely mouthwatering cherry and vanilla characteristics.
A traditional Berliner Weisse, this exceptional unfiltered wheat beer comes from the highly acclaimed Bruery in Orange County, California. Low in alcohol content and dry in flavor, this sour ale is a perfect lawnmower beer, as well as a great gateway beer if you’re trying to ease yourself into the acidity of sours.