A few more ways to raise the beer bar

by Jason Foster

pintsLast issue, I looked at options for people who currently drink beer from the big international corporations, taking stock of the most dominant pale lagers and offering ideas on craft beers that might make for a good transition.

This month I want to look at the next level of macro beer: the so-called premium brands. They offer more flavour than Bud or Canadian, but still don’t drift very far from the basic corporate beer flavours.

Let’s start with Kokanee, a mostly malt lager with a bit more body than other corporate pale lagers. If you’re looking to upgrade, consider Saskatoon’s Great Western Original 16. Their first foray into full craft beer, it has a bit more body than Kokanee but still doesn’t overwhelm with hops or too much sweetness.

Heineken and Stella Artois have made a living marketing themselves as premium European lagers — meaning a step above North American lagers. That’s partly true — but it’s also true that both are found in much better shape in their original countries than they are here. If you’re a Stella fan, I’d recommend shifting to Big Rock’s Saaz Republic Pilsner. It has a similar body with a bit more all-around flavour and freshness.

When it comes to Heineken, give Pilsner Urquell a try. It’s also a European lager (from the Czech Republic), which means it may also not be at its best here in Canada. But even the version we get here starts with a hoppier, more flavourful profile that lasts longer than Heineken’s. Both have a similar malt base, but Urquell’s is a little more on the hop side, without being too bitter.

Over the last few years, the corporates have also branched out into darker beer and other more exotic styles, such as witbier. These are slightly more interesting, but there are still better options. Rickard’s Red has a bit of caramel malt flavour going for it — but if you like that caramel note, open a bottle of Tree Brewing’s Thirsty Beaver. This amber ale has a similar caramel malt base, but it also has some other moderate flavours to create a better-rounded beer that remains accessible.

Similarly, Dos Equis is often perceived as a premium beer, but it’s not really much more than an amber lager. And if you want amber lager, crack open a Barking Squirrel. This reddish beer offers a nutty beginning and a moderately sweet finish that tastes like Equis, only better.

A big rage in beer these days is white beers (more accurately described as Witbier). Both Rickard’s and Keith’s offer a white, and Shock Top is supposedly related as well (although that’s hard to discern). Sorry folks, but these are mediocre examples of a proud and historic style. If you want that soft wheat and light, fruity flavour go with Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly. A more traditional Witbier, it retains the soft drinkability but does a much better job of providing a fruity, fresh and tart accent.

Last — and probably most controversial — here’s an alternative to Guinness. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Guinness. It’s a thoroughly respectable and long-standing stout which basically defines the style. But if you’re curious about the world of stout beyond good ol’ Guinness, here are two options I’d call “more assertive.”

The first is St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. This award-winning beer from Québec brewer McAuslan has a more robust body and flavor, but still finds a way to be gentle in the finish. It’s a perfect first step away from Guinness.

The next step could certainly be Paddock Wood’s Bete Noire. Also an oatmeal stout, it’s both fuller and roastier than St. Ambroise, and offers a bigger experience overall. When you go here, you know you’ve left Guinness long behind.

The possibilities around beer are almost endless these days. The trick is moving to a new beer that remains in your comfort zone: no point blowing out your taste buds in the interests of experimentation.

What I can promise is that tastebuds will shift, and after a little while they’ll be calling for something a little bigger, a little more flavourful. Don’t deny them. Just take it one step at a time.