Basic beers don’t have to be boring
by Jason Foster
Not everyone’s into big, bold, badass beer. Hell, I love the stuff, but sometimes I need a break from drinking mega-hoppy, ultra-roasty or spontaneously fermented beer, too. But the question is: what do you do when you just want something that goes down easy, but still has some decent flavour?
Basic, clean lagers are a good way to go as long as you avoid the corporate brewers’ bland, corn-laden disappointments (Bud, Canadian, Keith’s, etc.). Instead of settling for the lowest common denominator resulting from the big brewers’ mass production methods, try picking up a six-pack of Creemore Springs Premium Lager. Yeah, it’s now owned by Molson, but it still ranks up there as one of the nicest pale lagers you’ll find. Nothing too fancy going on — just some delicate malt and touches of hops — but the simple approach works well here. You could also pick up a Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which is a bit darker with a touch of caramel and toffee in it, but still quite crisp and refreshing.
Many people associate ales exclusively with darker, heavier beer. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: that’s simply wrong. Ales can be just as light and drinkable as lagers, while lagers can be dark and heavy, just like the stereotypical ale.
There are a bunch of light, straightforward ales out there. One of my favourites is new to the Saskatchewan market: St. James Pale Ale, from Winnipeg’s Half Pints Brewery. The name is a cheat — St. James is actually a pretty well-made Kölsch (a rare German style) rather than a true pale ale — but whatever you want to call it, it’s a wonderfully refreshing beer. It has a light fruitiness and a crisp tang to finish. It’s the kind of beer that really makes you want to have more than one, which is both good and bad, I suppose.
Closer to home, you could definitely do worse than Great Western’s Original 16. When it first came out, I gave Great Western some grief about its marketing (they called it a “Canadian Pale Ale”, a style that doesn’t exist and a term that definitely doesn’t reflect the beer), but it’s absolutely a well-crafted blonde ale. It has a rounded, earthy malt sweetness with just a touch of hops to create a sense of balance, and some fruitiness to add another dimension to the flavour. Creamy and smooth, it’s an enjoyable pint.
If you want something a little darker but still not too heavy, another recent arrival to Saskatchewan might fit the bill. Barking Squirrel Lager is an amber lager from a new-ish Ontario brewery called Hop City, which happen to be owned by Canada’s largest independent brewery, Moosehead. This is a soft, delicate red lager that emphasizes toasty malt and has a grainy edge. It goes down smooth and easy, but still leaves you feeling like you actually had a beer.
Boddington’s Ale is an old standby of mine, and it’s in roughly the same flavour zone as Barking Squirrel. I used to drink a lot of this stuff, but I’ve basically abandoned it in recent years because too many other beers have overtaken it in terms of flavour and roundedness. The fact that it’s been a shadow of its former self ever since Boddington’s was bought out in 2000 by AB-InBev, the world’s largest brewer, hasn’t helped. But it’s not the worst choice you could make; its creamy, malty character is still decent enough to rate it as a quality go-to choice.
Tree Brewing’s Thirsty Beaver is a quality red ale, regardless of what you think of its name. Again, it doesn’t offer too much —caramel, toffee, biscuit and bready malt notes, and not much else — but they do it well. Not a complex beer, but one that works just fine if you’re thirsty (no matter what kind of mammal you are).
If something a bit darker works for you, then Paddock Wood’s Black Cat Lager should be on your list.(Yeah, I’ve written about it a few times already, but that’s because it works well in so many situations.) It’s a dark lager that’s brewed as a German Schwarzbier, offering both full flavour and a crisp, dry finish that keeps it from being too intense. Don’t let the darker colour put you off. You can easily down a few without feeling overwhelmed.
That’s just a small sample of the quality beers available when you’re looking for something that won’t smack you over the head with its flavour or intensity. The most important thing is to realize that you don’t have to settle for mass-produced pablum just because you’re looking for an easy-drinking beer. Craft brewers, and even some of the bigger brewers who still adhere to craft principles from time to time, are also making them. And making them better.