Mine was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After a juvenile phase subsisting on Carling, Boddington’s and Worthington’s (“Pint o’Worthies, please”), I shed my chrysalis and emerged into the world of quality drinking thanks to the king of the Californian session. A trailblazer in every sense, SNPA went off inside my head with a snap, crackle and pop – as you can imagine, having spent a lifetime on limp cask ales.* What is this…this…citrus flavour? Is that the hops? That dry, balanced finish? And why could I never find this back in Preston? This beer’s amazing!
* They were decent beers back in the day, but are now unfortunately shadows of their former selves – particularly Bod’s.
And, that was that.
So, my Gateway beer – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Or was it? Many would argue I’d bypassed the gate and pretty much vaulted over the wall, landing straight in the midst of modern, forward-thinking beer. To me, the days of Carling were long gone – even though they were only a week or so behind me. The idea of a Gateway beer – that stage of well-made, imported lager or above average pale ale that gives you the notion of quality – might not exist, after all. Everyone’s first taste will be different, as will their previous experience of beer (or cheap cider, or whatever).
Erik Lars Myers of Mystery Brewing Co wrote an interesting post on his blog, topfermented.com – where he argues the whole idea of Gateway beers is a myth. When introducing people to new beers, he says – “Don’t shortchange their experience by trying to trudge them in through the shallow end of the pool; let them take a dive. Just show them where to jump from and be ready to act as a lifeguard.” So, should you ease up though the styles, or rock the imperial barrel-aged saisons from the get-go?
As with most aspects of beer, there’s a fundamental difference between the Americans and us – over there, there’s more of a clearly (and rigidly defined) boundary between macro lager and micro craft. Even the introduction of nefarious agents such as Blue Moon hasn’t blurred the lines too much (a beer derived specifically as a gateway to retain as many craft-curious drinkers as possible, to prevent them moving away into the real ranks of craft beer).
In the UK, we have the wonders of cask ale to hand. Admittedly, my awakening moved me from (mass-produced) cask onto imported hoppier beers and niche lagers – but that was almost twenty years ago. Had I discovered something more interesting in the chain pubs of Lancashire, I’d have gone through the cask route – a route I rediscovered after moving to Scotland. British drinkers do have that buffer, with the exit signs on the handpulls leading away from a lifetime of macrolager.
So, whether there was a specific Gateway beer for you or not, chances are the desire to experiment led you on to more interesting and unusual choices at the bar. I take Erik’s point, but wager there were very few people who launched straight into the full-on stuff and stayed with it for any length of time – kids sneaking their first smoke don’t start with Cuban cigars, after all. Everybody’s path will be different, and entirely up to them. The main thing is that you enjoy what you’re drinking, and appreciate how you got there – whether you went through the gate or not.
A while ago I asked some of my Twitter followers what their Gateway beers were. Here are some of the responses – feel free to add your own in the comments…
@TheBeerCast Miller highlife to Corona to Guinness to American craft beer. Got a mixed case nine years ago but can’t remember what was in it
@TheBeerCast Beers that stand out in the UK back in the 90’s then a cracking pint of Landlord, in US Brooklyn Choc
@TheBeerCast Mine was Brewdog Trashy Blonde
@TheBeerCast Brains SA and Landlord.
@TheBeerCast A pint of London Pride in the Cowgate in 1982 in the day’s when all Ayr could offer was Tartan Special and Dryborough’s Heavy.
@TheBeerCast Well i kind of see Guinness which was my first beer, as my intro. But the intro to the more interesting end of beer (well higher abv) would be Ebulum and Brooklyn Black Chocolate
@TheBeerCast Orkney Dark Island @ Fisherman’s Tavern in Broughty Ferry & Ferry Tap in South Queensferry – prob ~20 years ago – still great!
@TheBeerCast Started with Belgian stuff like Westmalle, Chimay, Leffe… available in virtually every supermarket in the Netherlands
@TheBeerCast probably Leffe blonde I think then punk IPA to really reinforce it
@TheBeerCast My gateway beer was Caledonian 80, but I always was an odd’un.