I am fairly sure that were you to do a straw poll of beer lovers regarding their favourite beer style, you would see beers such as Double or Imperial IPA, Imperial Stout or Barleywine dominating. Naturally I am partial to a drop or two of the heavy hitters, particularly Imperial Stout and Barleywine, but I wonder sometimes if an obsession with beers that are exceedingly hoppy, strongly alcoholic or a combination of both is indicative of being unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of life?
Recently I have had the pleasure, through the good graces of the cyber world, of introducing a few people to Žatec Bright Lager, also known as Blue Label. So far everyone who has tried it has loved it, and in one case it is now available at a local pub here in Charlottesville, Court Square Tavern. One of my friends on trying his first ever Žatec as "amazing" and said that he was "floored" by how good a properly made, Czech style lager is.
This got me thinking about how to tell a great brewery from a good one, and for me it comes done to one simple thing, how good are your basic beers? Whether we are talking about a Bitter, a Pilsner (whether German or Czech), a hefeweizen or a Pale Ale, I think it is these beers that tell you more about a brewery than their special edition Imperial IPA with countless IBUs and several other things that can mask off flavours. In the classic styles there is no room for hiding, so get it right and you're on to a winner, get it wrong and you're on a hiding to nothing.
As a case in point from the American context, take Sierra Nevada. Their big hitters, such as Torpedo, are really fantastic beers, and many of them line the shelves of my cellar, but even though I love Torpedo, I can drink their Pale Ale all night quite happily. The same goes for Kellerweis, their hefeweizen which bares more than a passing resemblance to Primátor Weizen it is that good.
Getting simple styles right is, in my world, the sign of a truly great brewer.