For much of the 20th century, beer choices for most of the country were limited to products by Anheuser Busch, Miller/Pearl, and if you lived west of the Mississippi River, the Coors Brewing companies. Most of their offerings were mild imitations of what a beer should be. These brews were created during WW-II, when most of the men were off fighting the Nazi’s and Japanese, and women were doing most of the manufacturing work. Like their male counter-parts, at the end of a hard days work, they wanted a tall, cold brew. But, female tastes were a little different, and the major brewing companies responded by making their beers lighter, and crisper’ so much so that America became the butt of many European jokes like, ‘Why is American beer like playing Tiddly-Winks in a canoe?’. It”s flipping close to water ( I know, it goes a bit different from that, but I had to clean it up a little to use it here).
We put up with the thin, watery beer for several decades, but then, in the early 1980s, something wonderful happened. Small breweries, often called ‘Micro-Breweries’, began to market their special brews to the country at-large, instead of just a few lucky locals. It mushroomed into what is now known as, The Great Craft Beer Revolution. Now, it is possible to enjoy some of the finest beers in the world, available even at your local super-market. No matter what your tastes, chances are there is a craft beer somewhere that can satisfy them.
Before I go into talking about these beers, you need to know some things about beer to understand what I am taking about. So, the first part of this article will be about the history of beer, types, and common terminology.
The actual invention of beer is shrouded in antiquity. We do know that beer was made as far back as 6000BC. It actually seemed to come about very soon after cereal grains were cultivated. Beer is the 2nd oldest alcoholic beverage, right after wine. The difference between them is that wine is simply fermented fruit juice. Beers are fermented mash from cereal grains. Lots of different grains have been, and still are, used to make beers, but malted (sprouted) barley is the undisputed king of beer grains. To a lesser extent, wheat is used, and even lesser, oat groats, rye, and even rice and corn (mostly in cheap mass-production beers).
The beer-making process is not complicated. First, barley is allowed to sprout. Then it is roasted to varying degrees, depending on what tastes the brewer is trying for. The darker the roast, the darker the beer. Then the grain is mashed, or crushed up very fine, and flushed with water to form the wort, which is a thick, sweet, sticky fluid. The wort is then boiled with different varieties of hops to add more flavors. The next step is to cool the wort, and add more water to make the desired amount of beer (there really is a formula for this’.). The beer is then allowed to ferment for a few weeks. The last step is to prime the beer with a little more wort (cheap mass produced beers use sugar to prime, but good beers are all-malt), bottle it in individual bottles or kegs, let it age, and naturally carbonate for a few months. Mass-produced beers are often simply shot full of Co2 for rapid carbonation. After that, all that’s left is to ship it to it’s final destination.
So, what makes a good beer? Certainly, taste is a big factor, but not the only one:
- The foam head can tell you a lot about how the beer was made and treated during it’s infancy. A pearly-white head with big bubbles, like from soda-pop, is a sign that the beer was sugared, and shot with CO2. These cheap beers also often have egg-whites added to attempt to mimic the appearance of a natural head, but it doesn’t work. These heads will be thin, and dissipate rapidly. This will most likely be an unsatisfying beer. Also, natural heads are not white, but almost a light tan color. The head on a good Stout, or Porter will actually be light-brown in color.
- Bouquet-a good beer will announce it’s presence with wonderful aromas that can range from citrusy, and woody in a good Pilsner, to chocolatey and smoky in a good Stout. The bouquet of a beer is like a promise of things to come. Cheap beers will only have an aroma of sourness, and fermentation. They do not promise,they threaten.
- Color-for the most part, a good beer will be crystal clear, with obvious carbonation. A little sediment in the bottom of the bottle or glass is proof that it was naturally carbonated and properly aged. The sediment will not hurt you. It is, in fact, quite healthy to consume, and not unpleasant to the taste. It is part of the beer.
- Hops-there are many, many varieties of hops, each with it’s own aroma and flavor characteristics. Hops are female plants of the Humulus lupulus family. Some varieties are floral, fruity, and tart, while others are bitter, and astringent. It is the combination of these hops that give a beer a lot of it’s characteristics. Some of the better-known varieties of hops are Pilsner, Cascade, Tettanger, Hallertau, Saatz, and Spalt. These are known for their lack of bitterness, wonderful aromas, and are used extensively in lagers. The famous Pilsner, and Lowenbrau beers are lagers. Other hops, like Goldings, East Kent Goldings and Fuggle are renowned for their bitterness, and are the hops-of-choice for fine ales. Like wine grapes, the areas where the hops are grown also have a significant impact on the final product.
- Yeasts are the microorganisms that are responsible for fermentation. They convert sugars into alcohol.
- Body, or mouthfeel gives the beer it’s characteristic impressions. Light beers should have a light mouthfeel, and dark lagers and ales should have a heavier, robust feel to them.
- Alcohol content also adds to the flavor, but it can be over done. Most beers will average between 5%-7%. Some ales can go as high as 17%. As a rule, anything over 14% is considered a Barley Wine, or Malt Liquor.
- Bitterness is imparted by different hops varieties, and is used to accent, or offset other flavors and aromas in the brew. Bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs.
Beers can be broken down into two main types, Lagers, and Ales. A Lager uses bottom-fermenting yeasts that work best at low temperatures (less than 500F), and are fermented for extra-long times, maybe even a year or longer in some cases. This produces a remarkably well-balanced, smooth brew. Ales use top-fermenting yeasts at room temperatures. This produces a beverage with very complex tastes, sometimes pleasantly bitter, and very satisfying. Of course, there is a multitude of sub-styles within these two, such as West Coast lagers and Ales, Bohemian Lagers, Belgian Lagers, and such. Most Wheat-Beers are lagers.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the beer-world, we can move on to the brews. When I said, ‘best’ earlier, I meant that in a relative manner. People have different tastes, and one persons treasure can be another’s garbage. However, I have selected the craft beers that I feel are very good examples of the types of beer they make claim to. I also did not rank them numerically, because again, it is all relative, and few would probably agree with my rankings. Bear in mind that I am sure I have not sampled every brew out there. Feel free to chime in with your favorite craft brew.
So, here they are. My picks for some of the best craft beers made in the good old U. S. of A.:
- Anchor Steam Beer: One of my all-time favorites, until recently, very hard to get outside of California. Not exactly an ale, and not exactly a lager, but possibly the best of both worlds. It is brewed with lager yeast, but at ale temperatures, producing a remarkably full-bodied, well-rounded beverage, with a light, super-clean, crisp finish that leaves you wanting more. The aroma is enticingly herbal, and woodsy, and the taste is not exactly tart, but not sweet either, with light citrusy overtones, very refreshing.
- Dale’s Pale Ale: This is the ale that started the can revolution. It was the first craft beer to be offered in a can, and believe it or not, it is absolutely wonderful, with just enough citrus, and a little bitterness to offset the wonderful malty, almost biscuit-like backbone. One of the best brews I have ever had with outdoor BBQ.
- Brooklyn Brewery Lager: An amber Vienna-style lager. It has an outstanding malty taste, and perfect medium body, but not so much in-your-face. It is mellow, subtle, and has more depth to it’s character than any other lager I have ever consumed.
- New Belgium Fat Tire Ale: One of the characteristics of a Belgian-style beer or ale is that they use a wider assortment of ingredients, and unique yeast strains. Fat Tire is true to this style. A golden copper colored ale with a nice creamy head, and a medium-malty body with just enough bitterness to offset the citrusy, fruity overtones. Definitely worth a try.
- Sam Adams Boston Lager: One of the oldest craft beer companies in the US, and for a while, often the only craft beer widely available. Boston Lager is a great example of an old-style (pre WW-II) American Lager. The use of 2-row barleys really makes this brew shine, with a wonderful malty smooth body and flavor. This is matched perfectly with the bitterness of a melange of different hops. I could recognize Hallertau, Mittelfru, and Tettanger, which makes for a citrusy, piney aroma and finish. I am certain that a Time Traveler from the 19th century, thrown forward in time to our era, would instantly recognize this brew. It’s a fine example of the way things used to be, a true classic.
- Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA: This is the 500-pound gorilla of IPAs. It is a big beer, with big taste, and big kick. This brew is continuously hopped for 90-minutes (hence the name), then dry-hopped once again, just to be sure. There is nothing subtle about this ale. It has a wonderful full malty body, a slightly sweet taste with caramel overtones, and tones of bitter citrusy, piney hops everywhere, and lots of tropical fruity overtones. At 90 IBUs and 9% alcohol, this is not for the faint-hearted, but when you want a good, stiff brewski, with tons of flavor and depth, this is the go-to brew.
- Westbrook Gose: Gose (pronounced Gose-uh) is a very old German-style of sour wheat beer that uses salt and coriander to create a light-bodied, slightly lemony, very refreshing brew. Gose-style beers became almost extinct during the 20th century, and that would’ve been a true tragedy. Kudos to Westbrook for reviving, and saving this wonderful liquid. Their version is true to the original, with an aroma that I can only describe as deliciously crisp, salty, and very tart, like homemade sauerkraut. This is light-bodied without being watery and has exquisite tastes of salt, sour, and an orchard-fresh fruitiness. Extremely satisfying.
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: Bold, but balanced, this is the textbook example of a West Coast pale ale. Wonderfully crisp, with overtones of citrus and pine, and a nice medium-malty finish. SN Pale should be on everyone’s list as a brew to try someday. This is maybe one of the best beers I have ever had with a nice, thick, juicy cheeseburger. Total decadence!
- Allagash White: The Belgian Witbier style is vastly under-rated in the beer world, which is a shame. The style is a tart, crisp and refreshing brew with plenty of hops, and Allagash has done a fine job in representing the style. Their offering is very complex, and very drinkable, especially as an outside Garden-Beer. This brew has an outstanding floral, citrusy aroma, and a light, crisp palate with all kinds of herbal and spicy overtones. Try one with a nice, fresh deli-sandwich, or various cheeses. Magnifique!
- Stone IPA: Another fine example of a West Coast IPA with a slightly different flavor profile from Sierra Nevada IPA. Very complex, and very drinkable, this ale has tons of different citrusy-like flavors, with a great astringent hoppy finish. Maybe not quite as smooth as SN, but in it’s own way, every bit as good.
- Terrapin Wake N Bake: From the mysterious Deep-South breweries near Athens, Ga (my neck of the woods) comes this robust oatmeal stout with all the attitude you would expect in a hillbilly brew. Aromas of fresh coffee, caramel and cinnamon rolls are blended with great full body, sweet/spicy tastes, and lots of crisp carbonation. But don’t let the breakfast flavors fool you. I would not recommend drinking this in the morning if you plan on getting any work done. At a hefty 9.7% alcohol, you wont be doing a lot after a few of these. This brew is definitely in a class by itself.
- Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Ale: Another winner from the South, this time from the great state of Mississippi. This is the world’s first beer to use pecans like grain, creating a unique and wonderful nutty brew with tons of depth and character. This is a dark ale, but with a light character, and is very lightly-hopped unusual for this stye. It will absolutely make your taste-buds sit up and take notice. Pecan Ale won a Bronze Medal in the 2006 World Beer Cup Finals in the Specialty category. Saaaalute!
- Sweetwater Low RYEder IPA: The South has never been known for producing great brews. This has changed. Another offering from the southern Appalachian foothills of Atlanta, Ga., this is an IPA that really bounces. The rye grain makes this a very dry, crisp brew that is very refreshing. Aromas of light rye and pine are followed by flavors of mildly sweet caramel, citrus and pine, and a great floral finish. In recent years, southern craft breweries have created a new style of beverage that is taking the beer world by storm.
- Shiner Bock: I was born and raised in Texas, and I remember in my younger years that Shiner Beer was legendary, and for good reason. They have been brewing since 1909, and their original brews are still unchanged. Even though it is available to the rest of the country, now, all of their brews are still produced by a crew of only 85 people, still in only one brewery, in Shiner, Texas (which is still just a wide spot in the road on Hwy 90, in Lavaca County). Shiner Beers are faithful to the traditional german-style, and would be at home in any Munich or Bavarian Beer Garden. Shiner Bock is their flagship beer, and is an amber, wonderfully malty brew that is not too hoppy. It is super smooth, maybe a little sweet, with a great creamy, malty finish. Shiner Bock is best enjoyed in a large, heavy glass, frosted mug. One of the best brews I know to go with bratwurst and beans, or sauerkraut. A few of these, and you will become an instant Polka fan. One of my all-time favorite brews.
- Deschutes Black Butte Porter: A West Coast-style porter, and also one of my all-time favorite porters, even comparing it to European offerings. To get the full enjoyment of this brew, it needs to be in a heavy glass, frosted mug. It is coffee-dark, with a beautiful tan head. The aromas are of chocolate, coffee, and what I can only describe as Grape-Nuts cereal with walnuts and dates, It is slightly sweet, with just enough hops bitterness, some tannins, and a creamy, malty, nutty taste. This beer is full-bodied enough to be a meal all on it’s own. If you like porters, you will love Black Butte.
- Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro: Normally, I would take off points for any beer that uses artificial carbonation, but this is the exception, because it is done for effect, rather than an attempt to deceive. This brew is shot full of nitrogen, rather than CO2, which creates a velvety-smooth creaminess unobtainable by any other means. Like most stouts, it is coffee-black with a superb creamy tan head. The aromas are of milk-chocolate, strong coffee and toasted malt. The flavors are complex, with notes of coconut, dark fruits, vanilla, cocoa, spice, and smooth malt everywhere, with very little hops bitterness. The finish is unbelievably creamy, with some soft carbonation, and a lingering coffee-like aftertaste that makes you want to take another sip. This is one of the more unique brews available.
As I said, this list is by no means all-inclusive, nor are these necessarily the absolute best in their categories, but I feel that they are good representatives of their styles, and great places to start your journey into the wonderful world of craft beers.