As recently as the 1970s, America was the butt of jokes in world beer culture. There were only a few dozen breweries, all producing little more than straw-colored lagers with minimal flavor. Today, our country boasts over 1,600 breweries leading the world in creativity and quality in brewing. To better understand that transformation, I propose drinking ten different beers that illustrate the nature of modern American beer. Not all in one sitting.
1. The first beer in this round of exploratory drinking absolutely has to be Anchor Steam Beer. In the early 1970s, steam beer was the only style of beer indigenous to North America. I’d argue that in the last few decades Americans have created quite a few new styles, but steam beer is the godfather of them all and today’s craft brewers owe a debt of gratitude to Anchor for persevering through the darkest days of brewing on this continent.
2. Second on your beer tour should be Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the first American pale ale ever brewed. The key point to learn from this beer is that it set the standard for American brewers amping up traditional English styles with extra hops and alcohol. The same pattern would lead to the American IPA, the double IPA, the American brown ale, and the American barley wine. Those categories now boast thousands of examples across the country, and it really all started in 1980 with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
3. After you ponder how three decades ago Americans took UK brewing traditions and created new styles of beer, toast the inspiration coming full circle with a BrewDog Punk IPA. BrewDog is a Scottish craft brewery that is heavily inspired by American craft brewing culture. Thirty years ago it was radical for American brewers to brew traditional Scottish ales. Today it’s radical for a Scottish brewery to produce an American-style IPA. And this influence continues to spread across the world.
4. Not only have we taken European beer styles in new directions, we have also perfected European beers in their original form. A great example of this is Allagash FOUR. It features four malts, four hops, four sugars, and four yeast strains, and it is every bit the equal of any quadruple brewed by any brewer in Belgium. Who needs to buy imports when beer as good or better is being brewed right here in the USA?
5. I’ll tell you who needs imports: me. While Americans have mastered almost every beer style known to man and created more than a few of our own, there are some European beers that we have yet to surpass, and Cantillon Saint Lamvinus is one of them. No one would argue Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River is not a virtuoso in the field of brewing sour beers. But he still has not surpassed the mastery of the brewers and blenders at Cantillon, who have been perfecting the art of lambic brewing for over 100 years. As far as we’ve come, Belgium’s traditional lambic producers still have some secrets Americans have yet to uncover.
6. Next up is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Not only is Boston Lager at the top of the heap when it comes to sales of American craft beer, the Samuel Adams brand deserves credit for keeping American craft beer alive during the late 90s, when the initial craft boom looked to many to be a fad that had passed. Lots of craft breweries from the first big wave folded, but Samuel Adams continued to grow and proved the segment had staying power.
7. Whiskey barrel-aged beer is entirely an American invention, and the brewery that started it all was Goose Island with their Bourbon County Brand Stout way back in 1992. And it’s still recognized as being among the best there is. Sip this one from a snifter and carefully ponder American creativity at its finest.
8. Although imperial stouts were not invented by Americans, the modern obsession with them started here. The phenomenon of crazed hordes traveling hundreds of miles for a chance at buying six bottles of one beer started with Three Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout. The beer debuted in 2004 and has hovered near the top of BeerAdvocate’s list of top beers in the world for most of its existence. It’s only available at the brewery, and only on one day a year. That day has turned into a massive beer festival with thousands of attendees who all bring and share beer. And it has spawned several very successful copycat events all centered around rare, hard to obtain imperial stouts. We have Three Floyds to thank.
9. I think nothing is more emblematic of modern Americans’ perspective on craft beer than our love of absurdly-hopped beers. And the most iconic example of that theme is Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. It was created by Sam Calagione, now the most recognizable spokesman for American craft brewing. 90 Minute is unique in that it doesn’t feature just two or three hop additions that are common for most beers; it is continuously hopped for a full 90 minutes during the boil. It’s nuts, it’s delicious, and no European brewer would ever have dreamed of such a thing.
10. And finally, the last beer you must drink to understand modern American brewing is Stone Arrogant Bastard. It was one of the first beers to defy classification to such a degree that a new catch-all category was created for it, American strong ale. It’s a robust 7% ABV, amber in color with a thick caramel malt backbone, and intensely hoppy. But the most American thing about it is the self-righteous diatribe screen-printed on every bottle, explaining how most drinkers aren’t worthy of the beer because they’ve wasted their lives drinking fizzy yellow light beer. American brewing is dosed with a lot of hubris and attitude, and Arrogant Bastard is the epitome of that.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com