Last week I offered up a selection of mostly new beers I’d recommend you try. As exciting as those new beers are, there are some great American craft beers that remain popular after twenty or thirty years on the market, and that kind of staying power deserves some respect.
The beers that have been around that long often pioneered new styles or techniques. If you’re a beer geek that’s obsessed with new and rare beers, it would do your soul some good to go back and revisit some of the greats you haven’t thought about in five or ten years. Or, if you’re someone who just got interested in craft beer when the Gourmet Beer Bill passed a couple years ago, perhaps you skipped the classics altogether and jumped right into the new “high gravity” beers like imperial stouts and Belgian tripels. In that case, you really need to check out these American trailblazers which have stood the test of time.
First up is one that is near and dear to my hophead heart, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA). It created the American pale ale style and it can take some credit for launching a thousand American brewers’ love of hop-forward beers. I recall in my early days of drinking craft, a case of SNPA was available at Sam’s Club for 24 dollars. That’s the equivalent of a six-dollar six-pack, and it was the best price on a hoppy ale you could find in Birmingham. I went through many cases. I no longer have a Sam’s Club membership, so I don’t know if they still carry it or what the price is these days. SNPA is one of the most widely available craft beers in the country, probably second only to the next beer on my list, so there’s no excuse for not enjoying its benchmark-setting Cascade hop goodness from time to time.
Next up is the best-selling craft beer in the U.S., Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Because of its size, Sam Adams tends to be at the center of most debates about what is and is not craft beer. Lots of hardcore craft beer drinkers have a personal ethos leading them to favor small and local businesses. Since Sam is the biggest fish in the craft beer sea, it is sometimes lumped in with the giant multinational breweries. I have argued in this column before and will continue to argue that craft beer drinkers should not be concerned with the size of the brewery making the beer and instead focus on the flavor, and Boston Lager is the best Vienna lager you’re going to find almost anywhere in America. It’s a shining beacon of craft beer in the desert “domesticonly” restaurants, and it’s not just the best option when pitted against a beer menu littered with light beer; it’s an outstanding, hoppy lager that deserves more respect from beer geeks.
Next is the pioneer of an entire style I once disdained, American style hefeweizen. The Widmer brothers created the style when they first brewed Widmer Hefeweizen, and now you’ll find many other examples, like Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat and Pyramid Hefeweizen. I used to dislike all American hefes because of their subtlety. The basic premise behind them is the use of the same recipe of malts and hops as a German hefeweizen, but fermented with a clean American ale yeast instead of traditional German hefeweizen yeast. Since the latter is what gives the German-brewed hefes their trademark banana, clove and bubblegum flavors, American versions don’t have those characteristics. I used to think that the cleaner flavor profile was a flaw, but more recently I’ve gained a new appreciation for beers that don’t hit me in the face with their intensity. I drink an awful lot of IPA, but sometimes I need something a bit more subtle. Sometimes you just need an American style hefe, and Widmer is the grandaddy of them all.
Finally, I’d like to suggest you pick up some Anchor Porter soon. All the Anchor beers are classics, since it is the original modern American craft brewery, but I’m singling out the porter because it is a style that has really been overlooked because of the stout craze during the last few years. Just as American style hefes are more sessionable than their German cousins, porters are more sessionable than stouts, but they still feature some great roasty chocolate flavors. In the past few years porters fell so far out of favor that some breweries dropped them from their lineups altogether. I’m hoping the trend towards session beers in American craft brewing leads to a porter renaissance. Anchor nails the style with timeless class.
I get just as excited about the latest hard-toget, small-batch, barrel-aged, dry-hopped, imperial sour ale as the next guy, but man cannot live on $20-per-bottle beer alone. Keep these classics in your rotation to stay grounded in the heritage of American craft beer.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org