Craft Beer Goes Boom
In this era of endless domestic craft beer choices, it’s nice to know what you’re getting yourself into. A brief guide to the best American beer styles to date.
America has gone craft. Hardcore.
With over 1,595 breweries operating in 2009, the highest total since before Prohibition, it’s clear that there are currently more American beer options than many alive today have ever experienced. With breweries in every U.S. state, virtually every American lives within driving distance of a craft brewery—the small, independently owned and traditional breweries creating the beers America is craving.
But in this new world of countless beer options, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the decisions at hand. So many styles, so many producers...where to begin?
First, it’s important to understand the basics, and, basically, there are two main groups of beers: ales and lagers. The main difference is that ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast while lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast. Lager yeast is inherently more fragile; it has a lower alcohol tolerance and undergoes fermentation at a lower temperature. The lower temperature leads to a slower, longer fermentation and storage period (the word comes from the German lagern, meaning “to store”). When compared to an ale, a lager will have fewer esters and aromas, greater clarity and a mellow palate that’s crisper and less fruity.
After you’ve got that down, it’s time to dive into some more specific common beer styles. Though descriptions and categories are always changing, style guidelines are a great resource to what you can expect in any given bottle. There’s still a lot of debate about the specifics of any given style, but the most popular and widely accepted sources of information are the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program’s style guidelines.
We’ve compiled our own mini-source of information for some of the most prevalent American beer styles. Consider this guide as your entry into the wonderful world of American craft beer. Welcome home, America…we’ve got a cold one waiting for you.
American Pale Ale
Description: American Pale Ales, or APAs, are often considered the gateway to the world of domestic craft beer. As many people’s first ale experience, the style is widely known as an approachable offering for novice beer drinkers looking for a place to begin their craft journey. APAs are pale gold to medium copper in color with medium body and moderate carbonation. The use of American hop varieties produces noticeable fruity, floral and citrus hop characteristics of varying intensity, as well as moderate to high hop bitterness and a medium to dry finish. However, the hops must be well balanced by low to medium-high clean malt flavors, making this a solid but overall more mellow beer than its IPA cousin. APAs are a good group choice as they’re great with food, easy to drink and sure to be enjoyed by most.
Alcohol: 4.5–6.2% abv*
Bitterness: 30–45 IBUs**
Glassware: Mug, stein or pint glass
Serving Temp. 45˚–50˚F
Food Pairings: Very flexible and versatile; great with burgers, pizza, Colby and Cheddar cheese, maple flan and caramelized desserts like bananas Foster.
Classic Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Liberty Ale, Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, Full Sail Pale Ale, Widmer Drifter Pale Ale
*alcohol by volume ** International Bittering Units
American Amber/Red Ale
Description: Similar to APAs but the focus here is more on the malts than the hops, with lovely toasted notes and a soft caramel character both in the bouquet and the mouth as well as an overall light fruitiness. There may be a low to moderate hop presence typically through the use of American hop varieties, with varying astringency and hop aromas and flavors. Pouring a light copper to dark amber-brown color with a substantial off-white head and good retention, they’re full-bodied with a richness and decadence that many ale drinkers enjoy and that pairs well with most meats. Imperial or Double Amber Ales are also available for those who are looking for more of a hop profile as well as an alcoholic kick.
Alcohol: 4.5–6.2% abv (8–10.5% for Imperial/Double)
Bitterness: 25–40 IBUs (55–85 for Imperial/ Double)
Glassware: Mug, stein or pint glass
Serving Temperature: 50˚–55˚F
Food Pairings: Great with a wide range of meats including beef, chicken and seafood as well as Port Salut or blue cheese and dulce de leche or pecan-based desserts.
Classic Examples: New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale, Tröegs Nugget Nectar Imperial Amber, Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale, Rogue American Amber Ale, Anderson Valley Brewing Boont Amber Ale
Description: The domestic craft beer scene has largely been focused on the uniqueness, success and demand for American IPAs, which are more flavorful than English India Pale Ales, offering intense cirtusy, floral, resinous, piney and/or fruity American-variety hop character and high bitterness. Typically, American IPAs are clear and medium-gold to red in color, though some haze may be perceived if the brew was dry hopped (that is, dry hops were added to fermenting or aging beer). The body is typically medium weight with a solid malt backbone that supports the high hop presence and preserves the balance of the brew. Imperial or Double IPAs are typically very intense to utterly mind-blowing, with high hop astringency, fruity esters and increased alcohol, and are pure bliss to hop-heads the world over. Though this may not be the style for you if bitter isn’t your thing, it’s certainly worth a try.
Glassware: Mug, stein or pint glass (snifter or tulip for Imperial/Double)
Alcohol: 5.5–7.5% abv (7.5–10.5% for Imperial/Double)
Bitterness: 40–70 IBUs (60–120 for Imperial/Double)
Serving Temperature: 50˚–55˚FFood Pairings: Thai or Indian cuisine (definitely an ideal choice for curry), salmon, mild gorgonzola or brie, and sweet spice-infused desserts like apple tart or carrot cake.
Classic Examples: Avery The Maharaja, Stone Ruination IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Lagunitas IPA, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale
American Pale Wheat Ale
Description: Belgian Witbiers are some of the most popular and sought-after beers for novices and connoisseurs alike, and American examples of both Belgian and German influence are beginning to garner the same intense appreciation. Pale to golden in color, they display citrus-dominant wheat flavors and a very refreshing and highly carbonated mouth. They’re typically produced, if not year round, as a spring or summer seasonal. American producers are fond of taking the traditional European styles and adding their own twist: a different spice, an unusual hop, a special brewing technique. The result is a gamut of unique and exceptionally rewarding brews, each expressing its own sense of identity and personality. As for the lemon wedge that frequently accompanies these brews, it’s completely a personal choice: some people find it livens up the intense wheat profile while others believe it overwhelms the beer’s natural flavors.
Alcohol: 4.0–7.0% abv
Bitterness: 8–20 IBUs
Glassware: Weizen vase glass, French jelly glass or pint glass
Serving Temperature: 45˚–50˚F
Food Pairings: So traditionally coupled with German cuisine it's hard not to recommend it, but will also pair very well with lighter fare such as salads, sushi and vegetable dishes as well as sort, lightly flavored cheeses such as mozzarella
Classic Examples: Harpoon UFO, Bell's Oberon Ale, Three Floyds Gumballhead, Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Magic Hat Circus Boy
Description: Craft brewers have really taken this classically English or Irish style to a whole new extreme, producing a wide array of styles for all types of stout lovers. Don’t be fooled by the dark brown to black opaque color; while these beers are usually robust, they are not all necessarily as dense and heavy as one might think. From dry, easy-drinking stouts to barrel-aged roasty flavor bombs, the amount of creativity and experimentation that goes into these offerings is nothing short of amazing. Caramel, chocolate and roasted coffee notes are common on the nose and medium- to full-bodied mouth. Hops are frequently used and can vary in intensity from moderate to high, usually resulting in a resiny hop character. Imperial Stouts offer a little bit more of everything, with increased alcohol, a fuller mouth and, of course, aggressive hop characteristics.
Alcohol: 4.0–8.0% abv (7–12% for Double/Imperial)
Bitterness: 35–75 IBUs (50–90 for Double/Imperial)
Glassware: Mug or pint glass (snifter for Double/Imperial)
Serving Temperature: 50˚–55˚F
Food Pairings: Smoky barbecue or grilled game or meat, gouda or Havarti cheese, and any chocolate dessert.
Classic Examples: Rogue Shakespeare Stout, Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, Southern Tier Mokah Imperial Stout, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Description: Porters, like stouts, are subject to interpretation and personalization by the American craft brewer. Historically (and presently) the two styles are very similar in overall profile and ingredients used, with differentiation between them remaining somewhat blurred. Originally perceived as a lighter stout, porters can also vary widely, resulting in a bitter roasty beer to a sweeter chocolaty one and everything in between. As in stouts, brewers are open to using numerous ingredient additions such as coffee or chocolate to complement the style’s inherent rich, toasty character. Also common is the use of oak for long-term aging, with selections resting for months in Bourbon, rum or even wine barrels to impart another layer of depth and complexity to the brew. Imperial porters also exist, though they are not as common a style as the aforementioned imperial stouts.
Alcohol: 4.0–7.5% abv
Bitterness: 25–50 IBUs
Glassware: Mug or pint glass
Food Pairings: Much like stouts, porters go well with barbecue and smoked fare like sausage or fish, buttery cheeses, and just about any chocolate-based dessert.
Classic Examples: Bell’s Porter, Alaskan Smoked Porter, Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
American Wild Ale
Description: One of the newest and perhaps most unique, exciting styles in the American craft brewing scene, American wild ales are just what they sound like: the beers are introduced to “wild” yeast or bacteria, such as brettanomyces (brettanomyces bruxellensis, brettanomyces lambicus or brettanomyces anomolus), pediococcus and/or lactobacillus. While brett has long been a significant part of Belgian brewing, the wild yeast has been making more appearances stateside. Undoubtedly different and somewhat polarizing, the result of the use of such wild organism(s) is a specific calling-card of characteristics including but not limited to horse, barnyard, leather and sweat. While this might sound strange and even somewhat disgusting, the integration of these components in balance with the pronounced organic acids and development of flavors from typical barrel aging results in a brew of depth and complexity.
Alcohol: 4.0–8.7% abv
Bitterness: 20–40 IBUs
Glassware: Tulip, flute or oversized wine glass
Serving Temperature 45˚–50˚F
Food Pairings: Fantastic with pungent cheese like Maytag blue or gorgonzola, salad, beef stew and orange crème brûlée.
Classic Examples: Captain Lawrence Rosso e Marrone, Russian River Temptation, Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme, Jolly Pumpkin La Roja, Allagash Interlude
Description: Straw to deep gold in color, this style has its roots in pre-Prohibition America when German immigrants came to the U.S. with their time-honored recipes, but has today evolved to please the current beer-drinking demographic or mimic more traditional German or Bohemian pilsners. They are light- to medium-weight with moderate malt aromas and flavors and typically higher alcohol than their European counterparts. The use of adjuncts such as corn or rice is allowed in American-style pilsners, with a corn-like sweetness or DMS (dimethyl sulfide, a sulfur compound that produces the taste and aroma of sweet corn) occasionally perceptible. The use of noble hops is preferred, with medium to high hop aroma, flavor and bitterness to balance out the sweeter characteristics of the style. The German-style pilsner is still the preference for many American brewers.
Alcohol: 4.5–6.0% abv
Bitterness: 25–40 IBUs
Glassware: Pilsner, slender cylinder glass
Serving Temperature 40˚–45˚F
Food Pairings: A good option for lighter fare such as sushi, salads, grilled chicken, flake fish, mild cheddar and lighter deserts like bundt cake with lemon custard or vanilla pudding with fresh berries.
Classic Examples: Victory Prima Pils, Southampton Keller Pils, Sam Adams Noble Pils, Stoudt’s Pils, Port Brewing’s Panzer Imperial Pilsner
American Amber/Red Lager
Description: Originally just a slight derivation of the Vienna lager style, this group of beers is starting to define itself more and more through its American interpretations. Though it should not be at a high level, the use of noble hops is frequently noticeable in flavor, aroma and bitterness, with the flexibility regarding the usage of hops being what sets these beers apart from more traditional lagers. The dominating characteristics are a caramel-infused malt backbone and overall roasted presence on the nose and mouth. As the name suggests, the color ranges from light amber to mahogany and the palate is medium-bodied but crisp in the finish. Exhibits a little more depth and sweet roasty malt notes than a traditional light lager.
Alcohol: 4.5–5.5% abv
Bitterness: 18–30 IBUs
Glassware: Pilsner, mug, stein or pint glass
Serving Temperature 40˚–50˚F
Food Pairings: Great for outdoor cooking like barbecue, smoked meats and chili, Latin-American dishes and poached pears.
Classic Examples: Blue Point Toasted Lager, Brooklyn Lager, Yuengling, Coney Island Lager, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager
Craft Suds Stats
There’s no denying that the American craft beer industry has been booming over the past decade. Posting double digit growth for four consecutive years, domestic craft brewers (small, independently owned and traditional) have slowly been increasing their share of the overall beer segment. Even in difficult times, craft brewers saw retail dollar values rise from $6.32 billion in 2008 to $6.98 billion in 2009, while overall beer sales were down 2.2% and imports were down 9.8%.
• Growth of the craft brewing industry in 2009 was 7.2% by volume and 10.3% by dollars compared to growth in 2008 of 5.9% by volume and 10.1% by dollars.
• Craft brewers sold an estimated 9,115,635 barrels* of beer in 2009, up from 8,501,713 in 2008.
• Overall, U.S. beer sales were down 2.2% in 2009.
• Imported beer sales were down 9.8% in 2009, equivalent to a loss of 2.8 million barrels.
• The craft brewing sales share in 2009 was 4.3% by volume and 6.9% by dollars.
• Craft brewer retail dollar value in 2009 was an estimated $6.98 billion, up from $6.32 billion in 2008.
• 1,595 breweries operated for some or all of 2009, the highest total since before Prohibition.
*1 barrel = 31 U.S. gallons