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American Beer: Nothing to Fear

Written by Nick Jurkowski
Filed Under: Beer Tasting

Beer has had its ups and downs in America. Naturally, the lowest point was Prohibition, when most of the breweries went out of business (wineries could at least get along selling sacramental wine) and people brewed low flavor beers made out of corn, rice, and soybeans. These beers did their job, as far as speakeasy patrons were concerned, and they defined American-style beer until quite recently.

If Prohibition was the low point in American brewing, then we are currently in a profound renaissance. Microbreweries can be found throughout the country, and American takes on established beers have already become distinct enough to warrant their own styles. American beer styles can be broken down into styles that developed before/during Prohibition and those that developed post Prohibition.

Pre-Prohibition: Steam and Lager

California Common beer (originally known as "Steam") could be considered America's only truly original style of beer (the others being adaptations and spin-offs of old world styles). Born in the era of the California Gold Rush, this beer was fermented with lager yeast, but at ale temperatures. The body is medium with a restrained fruitiness and slight toasted taste, which is balanced out by (typically) Northern Brewer hops, which impart a more woody, botanical flavor to the brew. During prohibition, nearly every brewer of this style went out of business, and the sole surviving producer, Anchor Brewer, copyrighted the term "steam" when it got back into business (which is why the style must now be known as California Common. Thanks a lot, jerks). That being said, Anchor Steam is a fantastic beer, and one of my stand-by favorites.

American Lager

Well, it needs to be mentioned. American lagers are what most Americans think of when they think of beer. This much-maligned style is marked by the use of corn and rice in the mash, which adds fermentable sugar to the brew, but little else. There is only a slight hoppiness to it, and they are nothing if not light and refreshing. The irony of creating a somewhat tasteless beer is that it is quite hard to do consistently, making this one of the more difficult styles to brew. These beers have their place, but truth be told, I'd go with a Bohemian lager.

Special mention must be made of the classic American Pilsner style, which no longer exists. This was the style brewed by the original Bohemian immigrants to the Midwest, and was much like classic European examples with the addition of native American grains (notably flaked corn, in small quantities). These beers were hopped similarly to their old-world counterparts, but with American varieties, leading to subtle differences in flavor and aroma. To my knowledge, there are no commercial examples of this style; it went into a decline because of World War I hysteria ("That there's KAISER brew!") and was more or less killed off completely by prohibition. Sadness.

Post Prohibition

Once it took quite a while (50 years or so) to actually start making decent beer again. Turning to Europe, craft brewers started to create beers inspired by the styles of the continent, and gradually many of the styles evolved to the point that they have become completely distinct from their European counterparts.

American Pale Ale and Amber

English pales, while balanced more towards the hoppy end of the taste spectrum, have nothing on American Pale Ales. Using high alpha-acid hop varieties developed in the US (like Chinook and Centennial), American brewers have pushed the envelope for hoppiness in a pale to the point that it is conceivable that one would mistake an American pale for and English IPA. American pales are often marked by the use of Cascade hops, a citrusy little number grown in Washington state, and they are frequently more carbonated than their English Counterparts. Sierra Nevada Pale and Manny's Pale Ale are excellent and delicious examples of this style.

Ambers (also called "West Coast Amber Ale) are similar to American pale, but with a more balanced malt to hop profile. They have more caramel flavors but still with a goodly helping of American hop bitterness to round things out. Mac and Jack's African Amber (out of Redmond, Washington) is my absolute favorite of this style, but it can be hard to come by if you aren't in Washington state. Bell's Amber (out of Kalamazoo) is also quite good.

American Wheat

American Wheat's are similar in construction to their Bavarian counterparts, but are fermented with American yeast strains, and often have fruit added. Those without fruit are often hopped at moderate to heavy levels. Widmer Brothers Hefe-Weizen is a solid example of this style, and Pyramid Apricot Weizen would be an example of the fruited style. To be honest, I haven't much cared for this style, but it may well be that I haven't had the right beer (this is almost always the case.)

As we know from the wind world, Americans are good at pushing boundaries and putting their own spin on classic beverages. As more microbreweries spring up and more people start to homebrew, new styles will continue to emerge and develop, and the global beer world will be richer for it. Support your local craft brewery and drink plenty of their beer. That way, everyone wins.