Article By: Andy Crouch
Despite its relative late start compared to other great brewing nations, America has quickly, over the course of thirty years, become one of the world’s pre-eminent brewing nations. Mixing a healthy respect for traditional practices with a New World curiosity for experimentation, bundled together with passion for their craft, brewers have made this nation the best place to be if you are a lover of good beer. It is now beyond question that US brewers can compete with the best craftsmen of Germany, Ireland, Britain, the Czech Republic, and beyond. And nowhere in the world will you encounter such a diverse selection of flavorful beers, born of hundreds of historic and newfangled styles. Americans no longer have to board planes to travel abroad in search of better beer offerings. In an unusual historical reversal, foreign beer lovers now dream of traveling to the States to visit our breweries and patronize our brewpubs.
In many ways, America has developed into a saving grace for many of the world’s endangered beer styles. In the past thirty years, this nation has given shelter to many moribund styles, from porter to pale ale, imperial stout to barley wine. In retrospect, brewers seemed the least likely to serve as saviors of anything related to beer. Ensconced in a country with little to no existing native beer culture, American brewers looked abroad to understand the essence and true character of beer. Our brewers have drawn inspiration from foreign brewers near and far, dissecting their popularity, studying their charms and extracting the vital characters of their signature offerings.
Despite our brewing ingenuity, we still look to Europe for a great deal of inspiration. Many classic European styles make for great companions in the colder months, whether they hail from Germany, England or further afield. American brewers, of course, have chosen to put their own individual stamps on many of these classic styles, adding coffee, pine, and fruit, even for winter beers. This collection of beers makes for a wide catalog of offerings for individuals looking to celebrate the changing of weather from fall to winter.
One of the world’s least understood and appreciated beer styles – christened Schwarzbier (shvahrts-beer), “black beer” in German, – undoubtly for its deep menacingly dark brown to black color with ruby hues. Would-be imbibers sometimes fear the beer will be heavy on the palate. To the continuing amazement of drinkers new to the style, Schwarzbier is incredibly light in mouthfeel and flavor, resulting in a drinkable and easily approachable style. As a lager, Schwarzbiers benefit from cold-conditioning, which smoothes out the rougher patches associated with other roasted styles and the dark flavors and aromas are mild compared to most Porters. The clean aroma is lightly malty, with slight burnished hints and sweet and cream touches from Munich malt. The dark German lager’s flavor balances lightly roasted malts with a mild bitterness and finishes long, dry and smooth. A relatively low alcohol style, in the five-percent range, Schwarzbiers are easily accessible for roasted beers novices.
SAMUEL ADAMS BLACK LAGER
Boston Beer Company
alcohol content 4.9% ABV
One of the lesser heralded beers in Boston Beer’s substantial portfolio, this to-style Schwarzbier is a credit to a big craft brewery that has never lost touch with its beer-loving roots. Black Lager presents with a disquieting blackish brown color with only the slightest edges of color at the margins and with a huge, tightly carbonated tan head. The beer’s aroma boasts a panoply of lightly roasted dark malts blended with a big flash of cream and the slightest hint of dark fruits. The flavor continues to mix moderately roasted dark malts, a few dashes of cream, a quick whiff of smoke, all finishing very dry and pleasant.
Sprecher Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.8% ABV
Brewed by owner Randy Sprecher for more than 35 years, since his return from a trip to Germany, the Black Bavarian is one of the most popular Schwarzbiers in America. The beer unleashes a massive onyx tint – with only flecks of mahogany – and a beige colored foam accent. Black Bavarian’s aroma is a curious mixture of chocolate, caramel and cream with a light molasses edge at times and only the slightest touch of darker malts. The flavor similarly confounds, with an array of notes from cream to burnt chocolate, to the faintest ground coffee hints, all mixed with a touch of sourness that plays well against the sweetness.
Hundreds of millions of Americans reach for a cup of coffee every morning to help kick start their days. While some just take it black, billion dollar enterprises have sprouted up to meet the finicky needs of many coffee drinkers – from simple espressos to double grande soy milk half-caf mouthfuls. Coffee is as much a national beverage as soda and beer. So it is with irony still dripping from the Starbuck’s stirring straw that many Americans also decry dark beers, brushed aside in their entirety without a moment’s thought as to how similar many might be to their favorite morning pick-me-up.
Beers made with coffee are the perfect foot soldiers in the battle to get people to drink with an open mind and mouth. Unlike the millions of Americans described above, I’m not a coffee drinker and in fact don’t always enjoy bitter, dark roasted flavors. Despite this acknowledged prejudice, I’m a big coffee beer fan and they have helped me develop a passion for Porters, a style I once avoided.
It is important to note that any beer style can include coffee as an ingredient and beers made with coffee are not designated as their own separate style. With that said, brewers often prefer to use coffee related products in beers that already possess darker hues, flavors and aromas as a means of complementing the existing character or to add additional complexity. Depending upon the type of coffee and method of use in the brewing process, the resulting beer may possess light roasted aromas and flavors or strongly bitter hints. Some brewers tend to dump coffee beans or grounds into already flavor-heavy imperial stouts. The beers profiled here tend to focus on maximizing coffee flavors and not using them as yet another palate assault weapon.
DRAYMAN’S COFFEEHOUSE PORTER
In Western Massachusetts, Berkshire Brewing Company works with a local fair trade coffee provider to transform its regular Drayman’s Porter into the delectable Coffeehouse Porter. Using a robust coffee extract, this dark mahogany beer possesses a playful bouquet of caramel malt mixed with ground coffee all with an off-tan head. Lightly carbonated, the beer starts with a jolt of cold coffee roasted character mixed and a touch of coffee bitterness, all balanced by a lightly sweet caramel flavor. A complex yet drinkable beer that does not allow the coffee influence to overshadow the underlying style’s flair.
TERRAPIN BEER COMPANY’S COFFEE OATMEAL IMPERIAL STOUT
At nearly 9 percent alcohol, Terrapin Beer Company’s Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout, playfully nicknamed Wake-n-Bake, bestows a powerful and potent coffee beer experience. Made with a blend of coffee from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Zimbabwe, this coffee stout pours slightly thick and smells of an intricate mixture of iced coffee, roasted malt, light smokiness, and a warming alcohol base. A touch of sweetness holds its own against the strong, lush roasted and creamy coffee flavors.
SURLY COFFEE BENDER
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the beer geek-friendly Surly Brewing Company transforms its style twisting Bender, an oatmeal brown ale, into Coffee Bender with the use of coarsely ground, cold-steeped Guatemalan beans. Dark ruby in hue, the beer bears some similarity to iced coffee in aroma and flavor, with cascades of caramel, vanilla and chocolate, all mixed with the underlying brown ale.
The use of honey as a brewing ingredient, both in beer and mead, is an old and storied practice. A honey-based drink called “braggot” is referred to in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, with occasional earlier references dating even further back to Ireland in the 11OOs. In modern brewing, honey is often used as a means for softening and sweetening beers and contributes to several summer seasonal products. The best beers use a careful hand in employing honey, which when added in bulk can make a beer taste sickly sweet. Brewers often call upon local farmers and bee keepers to provide the honey for their lush and layered offerings.
BROTHER ADAM’S HONEY BRAGGET ALE
Atlantic Brewing Company
Bar Harbor, Maine
alcohol content 11.8% ABV
Produced only once a year, Atlantic’s Bragget Ale is a beer with few peers. The brewers use a simple malt and hop schedule but add 2OOO pounds of wildflower honey in the boil to create this special ale. Atlantic then cellars the beer for a year before bottling it. The resulting product is a complex mix of flavors, ranging from coconut and oak to passion fruit. Similar to a barley wine in presentation, the beer is lightly carbonated and, at nearly 12 percent alcohol by volume, it remains best enjoyed as a sipping drink.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
alcohol content 9.O% ABV
The product of this experimental brewery’s deranged ways, Midas Touch is based upon a recipe for the oldest known fermented beverage. After analyzing samples from a drinking vessel found in the tomb of King Midas, the brewers and a scientist attempted to replicate the contents using barley, white Muscat grapes, honey, and saffron. The beer pours with a luminous, hazy orange color and a bright white head. The aroma fuses citrus and white wine notes, with defined alcohol whispers. Midas Touch is a wonder to drink, very effervescent with tight carbonation and a slight Belgian yeast aftertaste. Lightly fruity, smooth and dry, it can serve as a special occasion replacement for Champagne.
STRONG, DARK & FRUITY BEERS
Fruit beers are popularly considered to be light, pretty and safe choices, but they also have a much darker side. Far removed from many of the user-friendly fruit offerings featured in this chapter exists a world of shadowy, brooding creations that feature fruit in twisted, perverse and entirely enjoyable ways.
WEYERBACHER RASPBERRY IMPERIAL STOUT
Under the generous umbrella of the style, many brewers use fruits to add complexity to their stouts. On the opposite end of the taste spectrum, Weyerbacher Brewing Company’s Raspberry Imperial Stout bursts with bold, roasted malt flavors and aromas and finishes with a sweet, tart raspberry flourish. The beer is also worthy of aging, with each year stripping away another layer of raspberry to reveal more subtle, caramelized malt flavors.
DOGFISH HEAD’S FORT
A handful of fanatical brewers have done some pretty masochistic things with fruit, creating super-high alcohol brews that strongly feature their chosen fruits. Touting itself as the world’s strongest fruit beer, Dogfish Head’s 18 percent alcohol Fort (French for strong) is a robust fruit beer to be sure. Brewed with more than a ton of pureed Oregon and Delaware raspberries during a slow, two month primary fermentation, the beer produces a collage of fruit and malt flavors and aromas.
Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout
In the historic fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Cape Ann Brewing Company brews its quirky Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout. Exhibiting more of the traditional roasted qualities of the stout style, the beer offers occasion hints of pumpkin seeds and allspice mixed with roasted malts.
THE ORIGINAL WINTER SEASONAL
OUR SPECIAL ALE
Anchor Brewing Company
San Francisco, California
alcohol content 5.5% ABV
One of the first seasonal beers ever produced by an American craft brewery, Anchor’s Our Special Ale was also one of the first American beers to be actively cellared by beer enthusiasts. Vintages go back to the 197Os, with most maintaining great complexity and character long after their release. The specific recipe for this dark brownish-amber ale changes a touch from year to year but usually involves a strong earthy nose, touches of pine and wood, along with deep, dark malt character. The flavor profile often touches upon darker flavors mixed with some mild and changing spice quality and evened out but a decidedly piney and evergreen taste component. Stash a bottle or two away for future enjoyment and to see how the beer develops and evolves.