Article By: Andy Crouch
A FEW DECADES AGO, popping to the store for a six-pack of beer would have been no big deal. Depending upon where you lived, the local liquor or grocery store would have offered a dozen or so big named brands, including Stroh’s, Schlitz, Hamm’s, and the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors). If it was a good store, it might have even included a couple imported brands, such as Lowenbrau. Today, that little selection has been replaced by hundreds of different beer labels, each clamoring for a moment of your customers’ time and consideration. The selection process can get so overwhelming that customers might understandably just reach for what is familiar or even closest. This is the time to suggest that drinkers revisit some long forgotten and overlooked styles that may have lost a shade or two in the coolness department.
In a market too often dominated by big, bold, and brash beers, it is nice to take a step back and appreciate the traditional beer styles. Offering a clear and welcomed respite from Double IPA hop bombs and Imperial Stout bruisers, these styles retain their old charms while teaching drinkers something new about beer with every classic sip. Often balancing the critical elements of hops and malt, without over doing it with either, these classic beers result in a bewildering mixture of reserve and expressiveness at the same time. These classic styles, even the now dominant American style India Pale Ale, can offer style and substance, with a little bit of reserved charm.
When the average drinker hears the word bitter, negative thoughts start to well up and they flee for the cold comforts of light beers. Now imagine seeing a beer with bitter in the name. This is the problem faced by brewers wanting to brew this classic British beer style. Conjuring up images of well-worn country pubs where old men quietly sip pint after pint, the Bitter style suffers image problems in its own country as well. Distinguishing Bitters from Pale Ales can also be trying, both personally and historically, and many American and British breweries use the terms interchangeably. American versions of the style range in color from pale golden to rich amber, with light carbonation and light to medium body, and possess a light fruity hop nose. Unlike IPAs, bitters are less mouth-puckeringly hoppy, with a complex mixture of floral hops, a touch of bitterness, rounded out by a light malt sweetness, all with a low enough alcohol level, around 4-percent, to be sessionable. Extra Special Bitters are generally a touch hoppier and slightly fuller in body and alcohol. The styles are often available on cask at brewpubs.
DOUBLE BARREL ALE
Firestone-Walker Brewing Company
Paso Robles, California
alcohol content 5.O% ABV
Finding a classically flavored English Bitter or Pale Ale from a West Coast brewery is a little like locating Titanic remnants in a local pond. As the award-winning Firestone-Walker brewery’s flagship beer, Double Barrel Ale sets itself apart from many hop heavy California beers by focusing on the beauty of English malt. Pouring a deep, rich amber copper color with a slight and quickly fading head, the beer boasts a complex array of toffee, caramel, and toasted malts, including the signature Maris Otter. The flavor is striking in its subtlety, with an unusually even-handed mixture of bready and nutty malts, light fruit esters, and an ever so slight earthy bitterness that is deep within this well-structured beer. The result of this masterwork is a very drinkable, slightly malty beer that offers something for novices and self-professed experts alike.
ANDREW’S ENGLISH PALE ALE
Andrews Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.O% ABV
Located along a picturesque country road not far from the Atlantic Ocean in coastal Maine, the Andrew’s Brewing Company is a throwback to the days when brewers lived to serve their local communities. From the bottle flows deep amber colored ale, with a soft but ample tan head, and possessing an aromatic mingling of English caramel malt flavors, with touches of earth and woodiness, and pine and citrusy hop additions. A touch of bready malt slips by the piney and earthy hops, with their restrained but notable bitterness. From the first sip, Andrew’s has made a delightfully drinkable ale.
Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.O% ABV
A small chain of Maine-based brewpubs, each with their own character, Gritty’s provides customers with solid versions of classic English style ales and a bit of American influence. As one of its most well-appreciated offerings, Best Bitter is the epitome of the classic English session ale. Designed to be full of flavor but easy drinking, the flagship Best Bitter pours with an amber-brown color with light beads of carbonation. It possesses a slightly grassy nose imparted by East Kent Goldings hops alongside a pale English malt character. Often served on cask for a stiller experience, the Bitter is quite understated in flavor, achieving a delicate balance between its use of English pale malts, a subtle and earthy hop bitterness, a sight yeast bite, and the occasional light and fruity flavors of cider or apples.
Bridgeport Brewing Company
alcohol content 6.1% ABV
One of America’s longest running breweries, located in the heart of Oregon’s West Coast brewing scene, the Bridgeport Brewing Company produces a few classic English beers, including its ESB. With a striking copper orange color topped off by a thin layer of tan foam, the aroma showcases mildly toasted and caramel tasting malt sweetness with a façade of earthy, woody, and grassy hops. The correspondingly malty flavor base, with its toasted hints, gives way to a mildly resiny and often fruity stream of hop character, counterbalanced by surprisingly robust hop bitterness.
AMERICAN INDIA PALE ALE
Perhaps the most widely recognized beer style for American consumers, this version bears little resemblance to the original English IPA style. Filled with aromatic and bitter American hops, these orange to light amber colored beers boast prodigious grapefruit, orange, and floral aromas or sizable herbal and earthy notes. Medium bodied, the best American IPA’s avoid fighting a one-side hop battle against your palate by judiciously balancing a substantial pale malt backbone. The final results range from powerful and intensely juicy beers to milder yet deeply bitter hop finishes. A style that may take some getting used to, many hop skeptics become dedicated hopheads when the right beer shows them that bitter is not necessarily bad. Here are a few classic examples of this now newly classic style.
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
alcohol content 6.9% ABV
While many New England born IPAs tend towards the English style, Smuttynose’s version is loaded with Simcoe and Santiam hops and balanced by the distinctive Amarillo hop. One of the brewery’s most popular offerings, the beer opens with a hazy amber-orange color and a light off-white crown. The aroma is a strong mix of assertive earthy and grainy notes, with occasional clear grassy hints, and a touch of malt tang. This is not your usual American citrus bomb, instead the flavor tends towards the earthier, funkier hop flavor, with a slight malt undercurrent, and a long, drawn out bitterness.
ADDRESS UNKNOWN IPA
Willimantic Brewing Company
alcohol content 6.7% ABV
While New England is not particularly known for expressive American-style IPAs, the tiny Willimantic brewpub is the exception to that finicky rule. Located in an attractive converted post office, Willimantic brews several dozen different IPAs every year. The aroma is filled with essences of sweet, dense malts, rounds of citrus, and piney extracts. This tantalizing, perfectly balanced, and unfiltered IPA teases the palate with caramel and toasted malts, all while sucking every last essence out of the powerfully hoppy Columbus and Cascade varieties. A slight alcohol bite adds another layer of complexity to the pine and grapefruit fruit tones in the body.
Bear Republic Brewing Company
Santa Rosa, California
alcohol content 7.O% ABV
This stalwart American IPA issues a slightly soft, hazy golden amber color with a moderate white head before unleashing a surprising fusion of sweet cotton candy hop and malt notes and citrus and pine touches. The fragrant nose translates to a complex wash of bubble gum malt sweetness that is immediately tempered by a persistent citrusy hop bite. The mouthfeel is a touch fuller than your average IPA but Racer 5 never overwhelms, with a lingering bitterness present to guide you to the last savored sip.
CALIFORNIA COMMON AND STEAM BEER
Perhaps no American beer style is so-defined by a single selection as the California Common style. First brewed in 1896, ANCHOR STEAM is a deep amber colored beer with a solid creamy head that balances smooth malt character with a mild fruitiness with a touch of hop bitterness. The Anchor Brewing Company’s iconic flagship brand derives its name, it is believed, from a time when West Coast brewers produced beer using some unusual refrigeration methods. The hybrid modern version involves using a special lager strain that is capable of maintaining its form when subjected to warmer fermentation temperatures. Today, the Anchor Brewing Company has trademarked the “Steam” name and most similarly styled craft brands go by the associated California Common name. These beers share Anchor Steam’s penchant for light amber colors, medium and toasted or caramel malt body, and smooth yet fruity and hoppy qualities.
Moving from Aspen to Denver and finally Maryland, the Flying Dog Brewery has experienced quite a journey. The brewery’s near-flagship OLD SCRATCH AMBER LAGER also bridges a wide divide, between ale and lager qualities. Fermented at lower temperatures, the beer develops a mellow caramel and toasted malt character that is balanced in flavor by the use of noble German hops, resulting in a hoppy counterbalance.
An often misunderstood and underappreciated entrant into the mellow and malty category, England’s classic Mild Ales are a curiosity in the modern age of brewing. Near uniformly rejected by young British drinkers and beer snobs alike as a simple, unexciting low-alcohol beer style, these ales confound modern brewers and the populaces that love them. The term mild once meant not a style but simply a young beer meant to be drunk fresh, with many examples exhibiting a sizable hop presence and higher alcohol content than today’s versions. There were mild Bitters, Stouts, and Porters and beers sold singularly as Mild’s were a far cry from today’s brands. Alcohol levels were always in the mid-range as the beer did not require preservation beyond a few days for fast consumer enjoyment. Fast-forward to today and modern Mild often represents a lower alcohol beer, around four-percent, with sweet, roasted malt flavors, and a low bitterness level. The historic Mild Ale remains a lesser staple of British brewing, with steep declines in popularity in the last fifty years. American craft brewers are slowly beginning to embrace the session ale qualities of the modern Mild Ale.
The modern day mild may be the ultimate mellow beer. Despite the occasional in your face names given to such lightweight beers, such as GHETTOBLASTER or COMMERCIAL SUICIDE, these beers actually represent a nice malt-forward profile with nutty and toasted malts doing much of the work. Often creative in their approach, with touches of hops, the fruit and malt based flavors work in the best examples to create an interesting juxtaposition in this session-worthy ale style
A few paces from the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, students and locals enjoy Raven Haired Beauty at the quixotic Brü Rm. at BAR. With its black amber frame and wispy white head, this Mild weighs in at under 4-percent alcohol and displays aromas and flavors of toffee, treacle, lightly roasted coffee, and a burnished fruitiness that draws you back in for another pint or two.
Better known for its palate smacking array of hop monsters, the Pizza Port brewpub chain in southern California brews a 3.2-percent alcohol beauty called Dawn Patrol Mild. A robust deep amber color, this Mild starts with a soft nose of toffee malts followed by sprays of chocolate and cocoa, alongside some plum and dried cherry notes. The body adds a touch of fruitier hops but the exploration of light and dark malts continues in this easy-going yet quite nuanced offering.