Article By: Andy Crouch
THE CRAFT BREWING revolution has always been about one beer, a single experience that shatters decades of programming from big brewery advertising and changes the way people perceive beer. No longer is beer a drink of last resort, something to settle for, a mere interchangeable widget easily replaced with another bland, lifeless bottle with a different label. The craft brewing insurgency, part of a broader change in the way people think about the quality of what they consume, has slowly altered the definition of beer and has greatly expanded their options. Even in the furthest reaches of the country, gone are the days where macrobreweries were the only option available. In most major cities, even the diviest of bars likely carries Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, Fat Tire, or a local craft option.
Despite these successes, challenges still remain for craft brewers. At the top of the list lies educating potential converts about the wealth of better beer options available to them without scaring them off. While some breweries choose to inundate consumers with information overload, many appreciate that people already understand the accessible, common and approachable flavors they enjoy every day in what they eat and drink. The challenge for these brewers is to get consumers to momentarily drop their defenses and check their beer prejudices at the door just long enough to enjoy a life changing moment.
Retailers can often use familiar flavors as an opening gambit in the game of finding the right beer for each customer. By focusing on what consumers already know, namely the flavors they prefer, and they attempt to match these with similarly flavored beers. Because if you look deep enough in every beer lover’s history, you will find a single beer that opened the door to a lifetime of love and dedication to grain, hops and yeast. I’m not talking about that first sip of Coors Light stolen from a father’s temporarily abandoned can or bottle – instead I’m referring to that one beer that turned the head, opened the mind and cracked a world of doubts, stereotypes and suspicions about the assumedly crude character of beer. Depending upon when you came of drinking age, your One Beer might be a very different offering. For many older drinkers, that beer may have been Anchor Steam, Redhook Ale or even New Albion Ale. More recent converts to better beer may have been influenced to hit the road to beer enrichment by a hoppy IPA, fruity cherry ale or perhaps a roasted coffee stout.
Sparking an attraction to craft beer is all about finding the right beer for the right moment, the one sip that radically transforms the drinker’s conception of beer. After experiencing a constant stream of fizzy, yellow, freezing cold monotony, it takes the gobsmacking power appeal of real color, aroma and flavor to stop you in your tracks. As the internal cymbal crash within you signifies the breaking of long-accepted beer stereotypes, you end up happily poised with an exclamation point in a speech bubble above your head.
It is difficult – if not impossible – for some recent entrants to craft beer to remember a scary time, seemingly ages ago, when flavorful beers were a scarce commodity. In this time, the occasional pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or bottle of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, now derided by some hardened beer geeks as “mainstream brands”, offered hope in a dark time. Now nearly omni-present, these beers and other locally produced pale ales, Hefeweizens, and porters, along with larger brands, such as Blue Moon Belgian White by Coors, helped teach people about a new world of beer.
The funny thing about The One Beer is that the experience is likely reimagined in a series of beer sojourns enjoyed over an extended journey into craft beer. For every beer enthusiast, their drinking life is defined by a series of single beers and special moments. These moments happen in the right pub at the right time, with warm weather and the perfect quenching accompaniment, with celebratory occasions with family and friends, and with stolen minutes of personal solace at the end of a long day – each accompanied by the One Beer.
These singular moments, defined by individual brands, serve as path markers for the evolution of a craft beer drinker, from the early days of inexpensive cases of beer to later travels to distant breweries and pubs. In a world where you can order extreme beers online and some of the world’s greatest beers are easily available in your local store, it can be easy to lose track of where our interests developed. Losing this focus can also cause a disconnect from the overwhelming bulk of folks who do not yet share the enthusiasm for the charming marriage of hops and malt.
In the spirit of helping consumers find the One Beer, here are some top notch selections that all celebrate the different ingredients of beer all while maintaining balance and approachability based on their respective flavor profiles.
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 Walden 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.
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
alcohol content 5.1% ABV
A true and often under-appreciated gem of New England’s brewing scene, Smuttynose Brewing Company of New Hampshire brews one of the most audaciously and richly flavored porters available. Nearly jet black in color, allowing little to no color at the edges, the aptly named Robust Porter informs you from the pour that it means business. Far from a weak-kneed version of the style, there ia a strong aroma of cold coffee, deeply roasted malt and expensive dark chocolate with light earthy notes. With its medium body, the porter starts with a touch of sweetness that tempts you near but then smacks your palate by an onslaught of deep, dark roasted malts and a long, drawn out earthy and roasted bitter finish. Light powdered chocolate and black coffee notes soften the bitterness. Smuttynose’s version is the quintessential Porter – unreserved and aggressive but not overbearing
KIWI RISING DOUBLE IPL
Jack’s Abby Brewing
alcohol content 8.5% ABV
The brothers Hendler of local Jack’s Abby fame have put up some impressive numbers in the brewery’s short existence. Producing a wide range of lagers – some of which come across as more akin to flavor-forward ales – Jack’s Abby has taken home several impressive medals at major American contests, all against some very stiff competition. The Kiwi Rising, a double India pale lager, won gold in the Other Strong Beer category at the 2O13 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. Made with seven different American hop varieties, the beer pours with a slight white head that gives rise to a massive blast of tropical hops. The flavor largely follows suit, with hints of bitterness on the front end and some mild alcohol bite, but always focusing on the strong hop aromatics and flavors.
8O ACRE HOPPY WHEAT
Boulevard Brewing Company
Kansas City, Missouri
alcohol content 5.5% ABV
With its feet firmly planted between two popular American brewing styles – American wheat ale and India Pale Ale – the 8O Acre is a slightly unusual hybrid. For customers more accustomed to Blue Moon or Allagash White, 8O Acre offers the opportunity to expand the palate to include hoppier offerings without straying too far from comfort zones. With relatively low bitterness units, the beer pours cloudy like a wheat beer but the aroma boasts citrus and earthy notes. The flavor follows suit, light on the palate, but boasting orange and lemon and wheat notes and it remains a great beer for warmer months. As the beer heavily relies on aromatics for its charm, you need to make sure to check the package dating on this one. When fresh, 8O Acre is an amazing beer. After about two months, however, the beer is a shell of itself.
Goose Island Brewing Company
alcohol content 7.O% ABV
This American classic is brewed to honor the original classic Belgian Trappist Ale called Orval. Matilda is both delightfully simple yet wonderfully complex. It starts with a dullish orange-amber color and finishes with a tacky foam crown that provides substantial lacing. As with its idol, the aroma is decidedly Belgian in character, with a blend of spicy and even fruity phenolics, a touch of funk, a hint of sweet candi sugar – all resulting in an impression of a tightly constructed and likely dry beer. Mimicking the aroma, Matilda glides over the tongue with cool pale malt and a touch of sweetness that isn’t quite willing to be dry and occasional earthy and spicy hop elements. Matilda remains an excellent and daring twist on a style-defining classic.
Victory Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.3% ABV
For consumers who are used to more standard lagers and simpler ales, a step in the direction of hops in the form of one of America’s best regarded pilsner beers is a no-brainer. Lovers of sharp, piquant, and hoppy German-style pilseners should consider moving to Pennsylvania to get closer to America’s greatest source of these beers. If a move won’t work, try the excellent Prima Pils from Victory. Pouring a shade fainter than golden and with a persistent and mousse-like white head, the aroma defines clean, with tidy layers of spicy and earthy noble hops and slightly sweet and bready malts. Where some craft beers smell great but disappoint a bit in the flavor, the Prima Pils delivers in every possible way, with huge, spicy bitter hop flavors and residual bitterness, all balanced by a healthy dose of malt.
After experiencing a constant stream of fizzy, yellow, freezing cold monotony, it takes the gobsmacking power appeal of real color, aroma and flavor to stop you in your tracks.
Alesmith Brewing Company
San Diego, California
alcohol content 12.O% ABV
For consumers interested in taking their beer exploration to a new level without completely leaving their usual atmosphere, Alesmith’s Speedway Stout is big, bold, expressive – all while remaining accessible. If you have a customer who loves strong coffee, this might be a solid suggestion. It readily captures the essence of the American Imperial Stout style, resulting in mystifyingly black beer with a dense pillow of brown foam. The aroma wallops your nose with loads of fresh dark roasted coffee, deeply burnt malts, dark chocolate, and light earthy hops. Serving up a double espresso shot, the coffee angles play heavily in this full-bodied stout, with layers of dark roasted malt following slight molasses sweetness and the faintest hints of dark chocolate-covered fruits. Velvety and smooth despite its alcoholic girth, Speedway Stout eases to victory in the all-encompassing Imperial Stout experience.
FORT POINT PALE ALE
Trillium Brewing Company
alcohol content 6.6% ABV
A flagship beer from the first new production brewery to open in Boston since, well, no one really remembers – it’s been a long time. Stuffed into a tiny space in burgeoning Fort Point Channel, this beer pours with a bight, fluffy head of foam. The aroma smacks of fresh hops, a touch earthy and resiny and with big notes of citrus, ranging from orange to more tropical offerings. The resulting flavor brings up a crescendo of malt balance followed by another wave of big hop flavor and a mild, dry bitterness. Trillium’s Fort Point Pale Ale is another beer that requires careful watch as the aromas and hop flavors remain delicate and can slip away after a month or two. When fresh, it is a solid local offering to suggest to consumers in their search for the next great beer.