As the global craft beer explosion continues to, well, explode, there are few that doubt its provenance: the United States of America. The craft brew scene in the US has been fizzing with adventure and experimentation for three decades. It is Americans who are largely responsible for that citrusy hops rush, for adding that quirky ingredient and for resurrecting that long-forgotten brewing process.
The art of brewing is no longer the domain of the beard-and-sandal brigade, nor of the multinationals. Today's leaders are the rebel brewers who are pairing beers with Michelin-starred meals, releasing endless styles of inventive beer and elevating the status of a fine beer to that of a fine wine.
The message is clear: the rebels rule beer making. Here are nine of the beers that broke all the rules and changed the way we drink it forever.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 5.6%
New to this ‘craft beer’ thing? Head straight for the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, probably the beer with more ‘odes’ to it than any other. Along with the stronger IPA, the Pale Ale is the definitive US craft beer style and Sierra Nevada’s is still the best.
Lagunitas IPA, 6.2%
India Pale Ales were first brewed by the British. To survive the long, hot crossing, the alcohol volume and hop content were increased because it kept the beer better. Two hundred years later, the style was resurrected across the pond, but using local hops, and the result was the grapefruity, piney, resinous aroma that defines many modern craft beers. Lagunitas IPA, first brewed in 1995, is the IPA – some would argue never bettered.
Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace, 7.2%
If craft beer has a superstar, it is Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver, a man often described as a brewing genius. The Sorachi Ace is probably his finest moment. This beer is a classic saison, a rustic farmhouse-beer from Belgium, but in true US ‘what the hell’ style it uses Sorachi Ace, a type of hop revived only in 2008, to add its aromatic element. The more widely available Brooklyn Lager is a superlative example too.
Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA 7.1%
The rebellious beginnings couldn’t have been wilder: the brewery owners became friends with Hunter S Thompson who lived nearby. Snake Dog IPA is the ‘hop monster’ from Flying Dog, and it’s about as subtle as the Ralph Steadman-designed label. Prepare to be blown away by its big, brash flavour.
Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro, 6%
The texture is like wrapping your tongue in a velvet glove, the flavour is a rich, creamy hot chocolate with a drop of espresso. ‘Pour Hard’ is the advice on this pitch-black stout (the same style as Guinness) by Left Hand Brewing. The difference is in the bubbles – it's topped up with nitrogen rather than CO2 – and it has a thick head once settled, like whipped cream. Luscious.
Anchor Steam Beer, 4.9%
Can a brewery that opened in 1896 still claim to be ‘craft’? Of course, when this much love goes in to the beer. The name, Anchor Steam, is a nod to the somewhat hazy origins of the San Francisco brewing scene when beer was cooled on rooftops. This beer is a refreshingly malty drink, with a gentle balance of hops, a hint of peanut brittle and dried fruits.
Russian River Pliny the Elder, 8%
Californian brewery Russian River is consistently voted as one of the world’s best breweries. And its Pliny the Elder is consistently voted as one of its best beers. Try it. Now. Why so sought after? It’s an Imperial IPA (read: bloomin’ strong IPA) in the West Coast tradition of piney hops. The plaudits are for its balance, technical brilliance and all-round amazing taste and aroma.
Alaskan Brewing Company Smoked Porter, 6.5%
We can’t forget the northern state of Alaska, especially when this brewery is making this rather special beer. Tasting it is like an explosion in the mouth. This is smoked, seriously so. It tastes almost as though it’s aged in oak, but with an underlying sourness that cuts through the smoke and makes it very drinkable. There are different ‘vintages’ every year; drink one, save one.
Firestone Walker Pivo, 5.3%
The US has always been a brewers tun of cultures, and this is one of the main reasons there’s such a vibrant brewing scene. The IPA may be British, but the immigrants from Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and many more also brought their beers with them. Today, as brewers rediscover their roots, they are resurrecting the beers and adding their own spin. Firestone Walker’s Pivo is a case in point: a Gold Medal winning German pilsner with a hit of hops adding hints of bergamot and lemongrass.
Daniel Neilson is the editor of craft beer magazine Original Gravity%.