Imagine, then, that brewers on the New World continents would have been brewing beer with barley for thousands of years and today wouldn’t merely be copying beer styles from thousands of miles away in Europe. Imagine just in North America how many indigenous beer styles would have developed that would be completely unlike any we know today. Instead, the World Book of Beers would have been written about the delicate beers of Denver, the hoppy ales of Seattle, Steam beers of San Francisco, roasted beers of New York, herbed beers of Ann Arbor, wheat beers of Kansas, Spruce beers of Alaska, sour cherry beers of the Columbia River Valley, Rye beers of Fargo, and on and on.
It got me thinking about the styles of beer that are indigenous to America, both the established ones and ones that are still emerging and evolving. So I thought I’d take some time to explore the original American styles (as opposed to the ones that are simply American versions of Old World beer styles), possibly over several articles.
Now, I’m not a style Nazi: I love learning about the various styles of beer and how they developed but in the end I’d rather just enjoy the beer than nitpick it to death. In other words, while I think the BJCP and other guidelines have their place (and I believe RateBeer’s style guide follows the BJCP conventions), I think there are many more “styles” than are listed by the “official” guidelines, and some of my style notions are pretty liberal!
Steam Beer, or California Common. Arguably the most famous of the indigenous American beer styles, Steam Beer originated in California (and likely San Francisco in particular) around the middle of the nineteenth century by brewers producing beer with lager yeasts at ale fermentation temperatures. Without access to refrigeration, these beers wouldn’t produce the clean, crisp profiles typical of lager yeast, and instead developed a fruity roundness similar to ales while stile retaining some of the lager characteristics.
The most famous (modern) example is of course Anchor Steam Beer, though how similar it is to the original California Commons is debatable.
Cream Ale. This was traditionally a “hybrid” style of beer, developed as an ale version of the American Light Lager (which I list below) and which may or may not have been a blend of an ale and a lager (hence the “hybrid”). It’s a very light session beer, historically brewed with corn as an adjunct, but with more flavor and character than the Light Lager. From various readings it sounds to me like Cream Ales were an American version of English Cask or Real Ales, though influenced by the German brewing roots that took hold here in the mid-1800s.
Pumpkin Beer. Nowhere will you find this an official style, but to my mind pumpkin beers (though often encompassing many different base styles) are a category unto themselves. Brewing with pumpkin as a fermentable traces its roots to Colonial America, when malt shortages led desperate brewers to produce beer with whatever was available—including pumpkins. These early pumpkin beers were considered inferior and quickly discarded for proper barley beers when the grain became available, but today the pumpkin has made a comeback.
Today’s pumpkin beers are (usually) brewed with actual pumpkin (mashed with the malt), and often spiced (think pumpkin pie).
American Pilsner (Light Lager). I’m sure this will spark some, er, interesting discussion, but I would argue that when Anheuser-Busch introduced Budweiser, their signature Pilsner clone in 1876, it signified a new American style: the light adjunct lager, also known as the American Pilsner. Brewed with corn and/or rice in addition to barley (due to the fact that American barley by itself couldn’t produce a light enough beer), it is now the domain of the macro industrial lager. The pre-Prohibition versions of the style were much more flavorful and hearty.
Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA. Here in the Pacific Northwest there’s a movement to “claim” this style—and I’m good with that. Lisa Morrison has covered this well already, so I will refer you to her article to find out more.
Fresh Hop Beers. Like the pumpkin beer style above, these are more related to process and ingredients that any one particular “style,” and are just as seasonal as pumpkin beers for obvious reasons. This style is another that I would consider Pacific Northwest-centric due to the fact that much of the world’s hops are grown here, so they don’t get any fresher. These are typically pale ales, brewed with fresh or “wet” hops rather than dried, and thus develop a greener, more vegetal character than a similar beer brewed with dried hops.
American Wild Ales. Actually I think this is a category that will shake out into several different styles, but I don’t rightly know what those would be yet. I have in mind beers like those being brewed by Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, and Allagash: innoculated with Brettanomyces yeasts and the like, or (in the case of Allagash) spontaneously fermented with a completely indigenous strain of wild yeast (like the Belgian Lambics). So perhaps something along the lines of “American Sours,” “American Wild Ales” and more?
Imperial [fill in the blank]. This is a tongue-in-cheek set of “styles”—Americans are hardly the first brewers to double-up on their beers to Barleywine-levels of strength and/or bitterness, though we certainly seem to love doing it and slapping an “Imperial” label on it, thus “inventing” a new style. So no, I don’t really count these Imperial beers as “new” or uniquely American but I’m sure someone will bring them up.
So, what other indigenous American beer styles might there be, or might emerge?
Leave a Reply