Food & Drink

American Ales: The Beers to Know

While there are a few styles unique to the United States, American brewing is more a state of mind. The most quintessentially American beers are the hoppy pales: pale ales, IPAs, and double IPAs, and these are the future of American brewing. But while America’s love for wheat ales has waned somewhat, they remain among the most popular overall. And red ales in particular are a style to watch— they may one day challenge IPAs for America’s heart.



LOCATION: Hood River, OR
MALT: Pale, crystal, chocolate
HOPS: Mt. Hood, Cascade
6.0% ABV, 31 IBU

I believe there’s some dispute about which brewery gets to lay claim as the first amber, but Full Sail gets my vote. It has each of the hallmark qualities: a thick, caramel body with moderate sweetness;  a creamy head; and a long, Cascade hops citrus finish. It’s an American strong bitter, and predictably, is even better on cask.


LOCATION: Boonville, CA
MALT: Pale, caramel
HOPS: Columbus, Bravo, Northern Brewer, Mt. Hood
5.8% ABV, 16 IBU

Anderson Valley’s amber is another classic, though it emphasizes malt where Full Sail tilts hopward. Like a nice bière de garde, Boont Amber is silky and rich, the malts communicating warmth through toffee, toast, and grain. The hops don’t so much balance as adorn, adding an herbal delicacy to the malts.


LOCATION: Escondido, CA
MALT: Pale, caramel, black
HOPS: Columbus, Simcoe, Crystal, Amarillo
4.4% ABV, 45 IBU

A number of breweries are known for hops, but few so well as Stone. Many of its beers are punishingly bitter, so I’d like to nominate wee Levitation, the little sister in the family line. She is definitely a spitfire, with Stone’s characteristic snap of bitterness, grapefruit to pine, but it is the rounded malts that suggest English softness, that carry the day—or beer, in this case.



LOCATION: Albuquerque, NM
MALT: Pale, Vienna, caramel
HOPS: Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Crystal
6.5% ABV

Even though Marble is a relatively new brewery, its Red, a 6.5% bruiser, is a little bit old-school, with a thick caramel malting like you find in ambers. Marble uses it to balance the gale-force hops that blow in with citrus and grapefruit gusts.


LOCATION: Harrisburg, PA
MALT: Pilsner, Vienna, Munich
HOPS: Nugget, Warrior, Tomahawk, Simcoe, Palisade
7.5% ABV, 93 IBU

Tröegs has a reputation for aggressive hopping, and Nugget Nectar is one of the reasons. The Simcoe hops seem to lead a piney, pineapple charge, but it’s a mutable beer, and melon and lychee make appearances as well. The malts have a bit of caramel in them, but not enough to distract from the main event.


MALT: Pale, caramel, dark chocolate, Vienna, Munich
HOPS: Vanguard, Simcoe, Willamette, Cascade, Citra
7.2% ABV, 1.070 SP. GR., 68 IBU

Cigar City is another brewery with a reputation for hops, and their Jai Alai IPA has attracted the most attention. I prefer the Tocobaga, the color of a Miami sunset, hot and juicy with tropical guava and satsuma orange. The malts are a good example of a modern red—a bit of sweetness, a note of bread, but really, they’re there for color and balance.


MALT: Pale, Munich, caramel
HOPS: Warrior, Centennial, Cascade, Ahtanum
8.8% ABV, 1.088 SP. GR., 73 IBU

In a contrast to Tocobaga, Big Hoppy Monster does have a fair amount of malt hoisting up the hops. It’s more burnt sugar than caramel and is used to great effect to offset a powerful bittering addition of hops. The sugars fade to crispness in the swallow, the hops to pepper and pine (there are those Simcoe again), and it does not feel heavy going down.



LOCATION: Kalamazoo, MI
MALT: Undisclosed
HOPS: Saaz
5.8% ABV, 1.057 SP. GR., 26 IBU

Oberon is a force of nature, greeted annually with its own day of celebration. A cloudily luminous light-orange color, it has a mildly citrusy, spicy top note to round out the crisp, cracker-like body. Released at the end of March, well before the summer has actually come to the Wolverine State, it has a bit more alcohol to help battle the lingering chill.


LOCATION: Portland, OR
MALT: Pale, Munich, caramel, wheat
HOPS: Proprietary bittering blend; Willamette, Cascade
4.9% ABV, 1.047 SP. GR., 30 IBU

Appearance is critical to Widmer’s wheat: something like cloudy lemonade topped with a snowy head and—in some restaurants and pubs—a slice of lemon. There’s a certain sleight of hand going on that prepares the mind for the citrus that follows, but the brain deceives. That note comes from the Northwest hops, not the lemon wedge (which, for the sake of the beer, you should toss aside). It has a bready body, but one kept refreshing by its lightness and sprightly carbonation.  


MALT: Undisclosed
HOPS: Undisclosed
5.5% ABV, 28 IBU

To the unobservant drinker, wheat ales can seem to have a lot in common with mass-market lagers. It’s easy enough to make a dent in a six-pack without realizing it. The best examples remain perfectly sessionable, but sneak in subtle character. Gumballhead has a light presentation, but it’s a lively, bright beer. Instead of a bready wheatiness, it opts for lemon zest. The hopping is just present enough that you might mistake it for an extra pale ale in a blind tasting.


MALT: Pale, wheat
HOPS: Hallertauer
OTHER: Passion fruit puree
5.4% ABV, 1.048 SP. GR., 15 IBU

Kona has developed a knack for using island ingredients to enhance its beers. Coconut dances with malt sweetness in its Koko Brown, and in Wailua Wheat, it’s lilikoi—passion fruit to you mainlanders—that hulas with hops. On its own, lilikoi is an intensely tart citrus-y flavor, along the lines of a lemon. In Wailua Wheat, it adds the citrus character that is so often suggested by American hops. Lilikoi is a surprisingly good counterfeit, but better—hops are citrusy in the way atomized oil is in air freshener, but there’s a juiciness and vividness in Wailua Wheat that lets the tongue know it’s the real deal.


LOCATION: San Francisco, CA
MALT: Pale, white wheat
HOPS: Columbus, Magnum
OTHER: Watermelon puree
4.9% ABV, 17 IBU

A hazy, lazy beer for a summer’s day. There’s no trick here—it’s just soft wheatiness married to the light flavors of melon that roll nicely into a quenching acidity at the end. It’s not complex or complicated, and that’s just what you want out in the sunshine.


MALT: Pale, pale caramel, white wheat
HOPS: Magnum
OTHER: Peaches
4.2% ABV, 9 IBU

In Arizona, Four Peaks is known for a Scottish ale and an IPA, but on one of those triple-digit midsummer scorchers, what I want is the superbly balanced Arizona Peach. It has an aroma of pure stone fruit and a flavor that actually has as much cracker-crisp malting as it does juicy sweetness. The best fruit ales are not cloying, taking just the essence of the peach and letting the beer carry the day. Four Peaks nails it.

Excerpted from Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible

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The ultimate reader- and drinker-friendly guide to the world’s ales and beers, and the book that approaches the subject in the same way beer lovers do—by style, just like a welcoming pub menu. Divided into four major families—ales, lagers, wheat beers, and sour and wild ales—The Beer Bible covers everything a beer drinker wants to know about the hundreds of types of beers made, from bitters, sessions, and IPAs to weisses, wits, lambics, and more. Each style is a chapter unto itself, delving into origins, ingredients, description and characteristics, sub-styles, and tasting notes, and ending with a recommended list of the beers to know in each category. Infographic charts throughout make understanding the connection between styles and families immediately understandable. The book is written for passionate beginners, who will love its “if you like X, try Y” feature; for intermediate beer lovers eager to go deeper; and for true geeks, who will find new information on every page.

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