Jeff Alworth doesn’t think craft brewing is going away anytime soon. In fact, the author of The Beer Bible, a comprehensive guide to more than 100 styles of beer from across the world, thinks American beer culture is just coming into its own.
For evidence, Alworth points to the popularity of IPAs, which he considers a developing national style rather than a trend. “When I traveled around the world and started visiting places that have really well-established beer cultures, what I discovered is that the diversity of beer styles starts to diminish [in these places], sometimes really radically,” Alworth says. “People develop a palate preference…[and] what we really, really love here in America are these super-flavorful American hop ales.”
With more than 15 years of experience writing about beer, Alworth has an encyclopedic knowledge of the beverage and its many subgenres, both domestic and international. As American beer culture matures and craft beer’s popularity continues to grow, he notes “twin and opposite” trends in U.S. beer: nationalization, as breweries like Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas open breweries on the East Coast, and regionalization, as breweries like Durham’s Fullsteam use local ingredients—in Fullsteam’s case, corn and squash—to make “cool, offbeat beers.”
At some point, Alworth believes, the American craft-beer industry will get more competitive and growth will slow down. But we’re nowhere near the market’s ceiling, especially since most craft breweries are small: “We don’t really talk about the number of coffee shops or wineries. There’s no reason why you can’t have a lot of these if they’re making small amounts.” For now, Alworth has his eye on breweries like Vermont’s Hill Farmstead, at the forefront of the increasing popularity of farmhouse ales in the States, and emerging international producers like Italy.
To take advantage of his expertise, we asked Alworth to tell us about some styles of beer that he thinks more people should be drinking, as well as a prime example to pick up next time you hit the bottle shop or bar.
English Cask Ale
Tastes like: “[British cask ales are] really maligned in the United States and misunderstood. They’re made quite a bit like American ales, but not quite as hoppy—a little bit more malt character. They’re fermented in the keg naturally and then served still alive. They are a little lower in carbonation and served a little bit warmer, which actually allows the flavors to unfold.
They’re low-alcohol beers, so they’re really designed to be drunk in groups, two or three at a time. They’re one of the few beers that when you start your third pint, you can stop and admire the subtlety of flavors. I really love this style; I think it’s overlooked and I wish more people would investigate and drink this beer.”
Tart Ales of Flanders
Tastes like: “These are vat-aged beers, aged over a couple of years, and sometimes blended with young beer. They’re reddish-brown [in color] and sour, but not super sour. They have a balsamic note, and they also have these fruity flavor notes called esters that come from the fermentation process. Sometimes they have cherry or strawberry or berry esters that offset the acidity very nicely. I keep these around the house, and if someone comes over who says they don’t like beer but they like wine, especially red wine, I bust them out. They’re sometimes called the Burgundies of Belgium, and I can usually impress people and get them to admit that at least all beer isn’t terrible.”
Tastes like: “Spectacular beers, and really good for people who think they don’t like beer. These are rustic Belgian beers, and they’re built around these semi-domesticated yeast strains. When you brew a beer, the yeast can contribute a great deal of flavor. The warmer the yeast strain is fermented at, the more flavor and aroma compounds it will produce. If it’s too warm, those compounds will produce nasty stuff, but the Belgians learned how to brew much warmer than in other countries.
Saisons have these amazing spicy notes, like black pepper and cumin, and even some herbal things like rosemary. They also have rich, wonderful, fruity esters—stonefruit and even little floral stuff in there like roses, or maybe some lavender. Just lush, full-flavored beers. They’re kind of approaching the realm of wines in that way.”
Tastes like: “Lambics are spontaneously fermented, which means no yeast is added [by the brewers; instead, it comes from the natural environment where the beer is made]. They’re put in an oak barrel for one to three years. Gueuze is a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambic, so the younger stuff is still effervescent and has some life in it, and the old stuff is [flat] and has all these austere, rich flavors. When they’re blended together it becomes quite effervescent, almost like champagne in its levels of carbonation. It’s one of the most complex beer styles in the world. It has a ton of stuff going on because of the natural-fermentation process; there are all these different kinds of yeast and bacteria that work over the course of these three years. They all contribute their own kinds of flavors. Some gueuzes have an almost briny quality, and some are super citrusy. They’re wonderful.”
Tastes like: “Everyone knows about German lagers, but Germany has a great ale tradition. [Gose is] a style that’s recently been revived that’s kind of funky. It’s a wheat ale from Leipzig, and it’s is also a tart ale, but it’s only lightly tart; it has a little bit of lactic acid in it. They brew it with coriander and salt. People probably know about wheat beer like Blue Moon, which is brewed with coriander and orange peel. This is sort of like that, except it’s more tart and it has salt in it. In India, they have a beverage called a lassi, which is a yogurt drink, and it has that tart thing, and sometimes there’s salt in it. Gose tastes a lot like that. It kind of has the character of yogurt; it’s salty, though not super salty—just enough to taste it—and then it’s got a nice, refreshing wheat quality. So it sounds really weird, but it’s actually really tasty.”
Tastes like: “Everybody drinks weizen [in Germany], and they don’t stop to think about how weird it is! It’s actually a Bavarian style that’s about 400 years old. It’s brewed so that it has a really wonderful effervescence; when they pour it out, it builds this gigantic, cloudy white head. It’s beautiful. The beer itself is kind of orange-y and hazy. It’s brewed warm, kind of like the Belgian beers, and has these distinctive flavors of banana, which comes from an ester called isoamyl acetate, and clove, which is kind of a phenolic thing. It’s light and refreshing, but it’s pretty exotic—these are not subtle flavors. You don’t have to be an educated beer geek to immediately identify the banana and the cloves. It’s one of the best summer beers, I think. That’s how they drink it out in Germany, too, in the beer gardens.”
Tastes like: “It’s almost impossible to get, but I’ll mention it. For some reason, we just don’t get a lot of good Czech beer, and this dark Czech lager is no exception. What I didn’t realize when I got to the Czech Republic is that the Czechs not only make pilsners, but they also make amber lagers and dark lagers. The tmavé is the dark beer. They are different than German dark beers. They make their lagers with more body and usually more hop character, although this particular style doesn’t have a lot of hops. Actually, these beers are kind of like Irish stout—they’re really chocolatey and have a little bit of roastiness in them, but they’re really quite smooth because they’re lagered. They can be quite full-bodied, so they’re wonderful winter beers.”
Tastes like: “These are also dark-lagered beers; they’re thinner in body and they’re quite alcoholic—8% ABV and up. They have an incredibly intense roasted quality—so intense that it almost tastes sour. They conceals the alcohol, so when you start drinking you think that they’re quite easy to drink. At first it tastes roasty, but then as it gets in your mouth and goes down your throat, it feels very smooth and creamy. You can start pounding one of these back and then you’re in big trouble, because they’re strong (which I suppose may be bonus for the Poles and the Russians, but good to know). These are available quite readily in the United States, especially in grocery stores that have Eastern European stuff.”
Tastes like: “Basically just an unfiltered pale lager. It’s a rustic thing, typical in a region of Bavaria called Franconia. The most famous one (Mahr’s) is made in Bamberg, which is the biggest city in Franconia. Especially with the Germans, brewers want their lagers to be crystal clear, so they go through a process of either filtration or long conditioning to make sure there’s no haziness at all. Part of the way you demonstrate the accomplishment of your beer is to make sure it’s completely clear. But these beers are conditioned a little bit warmer, and then they end up with this unfiltered haze to them that’ll be familiar to people who like IPAs; a lot of West Coast IPAs have a little bit of haze in them. I think they’re super cool because that haze, that rusticity, has quite a bit of flavor in it. It reminds me of the rusticity you get in the saisons. There’s a texture to it, and it makes the peppery hops more vivid, and also the bready malts taste a little bit more full and flavorful. Out of the cellar, they’re super fresh; everything about them seems like the freshest beer you could get.”
Tastes like: “All these new beers that are made with added ingredients and fruit haven’t yet coalesced into a style, but they’re pretty cool. I think they probably will coalesce into a style, but I’m not really sure how to characterize them. Breweries are trying to figure out how to use things like fruit and herbs—flowers are starting to appear more regularly, too—and make these things marry nicely with the things we’re more familiar with in the United States. The white IPA is an example of how breweries are using hops with spices to create a familiar type of beer that’s also a little bit different.
There used to be a way in which they would use ingredients to cover up the flavor of beer or make something that was an alternative to beer, and now they’re beginning to learn how to use these flavors to tuck into spaces that need a little extra flavor, or to enhance the beer quality. If you find something that has cucumber in it, it’s probably being used as a way to help boost the ester and hop profile in a beer, or to help make the wheatiness pop. It’s going to be a style of beer that’s hard to characterize, but more and more we’re going to see these done, and we’re going to see them done really well. They’re probably going to attract people to beer who otherwise might not really enjoy beer. You could name the style, and then you’d be famous for having named it!”