Joe Sixpack: Try a good ol' American classic

Posted: July 03, 2008

GERMAN hefeweizen, Belgian abbey ale, Mexican lager, English bitter, Canadian malt liquor - beer styles come from around the world. But how about good, ol' American beer?

Defining American beer is a bit of a conundrum, of course, since almost all of it was inspired by classic styles from Old World brewmasters.

Take light beer (please!), our No. 1 beer style. It traces its roots to Bohemia. We watered it down, removed every hint of hops and figured out how to market it to diet-conscious Big Mac lovers. But it's still a Czech pilsner.

Nitpickers can grab their Coors Light and prove me wrong. But our nation's grandest holiday, July Fourth, deserves to be celebrated with a taste of authentic, indigenous American beer. Try these:

_ Anchor Steam (San Francisco)

This is the beer that started the entire American craft beer revolution, recreated when washing machine scion Fritz Maytag revived Anchor Brewing and proved a small brewery could still thrive.

And it wasn't just any beer that Maytag saved from the trash heap. Steam beer (aka California Common) is wholly American, invented in the 1850s to compete with the golden, refreshing German lagers that were catching on back East.

Lager fermentation requires refrigeration, which was in short supply in 19th-century California. The solution was steam beer, a lager that is fermented at warmer ale temperatures.

The name comes from the gush of carbonation produced by this unique fermentation.

And the taste? A glass of Anchor Steam offers that classic, crisp refreshment of a lager, but with the fruitiness of an ale.

Other steam beers: Orlio Organic Common Ale, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager.

_ Smuttynose Wheatwine (Portsmouth, N.H.)

If barleywine is a strong ale made with excessive amounts of barley, what's wheatwine? Well, you can guess the answer.

This simple change of grain creates an equally assertive but entirely different beer. Where English barleywine is a challenging mouthful of malt and hops, American wheatwine is seductive, with silken notes of vanilla and apricot.

It was brewer Phil Moeller of Sacramento's Rubicon Brewing who came up with the wheatwine style in the late '80s. A few other West Coast breweries - Marin, Lagunitas, Steelhead - toyed with it over the years before Smuttynose brewer David Yarrington brought her East and bottled what may be the defining version.

Other wheatwines: Marin Star Brew Triple Wheat, New Holland Pilgrim's Dole, Portsmouth Wheat Wine.

_ Genesee Cream Ale (Rochester, N.Y.)

Harsher critics would sip a cream ale and sniff that the brewer had dumbed down a perfectly good pale ale.

Where are the hops? The body?

And they would have a point, because this often-overlooked style is truly a compromise: an American ale posing as one of those crisp European lagers.

Corn is added to lighten the body, and it's fermented at cooler lager temps to eliminate the telltale fruity esters of a typical ale.

Genny Cream is the classic, perfected in 1960 by brewer Clarence Geminn. Designed for simple, easy-drinking refreshment, its hint of hops aroma and soft flavor (not to mention its cheap price tag) make it a popular go-to for anyone looking for something other than the usual industrial lager.

Other cream ales: Little Kings, Liebotschaner, New Glarus Spotted Cow, Anderson Valley Solstice Cerveza Crema.

_ Stone Ruination (San Diego)

In more civilized circles, brewers and writers like to say they were "inspired" by their colleagues.

That hardly describes what the Americans have done with India pale ale. Compare a glass of Bass Ale, one of the originals, to Stone Ruination, one of the American interpretations known as double or imperial IPA.

The British version tickles you with a light floral aroma and not much else, while the San Diego destroyer wallops you in the face with a grapefruit, like Jimmy Cagney in "The Public Enemy."

Double IPA is truly an American original; it is hops - lots of 'em - that are the defining character of our country's craft beer. The earliest microbrews, especially Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, offered an aroma and garden-fresh fruity bitterness that had been long absent from American taps.

There's nothing more American than excess, though, and that's what we have in imperial IPA: hops, hops and more hops. Rogue Ales gets credit for producing the first, called I2PA, originally brewed for the 1996 Oregon Brewer's Festival.

Ruination, from Stone's Greg Koch, is golden-orange with insanely spicy, bold, pinelike notes of exceptionally bitter Magnum and Centennial hops.

Other Imperial IPAs: Victory Hop Wallop, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Sly Fox Rt. 113 IPA, Weyerbacher Double Simcoe, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Bear Republic Racer X. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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