Joe Sixpack: Revisiting 3 beer classics: Can they still hold up their heads?

Posted: July 17, 2009

WHEN TAP lineups at your local pub change every day, challenging taste buds and pushing flavors to the extreme, it's not hard to feel less than excited by the old standbys.

Or worse. It's an unfortunate truth, after all, that familiarity breeds contempt.

So the other day, I sat down with three stalwarts of the craft-beer renaissance with a clean palate and a fresh eye.

Are they as outstanding as they were a generation ago when they were trendsetters? Or have they lost a step as competitors have improved?

All three are top-sellers in the craft-beer market, and they're benchmarks in their respective styles. Yet - perhaps in a sign of their diminished standing among experts - it's been a decade since any won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

But forget the experts. Try this exercise yourself. You'll be surprised by either how much your palate has changed or by how damningly easy it is to take excellence for granted.

Anchor Steam

Introduced: 1896.

Last Great American Beer Festival medal: 1992 (bronze).

Claim to fame: When washing-machine heir Fritz Maytag revived the brand in the late '60s, it would set in motion the entire microbrew craze, proving to the world that America could actually brew something other than a pallid yellow lager. By 1977, it would be described as "the Rolls-Royce" of U.S. beer.

Gratuitous diss: It's a training beer for novices.

Tasting notes: The aroma is delicate and enticing. The body is dry, smooth and thoroughly refreshing. First you taste its malt, delicately sweet and almost buttery. Then a tight, almost subtle, bite of hops cleanses the palate and urges you to follow with another quaff. Anchor Steam is a marvel of perfect balance.

My take: Anchor Steam is a wonderful easy-sipper, maybe the ideal ballpark beer. But in a world of hop monsters, malt bombs and high-octane mind-numbers, it's a "safe" beer that may never again get the credit it deserves.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Introduced: 1980.

Last GABF medal: 1995 (gold).

Claim to fame: Hardly anybody in America drank ale when Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi started scavenging equipment for their tiny brewery in Chico, Calif. Using whole hops (not pellets or extracts), they designed the prototypical West Coast ale, a style that would become so popular even Anheuser-Busch would copy it eventually.

Gratuitous diss: Cascades hops are so 1999.

Tasting notes: Trademark grapefruitlike hops with a subtle layer of malt sweetness. Very smooth, with pleasing carbonation. Finishes bitter, with some fruitiness.

My take: I thought I'd had this on tap too many times to be impressed, especially when compared to those super-bitter imperial India pale ales. But served in a bottle (with a secondary, natural fermentation), the ale is surprisingly fresh and clean. Even matched against new hop varieties, this classic can still hold its own.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager

Introduced: 1985.

Last GABF medal: 1999 (silver).

Claim to fame: Using all malt and European hops, brewer Jim Koch showed how flavorful the bland Bohemian-style lagers made by BudMillerCoors could be if they weren't dumbed down with rice, corn and extracts.

Gratuitous diss: If they serve it at Chinese restaurants, it can't be that great.

Tasting notes: A fresh snap of hops rises from a handsome lager body. Each sip is wonderfully complex, bittersweet and lingering.

My take: Wow. A total shock. I've completely underrated this beer, especially its hops character. I'm glad I rediscovered it. For my taste, it could be the perfect lager: aromatic, full of flavor, well-hopped and extraordinarily refreshing. *

"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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