MONDAY IS the start of American Craft Beer Week, an annual celebration of, well, beer. On the off chance that you forgot to get your favorite beer reporter a gift, I want you to do me a favor and mark the occasion in an appropriate manner.
And, no, you don’t have to run out and visit your nearest brewery. (Though a gift-wrapped case would be nice.)
Instead, what you need to do is immediately hunt down one of the six bold-faced beers I mention below, and then drink it yourself so we’re all on the same page here. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
OK, here’s the deal: What you’re tasting is the next step in the evolution of beer.
Twenty or so years after the American craft beer renaissance began, we’re now at the stage where brewers – having mastered nearly every artisanal style in the world – are transforming their beers beyond traditional definitions.
India Pale Ale? Bock? Dry Irish stout? Those are old school. How about, instead, a brown ale with raisins? Or a bock with coffee? Or a blond ale aged in old wine barrels and then soured with wild yeast?
American beer is morphing before our very eyes (and palates).
As an example, take a look at Smuttynose Brewing’s Big Beer series, a line of specialties, as the name implies, produced in 22-ounce bottles. Initially, the series featured excellent versions of larger-than-life styles: a double bock, a double IPA, a Scotch-style ale.
But last year, it turned out an envelope-shredding Wheat Wine Ale, a beer made like a heavy-duty barleywine, only with a large portion of wheat. This one-of-a-kind ale begins with an oddly pink/burnt-orange haze, like the sunset over the Sunoco refinery. Put it to your nose and you get that familiar barleywine nose aroma but without the usual hops bite.
Take a big sip, and it throttles your throat like a blonde wearing silk gloves. Now take another sip and breathe in. The wheat produces a swirl of vanilla and apricot and I don’t know what else.
When I asked David Yarrington, executive brewer at Smuttynose, what he was aiming for in this Wheat Wine, he seemed almost abashed.
“To be honest, I never even had a wheat wine before, so we didn’t know what we were aiming for,” Yarrington said. “In my head, I had an idea what it should be like. But in terms of actually brewing it, we just winged it.”
And that’s what makes this evolution of beer so wholly American – a willingness to experiment with ingredients and techniques, to be creative, to grow beyond tradition. And when that fails, to just say, “What the hell… ”
Nonbelievers will insist this is no evolution. Boring old Bud Light is still the No. 1 seller in America. To these nonbelievers I say, put down that can and get into the spirit! This is not Fizzy Yellow Industrial Swill Week.
Here are five more unique American beers to round out your sixpack:
- Weyerbacher Heresy (Pennsylvania): Black, heavy and potent, this oak-aged imperial stout is the sensorial opposite of BudMillerCoors. It is beer as if brewed by a Tennessee distiller, with three different stouts aged in used, oak, whiskey barrels, then blended to balance the flavor.
- Allagash Victoria (Maine): This brewery is never afraid to screw around with styles and ingredients. A couple of years ago, it broke the rules with an oak-aged, Belgian-style quadruple. This spring, Allagash released this Belgian-style ale brewed with Chardonnay grapes. It also has a very un-beerlike price, about $17 for a liter bottle.
- Russian River Temptation (California): Start with a blond ale, then re-ferment it using a wild yeast strain that sours the beer. Age it for 12 months in French oak Chardonnay barrels and you get an exceptionally complex glass full of funky aromas and fruitlike flavors.
- Dogfish Head Raison d’Etre (Delaware): Dogfish Head produces the most imaginative variety of beers on the planet, many of them one-offs that are here and gone in an instant. (At its brewpub in Rehoboth, Del., for example, Espresso Bock is now on tap.) Raison d’Etre, meanwhile, has been around so long, you forget just how unusual it is. It’s a brown ale made with beet sugar, green raisins and Belgian yeast that tops out at 8 percent alcohol.
- Heavyweight Wee Whale (New Jersey): A strong scotch ale, this beer is the happy product of a collaboration between the brewery and a local homebrew club. The recipe uses Mexican brown sugar and raisins, and it’s fermented with a blend of yeast strains designed to push the alcohol content to more than 8 percent. Only, it is so smooth, you don’t realize that till you’re sitting on the floor.