In the USA there have been several unique and distinctive beer styles that have emerged over the past 70 years. American-style light lager with their low calorie and colored derivations has been the most copied and popularized throughout the world. These beers are defined by their high corn, rice, sugar adjunct content, and low malt and hop taste profiles along with “refreshing” higher carbonation. Their presence has been both dominating and ubiquitous. But times are changing.
Over the past 30 years innovative craft brewers in the United States have created many beer types that at the time defied categorization as European styles. The popularity of these “America-style” beers has grown both in the USA and internationally. What has defined these styles and why did they emerge? Here are a few select examples of how both culture and access to ingredients helped to define new directions in beer character.
Let’s first take a look at some of the earliest manifestations of contemporary American styles of beer. It all began with the emergence of American-style Pale Ale. In the 1970s American homebrewers were just beginning to discover beer characters that were different than American light lager. Homebrewers were using hops with a heavy hand and finding the flavors, aroma and bitterness to their enjoyment. Cascade hops were the only American hop available to homebrewers in the early days. While English-style Pale Ales were the inspiration, the ingredient of Cascade hops was the only fresh hop ingredient available. The unique quality of American-style Pale Ale was born.
Ales brewed with American citrus-like hops such as Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Nugget and other hops uniquely “American” flavored found their way into stouts, strong ales, amber ales, brown ales and more. American-style stouts and porters were originally to be modeled after Irish and British stouts and porters, but with the addition of citrus and fruity American hops there became a clear distinction between the old world and new world beers.
American-style Brown Ale was homebrewers’ answer to brewing a copycat version of the only known style of brown ale available at the time: Newcastle Brown Ale. American homebrewers enjoyed the smooth, nutty, caramel and gentle hop balanced ale brewed by the then independent Scottish & Newcastle Brewery. But homebrewers being American homebrewers found that their heavy handed doses of American hops produced brown ale that was not only much more hop bitter but also had nuances of American hop flavor and aroma. While they enjoyed Newcastle they fell in love with hoppy brown ales. What to call this new type of ale? They were being brewed by American homebrewers everywhere, but I recall Texan homebrewers wanting to lay their claim on this new style, calling it Texas-style Brown Ale. Their campaign did not prevail. American-style Brown Ale persisted. At the time there was no other worldly beer type that came close to resembling this hoppy brown ale.
As American craft brewers thrived American Pale Ales were getting stronger and more colorful. American-style Strong Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Amber/Red Ale, Imperial/Double Red Ale, Barley Wine Ale, Stout, Imperial Stout, Porter, Imperial Porter all reflected elevated and sometimes extreme doses of flavor, aroma and bitterness from signature varieties of American hops. They created flavors never before experienced in the world of beer.
The emergence of American-style Wheat Beer has an interesting story. American homebrewers and early American microbrewers traveled to Germany and enjoyed German-style Hefeweizen. In fact they loved it with a passion. They brought their enthusiasm back to the USA only to find one important ingredient unavailable: German wheat beer yeast. Of course it was available, but at great cost and effort. Nearly impossible to get, American homebrewers and microbrewers put all the ingredients and process together using either American or English ale yeast. The fruitiness of wheat malt and yeast flavors of cloudy suspended English/American ale yeasts created a well received and enjoyable beer. Another style was born.
Though there is not specific style called “American-style Fruit Beer” this type of beer was also born because of excitement for Belgian fruit Lambic & Gueuze beers. Having sampled imported versions of these very specialized styles of Belgian ales, American homebrewers and microbrewers began adding fruit to their beers, but without using the lambic process or with the microorganisms that would create true Lambic type beers. The infusion of fruit into many beer types began and became popularized.
American-style Wheat Wine is another unique American style borne of innovation. If we could have barley wine, why couldn’t we make wheat wine. Using 100 percent wheat malt in beer presents challenges to brewers, but that did not stop Americans from pursuing this idea. An American classic was born. The use of hop types does not define its character.
In the recent decade of brewing other ideas have emerged amongst American homebrewers and small and independent craft brewers. The use of fresh, “wet” hops at harvest time has become a special seasonal beer that has focused on the harvest of hops as a special agricultural ingredient, much like the new harvest of grapes and new wines have gathered attention. These beers are called Fresh “Wet” Hop Harvest Ales
American-style Pilsener: This beer represents the classic and unique pre-American Prohibition American-style Pilsener which is a flavorful pilsener representing both a malt and hop presence. It is made with up to 25 percent corn and/or rice as an ingredient; enhancing the hop and malt character. The use of hops of old world origin (called noble-type hops) for flavor and aroma is preferred.
The cross fertilization of Belgian and American beer types has created some very innovative beer types. Some of which are:
American-Belgo-Style Ales: These beers are either 1) non-Belgian beer types portraying the unique characters imparted by yeasts typically used in fruity and big Belgian-Style ales or are 2) defined Belgian-style beers portraying the unique character of American hops. – These beers are unique beers unto themselves.
American-style Brett Beer: These beers express an evolution of natural acidity developed by Brettanomyces varieties of yeast. They have a balanced complexity. Horsey, goaty, leathery, phenolic and light to moderate and/or fruity acidic character evolved from Brettanomyces organisms may be evident, not dominant and in balance with other character.
American-style Sour Ales: These beers may have full range of hop aroma and hop bitterness intensities. It may have a full range of body. There is no Brettanomyces character in this style of beer. The acidity present is usually in the form of lactic, acetic and other organic acids naturally developed with acidified malt in the mash or in fermentation by the use of various microorganisms including certain bacteria and yeasts. Acidic character can be a complex balance of several types of acid and characteristics of age. These beers are distinct from the classic red/brown Belgian-style sour ales.
The future promises continued innovation not only in the USA but elsewhere in the international beer scene. It’s a good time to be a beer drinker!
For a full discussion of Beer styles read my Beer Styles Series. Here's the Table of Contents with links.. The 27-part Beer Style series begins here.