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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Perfect American Beers

I've been pondering yesterday's "perfection" post, thinking about what, if pressed, I might be bold enough to call perfect beers. (Orval is such a gimme, a chicken's way out.) My mind kept sweeping across the globe and finding examples--though with a pretty heavy emphasis on Belgium. It only occurred to me, as I tried to freehand paint on window trim, that my mind never swept this far West. Odd, given that I think the US is easily the second-best producer of high-quality beers now. (Belgium ...)

Michael Jackson, in identifying "world classics," always included Anchor Steam. It was his sole US beer and was, it seems, a nod to a traditional style rather than the identification of a truly staggering beer. It didn't hurt that among US beers, Anchor had stood the test of time. Microbrewing is such a young industry that he had to worry about identifying beers that were doomed in the marketplace. Furthermore, perfection should be replicable. A brewery might brew a single perfect batch, but if it can't brew that beer time after time, year after year, well--no dice.

So the question arises: can the US claim any perfect beers? And with this question, its shadow, no less important: what is perfection? In the context of beer, I would say it includes four elements beyond the obvious criteria of flawless execution. A perfect beer needs to:
  • Demonstrate originality. A lot of breweries could produce close approximations of world standards. Doin' it the second time is not nearly as impressive as doing it first.
  • Have been brewed consistently. Not every batch has to be identical, but a brewery has to make the beer reliably well over the course of years. I probably wouldn't add a beer to a "perfect" list that hadn't been in production less than a decade.
  • Exhibit local character. If you look at Jackson's list, you see that nearly every beer on it represents a particular region in a way that characterizes the beer. You can't separate Pilsn and Pilsner Urquell, Cantillon from the Zenne Valley, or Guinness Extra Stout from Dublin. A perfect American beer must also express America.
  • Have that certain something. It's not good enough for a beer to be without flaw; it has to have some kind of inner flame of brilliance that separates it from others of its kind. This is the totally subjective element--but any list of perfect beers will rise on the foundation of subjectivity.
There must certainly be American beers on a "perfect" list. Look at how world beer styles have shifted to imitate American brewing--bigger beers, bolder and funkier hopping. You're obviously not going to cite BrewDog's Punk IPA as a world classic--you're going to go with one of the American IPAs that inspired it. In this vein, I'd argue that Sierra Nevada Pale is a world classic. Who knows what would have become of brewing if the boys from Chico had used Fuggles instead of Cascades? And how many breweries now use the Sierra Nevada yeast strain? What we consider "American" about American beer can in large part be traced back to SN Pale.

Closer to home, I'd throw Hair of the Dog Adam in there. Long before American breweries were bending styles to suit their own preferences, Alan Sprints was making very strange, huge beers. It took the rest of the country at least a decade to catch up. Probably most people would cite Fred instead, but Adam remains, even more than 15 years after it was brewed, a truly original beer.

New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red set the standard for sour ales and used Door County cherries (a Badger specialty) to boot. It would be hard to come up with the ur-hop bomb, but how about Russian River Pliny the Elder? I might throw in a winter warmer, too--it seems like the US lays claim to this style as its own regional variant now. I'd probably choose Jubelale.

Your thoughts?


  1. Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale - even if it wasn't the first, it absolutely defines the black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale/whatever category - it's hard to top.

  2. FYI: New Glarus' Wisconsin Belgian Red is NOT a sour ale. No souring bugs in this beer at all.

  3. Stone Ruination IPA. Likely the first popular Imperial IPA using 100% Centennial as flavor, aroma and dry hopping. Consistent? Yes. Local character? It's from Stone. That certain something? Ridiculous bitterness?... Possibly even the mental image of a grapefruit raping a rose bush. I dunno, but I like it.

    You may not like Imperial IPAs, but if you're judging them, this is a perfect one.

  4. Anon, funny you should nominate Stone Ruination--in a tasting of 11 IIPAs, a group of us decided on Sunday that it was good--but not up to Hop Henge's standard.

    Anon, true--it's not like their tart. But I recall when the beer was released and the shock it sent through the beer world. I would still call it sour, though that doesn't mean it has wild yeasts/bacteria.

  5. When I think of Imperial IPAs, I think Dogfish Head 90 Minute.

    Another perfect beer for me is Troegs Nugget Nectar. I am always in the mood for one, even though you can only get it fresh for a couple of months.

  6. Full Sail Session is a great example of what I believe to be the style for US pre-prohibition lager. Clean, consistent, well-crafted.

  7. This is great entertainment.....

  8. Does Bridgeport IPA get any points for bringing about a new breed of IPA? I think evolution of the IPA as a style has left Bridgeport behind but it's still a decent beer in it's own right.

  9. While I completely agree about the amazing-ness of Adam - it's one of my favorite beers, and I buy it by the case - Alan isn't super-consistent with it. I've found that carbonation can vary wildly from one batch to the next. I still love and buy it, though.

  10. fully agree with New Glarus Belgian Red (the SOUR cherries make it a sour) Pliny the Elder and like the fact that Jubelale is getting some love. i'm not a huge fan of Anchor Steam or SN Pale, but I see why they get a mention.
    Lisa is also dead on...Sublimely Self Roghteous is the standard for "black" ipa, and Stone needs a mention on the list for sure. I'd also throw in Great Divide Yeti as the classic American Imperial Stout.