A complete guide to the best all-American brews

Once upon a time, jokes about American beer were both plentiful and cutting. (Fans of British comedy will recall the Monty Python sketch comparing the drinking of American lagers to the act of "making love in a canoe.") Sadly, this derision was, for the most part, deserved. Back in the 1960s, Americans in pursuit of boldly flavored domestic brews were faced with arduous searches.

Then along came young Fritz Maytag, part of the famous appliance family. In 1965, he chose beer over dishwashers when he bought 51 percent of San Francisco 's Anchor Brewing Company. Driven by a desire for fuller, more richly flavored beers than the mild-mannered pale lagers that dominated the market at the time, he set about transforming it from a "pretty decrepit brewery," as he put it, into a model for the burgeoning microbrewing movement. Following his lead, small breweries sprouted up throughout the country, and by the mid-1990s, many had outgrown the diminutive "micro" label and become known as "craft breweries."

Today, there are approximately 1,450 breweries in the country, according to the Brewers Association, an industry organization, and exponentially more brands. Even more significant, numerous beer experts consider the United States beer market the most exciting and innovative in the world today.

But with so many brews to choose from, any beer lover could use some help narrowing down the field. To this end, we present a handful of our favorite domestic bottles from breweries large and small, grouped by style. Use them to begin your own American beer quest for the best.

ALES

Pale only relative to the dark brown, murky brews they supplanted in 18th-century Britain , today's pale ales are typified by a deep gold to rich amber color and pleasing bitter character. This bitterness comes from hops, green flowers grown on voracious vines in regions such as Britain 's Kent , Germany 's Hallertau, and Washington State 's Yakima Valley . Because of the indigenous hops typically used in them, particularly the American hop called Cascade, domestic pale ales tend to have a slightly citrusy flavor.

Sierra NevadaPale Ale -- This American classic, born in 1979, was an early champion of the Cascade hop, which gives this ale its characteristic grapefruity aroma and crisp body. It's a refreshing beer that is excellent with oily or fatty foods like chicken wings and burgers. (www.sierranevada.com)

Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale -- Crafted in the less hoppy, maltier British style of pale ale, this Colorado brew is both richer and less bitter than the typical American pale ale. Expect a spicy aroma and earthy bitterness balanced by caramel notes--just the thing to enjoy alongside a curry. (www.odellbrewing.com)

Brooklyn East India Pale Ale -- The "East India" refers to the origins of the IPA style, originally brewed with extra hops and fermented to higher strength to protect it during the ocean voyage from the United Kingdom to the subcontinent. This East Coast example is both rich and well rounded, and bitter enough to not belie its name. (www.brooklynbrewery.com)

Anchor Liberty -- While not billed as such, this is an IPA, albeit a very American interpretation of the style. With a deep gold color, lots of citrusy, hoppy bitterness, and a gently fruity flavor, Liberty is just the thing for fiery Tex-Mex fare. (www.anchorbrewing.com)

Russian River Pliny the Elder -- Trust the Californians to take a good thing several steps further. This is what's known as a "double" IPA, meaning that it's a potent (eight percent alcohol) brew with loads of hops and plenty of malty sweetness to balance the bitterness and strength. A wheelbarrow of flavor that makes a great digestif. (www.russianriverbrewing.com)


PILSNERS

Invented in, and named for, the Czech town of Pilsen , these are the ancestors of every blond lager on the planet, but also a specific style unto themselves. Normally fairly hoppy, they broadly fit into one of three classes: Czech Pilsners, with a floral, sometimes buttery maltiness that serves to balance the bitterness; German Pils, with their more austere bodies and assertive, crisp bitterness; and Continental lagers, with more mild hoppiness and hints of sweet malt. Wonders in the summer heat, they are among the most thirst-quenching of beers.

Victory Prima Pils -- The brewery doesn't specify, but this is undoubtedly in the German style, with a crisp, dry, and almost biscuity malt character and plenty of appetizing hoppiness. Try it the next time you're in search of a purely refreshing brew. (www.victorybeer.com)

Samuel Adams Boston Lager -- Widely available and equally widely known, "Sam" is really too dark and malty to be considered a true Pilsner, but its dry bitterness and balanced, lightly caramelly taste bring it close enough to the Czech style that it merits inclusion here. A perfect complement to bar foods such as nachos. (www.samueladams.com)

Lagunitas Pils -- Czech-style Pilsners are usually seasoned with a particularly floral hop called Saaz, which this beer shows immediately in its perfumey aroma. Its light, malty sweetness makes it a fine accompaniment to goat cheese canapés at your next party. (www.lagunitas.com)

Schell Pilsner -- The product of one of America 's oldest breweries, Minnesota 's August Schell, this Pilsner emulates the fuller, richer character of a pre-Prohibition lager. It also sports a firm but faintly sweet maltiness and a dry, rather than bitter, hop finish. Well-suited to grilled fish or chicken. (www.schellsbrewery.com)


MORE ALL-AMERICAN BREWS:

Belgian-Style Ales

Wheat Beers

Barleywines & Stouts


-- By Stephen Beaumont

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