The state of beer in the United States still owes a lot to the prohibition era, a time when bootleggers were watering down beers in the no-regulation underground market. Borne of that time was a thirst for adjunct lagers, brewed with a hefty percentage of corn or rice to leave a beer with a thin, watery body and mouthfeel. While prohibition-era influenced beer still dominates sales in the country, modern craft brewing is doing its best to show Americans there is more to beer than its historical blandness.
Since home-brewing was legalised by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, with the previous laws a hangover from prohibition times, American brewers have been shaking off prohibition shackles and are now leading the world in the development of a number of new styles and techniques. Increasingly, American beer is associated with big, bold, hop-focussed flavours, rather than the big brand, light-adjunct lagers.
For beer connoisseurs wanting to dip their toes into modern American-style hop-forward beers, a great start is the Victory Brewing Company - Prima Pils. An American take on the Czech style, this is approachable for new drinkers while being bold enough to slake the palate of any craft beer lover. Using only noble (old world) hop varieties and German malt, the brewers at Victory have managed to shape something undeniably new-world while remaining true to the classic style. Victory also have a range of more intensely hop-forward beers including the aptly named "HopDevil" and the even-bigger-still 8.5% "Hop Wallop".
To experience an array of new-world hop aromas it’s hard to look past Deschutes Brewery - Fresh Squeezed. Fresh Squeezed is a deep, burnt orange colour and bursts with aromas of fresh fruit salad, orange peel, lemon zest and a smooth caramel malt backbone. Using the undeniably on-trend hop varieties Citra and Mosaic, which combine giving fruit salad flavours, it is reasonably bitter with lively carbonation.
The figures out of the States are even more dramatic when the Brewers Association definition of what constitutes a “craft” brewery is taken into consideration. Their official definition excludes brewers with more than a 25% ownership by a non-craft brewery. In Australia, however, there is no current definition, so overall figures include popular brands such as Little Creatures, James Squire (Both Lion Nathan), and Fat Yak (Fosters/SABMiller).
While hops are definitely de rigueur, modern American brewers aren't limiting themselves to one ingredient, with a number of exceptional malt-focussed dark beers available in Australia too. A perennial favourite is the Lost Coast - Downtown Brown. Deep brown in colour, this has higher carbonation than the classic British examples of the style but remains silky with gentle hazelnut, cola and toffee aromas. We’re left with an immensely enjoyable take on the style, and one that could change perceptions of dark beer as it displays a refined execution and fine balance.
To really dive deeper into big, American malt-focussed beer, drinkers should look for the amazing Imperial Stouts and Porters coming out of the country. Currently it's hard to find a finer example than Ballast Point - Victory at Sea. A 10% imperial porter with the addition of cold-brewed coffee, this is a fine example of the skill that US brewers presently command even when wielding big flavours.
The hardest ingredient to truly tame in the eyes of many brewers and drinkers, however, is yeast. Historically, yeast-dominant beers have been the domain of European brewers, but now in true American style brewers there are tackling them head on, and at risk of alienating my Belgian friends, sometimes besting them at their own game.
One of the finest examples of a yeast-focussed farmhouse-style ale is Prairie Artisan Ales' Birra, which displays lively farmhouse aromas such as wet hay, leather and citrus with spicy undertones. High carbonation means this bursts across your palate in the most refreshing way possible and gives a very grown-up lemon sherbert experience, a taste sensation best experienced for oneself rather than imagined through this writer’s description. An ever-so-gentle sour and tart finish rounds off a precise execution. And like the hops and malts, American brewers know how to turn yeast up to the extreme, with a number of bold sour and wild ales hitting Australian shelves in recent times. For those wanting to experience the extreme end of this scale, then Jester King - Boxers Revenge should be top of their list. A barrel-aged wild ale, this is a glass full of intense aromas including pineapple, musk, grapefruit juice and soft leather. At 10.2% this could pass for a much lower abv with almost no residual sugars to cloy your palate to, as it finishes like a musk-filled grapefruit juice. Sour and dry; refreshing but bold. While these are only a handful of examples of American beer, the rapid transition from being a country known for watery adjunct lagers to bold but refined beers is leaving drinkers from all corners of the globe looking on with quiet admiration and a growing desire. Almost a hundred years since the end of prohibition, the glass is looking more than half full for beer lovers.