Browsing the beer aisle of your local neighborhood store is like strolling through the library. The shelves from floor to ceiling are filled with names and images — some well known, some familiar and others entirely alien.
When you or a friend says one evening, “What kind of beer should we buy?” all of these choices in front of your eyes can seem like a nuisance. Because all of us love our habits, especially when it comes to food, the question is usually answered with a “go-to” beer — something you know well and have enjoyed before. However, even the best of beer-buddies can tire on your palate after a while and wanderlust will eventually take over. If you want to avoid spending $20 on something that goes down the drain, choose your beer the way you choose books.
At the library or bookstore we all find something new by starting with what we already know: a series, author or favorite genre. Organized around a loose but distinct collection of conventions and expectations, genres give you an idea of what a book will be like before you open the cover. Beer styles, like pale ale, classify beer in a similar manner — two beers of one style will taste similar but not exactly the same.
Based out of Chicago, the BJCP — or Beer Judge Certification Program — is the national organization that regulates and organizes all beer tasting competitions. In a competition setting, determining who wins and loses based on subjective “taste,” literally and figuratively, makes fair beer festivals difficult to run. In order to solve this, the BJCP has codified “beer style” into over 100 distinct and materially defined categories. For example, “American Pale Ales” must fall within a certain range of alcohol by volume (ABV), color, bitterness and other metrics in order to be classified as such.
Though choosing new beers by brewery name is a good plan itself, the standardization of styles makes it much easier to know before the bottle is opened whether you will like what’s in it. While you might really enjoy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, most brewers usually brew only one beer in any given style, so a Sierra Nevada Torpedo of Bigfoot might make you gag. However, Troegs Pale Ale or Anchor Liberty Ale might have just the right balance of bright hoppiness and crisp flavor that your favorite regular beer has.
Styles, in addition to conveying different flavor profiles and ingredient choices, also reflect the unique historical and social origins of national brewing traditions. Different styles have been popular in different countries at different points in history, but the current stage of brewing has seen a few styles come to dominate the international market.
Pilsner, arguably the most popular and economically successful beer style in history, originally began as the local style of brewers from the city of Pilsen, in Bohemia, Czech Republic. A type of lager, the pilsner taste developed its unique character from the unusually soft water of the city’s river and the Saaz hop variety native to the Bohemian valley. Pilsners are light straw to golden color and crystal clear, with a spicy hop bitterness and floral aroma.
Famous for its smooth and crisp finish, as well as its crystal appearance, pilsner went from a regional tradition to an international juggernaut with the help of American brewing giants like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller and Coors, whose flagship products all fall under the pilsner umbrella.
Those looking for local examples of this classic style should try look for Victory Prima Pils, Troegs Sunshine Pils or Sam Adams Noble Pils.
Porter, as mentioned in my previous column, in contrast to the monolithic pilsner, is a style that was almost not seen on shelves or on draft until the last few decades of the 20th century. A British style by origin, porter take its name not from a geographic location but from its target audience — literal porters. Originally very popular with working-class men, the dark color and opacity of the beer — in contrast to things like pilsner — once masked impurities in brewing techniques.
Porter’s popularity has oscillated since Industrial England, becoming known as a “lady’s beer” for its sweetness compared to pale ale (or “bitter”) for a period. With its signature roasted malt, American brewers have embraced porter’s coffee-like and chocolate notes by using indigenous hop varieties to create some flavorful but balanced examples of the style.
Some of the best porters available on Pennsylvania shelves are Founders Porter, Anchor Porter and Stone Smoked Porter.
This year at the GABF or Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, there were more entries into the category of IPA, or India Pale Ale, than any other. Sales figures and word of mouth suggest that IPAs are very popular among consumers and these beers often represent a large portion of any brewers total yearly sales.
Like porter, IPAs come out of a very specific national and historical context. During the mid 19th century, British brewers — hoping to supply the market of native Britons living abroad in India — began brewing beer designed specifically for export. In order to preserve the beer over the long and hot journey, greater amounts of hops than normal British pale ales or “bitters” were used in the boil.
Outside of England, American companies, especially on the West Coast, have taken the style in a direction that emphasizes hop flavors. Using varieties like Citra, Cascade and Columbus, citrus, pine and herbal notes usually take the driver’s seat with malty sweetness staying in back.
With almost too many choices on shelves, narrowing it down to three is hard. Staying local, Victory Hop Devil and Dogfish Head 60 min are stellar, but for my money Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA might be the best around.
Brad is a junior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.