The Not-So Bitter Truth: Craft Beer Beyond IPAs
Don’t get me wrong, I like IPAs. The proper blend of hops in a beer can elevate an ordinary glass of pale ale to an unforgettable olfactory experience. Grapefruit (Cascade hops), pine (Simcoe hops), and spice (Columbus hops), all come through in properly hopped beer. Furthermore, like many craft beer drinkers, IPAs are what turned me on to beer beyond macro-lager. However, anyone who has bought beer in the last 10 years knows that riffs on this once obscure British style dominate taps and shelves across the United States.
In many ways, IPAs are also where craft brewers have jumped the shark and gone for shock value (also known as the “hops arms race”) over innovation. This is a shame namely because the beer world is full of historically interesting and flavorful styles that are ripe for a resurgence in mainstream popularity. It’s also worth noting that a market flooded with IPAs might intimidate many consumers. Assertive hops are not for everyone, and the noble effort to convert more and more people to craft beer regulars should also mean regularly available craft beer styles for all tastes.
While the thirst of true hop-heads can only be satiated by the dank, resinous nose and taste of IPAs, many craft beer consumers are starting to look elsewhere for their artisanal libations. On Molotov Cocktail, we’ve talked a lot about big beers and the process and ideas behind some truly historic and funky styles, but these are not “everyday” beers. It’s also worth examining styles that can provide some balance against the plethora of craft IPAs on the market when it comes to the casual pint. The following four styles are approachable, “sessionable” (as in easy drinking), and available. When done correctly they will satisfy the most particular craft connoisseur and also be welcomed by those simply looking to try something different than mass-produced lager.
Kölsch is a German ale, fermented warm and then lagered. Kölschs are truly hybrid beers (known widely as “the ale that wants to be a lager”), and possess some of the best qualities of both ales and lagers. Kölschs boast both detectable malt flavor and a delightful crisp finish. They can have some moderate hop bitterness and some hop aroma but nothing approaching an IPA. Kölschs are typically filtered (because the kölsch yeast has a tendency to stay in suspension and will not clear on its own) for a crystal clear finished product. This balanced and mellow beer is my go-to when bringing wary macro-lager drinkers into the fold of “craftbeerdom.”
In Germany, the name kölsch is restricted to approximately 20 breweries in the vicinity of Cologne. In the United States the name can be used freely.
Commercial Examples: St. Louis’s Schlafly Brewing Company has a nice attempt with their Schlafly Kolsch. Harpoon Brewery does a slightly citrusy interpretation wit their Harpoon Summer Beer.
A California Common is in many ways an inverted Kolsch (a lager that wants to be an ale), as a warm fermented lager. Common beers are a distinctly American style with origins in the pre-refrigeration era. Early 20th-century breweries in San Francisco would allow the fog rolling off the bay to cool their fermenting wort (the first product of the brewing process) instead of using ice. In modern times, fog has been replaced by more precise temperature control, but the style has stuck around. Common beers are malty and have lots of caramel flavor. They can be hop-forward, but traditionally use woody American Northern Brewer hops as opposed to the citrus-forward hops in an IPA.
The Common’s improvised quality is still seen today. In 2012, the “derecho” wind storms that hit the northeast knocked out power at the Port City Brewery in Alexandria, VA. The brewery’s fermenters full of pilsner were soon subject to quickly rising temperatures. What the folks at Port City were left with was not a Pilsner, but a Common. They continue to produce that beer to this day under the name Derecho Common.
Commons are a great option for those who have been put off by over-the-top hoppiness. These beers are about balance and are meant to finish clean, dry, and crisp.
Commercial Examples: If you’re located in the greater Washington, DC area, you should go local and grab a 6-pack of the Derecho from Port City or District Common from Atlas Brew Works. If you’re elsewhere in the States, go for the classic Anchor Steam Beer from Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco.
ESB (Extra Special Bitter)
ESBs are the strongest beers in the English pale ale family tree. Despite the name, ESB’s are actually not bitter at all — they present a good deal of sweetness and malt complexity complemented by fruity yeast flavors. ESBs have detectable hop character and they often finish with bready notes.
In Britain it is not uncommon for ESBs to be served from casks via a beer hand pump, also known as a beer engine. In the States they will almost always be served through a traditional CO2 tap.
Like the Common, an ESB is a solid choice for those with hop fatigue who are okay with some bitterness. This is one of my favorite styles because it respects each element of beer (malt, hops, yeast) equally, and that results in a truly balanced style when done well.
Commercial Examples: Two British breweries, Fuller’s and Wychwood put out pretty classic examples, Fuller’s ESB and Hobgoblin, respectively. These can be somewhat tricky to find outside of specialty shops in the United States (however, they are carried by Total Wine). While not as good as the two above, an American interpretation, Redhook ESB, can be found virtually everywhere craft beer is sold.
Okay, so one curveball. Berliners are a bit … different. This probably isn’t a style to try out on your stalwart macro-beer friends, but can be eye-opening for those looking for something that’s the complete opposite of an IPA. Berliners are low alcohol, have a light body, and present a distinctive tartness due to lactic acid produced by lactobacillus bacteria, which carries out fermentation alongside the yeast. These beers are dry and minimally hopped. They were traditionally made in Berlin, as the name suggests, and were referred to by Napoleon’s troops as the “Champagne of the North.”
In America, craft brewers have begun to take on this style and may blend or ferment their beer with fruit puree before bottling. In Germany these beers are often blended at service with fruit syrups.
When presenting the beer, if you choose to omit the fact that the beer’s distinct tartness comes from bacteria, you could pass this off to your macro-drinking friends as simply being lemony (Bud Light Lime is a big hit, after all). Berliners would also go over well with the wine crowd who might have a stronger affinity for tart flavors.
Commercial Examples: Dogfish Head’s Festina Pêche is an extremely approachable commercial example, as is Bell’s Oarsman.
The craft beer world is too expansive and diverse to be defined by one style. With that in mind I truly believe there is a craft beer to fit any taste preference. Brewers would do well to expand their offerings beyond IPAs, and explore styles that can bring more drinkers over to the side of enlightenment. Taste is of course personal, and far be it from me to tell my friends or dear readers what they should be drinking. However, as craft beer enthusiasts we should reach for brews that challenge us to go beyond the easy choice, and help our uninitiated brothers and sisters find their niche in the world of barley, yeast, and hops.
James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. When he’s not fermenting things he works for a Washington, D.C. based democracy education non-profit. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.