Written by Jay R. Brooks for .mercurynews.com and The Bay Area News Group
Now that we’re safely into the new year, it’s time to make some new beer resolutions — and try some different kinds of beer this year.
For a number of years now, India Pale Ales have been the fastest-growing type of beer sold — and “seasonals” have been the biggest-selling category, which means people also are keen to try something new. But beer drinkers tend to stick to a small subset of the dozens of American craft beer styles. Last year, for example, seasonals were in the top spot again, and the next five best-selling beer categories were IPA, pale ale, amber ale, amber lager and wheat beer.
They’re all fine beer styles, and I drink my fair share of them, too, but they’re not exactly a diverse crowd. So this year, break out of your comfort zone and try one of these exceptional beers.
When microbreweries started making beer in the early ’80s, the vast majority made ales. They took less time to brew, required less aging and, some said, were more forgiving. But pilsners have been a popular beer style since their introduction in the 1840s. If you have enjoyed a beer by one of the big breweries, you’ve already had a version of a pilsner, with added corn, rice or other adjunct to lighten the color and flavor.
If you’ve had Pilsner Urquell, you’ve had the original all-malt pilsner. But a growing number of craft breweries now make a pilsner, and many of them are world class, too. Berkeley’s Trumer Pils, for example, is one of the best pilsners brewed anywhere. Moonlight Brewery’s Reality Czeck, a Czech-style Pils, and Lagunitas Brewing’s Pils are both excellent pilsners, also. They tend to be a little spicy — from the signature Saaz hop — and crisp and clean, but still very full-flavored.
In German, “alt” means old, as these ales continued to be popular in Germany even after lager brewing became all the rage in the 19th century, especially around Düsseldorf and other parts of northern Germany. But Rich Higgins, at Social Kitchen in San Francisco, is making a great example of this old style, calling his Old Time Alt. It’s slightly peppery with great toasted malt character. If you can’t make it to the source, Alaskan Amber is also an alt, and is available in six-packs. Altbiers are delicate and complex, with spicy hops and usually a dry finish, though sometimes they’re nutty or bittersweet.
Everyone knows Guinness, which is an Irish or dry stout. But I find its lesser-known cousin, oatmeal stout, much tastier and smoother. The oats can add a variety of flavors, including nuttiness, earthiness or graininess, and are often lightly sweet with coffee or chocolate notes.
Great local examples include Anderson Valley Barney Flats, Iron Springs’ Sless Stout and Lost Coast 8 Ball Stout. Others to try include Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout and Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin, which just came out in bottles. Wolaver’s makes a nice organic version, too.
Some of the most challenging beer styles include smoked beers. The originals — Rauchbier — came from Bamberg, Germany, and can still be found there. They’re brewed with malt that has been smoked over beechwood, which imparts a strong smoky character to the beer. The flavors are hit-you-over-the-head big.
The classic example is Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen. On their own, they may be too much for some, but with certain foods, they’re divine. The last time I was in Bamberg, I ate a meat-stuffed onion as big as my head and the rauchbier paired perfectly with the dish, as it often does with very heavy meat dishes.
American examples are tough to find, though Samuel Adams’ new Bonfire Rauchbier puts its own spin on the style. Occasionally, Gordon Biersch’s brewpubs will have one on tap.
Far more common is the catchall “other smoked beer,” which is essentially any beer brewed with smoked malts that are different from the traditional rauchbiers. One of my personal favorites in this category is Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter, which is made using alderwood, the same wood used for smoking salmon. Not surprisingly, the two complement each other perfectly, too. This is also a beer that ages well. Other examples include Stone Smoked Porter and, for something really unusual, Rogue’s new Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale in the big pink bottle.
Happy new beer.