It is with a heavy wine-writer heart that I admit more Americans drink beer than wine. Call it a tribute to our founding fathers, or blame an industry with some serious marketing flaws.
Yes, wine is making decent inroads into our consumption habits, but we still love beer. Think football season, hockey season, barbecue season and the one day when we all drink some sort of grain-influenced beverage: St. Patrick's Day. Hey, it's an excuse to get embarrassingly inebriated in public. On beer.
Although the Irish get a lot of credit, Germans made American beer what it is today, their lagers establishing a foothold with immigrants in the mid-1800s. According to Maureen Ogle's book Ambitious Brew, Milwaukee and St. Louis — established by names like Best, Busch and Schlitz — quickly became synonymous with quality beer since their river access provided an efficient means to deliver the freshest product. Before the Germans arrived, Americans drank rough, harsh ales that took less time to brew and were cheaper. But once introduced, lighter, smoother lagers promptly became the king of beers.
Lager is a generic name for pale, cold-fermented, cold-aged beer. Lagers differ from ales because they're produced with bottom-fermenting yeasts at much colder temperatures, over longer periods of time (two to three months as opposed to weeks). Long cold storage, or cellaring, of beer is called "lagering." Before the wide use of refrigeration, the cooler temperatures of St. Louis and Milwaukee provided perfect lagering conditions, so their superiority makes sense. Most of the current popular American brands are lagers, like Budweiser, Milwaukee's Best and Michelob.
But today's American ales demonstrate what a carefully constructed ale can be. Wheat, pale and brown ales from breweries around the country provide excellent additions to our St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Wheat beer is a light-bodied ale made from malted wheat that feels slightly fizzy in the mouth and has a lactic acid tartness. Pale ale, ironically, does not look pale — it's slightly reddish in color and characterized by a bitter hop presence in both flavor and aroma. One type of pale ale is called India Pale Ale (or IPA), named for the beer exported to Britain's troops stationed in colonial India in the 1800s. They made a slightly stronger, heartier brew back then, adding hops to the casks to help preserve the beer for shipping. It might taste like what we call Strong Ale today, a whopper of a beer with malty sweetness and brawny coffee and chocolate flavors. Another type is American Brown Ale, a new interpretation of the English tradition, featuring a pronounced roasted malt flavor, with more hop bitterness emerging from our homegrown varieties. Newcastle is an example of a brown ale.
Even more exciting beers continue to emerge from domestic breweries, but drink down some of these lagers and ales and you'll be set to celebrate St. Paddy's Day, American style.
Great Divide Hibernation Ale Classified as a Strong Ale and for good reason. Massive flavors of chocolatey malted hops are backed up by complex hoppiness and a high-alcohol sweetness that rocked my world. $10/six-pack.
Tommyknocker Jack Wacker Wheat Ale Funny name, fantastic beer. This Colorado brew is a cloudy, citrusy thirst-quencher that is made with real lemongrass. Clean finish leaves you wanting another. That's OK, they come in six-packs. $7.99/six-pack.
Avery India Pale Ale This lively ale comes from a Boulder, Co., brewer. Hoppy and orangey with a bitter, crisp finish. Refreshingly light and drinkable. $8.99/six-pack.
Rogue Brewery Chocolate Stout I had to throw a delicious stout into a lager and ale column, just for giggles. This is a big, bold brew not for the weak of heart. Rich and a bit hoppy, with bitter, dark, unsweetened chocolate and strong roasted espresso. Creamy and delicious, but you gotta appreciate the stouts. $4/22-oz bottle.