Suds with Sophie: Celebrate America with American Styles of Beer

by Sophie Nelson, [email protected]

Take your celebration of America’s independence one step further this year by buying American-made beers in styles that were also made in America! 

Many styles that we are familiar with today are styles created in Europe and brought to America with the large waves of immigrants from many countries. Not all styles are of only European descent, however. Many that arrived with immigrants were then modified to such a degree that they later earned their own style modifier as an American creation. 

One of the more ubiquitous of these is the American adjunct lager. I wrote a two-part history about the creation of these beers in my “German Adjunct Lagers” stories. They include Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft and Coors Banquet. Brought here by German immigrants, the German pils lager was modified to accommodate local barley needs and to be lighter, more refreshing, easier on a wider variety of palates and ultimately more economical to produce on a large scale. The “light” lager is also a U.S. creation in that the fungus used to break down all of the remaining starches into fermentable sugars was discovered here. 

The IPA as we know it is also an American creation. The old story of the India Pale Ale – about English beer brewed with higher levels of hops to ensure stability when it was shipped to India – is a well-known one. The story gets a little muddled along the way (a story for another time), but the beer wasn’t nearly as hopped as the American IPA drinkers would have you believe. The English India Pale Ale was more hopped than most beers drank domestically at the time, to be sure, but the level of hops added to IPAs in America is on a whole other level. The same goes for most styles with a distinct American-versus-European version.

American beers are generally always hopped to higher levels, which creates the distinction between an American IPA and an English India Pale Ale. The difference in American versus European hops also adds to the distinction because American hops tend to be more bitter, piney and grapefruity than European varieties. 

American wheat ales are another distinctly American brew with a European past. There are three main types. The first is the German Hefeweizen (that translates to “yeast and wheat”), which features banana, clove and sometimes even bubblegum notes from the German yeast. The second is the Belgian Witbier (“white beer”), which has coriander and curaçao orange peel as its main flavor additives, in addition to spicy, characterful Belgian yeast. The last is the American wheat beer. As with most American styles, these beers are hopped more than their European counterparts, but oddly, also tend to be a bit sweeter as well. Try Bell’s Oberon or 3 Floyds’ Gumball Head for some American-made, American-style wheat ales. 

The last American style beer I’ll describe is the California Common, originally known as steam beer. This is an exciting style because it’s unique to America. The process is also distinctive in that it’s a hybrid: This beer uses lager yeast, but it’s fermented at ale temperatures. Lager beer likes to ferment at very low temperatures, but in California before the days of refrigeration, this was no easy feat. Instead, these beers were fermented at higher temperatures, which releases more fruity esters and spicy phenols (types of flavors created by yeast). 

The Anchor Steam by Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco is the main style icon for this method. The trademarked name has led to officially calling the style California Common. Anchor reworked its style in the 1970s and left behind almost all of the original character, but the icon remains. Other examples have popped up lately, including Toppling Goliath’s Dorothy’s New World Lager and Flat Earth Element 115. 

Cream beers use a similar method of this American-created hybrid style (lager yeast fermented as ale), so if you find a real craft cream beer, drink it this July Fourth in honor of an American craft tradition!