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Here's my take on a Top Ten American beers

You know the routine. The interviewer asks: "What is your favorite beer?" I explain that it depends upon the mood and the moment and where I am in the world He thinks I am dodging the question, and tries another tack: "Okay, how about your Top Ten? This is still difficult. I plead for a Top Twenty, then finagle that into 24: "a case," I explain.

I have a stock Top Twenty-four, but I keep refining it. Beers that I have long regarded as classics may suddenly have been dumbed down by the brewers, in a misguided belief that this will attract more young drinkers. Or great beers may be dropped altogether (as was Thomas Hardy's, for example). Sometimes, these beers re-appear, but in lesser form (G'frorns Eisbock). Occasionally, a brewer decides to change a beer for the better (I can't think of an instance right now, but it does happen). And new beers are constantly appearing. If a new beer establishes itself as a classic over a period of a year or so, it may demand a Top 24 place, but which beer will it oust?

As soon as I start replacing beers on my list, I am interfering with the balance of styles and geography. If I take out a strong golden ale, does that leave us without one? My first choice replacement: does it leave us with too many beers from the Northwest?

If there are local beers that I greatly admire, I want them to be in the list. Ideally, I further adjust the selection to ensure that at least some of the beers are available to listeners, viewers or readers in the area reached by the newspapers, magazine, radio or TV station. This is not always possible. In some states, and many countries, there are just too few worthwhile beers available. I do my best to track down something worthy of mention, even if it is very hard to find.

When I have finally made a selection, and it is spoken across the airwaves, or committed to print, I begin to think of beers I should have included but didn't.

I was recently asked by American Heritage magazine to list my Top Ten U.S. beers. Given the difficulty of this task, it never occurred to me that I should indicate an order of preference. Bearing in mind that many readers of American Heritage may enjoy beer without being geeks, I thought I had better begin with a Pilsener, the style from which the mainstream beers are distantly derived.

My choice in this category was Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils, from Old Dominion, in the Virginia suburbs of the nation's capital. I could as easily have chosen Prima Pils, from Victory Brewing, of Downingtown. Pennsylvania, but also had them in mind for their Doppelbock, St Victorious.

This was a constant problem. It is easier to name the top breweries than to choose their best beers. I found myself transposing beers when I was interviewed by a radio station in Dallas. Unable on occasion to remember which beer I had chosen from which brewery,

It must have sounded unconvincing. In fairness to myself, I should explain that I was being interviewed by phone. To be precise, it was a cellphone, and I was out of doors: climbing a steep hill, if not a mountain, on the island of Islay, in the Inner Hebrides group, off the West Coast of Scotland. The island is so hilly that peaks constantly block the signal. I had found a spot where the phone worked, but the voices from the studio were being blown asunder by high winds.

I struggled to hear and answer questions, and kept thinking of beers that I had neglected to list. The most grievous omission was Alaskan Smoked Porter. That brew is a permanent resident in my Top Twenty-four American beers. It must have popped out for bagels and lox when I was working on the American Heritage list.

Another one that didn't make it was Live Oak Pilz, from Austin, Texas. Live Oak uses malt imported from Moravia and hops from Bohemia. The end result is a very Czech-tasting Pilsner, one of the best I have tasted in the U.S. The beer leaves dense lacework round the glass; has a big, firm, malt background; and develops quite an aggressive hop bitterness.

The Live Oak brewery was founded by Chip McElroy, a molecular biologist, and Brian Peters, an electrical engineer. I didn't include it, because its distribution is so very narrow. I wished I had, when the call came from the radio station. They would have like a beer from their home state.

Come to that, a caller complained about the quality of beer in brewpubs, and I question his judgment. Why didn't I take this as a cue to plug The American Brewpub Club? A radio or TV studio can be perfectly friendly, but has one characteristic in common with an argument. You always leave having somehow omitted to make your strongest, and no doubt wittiest, point.

A similar law has people of perfectly good intent accidentally embarrassing you in ways you could never have anticipated. American Heritage numbered my Great American Beers, as though they were ranked from one to ten. That was not the intention. Having started in the nation's capital, I more or less headed West. Like so:

Tupper's Hop Pocket Pils (Old Dominion, Ashburn, Virginia).
St. Victorious (Victory, Downingtown, Pennsylvania).
Black Chocolate Stout (Brooklyn, New York).
Dortmunder Gold (Great Lakes, Cleveland, Ohio).
Expedition Stout (Kalamazoo, Michigan).
Belgian-style Red, Cherry Beer (New Glarus, Wisconsin).
La Folie (New Belgium, Fort Collins, Colorado).
Anchor Steam Beer (San Francisco, California).
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (Chico, California).
BridgePort India Pale Ale (Portland, Oregon).

Why these beers? Check the July edition of American Heritage magazine. A fuller story soon, here on the site. Two stouts and no wheat beers? The weather was more wintry when I compiled the list. Remember, it's about mood and moment....


Published: JUNE 4, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Beer Review - Editorial

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