Getting Back to Our Craft Beer Roots with Classic Styles
The first “craft” beer I ever drank was one most of us wouldn’t consider a true craft beer, though a recent court case gave its owners the right to call it one: Blue Moon. In the grim days of my early twenties, before my eyes were opened to our beloved sudsy obsession, I assumed all beer was terrible, because the few examples I’d tried certainly were. One day, a more enlightened friend handed me a Blue Moon, and though it’s been more than ten years since I’ve had one, at the time it showed me beer could come in other varieties besides bland.
Over the next few years, I fell in love with two styles that were gateways for many nascent craft beer drinkers in the Aughts: American IPA and Porter. I didn’t know what a doppelbock was, I didn’t have the slightest idea what “Trappist” meant, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell a Munich Helles from a Berliner Weisse if my life had depended on it. The six packs of craft beer at my local supermarket were more than enough for my developing tastes, and my discernment between styles was limited to “hoppy” and “malty.” I liked porters and wheat ales quite a bit. I felt cool as hell when I would ask a server if they had an IPA on tap, and in those days, sometimes they didn’t. Beer was simple and fun for me.
Fast forward a decade, and now I’m a Certified Cicerone who’s been to Belgium several times on beer trips, hunts down rare bottles, and teaches beer classes professionally. Beer is still fun for me, but about a year ago I began to discover a problem in my beery life: those classic styles that had been so enthralling to me starting out as a beer drinker had lost their luster for me. Oh, there were still a few of the old favorites I regularly indulged, such as Bell’s Two Hearted Ale or Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, but most of the time I was looking past the six-pack beers to find the more challenging and exotic brews. Balanced, well-made beers had given way to experimental, envelope-pushing concoctions costing twice as much. I decided I needed a change of perspective. I looked those old classics in the eyes and told them, It’s not you, It’s me, and resolved to change.
I began paying more attention to the flagship brews when I visited a brewery. Rather than immediately jumping to a brewery’s bourbon-barrel aged stout or their Belgian Dark Strong Ale brewed with chestnuts and birch bark, I would order their brown ale. Rather than sampling through their various Brett-fermented sours, I would try a pint of their Vienna Lager. At bottle shops, I started picking up packs of Czech Pilsners and Irish Red Ales instead of walking past them to get to the 750ml rarities. Not only did this help me learn a lot more about these classics styles that have long histories and rich pedigrees, but it also reminded me these classic styles became century-spanning classics for a reason: when made well, they’re delicious.
Most of us were weaned on a handful of staple styles when we were craft beer infants, but somewhere along the way, we stopped calling our moms. American Pale Ale misses you. Hefeweizen wants to know when you’re going to hang out again. Most of us never completely stopped drinking those beers, but they did become a bit utilitarian to us in the shadow of rare sours and barrel-aged behemoths. There’s nothing wrong with those exotic brews; craft beer is all about innovation, and brewers are creating some seriously fascinating stuff with mixed microbiota cultures, barrel aging, new hop varietals, and previously unused ingredients. I’m all about pushing the limits of beer. But in the process, let’s not forget about the styles that birthed us.
The next time you are at your local brewery, don’t just order the sexy new offering from their barrel program; try their year-round flagship Pale Ale first. Don’t just stand in line for their new sour release; try a pint of their perfectly balanced Amber Ale. Those are likely the beers that built the brewery, and the ones that continue to convert new beer drinkers to the religion of good beer. There is a good chance they were the ones you started drinking years ago. I know they were for me.
Craft beer is about innovation, but it’s also about tradition. We can love mind-bending new hybrid styles and ultra-rare bottles without losing touch with our roots. Pick up a six-pack of one of the beers that got you started, and reflect on how far you’ve come since then. You may have changed as the years have passed, but I’m willing to bet those beers are as good as you remember.