Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Are There Regional Styles Anymore?

I went into a small (albeit upscale) liquor store the other day and perused the beer selection and found a large number of authentic Belgian beers alongside a nice selection of local and not so local craft breweries as well as some national craft brewers (seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it, but I am talking about Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Pete's and the like). The availability was great (for such a small place) and there were a number of beers and breweries that I hadn't heard of. I should be ecstatic. But the Contrarian in me started wondering if this really was a good thing after all.

Increasing sales of craft beers, having the small guys get access to wider distributions systems, and small craft breweries becoming medium sized seems like it should be a great thing. It ensures that I can get a decent beer at almost any restaurant, and Fat Tire in half of the United States, I think. I will talk about New Belgium in an upcoming episode of Beer Guy: The Ft. Collins years.
With the availability of imported beer and advanced distribution networks for many craft beer selections approaching that (and even using the same distribution as) of the national (and international, now) brewers, and with knowledge of water chemistry and current yeast availabile to the brewer you can either obtain the original style or a locally produced facsimile of classic beer in almost any mid-sized town. Therefore, my thesis question is basic:

In the United States, are there any regional styles or an accounting for local taste left in brewing? Should there be? In this world of globalization, should I be pining for an exclusively local beer? Or should I be damn glad I can get a load of decent authentic or replicated Belgian Beers at the Cheeky Monk or Trinity Brewing?

At this point in my life, I would have expected myself to have traveled the world. It is in our life plan to do so, but real life has gotten in the way. So, I never made it to Europe, and unless things turn around, maybe I never will. But I can take a 1 hour staycation at the Falling Rock Tap House and go anywhere in the world (on tap). Without such an availability, I would have never had the chance to sample beers from around the world.

So, in the food world, is it okay that I can get good seafood in Denver, and that I can stop by the Cajun Restaurant on the way home? Or, do I need to seek the source for some definitive? And despite the efforts of globalization, are there some places that retain their local heritage in brewing the local product? Are there any new local styles that have emerged from the last 30 years of the craft brewing industry?

I think that the answer is yes. But that doesn't mean you can't get a style outside of its locality. The main examples I can think of are out of the West Coast. The West Coast Style is perhaps a combination of California Common (Anchor Steam) and the availability of locally grown hops that produce light or amber ales that feature hop character over malt, and/or the funkiness of a lager yeast brewing at ale temperatures. I love Anchor Steam, and love it even more sipping it overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Does a Northwest Style Ale (those found in Seattle or Portland) taste better under mostly-cloudy ashen grey skies of a Pacific Northwest Winter? I haven't been there in the winter yet, but I would guess so. I don't enjoy the West Coast Style in the heat of Summer.

Since I live in Colorado, I posit that there is a Colorado (or perhaps Inter-Mountain West) Beer Style. Something to satisfy on a dry summer afternoon as well as after a perfect powder day on the slopes. That beer is the American Amber Ale (A^3).

As the craft beer industry in Colorado was being born, every successful brewery seemed to have its own version of the Amber. Some of these Colorado born beers have reached legendary status. My favorites are Breckenridge's Avalanche Amber, O'Dell's 90 Shilling (perhaps a Scottish Ale, but a distinct hop flavor in an amber), and the ubiquitous New Belgium Fat Tire Ale. But most breweries here have a version (Rock Bottom's Red Rocks, Wynkoop's Rail Yard). All of them are good here, but that doesn't seem to be the case in other places in the US.

Now some would argue that every new brewery needs an amber ale as a gateway beer to entice the standard American Lager crowd to better beer. I don't disagree with this strategy for success, but I ultimately lack the knowledge of craft beer in the east to make a definitive judgement as to their quality. I do know that the West Coast breweries add more hops to their amber ales (for their West Coast Ale). The Colorado Amber Ales are damn fine examples of the A^3, and I would like the sanctioning bodies to change the style name to reflect the locality, if not that of origin, then that of excellence. The beer style runs with the big boys as thirst quenching, but has just enough bite, malt flavor, and just a tad of alcohol warmth to sit outside on the deck after skiing all day and have a few.

Are there other local styles of beer? I don't know. There should be. I know that I like an occasional Anaheim Chile Beer, and since cuisine in New Mexico seems to add chilies to everything (perhaps even baby formula), maybe the best examples are coming from New Mexico (Wynkoop's and Coopersmith's in Denver and Ft. Collins both do a nice example, like Corona with heat). Could we call that NM style? Would it be appropriate? For my readers east of the Mississippi, please let me know what is being done around home that equals no other, and why it would or should be a regional taste or style. I can't wait to try it at the source for myself.

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