Most of what I am going to talk about is going to do with hops. Hops are the soul of the beer, and the easiest thing to screw up. If the brewer goes too hop crazy, the beer lacks the sweetness and flavor complexity that comes from the grains. Not enough hop, and the beer tastes like syrup.
American Pale AlesIf I had to pick one style of beer to live with my whole life, it would be the American Pale Ale.
This style is in my refrigerator more often than not, and my first choice of style when I am testing out a new brewery.
The American style of Pale Ale is a uniquely American derivative of the English Style Pale Ales. However, the American variety is an all grain brew that does not use syrups to sweeten the wort and kick up APV. They are also heavily hopped with modern American hops, and typically shun the traditional European "Noble" style hops. As such, the American version have a stronger hop bite, and less sweet malt front.
The hop bitterness should not overpower the malts, and the beer should always finish clean, meaning the after taste should be pleasantly malty, and not burn with hop oil.
The aroma of the American Pale Ale should be slightly piney from the hops, personally I like the dry hopped APAs the best, as there is a very strong aroma of hops left behind.
Of this style the best representatives, that I have tasted, and in my opinion, are
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Boulevard Pale Ale
Anchor Liberty Ale
Great Divide's Fresh Hop Pale Ale
Of these ales, my all time favorite of this style is Great Divide's Fresh Hop Ale
India Pale Ales
I freely admit that I am a hop head, and when I want a healthy dose of hops, I turn to IPAs to get my fix. Personally, I don't like the IPAs that are brewed with syrups to sweeten them up, and I like best the IPAs that finish as cleanly as possible. I like my IPAs to extensively use American hops, Cascade in particular. I also like my IPAs to be dry hopped. It only seems fitting that a beer that uses so much hop in the brewing process, smell like it is full of hoppy goodness.
The history of the IPA starts with the English trying to ship large barrels of Pale Ale to their colonies in India. The voyage was so long that much of the sugary Pale Ales spoiled on the trip. Something that the brewers discovered was that beer that had been more heavily hopped tended to spoil later than beers that had not. This is due to the antibiotic affect of the hop oils, but they didn't know about such things at the time...
Anyway, the brewers began to heavily hop the Pale Ale they sent to India so that it would last the voyage and be enjoyed at the other end of the trip. Thus the IPA was born.
Americans being Americans, took the idea of the IPA and went to the extreme. Using the much more potent American hops, American IPAs tend to be VERY bitter and all around awesome.
My favorite examples of this style of beer are:
Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA
Boulevard Single Wide IPA
Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop IPA
I don't think I can pick a favorite here... They are all just so awesome.
The American Porter is what I start to grab when the weather turns colder... Or I just want to sip on something for a long while. I love the porter's complexity, its smoothness, its rich flavor. It is one of those styles of beer that you feel genuinely sad about finishing a glass of it, one because there is no more beer, and two because you have just taken something so beautiful out of the world.
The history of the porter is very strange, and kind of gross... Back in the good old days, a porter was someone who worked on the docks moving cargo on and off ships. It was back breaking work, literally and figuratively, and did not pay very much money... Remember that part, it plays a part in the grossness...
Tavern owners were loathe to waste any money at all, so after they finished a barrel of beer they would pour the remnants of the barrel, despite the style, in to another barrel.
Remember that beer was fermented and stored all in the same barrels, so the remnants would be heavy with yeast and whatever dregs of grain that got through the filters at the time. So... yuck.
After they closed, they would also pour all of the undrank beer from the mugs left on the tables in to the barrel... Ewwwwwwww...
So what you had left was a barrel that had a mix of styles in it. The Pale Ales, the dark and pale lagers, and the stouts all went in to this mixed barrel. Of course this mix was the cheapest drink in the house, and usually the ones who drank it were... You guessed it, our poor unappreciated Porters. Eventually the drink itself became known as a "Porter." Just... yuck...
Today's Porter, thankfully, has very little in common with its predecessor. What the porters of yesterday, and the porters of today share is that they hang somewhere between the pale ales and the super dark stouts. The Americans have taken their Porters and infused them with their strong hops to really make the dark brew sing. Many of the best porter brewers have added dark fruits to add rich sweet complexity to their brews.
My favorites of this style are:
Boulevard Bully! Porter
Sierra Nevada Porter
Maui Brewing Company Coconut Porter
I have a tie as to my favorite porter, between the Maui Coconut Porter and the Anchor Porter. They are just so good. The Anchor Porter has that rich sweetness that comes from using figs to the wort, and the bitter bite from using Cascade hops. The Maui Coconut Porter is so smooth and easy drinking that it almost wins you over with mouth-feel alone. The coconut complements the chocolate malt to a point that you wonder why all brewers don't use coconut in their porters. The hop usage by Maui leaves their porter just a bit wanting, but you hardly notice.