Perfect American Beers

I've been pondering yesterday's "perfection" post, thinking about what, if pressed, I might be bold enough to call perfect beers. (Orval is such a gimme, a chicken's way out.) My mind kept sweeping across the globe and finding examples--though with a pretty heavy emphasis on Belgium. It only occurred to me, as I tried to freehand paint on window trim, that my mind never swept this far West. Odd, given that I think the US is easily the second-best producer of high-quality beers now. (Belgium ...)

Michael Jackson, in identifying "world classics," always included Anchor Steam. It was his sole US beer and was, it seems, a nod to a traditional style rather than the identification of a truly staggering beer. It didn't hurt that among US beers, Anchor had stood the test of time. Microbrewing is such a young industry that he had to worry about identifying beers that were doomed in the marketplace. Furthermore, perfection should be replicable. A brewery might brew a single perfect batch, but if it can't brew that beer time after time, year after year, well--no dice.

So the question arises: can the US claim any perfect beers? And with this question, its shadow, no less important: what is perfection? In the context of beer, I would say it includes four elements beyond the obvious criteria of flawless execution. A perfect beer needs to:
  • Demonstrate originality. A lot of breweries could produce close approximations of world standards. Doin' it the second time is not nearly as impressive as doing it first.
  • Have been brewed consistently. Not every batch has to be identical, but a brewery has to make the beer reliably well over the course of years. I probably wouldn't add a beer to a "perfect" list that hadn't been in production less than a decade.
  • Exhibit local character. If you look at Jackson's list, you see that nearly every beer on it represents a particular region in a way that characterizes the beer. You can't separate Pilsn and Pilsner Urquell, Cantillon from the Zenne Valley, or Guinness Extra Stout from Dublin. A perfect American beer must also express America.
  • Have that certain something. It's not good enough for a beer to be without flaw; it has to have some kind of inner flame of brilliance that separates it from others of its kind. This is the totally subjective element--but any list of perfect beers will rise on the foundation of subjectivity.
There must certainly be American beers on a "perfect" list. Look at how world beer styles have shifted to imitate American brewing--bigger beers, bolder and funkier hopping. You're obviously not going to cite BrewDog's Punk IPA as a world classic--you're going to go with one of the American IPAs that inspired it. In this vein, I'd argue that Sierra Nevada Pale is a world classic. Who knows what would have become of brewing if the boys from Chico had used Fuggles instead of Cascades? And how many breweries now use the Sierra Nevada yeast strain? What we consider "American" about American beer can in large part be traced back to SN Pale.

Closer to home, I'd throw Hair of the Dog Adam in there. Long before American breweries were bending styles to suit their own preferences, Alan Sprints was making very strange, huge beers. It took the rest of the country at least a decade to catch up. Probably most people would cite Fred instead, but Adam remains, even more than 15 years after it was brewed, a truly original beer.

New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red set the standard for sour ales and used Door County cherries (a Badger specialty) to boot. It would be hard to come up with the ur-hop bomb, but how about Russian River Pliny the Elder? I might throw in a winter warmer, too--it seems like the US lays claim to this style as its own regional variant now. I'd probably choose Jubelale.

Your thoughts?