What Makes a Beer American?

As we sidle up to Independence Day, I thought it might be nice to think about the good old US of A.  Compared to the likes of Germany and Belgium, our contribution to the world beer canon is ... modest.  It is however, real, a fact I think we sometimes forget.  When I was writing the Beer Bible, I had to deal with a strange collection of oddities that don't fit in neatly with the idea we have about style and tradition--things like the place of corn and Northwest hops and our strange invented styles that we didn't intend to invent (amber ale, "Scotch ale," etc.).  All of that got me thinking about America's role in brewing.

As I traveled the world, I learned that brewers tend to have fixed ideas about how you brew a beer, and these are shared throughout a country.  So, for example, you have single-infusion mashes in British cask ales breweries, and the regular use of sugar--but never beet sugar.  (An abomination.)  In Belgium you have things like cereal cookers and sugar--often beet--and the most important feature, the warm room where bottles rest for a month during secondary fermentation.  German beer is all about the malt, and in the Czech Republic you almost always see a four-vessel brewhouse designed for decoction mashing.  One could say a lot more, but you get the picture.

Brewers also maintain certain national orientations that surprised me, like the way they would go about constructing color and flavor in a beer.  English and Belgian brewers use sugars, including dark sugars, so they might add a touch of these for color.  Their beers tend to be thinner and crisper than beers elsewhere.  That's why, when you try a Belgian-brewed hoppy beer, it's often screamingly bitter: there's not a lot of unfermented crystal malt to sop up the BUs as is the American way.  Germans, though, never use sugar, so they might add color with Munich malt.  They each think about beer differently.  So, how does an American think about beer?  (I'm mainly thinking craft brewers--we'll come around to mass-market brewers later on.)  Below are a few key markers that make Americans stand out in a crowd.
  • North American base malt.  I didn't understand malts until I went to Germany and the Czech Republic.  I should have gotten an inkling of the power of base malts when I went to the UK and Belgium, but I'm a slow learner.  North American barley is a powerhouse of convertable sugar and enzymes, and give you a nice foundation on which to pile specialty malts.  It doesn't have ton of character on its own (unlike those soft German malts and aromatic Czech malts).  Americans get their flavor from specialty malts, especially ....
  • Caramel/crystal malt.  This is the real tell.  Americans love love love crystal malt.  It is versatile to a point, giving beer body and flavors that range from caramel/toffee to dark fruit, but it is also a really obvious component.  I've seen American brewers build, for example, dubbels and dunkels out of crystal malt--things Belgians and Germans would not do.  Probably Ken Grossman gets the most credit/blame: Sierra Nevada Pale is in many ways the ur-ale in America, and it has that rounded body and classic dollop of caramel flavor at its center.  I'd say this is at least as an important marker as vivid hopping--though native drinkers may not realize it.
  • Northwest Hops.  This doesn't need a lot of explanation.  It's the thing we're most famous for, the most obvious and flashy part of our beers.  We like 'em early, we like 'em late, we like 'em dry.  Just yesterday Zymurgy released the results of its latest readers poll, and nine of the ten most popular beers were hoppy.  There are lots of beers brewed in the US, but the beers everyone thinks of as characteristically "American" have our distinctive, citrusy/floral hopping.
  • Strength and intensity.  American brewers aren't minor key kinds of guys. They brew like John Philip Sousa.  Beers are rarely brewed below 4.5% and a good many are stronger than 7%.  When we make hoppy beers, we make damn hoppy beers.  (Some of our beers that aren't supposed to be hoppy are damn hoppy, too.)  Our sours are really sour.  Our imperial stouts are liquid fudge. 
  • Bourbon barrels. Barrel-aging is as old as beer, but bourbon is American.  Proportionally, very few beers spend any time in bourbon, but this is another one of those markers of place.  When a beer has spent time in a barrel, that unmistakable sweet booziness tells you what kind. 
Of course, all of these are generalities.  In a country with 2000+ breweries, you're going to have an example of every kind of beer.  But no one's thinking of the Devil's Backbone double triple-decocted Morana Tmave when they're talking about American beer.

One other noteworthy feature of American beer is brewery set-up.  This is partly a function of our newness--few American brewhouses are older than 30 years.  But that's only part of the story.  Americans like to be able to brew any style of beer, so our kits are optimized for versatility.  Decoction breweries, old-timey single-infusion mash breweries, breweries with cereal cookers--no one bothers with this.  They are purely utilitarian and generic.  (Though the use of hopbacks or other add-ons to infuse beer with hops are becoming common enough that they might stand as an American thing.) 

One of the biggest surprises in traveling around the world was learning that European breweries had a very strong sense of what "American beer" was.  When they called a beer American, they meant these things.  We do make hellesbiers and tripels, but when people say American beer, they mean caramelly, hoppy, muscular ales. And around the world, they do talk about American ales quite a lot--at least in brewhouses from London to Kelheim to Prague, they do.