A while back the BBC posted a feature titled “50 things to eat before you die” and I thought at the time that this would make a good topic for beer. So in the spirit of adventure and living life to the fullest, etc. etc., I’m coming up with the 50 beers to drink before you die, in ten weekly installments listing five beers each (in no particular order, other than whatever theme I fit them into).
Naturally, this is an entirely subjective list and while I’ll try to be representative, it will certainly not be comprehensive of the world’s fine beer offerings. I’m sure everyone will have plenty of opinions as to what beers they would pick for this list—so maybe I’ll do a “reader’s choice” version when I’m all done with my own.
Here are this week’s first five; the theme for this group could be American West Coast:
Back in 1965 Fritz Maytag bought the failing Steam Beer Brewing Company in San Francisco and revived the flagship Anchor Steam Beer in 1971. The style—California Common as it’s, er, commonly called (because “Steam Beer” is actually trademarked)—is a unique American style of lager, dating back to the late 1800s when ice was largely unavailable to cool the beer down to lager-required fermentation temperatures.
What does this have to do with “steam”? According to Wikipedia,
the name “steam” came from the fact that the brewery had no way to effectively chill the boiling wort using traditional means. So they pumped the hot wort up to large, shallow, open-top bins on the roof of the brewery so that it would be rapidly chilled by the cool air blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. Thus while brewing, the brewery had a distinct cloud of steam around the roof let off by the wort as it cooled, hence the name.
Anchor Steam is not only one of the earliest craft beers to be revived in America after Prohibition, thus helping the growth of the U.S. microbrewery movement, but is also one of the only California Common beers being produced commercially today. It’s also a pretty damn fine beer.
BeerAdvocate score: 85/100, 97% approval.
No surprise here… if you read my review of Widmer’s flagship beer a little while back, you know I have a high opinion of it. I wrote:
Here’s the key thing about Widmer’s version that they’re missing, though: Widmer re-invented the style into what I like to think of as an “American hefeweizen,” or even a “Northwest hefeweizen.” And that made it accessible to the general beer-swilling masses; I like to think of Hefe as a “gateway” beer; people who have never tried craft beer and/or are intimidated by it are often introduced (in my experience, anyway) to Hefeweizen and they find it good.
Widmer Hefeweizen is kind of an iconic beer in the American craft beer industry, and while it may not be as flashy and extreme as the trend in brewing seems to be leaning these days, you can’t go wrong with a six pack or pitcher of this anytime. Lemon optional.
BeerAdvocate score: 78/100, 66% approval.
I once read a review of Shakespeare Stout that opined that it is the best American stout being brewed today. I believe it. Among its accolades, according to Rogue:
Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout received a 99, the highest score of the 309 beers in 44 categories at the 1994 World Beer Championships. The June/July 1998 issue of Men’s Journal included Rogue Ales Shakespeare Stout as one of “The 100 Best Things to Eat in America.” Based on Stuart Kallen’s book, “The 50 Best Beers in the World”, Shakespeare Stout was ranked the third best beer in the world and best American Beer—which makes it the World’s Best Stout!
This is a classic stout, malty, dark, smooth, creamy, rich, chocolaty, sweet and bitter. It’s also a benchmark all stouts (American and otherwise) should strive for.
BeerAdvocate score: 91/100, 99% approval.
Many people might point to Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale to be on this list, but I think their Bigfoot barleywine is a classic that speaks for itself. Michael Jackson in his 1998 Ultimate Beer notes of this beer that it’s “probably the world’s hoppiest barley wine, especially in its bouquet.”
It’s also a huge award winner, like the Shakespeare Stout above. Among its accolades are four wins for barleywines and one for ales at the Great American Beer Festival. And the Sierra Nevada website has some helpful advice as to pairing Bigfoot with food:
Intense, malty, and bittersweet, Bigfoot is wonderful served with dessert. Aromatic notes from the dry-hopping process pair well with chocolate mousse and raspberries or a good-quality cheesecake. If you prefer a more savory taste, try an assortment of sharp aged cheeses, served with fresh fruits like apples, pears, and grapes, which will offer a contrast that will bring all of the flavors together.
BeerAdvocate score: 90/100, 98% approval.
First introduced in 1988, Alaskan Brewing helped re-introduce smoked beer to the American consciousness. This is a vintaged beer (the year is on the label) and it ages well. From Alaskan Brewing’s website:
Alaskan Brewing Company co-founders Geoff and Marcy Larson had their eyes on brewing a beer with roasted malts. Marcy’s research even found evidence of roasted malt use in Juneau during the town’s gold rush era.
Alaskan Smoked Porter has been brewed every fall since then and has remained just as elusive. It has gone on to become one of the most award winning beers in the history of the Great American Beer Festival with a total of eleven medals, including five straight gold (Smoked Beer Category – 1991 – 1995). It has also won awards at the World Beer Cup and the internationally acclaimed Brewing Industry International Awards in England.
The smoke flavor and character comes from the malt itself, which is smoked over alderwood at the fish smokery next door to the Alaskan brewery. This style of beer won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—but if you want to start with smoke beers, you won’t go wrong with Smoked Porter.
BeerAdvocate score: 91/100, 99% approval.