American microbreweries continue to produce great beer. Last year, we tasted a baker's dozen in honor of the Fourth. With that tasting we thought we had exhausted the supply of top quality America beer, but this year I found another dozen to work on, all with salubrious opportunities for the patriotic.
Those sampled by four like-minded beer-drinkers were Straub "all grain" beer from St. Mary's, Pa.; Chesbay lager, Virginia Beach, Va.; Riley's Red Lyon, described as "an English-style beer" -- meaning ale -- from Little Rock, Ark.; Shiner lager and bock from Shiner, Tex.; Christian Morlein lager, Cincinnati; Little Kings cream ale, Cincinnati; Old Chico from Sierra Nevada in Chico, Calif.; Augsburger bock, Monroe, Wis.; and four brews from the Thousand Oaks microbrewery in Berkeley, Calif. -- two lagers, Thousand Oaks and Cable Car, and two malt liquors, Golden Gate and Golden Bear.
Lager is "bottom fermented" beer; the action takes place at the bottom of the vat. In ale, the yeast rises to the top of the brew; ale usually is heavier, with more texture and bitter taste and a cloudiness in the glass. Most popular American beer is lager. The complexity of these new lagers and ales is varied and quite wonderful. Most of them cost more than $1 a bottle; the California entries go as high as $1.30 a bottle, serious prices for beer.
The overall winner was Old Chico, full and yeasty and very good, labeled "beer" but ale to us Americians. It was followed closely by Cable Car, with a clean, fragrant intensity, and Thousand Oaks, a unique hoppy lager. California seems to be making the most interesting and complex beers nowadays. The malt liquor made by Thousand Oaks (malt liquor legally is any beer over 4 percent alcohol, and is a richer, maltier brew), Golden Gate and Golden Bear had a fruity quality rare in beer and a long, mellow finish. Thousand Oaks, a tiny, three-year-old family-run microbrewery, has already established a niche for its beers.
All these California beers are "bottle conditioned" -- their development takes place after bottling. For that reason they shouldn't be swigged straight from the bottle. Pour most of the contents into a glass in a continuous motion, just as you would decant a bottle of wine, and leave the yeasty residue behind. If the bottle has been shaken recently, leave it for a few hours before opening.
A pleasant surprise was the Riley's Red Lyon, darkish in color, with a nutty taste and a long, smooth finish, a very good beer from the heartland. The Chesbay was also good, darker and nuttier but somewhat thinner -- a good beer for a hot afternoon. Likewise the Straub, medium gold in color, with a clean, hoppy taste, under $1 and variously described as the beer for opening day of baseball season and "the Bruce Springsteen of beers."
Two tasters ranked the Augsburger bock -- dark and sweetish, also under $1 -- among their four favorite beers. (Bock beer, a heavier version originally brewed in the spring, no longer has any seasonal distinction, and varies according to the brewer.) Little Kings cream ale was blown away by the competition. The Christian Morlein was pleasant but innocuous. The Shiner beers, distinct and with a fishy taste, finished at the bottom.
All the entries can be bought at Berose Liquors.