The third annual All-American Pre-Fourth of July Microbrewery Taste-Off was serenaded this year by cicadas and cooled by a floor fan set up on my deck. (Air conditioning is not allowed under AAPFJMTO rules.) Microbrewery is the unofficial designation for small breweries that make good beer by traditional methods, without additives, preservatives or injected carbon dioxide. Microbreweries -- which typically produce only about 25,000 barrels annually -- may seem like small beer to you, but they are an important part of our imbibing past, and future. And, if you like the taste of beer, it can now be said that there is nothing better than a full-bodied, hoppy, constitutionally fit all-American microbrew.

As a rule, microbrewery beer is considerably more expensive than the mass-produced sort and infinitely better. Usually it requires a different approach, being more alcoholic and more flavorful than the common mouthwash; it will indeed slake a summer thirst, but shouldn't be drunk like ice water.

There are now more than 50 microbreweries in the United States, and they all make good beer. Some microbreweries are bigger than others, of course, and a few enjoy wide distribution within their areas of the country. A couple of beers in this year's tasting came from breweries too big to really be considered micro, but the product was good enough to qualify.

I lumped the beers in loose categories -- ambers, lighter lagers and pilsners, ales, dark beers and the more concentrated, alcoholic brews known as barley wines -- and included a few that have done well in past tastings. The seven-member tasting panel was split between those who prefer a lighter style (not lite!) beer and those who like a little heft with their hops.

One of the pleasant surprises of this year's tasting was the strong showing of a local entry, Olde Heurich Amber Lager, once popular in the nation's capital and recently resurrected by a member of the Heurich family. It is brewed in Pittsburgh under special arrangement, but the company hopes to someday move lock, stock and wort to Washington, D.C.

Other amber-style beers -- lagers with full color and body -- were Snake River Amber Lager, Snake River Brewing Co., Caldwell, Idaho; St. Stans Alt Amber, Stanislaus Brewing Co., Modesto, Calif.; and Anchor Steam Beer, Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco. I included the last of these in the amber category because of its color and body, although it really belongs in a class by itself.

The lagers and pilsners -- lighter, brighter beers with less malt -- were Christian Moerlein, Hudepohl Brewing Co., Cincinnati; Henry Weinhard's, Blitz-Weinhard Co., Portland, Ore.; Kessler Lorelei Extra Pale, Montana Breweries, Helena, Mont.; Pennsylvania Pilsner, Pennsylvania Brewing Co., Philadelphia; and Old Heidelberg, by the G. Heileman Brewing Co., La Crosse, Wis.

The ales were Pyramid Pale Ale and Pacific Crest Ale -- both made by the Hart Brewing Co., Kalama, Wash. -- and Du

Bru

Ale, by the Saxton Brewery, Chico, Calif. Contestants in the dark beer category were Kessler Bock; Sprecher Winter Brew, by Sprecher Brewing Co., Milwaukee; and Special Export Dark, made by Heileman.

There were only two entries among the barley wines: Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, and Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, made by Anchor.

Olde Heurich, which had good color and body and went down very smoothly, won in the amber category -- although far from unanimously. I preferred Anchor Steam's hoppiness and clean finish. I was also intrigued by the nutty flavor of Snake River, and by the fruitiness of the St. Stans, a fine beer that comes in a liter bottle with a ceramic stopper.

The lagers that ranked the highest were Kessler and Pennsylvania Pilsner. The Kessler was clean and very well made, with a floral finish (would you believe dandelion). The Pennsylvania Pilsner had good flavor and a nice taste of hops on the finish.

There was more variation in the ales than in any other category. Ale ferments on the top of the tank and is usually more full-bodied and flavorful than pilsner or lager beer. Pyramid and Pacific Crest both rated quite high, Pyramid having more body and a refreshing, slightly bitter finish. The Du

Bru

Ale seemed more complex, lighter but very flavorful -- perfect to drink with food.

Among the dark beers, the Kessler Bock did not have the overriding sweetness often found in this category and was well received. The Sprecher, from a liter bottle only, had loads of body and flavor, and a surprisingly short finish.

Finally, the barley wines slugged it out over our collapsed taste buds, with Bigfoot Ale beating Old Foghorn by virtue of greater delicacy, if one can use such a word to describe these big, bitter, powerful microbrews. If there was ever a beer to have when you're having only one, it's Bigfoot. ::