A flagship beer is a brewery’s standout brand. It might be the bestselling beer. Or it might be the beer with which the brewery is most closely identified. It is always a beer in the year-round lineup.
The flagship brands of America’s older craft breweries are foundational beers. They are the beers that built the movement. For many craft beer drinkers, they served as epiphany beers — beers that open minds and palates to new realms of possibility. Flagships have kicked off many a craft-beer journey.
In today’s beer scene, though, flagships are in jeopardy. Increasingly fickle drinkers are forever on the hunt for the next new thing. To stay relevant, brewers comply — cranking out batch after batch of limited-release and one-off brands. Rarity correlates strongly with popularity. Bars and beer stores compound the problem by offering the latest flavor fads at the expense of the standards. It’s a natural business response to consumer demand.
In this environment the tried-and-true brands seem passe. With so many bright and shiny distractions, the flagships are easily overlooked.
But these beers are as good today as the day they were released. Time and the market’s insistent push toward extremity have not diminished the flagship’s core quality. With most of these beers, it’s worth the effort to cut through the noise and give them another look.
Here’s a rundown of a few of the flagships that shaped my journey through beer and to which I often return.
Walk into any bar or restaurant almost anywhere in Minnesota, and you’re likely to find Summit Extra Pale Ale. It’s a beer that’s so ubiquitous it almost fades seamlessly into the landscape — always there, but easy to overlook. It’s just “Summit.”
At tasting events, I like to pour Extra Pale Ale blind. When made to pay attention, drinkers rediscover the greatness of this national and international award-winning beer. Bitterness is the driver of this English-style pale ale, but it’s neither overly intense nor harshly lingering. Herbal and earthy hop flavors carry through from the start to the finish. All of that sits on a bed of biscuit and toffee malt with a light, balancing sweetness. Low orange marmalade-like fruitiness rounds out the whole experience.
Bell’s Two Hearted Ale was a game-changer for me. The first time I tasted it, the intense hop flavor made me feel as if someone had squeezed a grapefruit into my glass. This is a classic — perhaps the classic — American IPA that isn’t cloudy, brut, milkshake or infused with fruit. It’s straightforward and delicious.
That grapefruit and pine character of American hops are the main event in both the aroma and flavor. It almost drips grapefruit juice. Bitterness is appropriately assertive, but balanced by a fairly sturdy malt sweetness. Light caramel flavors offer a nice complement to the hop fruitiness. Give Two Hearted another try and remind yourself what a great IPA is supposed to taste like.
Back when I first started drinking beer — before craft beer was a thing — there was Pilsner Urquell. It was similar to the pale lagers available to us then, and yet not like them at all. It had body. It had flavor. It quickly became my favorite beer. I remember declaring it the “best beer in the world.” It might not be the best. Is there such a thing? But it certainly ranks among the best.
First brewed in 1842, Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner-style beer. It is the beer that changed the world. Every golden lager brewed today is descended from it.
Take the time to look at it first. Deep gold, crystal clear and capped with a head of fluffy, white foam, there is almost nothing as lovely as a pilsner in a glass. The perfumed aroma of Saaz hops is the next thing to notice as you raise the glass to your lips. The flavor is a perfect blend of floral hop and grainy malt sweetness. Bitterness comes in as you swallow. The crisp, dry finish leaves you craving another sip.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is arguably the beer that launched the craft beer movement. First brewed in 1980 it is the original and still classic example of the American pale ale style. It introduced the world to the tastes and aromas of Cascade hops, which became the signature of American craft beer. Its assertively hoppy profile was a revelation to many drinkers. Nearly 40 years later, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is as good as it was the day it was released.
On the tongue, Sierra Nevada starts with a quick flash of toffee-like malt. But hops are the centerpiece. A crisp, clean bitterness cuts the sweetness, leaving room for the distinctive floral and citrus flavors of Cascade hops. The finish is crisp and dry with lingering bitterness and a subtle return of toffee.
If you haven’t had this beer in a while, it’s definitely worth another taste. Check the brewed-on date printed on the bottles. Fresh examples can be hard to find. After a couple of months on the shelf, it loses much of its luster.
In 1965, the Anchor Brewing Co. — maker of Anchor Steam Beer — was about to close its doors after 70 years in business. The last brewer of the distinctively American California common style, Anchor had only $128 in the bank. But Fritz Maytag of the Maytag appliance family bought a controlling stake in the failing company and spent the next 10 years turning it around. In doing so, he not only saved the brewery and the beer style, but he unwittingly created America’s first craft beer.
I was still drinking light lagers when Anchor Steam first rolled into town. After one taste, I never looked back. Aggressive bitterness up front is followed by a wave of woody/earthy hop flavor. The bitterness lingers into the finish, accompanied by a bread and toast maltiness. The finish is very dry and enhanced by a light astringency that grabs the sides of the tongue.
In 1980, at the encouragement of its American importer Merchant du Vin, Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery first made Oatmeal Stout, single-handedly reviving a style that had not been brewed since before World War II. The beer caught on in the United States, where it inspired a generation of up-and-coming brewers to make their own versions. Oatmeal stout is now a staple of American craft beer.
There really is something special about Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout. It infuses the tongue with layers of caramel, coffee and doughy oats. As it warms, waves of silky cocoa enter the mix. The addition of oats to the brew give it a smooth, luxurious mouthfeel. Initial sweetness on the tip of the tongue gives way to drying roast in the finish with lingering notes of licorice.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.