IPAs to Pilsners: The best beer of every type

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March 25, 2021

Alexey Andr Tkachenko // Shutterstock

IPAs to Pilsners: The best beer of every type

In 1956, archaeologists working in northern Israel’s Raqefet Cave—once home to the Natufian people (13,050–7,550 B.C.)—stumbled upon an astonishing discovery: 13,000-year-old fermented gruel. Archaeologists had found prehistoric evidence of beer before in the remnants of ancient brewing that have surfaced in China, Mesopotamia, and North Africa. But this was the oldest—and it was the oldest to a great extent. The beer residue—a thin gruel-type beer—found in Raqefet Cave precedes other archaeological evidence by at least 5,000 years.

For as long as humans have farmed cereals like wheat, barley, and rice, humans have fermented at least some of it into beer. The Mesopotamians produced beer from bread and documented its ritual consumption on stone tablets. Ancient Egyptians, who recorded the world’s first beer recipe on papyrus scrolls, drank it during religious ceremonies. The Nubian culture in the central Nile River Valley used beer as an antibiotic. In 2,100 B.C., Babylonian King Hammurabi enshrined regulations for tavern keepers and brewers in his famous Code of Hammurabi. Beer became so inextricably linked to the ancient grain-growing civilizations of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa that the Greek writer Sophocles (450 B.C.) considered beer, alongside vegetables, meat, and bread, to be a vital component of a healthy diet. (In an era when the average Greek lived about 35 years, Sophocles, it should be noted, lived to the ripe age of 90.)

Fast forward many centuries and beer production is now an exacting science comprising complex flavor profiles, exotic additives, carefully measured formulas, and humongous sterilized stainless-steel vats. Gone is the thick, syrupy brew favored by Germanic tribes and disdained by Ancient Romans. Instead, breweries nowadays turn out flavorful, easy-drinking beers. Long evolved from the Natufians’ fermented gruel, modern beer satisfies a range of tastes for a global market.

Beer styles are distinguished by three key factors: color (pale to dark), hoppy bitterness (0 to 100 International Bitterness Units, or IBU), and alcohol content (3% to 20% alcohol by volume). From classic to cultured bacteria, Stacker identified 35 different styles and used BeerAdvocate’s sweeping database of craft brews to determine the best individual beers among them. The ratings and rankings are accurate as of March 2021.

From Canada to Belgium, read on to find the best beers of every style, then go out and make old Sophocles proud.

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Bernardo Couto // Shutterstock

Russian imperial stout

– Beer: Marshmallow Handjee
– Brewery: 3 Floyds Brewing Co. (Indiana)
– ABV: 15%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.81

Higher in alcohol than its American and British counterparts, the complex and bold Russian imperial stout was first brewed in England for Peter the Great during a sojourn in the Isles. The curiously named, barrel-aged with vanilla beans, 15% ABV Marshmallow Handjee is a love-it-or-hate-it beer with many reviewers claiming that it’s overwrought, which is kind of a hallmark of Russian imperial stouts.

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AdamChandler86 // Flickr

New England IPA

– Beer: Heady Topper
– Brewery: The Alchemist (Vermont)
– ABV: 8%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.76

The style that put American craft brewing on the map, hoppy with a hint of citrus coupled with a hazy-golden hue, high IBU, and medium-high ABV defines a true New England IPA. British colonialists fortified their ales with extra hops for the long trip to India, and thus India pale ale was born. American brewers said, “Hold my beer,” and went out and doubled or tripled the number of hops used in a standard IPA. Enter the New England IPA. The 8% ABV Heady Topper from Vermont’s Alchemist is a double-hopped masterpiece exuding notes of grapefruit and pine.

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Brandon Burke // Flickr

Imperial IPA

– Beer: Pliny The Younger
– Brewery: Russian River Brewing Company (California)
– ABV: 10.3%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.75

On the high end of both the IBU and ABV scales, imperial IPAs appear reddish to yellowish and are the strongest, hoppiest version of an IPA. Pliny the Younger, from Northern California’s Russian River Brewing, sits at 10.25% ABV and elicits much love from reviewers who report “flavors of pine, resin, citrus, herbal and earthy” and an overall experience that was “so smooth and so intense.”

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Alexey Pevnev // Shutterstock

Lambic

– Beer: Zenne Y Frontera
– Brewery: Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen (Belgium)
– ABV: 7%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.74

A traditional lambic, born in Belgium, is reddish-gold in appearance and mildly bitter with medium ABV. The 7% ABV Zenne y Frontera is meant to blur the lines between wine and beer—it’s aged for 12 months in 40-year-old oak casks and is the result of a collaboration between a brewmaster and sommelier. Reviewers have responded in kind with references to it being “the best lambic” and “my favorite beer…ever.”

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Bashutskyy // Shutterstock

American wild ale

– Beer: Westly
– Brewery: Sante Adairius Rustic Ales (California)
– ABV: 8.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.69

Wild, naturally occurring yeasts introduced through inoculated oak barrels or sour mash give this rustic beer its name, which is medium-high in ABV and medium-low in IBU. The environmental yeast should lend an earthy, “farmhouse” taste. Flavor profiles vary dramatically and are often complex, exemplified by the 8.5% ABV Westly from the Sante Adairius Rustic Ales brewery in Santa Cruz, California, which pushes apricots during a super-long barrel-aging process.

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AdamChandler86 // Flickr

Saison

– Beer: Ann
– Brewery: Hill Farmstead Brewery (Vermont)
– ABV: 6.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.68

Traditionally a summer treat brewed in simple Belgian farmhouses, the golden-hued and medium-low in bitterness Belgian Saison is brewed year-round now. ABV varies greatly among Saisons, but the wine-barrel-aged Ann from Hill Farmstead Brewery packs a punch at 6.5%, which has reviewers praising it as “super flavorful” and “exceptional.”

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Steven Guzzardi // Flickr

English barleywine

– Beer: Aaron
– Brewery: Hill Farmstead Brewery (Vermont)
– ABV: 9%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.63

Barley wines don’t mess around: These copper-red sipping beers reach double digits on the ABV scale, hit medium-high in bitterness, and are often barrel-aged like their grape-based namesake. However, Aaron from Hill Farmstead Brewery is low in ABV at 9% and is bottle-aged, but reviewers love its “flavors of caramel, brown sugar, dates, raisins, butterscotch” and applaud the “complex and smooth” experience.

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Scott Maurer

American pale ale

– Beer: Zombie Dust
– Brewery: 3 Floyds Brewing Co. (Indiana)
– ABV: 6.2%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.62

Golden-red in appearance, a classic American pale ale offers hints of citrus and pine with medium bitterness and a low ABV. Zombie Dust ignores tradition (some reviewers claim this should be classified as an IPA) by going big on ABV at 6.2% and intensely hoppy like its British cousin, better known as an extra-special bitter or ESB.

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siamionau pavel // Shutterstock

Milk stout

– Beer: Moment Of Clarity
– Brewery: Tree House Brewing Company (Massachusetts)
– ABV: 7.7%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.55

Once on the verge of extinction, the creamy and sweet milk stout originated in 19th-century England when blue-collar workers added whole milk to their lunchtime stout porters. Milk stouts trend toward the medium-high end of the ABV scale and Tree House Brewing’s Moment of Clarity is no exception at 7.7%. Reviewers cite its “perfectly balanced chocolate, coffee, & maple” flavors and a “beautiful pour… inky black and oily with 1.5 fingers of brownish head.”

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edwin // Flickr

Oatmeal stout

– Beer: Breakfast Stout
– Brewery: Founders Brewing Company (Michigan)
– ABV: 8.3%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.55

First brewed in the mid-1800s, oatmeal stouts were once believed to be a remedy for sickness and were often prescribed to nursing mothers and sick children on account of their “healthy” properties. While there is a degree of truth to the fact that the addition of oats does make these beers slightly healthier, we still wouldn’t recommend them to those suffering from a stomach bug. Founders Brewing Company’s Breakfast Stout, brewed with oats, two types of coffee, and bitter chocolate, is described as “the coffee lovers consummate beer” with a cinnamon-colored head.

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AdamChandler86 // Flickr

German pilsner

– Beer: Poetica #2
– Brewery: Hill Farmstead Brewery (Vermont)
– ABV: 4.9%
– Beer Advocate score: 96
– User score: 4.54

German pilsners might just be the most iconic beer style in modern history. Brought to America in the mid-1800s by German immigrants, this style of beer—light in color with a malty-sweetness and mid-level bitterness—has been wildly popular ever since. Poetica #2 is a brilliant take on the style, brewed in an oak barrel for five months, before emerging “beautiful, soft, and refined.”

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sfcaconcierge // Flickr

Berliner Weisse

– Beer: DFPF
– Brewery: J. Wakefield Brewing (Florida)
– ABV: 3.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.53

Growing in popularity in America, Berliner-style Weisse are refreshing, tart, and fruit-forward. Typically lower in the ABV scale, they are often made with no hops, which eliminates much of the bitterness found in other types of beer and makes them much easier to pair. The DFPF from J. Wakefield Brewing is made with dragon fruit and passion fruit, resulting in a fruity, sour, tart drink whose carbonation makes it easy to finish.

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Nejron Photo // Shutterstock

American porter

– Beer: Everett Porter
– Brewery: Hill Farmstead Brewery (Vermont)
– ABV: 7.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 100
– User score: 4.51

As dark as a black hole in space, the distinctly American porter eschews the roasted hops and barley of its European brethren, is medium in IBUs, and very high on the ABV scale. Hill Farmstead Brewery, never one to play by the rules, stretches the definition of an American porter by mixing roasted German malts with American barley and hops. At 7.5%, it’s also on the low-end of ABV for an American porter.

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Shane N. Cotee // Shutterstock

Black ale

– Beer: Barrel-Aged Double Shot Double Black
– Brewery: Bent Paddle Brewing Co. (Minnesota)
– ABV: 11.2%
– Beer Advocate score: 98
– User score: 4.48

Almost as dark as an American porter, black ales have high IBUs, medium alcohol content, and are characterized by dark-roasted malt and caramel flavors. True to form, the Double Shot Double Black from Bent Paddle is inky black with hints of vanilla and coffee, but bucks tradition with 15 months of aging in bourbon barrels that produces a robust 11.2% ABV.

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Fellowship of the Rich // Flickr

Flanders red ale

– Beer: Rodenbach Caractère Rouge
– Brewery: Brouwerij Rodenbach N.V. (Belgium)
– ABV: 7%
– Beer Advocate score: 99
– User score: 4.48

A beer that wants to be a wine, complexity is what a Flanders red ale strives for. Oak barrel-aged with fruit, the specialty yeast strains produce distinctive sharp, fruity, sour, and tart flavors in this medium-high ABV and medium-low IBU beer. From the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium, the 7% ABV Rodenbach is aged for two-and-a-half years and exudes tradition as well as notes of wood and caramel.

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Four Brewers // Flickr

American IPA

– Beer: Nelson
– Brewery: Alpine Beer Company (California)
– ABV: 7%
– Beer Advocate score: 98
– User score: 4.45

A relative newcomer to the craft beer scene, American IPAs are a take on British IPAs that feature more citrusy and fruity notes. Alpine Beer Company’s Nelson is a perfectly golden iteration, laced with tropical, pine, and fruity aromas, and finished with a crisp, white foam. Described as “well-balanced,” “multifaceted,” and “mellow” the beer pairs well with spicy foods.

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Kirill Z // Shutterstock

Hefeweizen

– Beer: Hefeweissbier
– Brewery: Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan (Germany)
– ABV: 5.4%
– Beer Advocate score: 98
– User score: 4.45

German Hefeweizens are crafted through a unique mix of wheat malt, yeast, fruit, and spices. Different in both taste and appearance from other German offerings, these beers are amber in color, with fruity (typically banana) and spicy (typically clove) aromas rounded out with lots of carbonation. Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world, makes a classic version of the beer that drinks incredibly smoothly.

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Dmitry Egorov // Shutterstock

Cream Ale

– Beer: Cafe Y Churro
– Brewery: Carton Brewing Company (New Jersey)
– ABV: 12%
– Beer Advocate score: 97
– User score: 4.43

Bright yellow, mildly bitter, and low in ABV, cream ales are extremely drinkable beers that can use ale or lager yeasts. Cafe y Churro looks like a traditional cream ale but upends the conventional formula with a robust 12% ABV and notes of coffee, vanilla, and cream.

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Roger // Flickr

Oktoberfest

– Beer: Augustiner Bräu Märzen Bier
– Brewery: Augustiner Bräu – Kloster Mülln (Austria)
– ABV: 4.6%
– Beer Advocate score: 94
– User score: 4.43

Oktoberfest beers have historically been brewed in the spring and aged throughout the summer, then broken out in early fall (right around the time of the current Oktoberfest festival) for drinking. Rich in malt, with a toasted bread aroma, and a clean finish, these beers are often found to be quite similar to Vienna lagers. Lovers of the Augustiner Bräu Märzen Bier say that there’s no better experience than enjoying a freshly poured draft at the brewery’s Salzburg beer garden.

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Brent MacAloney // Flickr

Fruit and Field Beer

– Beer: Wisconsin Belgian Red
– Brewery: New Glarus Brewing Company (Wisconsin)
– ABV: 4%
– Beer Advocate score: 98
– User score: 4.42

Fruit and field beers are brewed with fruit. But brewmasters also use herbs and vegetables, thus the “and field” portion of the name. Varying greatly in color and ABV, they’re typically medium-low to low in IBUs. The Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus is brewed from Wisconsin-grown Montmorency cherries, looks ruby red, tastes like cherry pie, and hits 4% ABV. New Glarus only sells its beers in Wisconsin, so you’ll have to visit or get a friend to ship it to you if you live out of state.

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Tiny House Brewing & Farmstead // Flickr

Biere de Garde

– Beer: Biere De Norma
– Brewery: Hill Farmstead Brewery (Vermont)
– ABV: 7%
– Beer Advocate score: 97
– User score: 4.41

Literally translated as “beer for keeping,” a French Biere de Garde comes in blond, amber, and brown versions, and trends toward medium-low on ABV and IBU scales. Oak-barrel-fermented, Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Biere de Norma contains 7% ABV and has a unique tart taste owing to its secretive in-house culture.

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Master1305 // Shutterstock

Brett

– Beer: Nightmare On Brett
– Brewery: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Colorado)
– ABV: 9.7%
– Beer Advocate score: 96
– User score: 4.38

Named after Brettanomyces yeast that lends it a leathery, phenolic, and acidic character, Brett beers are all over the place on the ABV, color, and IBU scales. They are often mistaken for sours. The Nightmare on Brett is super dark in color, sits at 7.7% ABV, and has prompted reviewers to note it’s “a real bourbon treat on the nose” and “very memorable.”

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Thomas Cizauskas // Flickr

Doppelbock

– Beer: Ayinger Celebrator
– Brewery: Ayinger Privatbrauerei (Germany)
– ABV: 6.7%
– Beer Advocate score: 97
– User score: 4.37

High in ABV and dark in color, Doppelbocks are a stronger version of German bock beers. First brewed by monks in Munich, the beers are malty and hearty, typically with fruit flavors, like prune or raisin, offering up a hint of sweetness. Ayinger Privatbrauerei’s Celebrator is almost black, with festive foam, notes of coffee, and very little of the sweetness typically found in the style.

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eddie welker // Flickr

Tripel

– Beer: La Fin Du Monde
– Brewery: Unibroue (Quebec)
– ABV: 9%
– Beer Advocate score: 97
– User score: 4.36

First brewed by Trappist monks, a Belgian tripel balances smooth flavor and a golden-to-amber hue with high ABV and medium-low IBU. Quebec-based Unibroue pays homage to this history with its 9% ABV La Fin du Monde (“The End of the World”), a hazy golden tripel cultured with an ancient European yeast.

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Lauren Cunningham // Flickr

Rye Beer

– Beer: Rye On Rye On Rye
– Brewery: Boulevard Brewing Co. (Missouri)
– ABV: 14%
– Beer Advocate score: 95
– User score: 4.34

Varying greatly in color and ABV, ryes typically fall on the medium-low end of the bitterness spectrum and appear darker and redder the more rye is used. To be considered a rye beer, enough of the namesake ingredient must be evident in the appearance and taste. Boulevard Brewing’s Rye On Rye On Rye is aged twice in rye-whiskey barrels and promises considerable impairment at 14% ABV.

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Texas.713 // Flickr

Pumpkin Beer

– Beer: Pumpkinator
– Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Company (Texas)
– ABV: 10%
– Beer Advocate score: 95
– User score: 4.32

Somewhere in Munich, monks are rolling in their graves at the thought of pumpkin-spiced beer, yet here we are. Like other infused beers, characteristics of pumpkin drafts vary depending on the base beer used, usually an ale. This beer is best enjoyed in fall and paired with wild game, and many American craft brewers offer a take on pumpkin beers. The 10% ABV Pumpkinator from Saint Arnold Brewing won a gold medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, making it one of North America’s best.

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Jeremy Keith // Flickr

Smoke Beer

– Beer: Bar Fly
– Brewery: Midnight Sun Brewing Co. (Alaska)
– ABV: 11.6%
– Beer Advocate score: 95
– User score: 4.30

Any style of beer, from a lager to an ale, can be smoked—as the name simply refers to the process of smoking the malt over beechwood or cherrywood, which then infuses the finished product with a distinctive flavor. Midnight Sun Brewing Co.’s smoked beer, Bar Fly, is an imperial stout that combines the malt with molasses and brown sugar, resulting in a “somber and smoky” drink that has a slow-building flavor profile and a smooth finish.

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Juan Monroy // Flickr

Blonde ale

– Beer: Eureka W/ Citra
– Brewery: Tree House Brewing Company (Massachusetts)
– ABV: 4.1%
– Beer Advocate score: 95
– User score: 4.28

On the low end of the international-bitterness-units (IBU) and alcohol-by-volume (ABV) scale, a blonde ale is light and drinkable, golden in appearance, and pairs well with a sunny summer day. The Eureka w/ Citra, from Massachusetts-based Tree House Brewing, adds a citrus twist to the mix, earning accolades from reviewers who call it “refreshing” with a “mild tropical fruit nose.”

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Bogac Erkan // Shutterstock

Kolsch

– Beer: Sprang
– Brewery: Trillium Brewing Company (Massachusetts)
– ABV: 4.9%
– Beer Advocate score: 94
– User score: 4.27

Invented in Cologne, Germany as an easy-drinking springtime beer, Kolsch comes in a golden-straw color, reaches medium-low on the IBU and ABV spectrums, and straddles the divide between lagers and ales. Trillium Brewing’s Sprang hews closely to this heritage with a low ABV of 4.9%, minimal bitterness, and a refreshing and fruity character. But a lower fermentation temperature leaves a hazy appearance, a unique quality in the world of ordinarily crisp and clear Kolsch beers.

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uncene // Flickr

Scottish Ale

– Beer: Dark Island Reserve
– Brewery: Orkney Brewery (Scotland)
– ABV: 10%
– Beer Advocate score: 91
– User score: 4.16

Scottish ales are all about the malt flavor in the expense of hops, which breeds a crisp-red color and low IBU and ABV scores. Scotland’s Orkney Brewery, however, flips the script on the tradition with the Dark Island Reserve, an oily-black and 10% ABV that reviewers note is “like drinking scotch. Dark fruits and wood. Malt sweetness.”

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rubixcuben // flickr

Chile Beer

– Beer: Fatali Four
– Brewery: Upright Brewing Company (Oregon)
– ABV: 4.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 91
– User score: 4.15

A North American invention, chile beers are pale ales or lagers with precisely what they promise—a noticeable dose of chile peppers. Color, IBU, and ABV depend on the base beer, but most chile beers incorporate jalapeno peppers (or their juice or oils). The 4.5% ABV Fatali Four, courtesy of Oregon’s Upright Brewing, hurdles its jalapeno-using competitors by adding African Fatali peppers two months before bottling.

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DJ Waldow // Flickr

English brown ale

– Beer: Cubano-Style Espresso Brown Ale
– Brewery: Cigar City Brewing (Florida)
– ABV: 5.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 92
– User score: 4.13

An iconic style, English brown ales should be toasty and robust, reddish in color, and medium-low on the IBU and ABV scales. Another Cigar City favorite, the 5.5% Espresso Brown Ale meets these requirements, but with its addition of Cuban-style espresso beans almost pushes this beer into the realm of stouts. Almost.

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Jazz Guy // Flickr

California Common

– Beer: East Coast Common Lager
– Brewery: Smuttynose Brewing Company (New Hampshire)
– ABV: 7.4%
– Beer Advocate score: 90
– User score: 4.08

Brewed with lager yeast but fermented like an ale, the California Common is a pale orange-brown, hits right in the middle of the ABV and IBU scales, and was pioneered by San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Brewing. The East Coast Common pays tribute to its American heritage until right after the fermentation process when Smuttynose brewmasters shock the batch with dry hops.

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Alexey Andr Tkachenko // Shutterstock

American lager

– Beer: First Call
– Brewery: Modist Brewing Co. (Minnesota)
– ABV: 6.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 89
– User score: 4.07

It wasn’t until WWII, when brewers replaced rationed grain with rice, that America crafted a lager to call its own. Typically lower in ABV and bitterness, the style’s primary focus is less on bringing together complex flavors and more on creating straw-colored, drinkable brew. Modist Brewing Co.’s take on an American lager has a strong coffee punch layered with sweet notes and a scant amount of carbonation.

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Alexander Prokopenko // Shutterstock

Irish red ale

– Beer: Brian Boru
– Brewery: 3 Floyds Brewing Co. (Indiana)
– ABV: 6.5%
– Beer Advocate score: 91
– User score: 4.06

Many reviewers note that 3 Floyds Brewing Co.’s Brian Boru, an Irish red ale, is more hoppy than other brands of the style. Still, they overwhelmingly rate the beer highly, thanks to its color, fruity aroma, and approachability, which are standards in this style of craft beer.

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