Where in the world would you find the most hoppily elegant golden lager? Prague... or Philadelphia? Once, I would have had no hesitation in suggesting the Czech Republic, for Pilsner Urquell. Today, although Pilsner Urquell is still a fine, complex, beer, it is markedly less characterful than it was a few years ago. Capitalism has brought competitive pressures to Eastern Europe to make beers more quickly and cheaply, and in a blander, more "Western" style.
Meanwhile, hip Americans are leaving watery-tasting, mass-market, beers to the backward baseball-hats, and turning to the flavoursome products of "micro" breweries. For a softly aromatic golden lager, I might just choose the Bohemian Pils produced at the Dock Street brewery and pub, haunt of Philadelphia's thirtysomethings.
What about one of those rich, malty, dark-brown lagers as made in Bavaria? I might try Munich's renowned Hofbrauhaus beer-hall, though it has toned-down its range in the last few years. I would feel surer of satisfaction with the creamy Doppelbock made at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland.
With its huge brewing tradition, and many wonderful beers, Germany has long suffered from smugness and isolation. While the Germans are justifiably proud to have 1,200 breweries, the number is being eroded as it was in other countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Many brewers have responded by ditching interesting specialities and lightening their mainstream beers, as other countries did in the 1970s.
Then there is Belgium. Can any spiced wheat beer match the orangey, coriander- ish Hoegaarden, from Belgium? Perhaps. Its creator, brewer Pierre Celis, now makes a similar beer, fuller in flavour, in Austin, Texas. The beer tradition in Belgium is in lively health, but even its diversity of products is challenged by the "micro" explosion in the US.
And what of India Pale Ale, the imperial glory of British brewing? The most characterful British IPAs are new ones, such as Fuller's and Usher's. Both have clearly been influenced by American examples ranging from Bengal IPA, made by the Tomcat brewery, of Raleigh, North Carolina; to Hophead, from the Jones Street brewpub, in Eugene, Oregon.
This week, I have been ensconced in a hotel in Colorado, tasting beer alongside about 70 of the most open-minded brewers from Germany, Belgium, Britain, the US and Japan. Our task was to award medals in 50 categories, from Light Lager to Scottish Ale. To do so, we had to sample more than 1,700 beers from 400-odd breweries, all American. The judging is part of the Great American Beer Festival, held each year in a huge exhibition hall in Denver.
The Denver crowd are notably young and prosperous, and include many women and a good many holidaying Brits - some spending a planned weekend en route to the great micro-brew regions of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. New World beers have sprouted among the wines, and are often made by the same people. In California, the Benziger family winery, of Glen Ellen, has just grubbed out some of its vines to plant hops and start its own "estate" brewery. The West Coast makes a fun trip for the eclectic drinker.
But if you cannot be in Denver or Glen Ellen this weekend, look out for Brooklyn Lager, in Tesco and speciality beer shops. This is one of the most flavoursome lagers available in Britain.
Brooklyn Lager has a bronze colour; a fine bead, a rocky head; and seems to maintain an astonishingly fresh, appetising, flowery, aroma. It has a powerful hop dryness against a firm, smooth, nutty, malt background.
The founder of the Brooklyn Brewery was Steve Hindy, a reporter who covered the Middle East for New York Newsday. When in "dry" countries, he home- brewed to ensure the newsman's traditional pint. After he was briefly kidnapped by terrorists, his wife pressed him to take a safer job. With help from a banker friend, Tom Potter, he started his beer business - initially hiring an upstate brewery during down-time. A small stake in the business is held by Milton Glaser, the dean of graphic design in America. Glaser created the label, making Brooklyn Lager the world's truest designer beer.
The company established its own brewery in a former matzo bakery in Brooklyn last year. Its products also include a clovey wheat beer, called Brooklyner Weisse; an intense East India Pale Ale; and a Chocolate Stout with the knockout punch of an alcoholic Horlicks.
At the opening of the new brewery, I found myself being served by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "Brooklyn used to be a great brewing town," he accurately observed. "Now we have our own beer again. Next, we'll get the Dodgers back from Los Angeles." Beer... the stuff of dreams.
Other US beers to look out for
Some Tescos and speciality beer stores have other American microbrews such as the amber-red toffeeish, fruity, Golden Gate Ale from the San Francisco Bay; the roastier, dryer Red Sky Ale, from the Central Valley of California; the grainy Whistlepin Wheat, from Fort Collins, Colorado and Road Dog, a chocolatey, raisiny "Scotch Ale" from Aspen Colorado.
The last is labelled by gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman, with a quote from his Aspen writing partner Hunter S Thompson: "There is an ancient Celtic axiom that good people drink good beer. Look around in any public bar and you will quickly see that bad people drink bad beer"
One speciality store that stocks many American micro-brews is the Beer Cellar, 31 Norwich Road, Strumpshaw, Norwich (01603 714884)Reuse content