Drink: States of independence

The US has a reputation for producing boring, tasteless beers, but with the Fourth of July around the corner, why not discover some of its quirkier brews?
Brands of lager designed to be virtually flavourless account for about half the beer sold in this country. It is very hard in Britain to find a market for a lager that tastes of anything (barley-malt or hops, for example). I am painfully aware of this when my fellow Britons suggest, as they often do, that all beer in the United States is bland and watery. A contemporary was at it again the other day while simultaneously recommending Bud Light - a familiar case of our mocking the Americans while aping their dafter habits. With Independence Day in sight, I would prefer to celebrate the most interesting of American beers, some of which have more flavour than anything made here.

More than 1,500 small breweries, many making very flavoursome brews - usually ales, but occasionally lagers - have opened in the US in the last two decades. Many have been launched by people from outside the mainstream brewing industry, and innocent of its obsession with blandness. Some of the best are in the far Northwest, in Washington State and Oregon. Most sell their beers very locally, but some are finding their way to Britain.

A former president of Nike established an export-minded small brewery in Newport, Oregon a decade ago. The brewery, named after the local river Rogue, produces some wickedly assertive beers.

A brew called Rogue Artisan spurns the golden colour of the usual Pilsener- style lager for a fuller, reddish hue. This colour indicates the more aromatically malty, sweetish, Vienna style of lager. In this example, the sweetness is balanced by an especially crisp punch of earthy hop bitterness. Try it with a herby, meaty pizza. The brewery's Honey Cream Ale looks and tastes the way it sounds, but again has a surprisingly dry finish. Its American Amber Ale has a deeper colour than its name suggests, with chocolatey malt flavours rounded by the orangey notes typically imparted by the Cascade variety of hop, from Washington State. The yet-darker Hazelnut Brown Ale, at a hefty 6.2 per cent alcohol, is rich, nutty, chocolatey and caramel-ish. No chocolate or caramel is used; these flavours are imparted by malts kilned to achieve that effect, from England and Scotland respectively.

The Honey Cream and Hazelnut Brown won gold medals for Rogue's young brewer John Maier at last year's Beer World Cup in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was a judge. He is one of the "celebrity brewers" who have emerged on America's lively beer scene. Ten years ago, he was winning medals as a home-brewer.

Across the border in California, the most famous new-generation small brewery is Sierra Nevada, in the college town of Chico. In this instance, home-brewers founded the business. Sierra Nevada is now a gleaming, thriving commercial enterprise. Its success is based on one of the world's greatest pale ales, spiced with those citric Cascade hops. By adding an unusually large share of the hops at a very late stage of the brew, its creators made it very distinctively aromatic. This style has been widely imitated elsewhere in California and the West.

A paler and drier Californian ale is Liberty, an icon for beer lovers on both sides of the Atlantic. This emanates from the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco (more popularly known for its Steam Beer). Anchor Liberty has such an oily intensity as to be the beer world's answer to a dry Martini, though I would chill it less. Stockists Asda suggest that it should be served ice-cold - contrary to myth, hip Americans don't do that to truly great beers.

Fear and Loathing ... author Hunter S Thompson has added his own comments to the labels of several beers created in the small brewery at his The Flying Dog pub in the fashionable Colorado ski resort of Aspen, where he lives. The labels are illustrated by his British collaborator, Ralph Steadman. All the beers' names have canine themes, less appetising than they are whimsical.

Old Scratch is a nutty amber lager with a touch of ale-like perfumed fruitiness and a robustly dry finish. Tire Biter is a sweetish golden ale in the more delicate style of Cologne, Germany. Road Dog is a dark, smooth, raisiny, Scottish-style ale. Doggie-style is an American-style pale ale with a suggestion of camomile in its hop aroma. Snake Dog is much more bitter, in the style of an Indian pale ale.

Some of these beers are now made at the slightly larger Broadway Brewery in Denver. This brewery is in the 1890s building of the former Silver State Laundry. The first brewer there was a Harley devotee who at one stage lived in a tepee and hunted food. The new American beer movement is not lacking in trivia.

In the Midwest heartland of bland lagers, beer-lover Nick Floyd persuaded his brother and their father to join him in producing something more assertive, initially in Indiana and more recently in Iowa. Their appetising, dry Three Floyds Extra Pale Ale has recently arrived at Oddbins. The threesome are stylised on the label rather like the wise monkeys.

New York graphic artist, Milton Glaser, brings a "designer" feel to the label of the renowned Brooklyn Lager, another sweet-then-dry interpretation of the Vienna style.

There is a much more rustic touch to the label of my newest American favourite, from Washington DC: Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils. A "pocket" is a sack of hops. It looks like a boxer's punchbag, and this Pilsener-style lager hops and hits with the best of them.

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Anchor Liberty is available at Asda and Safeway; Brooklyn Lager at Grog Blossom, Selfridges, Tesco and specialist beer shops; The Flying Dog, Sierra Nevada, Tuppers' and Rogue beers at Oddbins. Prices from pounds 1.20- pounds 1.40.