By most accounts, the number of breweries in the United States will cross the 4,000 threshold in 2015, most of them craft. With that many new breweries, it’s easy to forget there was a time back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where simply being a craft brewery was extremely unique.
Thankfully, though the beer industry has seen plenty of turnover during the ensuing decades, some of those old-school breweries have not only survived, but thrived to this day. However, some of the beers they brew, though pioneering at the time, might seem a bit old-fashioned to new drinkers. But just as you couldn’t have Mark Ronson without James Brown or Maroon 5 without The Beatles, it’s important to remember your roots.
Here are five classic craft beers that might not turn heads like they did when they were introduced, but are still very much worthy of your attention.
1. Anchor Liberty
Last year, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery added a new Anchor IPA to their core lineup of beers. This might not seem like big news in our current IPA-obsessed culture, but to those with a bit of historical perspective, the move turned some heads. You see, Anchor already has an IPA. In fact, they have what’s billed as the first modern American IPA brewed after prohibition. Introduced back in 1975, Anchor Liberty has been a single-variety, dry-hopped beer made with only Cascade hop since back when none of those things were really a thing. “Liberty Ale, maybe more than Steam, is the beer that turned the beer world upside down. Mainly because of the Cascade hop,” current Anchor brewmaster Mark Carpenter told us discussing the beer’s legacy. Liberty is still around and as delightfully light and drinkable, with a refreshing instead of overpowering hop kick, as it has been for decades.
2. Sierra Nevada Stout
Speaking of the Cascade hop, it’s a key ingredient in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, probably the beer most recognized for bringing hoppy ales to the masses. But not long before introducing his distinct Pale Ale in 1980, Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman released his company’s first beer, Sierra Nevada Stout. Though the brewery has come to be better known for hop-forward brews like Celebration and Torpedo, the Stout also utilizes Cascade hops giving it a distinctive “West Coast Style” (as the label attests) that hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced 35 years ago. If you’re looking to try a classic American stout, don’t forget that Sierra Nevada does a lot more than just pale ales.
3. Widmer Hefeweizen
Another West Coast brewery, another innovative style, another beer making excellent use of Cascade hops. Widmer Hefeweizen has always suffered more from a branding problem than a taste problem. When the Oregon brewery first introduced the brew back in 1986, they called it a “Hefeweizen” after the traditional German style. But outside of being an unfiltered wheat, the Widmer Brothers take on a Hefe bore little resemblance to what Germans served: theirs was a uniquely American-Style Hefeweizen (as they call it) – lighter, more citrusy and incredibly drinkable. Nowadays, with beer drinkers being exposed to all sorts of Hefeweizens from all over the world, Widmer’s take has become a bit misunderstood. But if you want a beer that practically defined the entire “American Wheat” style, few brews of any style have the delicious drinkable legacy that Widmer Hefeweizen has.
4. Schell’s Pilsner
While the West Coast earns most of the credit for creating the American craft beer juggernaut, the 1980s saw breweries experimenting from coast-to-coast. In retrospect, the idea of brewing a Pilsner might not seem that innovative, but by the mid-‘80s, most of the reigning breweries had sucked all the flavor out of their German-style lagers, giving us the beers we mock as yellow and fizzy today. In 1984, the August Schell Brewery decided to make a Pilsner-style lager that more closely mimicked the original European version. Back in 1988, none other than Michael Jackson (of beer fame, not music fame) described the Minnesota brewery’s Pils in his The New World Guide to Beer as “a revivalist Pilsner which is one of the best in the United States: aromatic, with a hoppy palate and a lightly dry finish.” That same year, the beer took gold at the Great American Beer Festival – not a bad innovation from a brewery that had been around since 1860.
5. Yuengling Porter
Speaking of old breweries, there’s only one considered older than Schell’s and that’s Pennsylvania’s Yuengling which dates back to 1829. Amazingly, the brewery has made their Yuengling Dark Brewed Porter since the brewery’s founding. This dry “Baltic Porter” is unique in that it is actually bottom-fermented with lager yeast, unlike traditional ale porters. The result is an easy-drinking beer with a surprising crisp side that still packs enough roasted and chocolate notes to not disappoint. Like every beer on this list, it’s a bottled piece of history.