Broadly speaking, the majority of breweries are known for two types of beer in their lineups: the year-rounder that keeps the lights on and feels as much at home in the downtown hipster bar as it does next to the three macro taps at your local dive, and the special projects made possible by that beer.
But then you have the beers that get lost in the shuffle. Whether it’s a year-round offering overshadowed by the brewery’s flagship, or an un-hyped seasonal that sells just enough to justify production, every brewery has that one beer that sits on the shelf, and makes you go “Oh yeah…that.” These are those underrated beers.
Sierra Nevada occupies a peculiar spot in the current craft beer zeitgeist: firmly rooted in the ‘80s-‘90s origins of the original craft beer boom, they exist primarily as a safe spot, a touchstone for beer drinkers crippled by indecision at the local bottle shop. And though they do exhibit a willingness, inspired by an awareness of the industry’s evolution, to roll out new and experimental offerings, their strength still lies in no-nonsense styles and tempered execution.
Take Kellerweiss. A 4.8% year-rounder, this beer has come and gone for years now with little fanfare, though its continued presence on store shelves and tap lines is an indication of its stalwart, if bookish, quality. Modeled on the classic German hefeweizen, its nearest old-world approximation is Ayinger Brau-Weisse: a light-bodied, summer-bright wheat beer with the typical clove, banana, and bubblegum yeast notes.
Like Brau-Weisse, Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss is everything you’d want from the style: a cream-of-wheat texture, lemon-vanilla complements, and an alcohol content that encourages more than one serving. Start caring about this beer, now.
I know Rochefort, you know Rochefort. We love Rochefort. As recently as 15 years ago, this tiny Trappist brewery from the eponymous Belgian town carried the same phantom mystique that Westvleteren does today. Due, however, to increased availability and distribution, they are today as at home on the reclaimed-wood shelves of your local independent bottle shop as they are under the fluorescent hum of a Kroger beer aisle. Thanks, creative writing MFA.
Rochefort 8 was already the odd man out from the brewery’s lineup, thanks mainly to the existence of the majestic Rochefort 10, an 11.3% quad that, honestly, tastes like scorched Coca-Cola when young, but evolves into sublimity after a few years. 8 languished, and still languishes in the shadow of 10, which sounds like a lyric from a Rush album.
Rochefort 8 is, however, my favorite beer from the brewery, and arguably its best. Why? For one, while you can age it for years and get increased returns on flavor, it is ready to drink right off the bat. For another, it’s just a downright damned fine beer: rich and toffee-laden, with fig, prune, raisin, and slight chocolate flavors, it’s the quad style embodied.
I’m cheating here. Bitter Brewer is no longer in production at Surly, and the world is worse off for it. Still, I think I understand why: it was such a miasma of styles and influences—a bitter by name, American pale ale in execution—that it probably became a perfect pain in the ass to market.
So what is it, exactly? Bitter Brewer is essentially a session IPA, brewed with oats, plus Glacier and Warrior hops. Its official classification is of a British bitter, but that’s like calling Prince a “singer,” so whatever. Like Prince, however, this beer is freaking awesome and impossible to pin down. Though it does hint at its namesake through a distinct orange marmalade-like hop character, there is an aggressiveness about the hop profile that eschews subtlety and propels the beer into another category altogether. The malt hints at honey biscuits and oyster crackers.
Seriously. Surly? Stop Twitter-trolling us with Leinenkugel and use that time to brew this beer again.
I keep waiting on Almanac to release a new beer and completely screw it up; they keep disappointing me (by not disappointing me). Though they rocketed to fame with their Farm to Barrel—a series of fruited sours—and Brettaville saison offerings, Almanac does everything, and they do it well: New world farmhouse ales? Saison Dolores. Juicy hop bombs? San Francisco IPA. Flawless imperial stouts with deftly handled adjuncts? The Barrel Noir series.
And then there’s this. Mandarina is one of Almanac’s relatively new line of canned offerings, which also includes a very solid hoppy pilsner. Labeled a saison but existing, as so many of Almanac’s beers do, on an intersection of two or three different stylistic planes, Mandarina is bone-dry, with a lemony tartness and citrusy, pithy hop notes from both the Citra and eponymous hops used in the brew. Tangerines are also added to underscore the hop-tart flavors.
What you’ve got here is world-class adult lemonade. An added bonus: at roughly $10/six-pack, you can actually afford to fill up a Camelbak with the stuff and go on a training run.
There is more than a hint of Ouroboros about the Lost Abbey hype machine. It is a monster entirely of their own creation, comprised of equal parts legit world-class beer, flatness issues, and apparently forsaking a blood oath to Brown Paper Tickets. I don’t participate in any of their online sales because I neither live in California nor am I made of money, but if we could find a way to harness the nerd rage during a Duck Duck Gooze release, we could solve our energy crisis within a day.
Judgment Day is actually much more famous for being the base beer for Cuvee de Tomme, a massive sour red ale fermented with brett, raisins, and cherries, and one of Lost Abbey’s most prized releases. But Judgment Day, still quietly and dutifully produced on the regular, is probably the best quadrupel ale brewed outside of Belgium: rich, yet surprisingly dry—a la Rochefort—and tasting of figs, dates and toffee with a hint of candied orange peel, it’s a no-frills, no-adjunct, no barrel-aging tribute to the old-world greats. What more do you want?
When anyone thinks of Portland, Oregon’s Hair of the Dog, Blue Dot is like, the sixth or seventh beer they think of. More renowned for their esoteric strong ales like Adam and Fred and long-term barrel-aging projects like Matt and Otto, it turns out Alan Sprints and his skeleton crew make a mean IPA.
Oh yeah, about that: the label says “double IPA,” even though the beer clocks in at just 7%. What it lacks in stylistically appropriate alcohol content, however, it makes up for in big flavor; Brewed exclusively with pilsner malt and rye, Blue Dot’s light body lets the Northwest varietal hops do most of the talking. There is, surprisingly, not much bitterness to speak of; instead, the beer is a riot of apricot, peach, and nectarine. There is a sweetness to it, but one that serves to carry the hops, not fight with them.
At the brewpub, this is on all the time. Start with one of their “Little Dog” offerings, have Blue Dot with your meal, then Adam for dessert.
I already had an entry half-written here for Spotted Cow; the beer is often derided, at best ignored, by the same neckbeards who line up to score R&D releases at the brewery for Hill Farmstead trade bait, and it is easily the finest cream ale in the world. But Spotted Cow comprises a huge percentage of New Glarus’ annual sales; from that perspective, it’s difficult to justify its inclusion as an “underrated” beer.
Two Women, however, is another story. If Dan Carey is brewing a German lager, you can bet it’s going to be to-style, clean as a whistle, and delicious—this is no exception. A true Dortmunder lager (think a helles, but with a more pronounced focus on the malt profile), the beer exhibits a restrained but firm noble hop character, propelled forward by the bready, almost cookie-like malt.
A year-round beer, Two Women nevertheless enjoys something of a nebulous role in New Glarus’ lineup. It’s always on the shelves, it’s a delicious beer, and I never see anyone buy it. But, apparently, someone is. Good on them.