SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Perhaps never in the nation's brewing history have so many beers in so many permutations been made.
Whether a beer has more flavor or is less filling is just the start of deliberations as people belly up to the bar.
"There's tremendous diversity in beers these days, among the small guys and the big guys alike. They're all looking for new openings," says Charles Bamforth, chair of the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, as well as the university's Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science.
Beers are being brewed with such exotic ingredients as chili peppers, wasabi and ginger. They're being aged in used wine barrels. They're being inoculated with a strain of yeast that gives them a pungent horsy or barnyard character, repulsive to some, savored by others. There are gluten-free beers and smoke-flavored beers.
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If the new beers share anything in common, it's an acquired taste for their extreme characteristics, such as the intense floral bitterness of more hops than usual, the pronounced notes of chocolate from an additional measure of roasted malts, or the fruit, berry, spice, bean or herb with which brews are being made.
"People are being adventuresome," says Brian Ford, the former longtime brewmaster at Beermann's Beerwerks Brewery of Lincoln and Roseville and now the owner of the new Auburn Alehouse Brewery and Restaurant in Auburn. "They are looking for a new style."
Other local brewers also spoke of the growing allure of double and triple IPAs _ India pale ales with more pronounced hop aroma and flavor and more alcohol, about twice as much as standard pale ales.
"Anything that says a beer is higher in alcohol and is bigger and bolder is where the buzz is right now," says Jay Marshall Prahl, brewmaster at Sudwerk Restaurant & Brewery in Davis, Calif.
Overall, brewpubs and other members of the specialty-beer trade have recovered strongly from a shakeout in the industry about a decade ago.
At that time, the nation had nearly 1,100 brewpubs, microbreweries and regional specialty breweries. Then sales went flat and breweries and brewpubs began to close.
"The industry was growing so rapidly that the market got flooded, and not everyone was focused on the quality side of production," says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., a trade group for craft brewers.
Today, the nation has 1,370 specialty breweries, including 958 brewpubs. Sales of handcrafted beers grew 17.8percent during 2006 and were up 11percent through the first half of 2007. So far this year, 33 brewpubs, microbreweries and regional specialty breweries have opened, while 10 have closed.
Of the nation's total annual beer sales, craft brews account for 3.6percent of volume, 5.4percent of value.
How many different beers are being made is anyone's guess, but Bamforth isn't happy with the growing number. He'd rather the trade stick to a few traditional styles of beer and explore variety within each, taking advantage of different regimes of hops and malts but avoiding the array of other ingredients and techniques being used today.
"I wish brewers would stay with a limited number of beer styles, and make the most of those, like the wine guys have done with their red, white and pink wines," Bamforth says. "Let's make ales, and then celebrate diversity within the ales, like with different hops. Let's stop looking for the exotic."
Eventually, it could come to that. But for now, many beer enthusiasts are keen on novelty in their brews.
A LINGUISTIC GUIDE FOR WHAT ALES YOU
In beer circles, references to "pilsner," "lager" and "ale" are so yesterday.
While such designations still have currency, today's beer drinker needs to be familiar with several other fashionable terms if he or she hopes to keep up with brewpub chatter.
Extra-special bitter, or ESB: An ale of British origin with typically medium to strong hop aroma, flavor and bitterness. Its residual malt sweetness tends to be more pronounced than in other bitters. A note of butterscotch is liable to be detected. Alcohol content is 3.8 to 4.6 percent.
American-style India pale ale, or IPA: An ale of North American origin, these beers tend to have an intense hop bitterness. The American hops customarily used to brew the beer give it fruity, floral and citrus-like characteristics, though hops of other national origins may be used to the same effect. Alcohol content is 5 percent to 6 percent.
Double India pale ale, also imperial: Deep golden to amber in color, these ales have intense hop bitterness, flavor and aroma. Hop attributes generally are balanced with complex alcohol flavors, moderate fruitiness and medium to high malt character. Alcohol content is 6 percent to 8.4 percent.
Golden or blonde ale: In addition to living up to their golden blonde color, these ales are crisp and dry, with a light to medium body, a light malt sweetness and a somewhat hoppy floral aroma. Alcohol content is 3.3 percent to 5 percent.
Kolsch: A beer of German origin, kolsch-style brews are light to medium-light in body, with a gold or straw color, and a slightly dry to subtly sweet flavor. One sign of a well-made kolsch is a dense head. Alcohol content is 3.8 percent to 4.2 percent.
Belgian-style lambic: Dry and light bodied, lambics are naturally and spontaneously fermented beers that tend to taste sour, often with horsy, goaty and leathery undertones from Brettanomyces yeast. Fruit lambics are characterized by the color of the fruit used in their production, as well as fruit aromas and flavors. Alcohol content is 4 percent to 5 percent.
Wood- and barrel-aged beer: The field is wide open and evolving. Any lager, ale or hybrid beer qualifies as long as it has been aged in a wooden barrel or otherwise exposed to wood. The intent of aging beer in used sherry, bourbon, scotch, wine and other barrels is to add to its complexity and uniqueness. They can be high in alcohol or low, light in color or dark.