For the casual craft-beer drinker, it’s difficult enough to simply keep up with all of the different IPAs that keep sprouting up. Is it a New England IPA or a milkshake IPA? What is a brut IPA? Or a Southwest IPA? What’s the difference between a hoppy sour ale and a sour IPA?
Thankfully, I’m here to muddy the waters by talking about obscure beer styles. Some of these have been resurrected by modern brewers who are just too damn curious and greedy (I mean that in the best way possible) to stick with known beer styles. Some brewers have even gone to great lengths to hunt down historical recipes or, at the very least, try to divine how the particular defunct style seems to have been made, and how it was supposed to taste.
What follows is a list of styles that you might need to go out of your way to try—or perhaps attempt to make it yourself.
Kentucky Common: Let’s start relatively local and recent with a beer that grew out of the influx of German and Irish émigrés into America in the mid-19th century. This is one of a small handful of styles that can claim to be truly American. Brewed with the native, protein-rich six-row malt and some native corn for smoothness, this beer is akin to a darker version of the American cream ale style. The darker, more-acidic malt additions would have likely been necessary due to the alkaline Kentucky water, something German and Irish immigrants would have known much about. However, there is a misnomer that this beer was soured using a sour-mash process typically used for American whiskey. This myth has been debunked, however, so if you come across a beer claiming to be a Kentucky common that is sour, you’ve been sold a false experience (but if the beer is pleasant, it shouldn’t be too hard to shrug off).
This style was not very shelf-stable, and it therefore became extinct around Prohibition. Thankfully, intrepid American brewers have revived the style to the point that the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) added it to their Historical Styles category in 2015. I have never come across one locally, so if you find one, let me know.
Oyster Stout: This is about as literal of a name as you can get for a beer style, folks: Bivalves are dumped into the mash during the brewing process. No joke. Oysters and stouts are a classic food pairing, so it isn’t hard to imagine that some wise-ass brewer decided to combine the two. Here’s where things get really interesting, though: This style might have begun as a myth and became a reality.
At one time, oyster shells were used by brewers as clarifying (referred to as “fining”) agents in beer. I have Porterhouse Brewing Company in Dublin to thank for my first oyster stout experience. They refer to themselves as “the largest Irish-owned brewery.” This is accurate and also has the benefit of being a pithy jab at Guinness, which is owned by a multi-national company. But I digress. As odd as this style sounds, all that is really added is a briny quality to the overall beer, and Porterhouse’s version is a damn fine dry Irish stout to begin with.
For the curious, the best bet is to find Flying Dog Brewing’s version, called Pearl Necklace. It is nationally distributed, and I’ve seen it on the shelves more than once.
Grodziskie/Grätzer: This is an old Polish oak-smoked wheat ale originating from the town of Grodzisk. Under Prussian rule, it was known by its German name of Grätz (pronounced like “grates”) and thus the beer style was dubbed Grätzer as it gained in popularity. The last Polish brewer of the style closed in the first half of the 20th century, but due to the current boom in craft beer curiosity, the style was revived and gained BJCP status in 2013. The style is brewed using oak-smoked raw wheat in the grain bill and was traditionally anywhere from 2 to 6 percent alcohol by volume. The resulting beer is an oaky, bready golden ale with a slight fruity, apple note and mild hop bitterness.
This is one where you are going to need to get lucky and either find one on a shelf somewhere or walk into a brewery that happens to have tried the experiment. I recall having one at Modern Times in San Diego, and buying a bottle from a European brewery off of the shelf at La Bodega in nearby Riverside. I enjoyed both—but smoked beers are not everyone’s cup of tea.
Steinbier: Onward to southern Austria, where a certain type of stone (or stein, in German) called greywacke abounds. Producing enough energy to convert the mash grains into sugars, and then to boil the resulting wort, was a difficult task for most of recorded history. However, amateur brewers found that if they used wooden vessels and heated greywacke stones to certain temperatures, they could drop those stones into the kettle and accomplish what was necessary.
There are a few interesting upshots of this method. One is that the sugars instantly caramelize, and the stone adds a bit of smoke to the wort. Another is that you can get badly burned by this process if you try it without the proper precautions. (You might recall some videos you’ve seen of idiots operating turkey fryers without properly defrosting the turkeys.) Another interesting tidbit is that greywacke is a very important choice of stone, as it retains heat well without exploding when added to the kettle. You can imagine that this style was honed with pioneering brewers being badly burned or maimed.
A great example of the style is brewed on occasion by Port Brewing of San Diego and is appropriately called Hot Rocks Lager. The caramel and fruit flavors are nice, but it seems a long road to hoe for a style that really isn’t that exceptional.
Braggot: This is really a hybrid of two different things: beer and mead. If your sole experience with mead is reading Beowulf and wondering what in the hell a mead hall is, then you are missing out. Some of the best meads, nay, alcoholic beverages I’ve ever had have been thanks to my friend and liquid conjurer, Chris Anderson. When done expertly, it’s glorious. There was his orange blossom mead, a prickly pear mead, a tropical fruit mead made with Hawaiian Christmas honey (which he estimated probably cost him in the hundreds of dollars per bottle to make … and it tasted like it) and his infamous “Mega Mead”—a mead he made using a special satchel of fruits, herbs and spices that he “ice distilled” into a 33 percent nectar monster.
Sorry, I got distracted. Where was I? Ah, yes: Combine beer and mead, traditionally with added ingredients, and you have a braggot. It’s that simple. Most examples are heady and contain a fair amount of alcohol, so this is a great beer for sharing on a cold evening after dinner. I have not come across many examples of this style, and the one I remember most readily is Rogue Brewing’s Marionberry Braggot, which I found to be pretty tasty but far too simultaneously sweet and acidic. I hope to come across more examples so I can give this blended style a fair shake.
I’ve only scratched the surface here, so this subject looks to have the makings of a multi-part column. I’ve heard of and tried all of these styles before, but in researching them, I stumbled upon some fascinating, if not frightening, historical styles. Perhaps I’ll save those for Halloween.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.