Five Beers That Were Far Ahead of Their Time

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Five Beers That Were Far Ahead of Their Time

Hindsight bias, also referred to in a more academic sense as creeping determinism (which sounds much more push-your-glasses-up-the-bridge-of-your-nose nerdy), is by no means a concept we can apply toward only political science and economics. The phenomenon refers to the tendency that humans have to look back on significant events from the past—to look in hindsight—and erroneously assume that it should have been easy to perceive those sea-change events coming. It’s a fallacy because of the way we as a species commonly overrate our awareness of what is actually happening around us at any given time—turns out it’s much harder to determine that events are important as they’re happening. And that goes for craft beer, just as much as it goes for anything else.

The evolution of beer styles, and of fads within the craft brewing industry, moves in fits and spurts. Where some styles have persevered relatively unchanged for decades, for instance, others have seen themselves totally upended by an offshoot of that style that gradually comes to dominate the conversation. Others flare to life, come into vogue within the blink of an eye, and then recede into the background once more. To say it’s obvious what outcome a new fad will have in its moment of upswing is more than a little absurd—look no further than something like session IPA, which was hailed as representative of a “health conscious” popular movement five years ago, only to fade away and now return again in the guise of “low-cal” IPA. Or black IPA, which achieved near universal saturation for a year or two before returning to niche status. At the top of the crest, there’s rarely a clear indication that the pullback is coming.

And what that means, in the end, is that we must use a bit of hindsight to determine which beers truly did represent the emergence of something new and significant. Each of these five selections fits that description: They are beers that came into a well-defined scene and provided a shot of inspiration, pushing the style in the direction of something that is now considered ubiquitous. It’s not that they necessarily invented new styles; rather, they provided early examples of offshoots that would explode in popularity in the years to follow, or helped convince American drinkers to give something new a chance.

In their own way, each of these beers has been truly impactful. They’re presented below in chronological order.


Victory Brewing Co. Prima Pils


First Brewed: 1996

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For the vast majority of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the craft beer industry largely and most vociferously tended to define itself by what it wasn’t—purveyors of industrial lager. Proper German pilsner, that most noble of all lager varieties, was never some kind of flawed style—properly made, it’s one of the most deeply satisfying beer styles in the world, in my own humble opinion. But the word “pilsner” had been put through the ringer in 20th century America, degraded and watered down (literally) through decades of being slapped across beers that bore no resemblance to the style’s historical roots. As such, we’re on the record in not minding the occasional Miller Lite, with that particular beer scoring well in our blind tasting of cheap macro lagers, but the word “pilsner” has no business of coming within a mile of a can of the stuff. It’s about as “pilsner” as Salisbury is “steak.”

It was a bold choice, then, for Victory Brewing Co. to start slinging authentic German pilsner as far back as 1996, in a time when American drinkers would have associated that word almost exclusively with bland macro lager. Even among the craft beer cognoscenti, actual pilsner was an unusual novelty, the sort of thing that your friend who visited Germany might rave about, leaving you wondering whether it was simply bias that made him proclaim that “the beer over there is better.” But in reality, he simply knew what real pilsner was all about, which is European noble hops. And with the arrival of Prima Pils, fans of Victory began to discover the same for themselves.

Real German pilsner (and Czech pils, and all the other adjacent styles) is a vivacious beer style, punchy and aromatic, with striking impressions of florals, herbal notes and spice, balanced by crisp German malt. Compared to the macro beers labeled as “pilsner,” Prima Pils was both explosively flavorful and confoundingly bitter, while also being more assertively malty at the same time. It certainly fit the American craft beer ethos: Amp up the flavor, and let the more adventurous tasters discover it for themselves.

And the years that have followed showed Victory to be right—if you give the people proper pilsner, they’ll flock to it. In its wake, Prima Pils created a trickle, and then an eventual flood of American-made but historically reverent pilsners that have helped to reclaim the very term “pils” from ignominy. And although the recipe itself for Prima Pils has been tweaked over the years, it’s still a deeply respected cornerstone of Victory’s business. Suffice to say, its brewers would likely have been shocked in 1996 to know just how influential it would ultimately be to the 2010s craft lager revival.


Brewery Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison


First Brewed: 1997

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When Brewery Ommegang produced their first batch of Hennepin back in the late 1990s (one of the first beers the company ever brewed), even most beer geeks were totally unfamiliar with the term “saison.” Indeed, even in the mid-2000s when I was just beginning to explore the beer scene, it was still fairly common to refer to these beers as simply “farmhouse ales,” with companies presumably figuring that terminology was a bit easier to grasp than the French word for “season.” I can’t even imagine how novel this must have seemed in 1997.

Few of these beers can ever profess a concrete claim to be the “first” of something, but no one really seems to contest Ommegang’s claim that Hennepin was the first commercially released, American-brewed saison. That’s an auspicious position for sure, serving as a genesis point for a style that has become one of the most purely popular in the U.S. among beer geeks and brewers alike. Saison is rarely the kind of style that moves the most volume—although this beer remains one of Ommegang’s flagships—but many who venture beyond the ubiquitousness of IPA will list it among their favorite styles. I mean really, have you ever met a passionate beer geek who dislikes saison?

Hennepin, meanwhile, unsurprisingly took quite a few cues from some of the Belgian classics in bringing this version of saison/farmhouse ale stateside. Notably, it’s a spiced saison, brewed with coriander, ginger, orange peel and grains of paradise—a feature of the style that was once more common, before U.S. breweries largely seemed to stop using dry spices and instead focused on more expressive Belgian and wild yeast strains. Hennepin, however, comes from an earlier era of “clean” saison, before mixed cultures of brettanomyces and lactobacillus were commonplace in the U.S., instead relying on malt complexity, spicy nuance and effervescent carbonation to achieve its desired profile.

Who knows how many early American saisons were directly inspired by Ommegang and Hennepin? It’s a beer that almost certainly launched hundreds of imitators, even as it gave more exposure to the Belgian classics that had inspired it. We have to figure it played a part in the development, on some level, of other mass-market saisons that appeared in the years that followed, such as Boulevard’s Tank 7.

Note: Also check out our recent Flagship February essay on Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, while you’re at it.


The Alchemist Heady Topper


First Brewed: 2003

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This one almost goes without saying, right? The myth, the legend, the Heady Topper. What’s funny about Heady, though, is how distinctly hazy its mythology is—not the beer’s appearance, but firm dates on how and when it really came to be, and how it developed into the sensation it became. Alchemist Pub & Brewery owner John Kimmich seems to have first brewed it in late 2003—this much is clear. It was by no means a regular staple at the brewpub, though, being made only twice a year before its popularity began to grow. Who knows what the beer was really like then, though? Would the Heady Topper of 2004 or 2005 even be recognizable alongside a can of Heady Topper as it existed in the mid-2010s, when it became the most cited and sought-after inspiration for the juicy New England IPA explosion? Or did it develop slowly in that direction? Was that mid-2000s Heady comparably hazy? Comparably juicy? It’s hard for anyone other than Vermont residents to say for sure, but considering the way the brewpub had to police people from pouring their pints into bottles for off-site consumption and trades, it was certainly making quite the impression.

Still, it’s sort of weird to think how long Heady Topper existed as an exclusively Waterbury, VT sensation—8 years as a brewpub exclusive, before that brewpub was tragically destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Irene in 2011, slamming a door shut on The Alchemist’s first chapter. In a case of extremely fortuitous timing, the first 16 oz cans of Heady Topper rolled off the line in the nearby, newly opened Alchemist production facility only two days after the flood put an end to the beer’s first home. Within the space of a week, Heady Topper had gone from being a popular brewpub beer, to the only product canned by what would become the most sought-after production brewery in Vermont. And as the cans began to flow out of Waterbury, and lines at the brewery began to grow, a legend was born.

The influence of Heady Topper upon the subsequent wave of hazier, juicier NE-IPAs almost goes without stating. Kimmich’s beer made use of some of the newest hop varietals on the market at the time it was first released, heavily featuring Simcoe in particular, which had been around for only three years when the first batches of Heady were brewed. It should be noted, however, that Kimmich has never really seemed to view his creation as the first entry in a specific IPA substyle—rather, he sees more of an evolutionary connection in Heady Topper to the West Coast IPAs that came before than the ever-juicier, ever-murkier beers that Heady inspired. As he said in a very well-research Food & Wine piece by Sam Riches:

It’s taken on a life of its own at this point. I think a lot of what’s being called New England IPAs are really different from ours—they’re soft and chalky and just shooting for something entirely different. But that’s kind of the nature of the beast when it comes to craft brewers. They quite often think more is better, and there’s a huge market for that. Me, I tend to prefer my IPAs to have a very crisp, distinct bitterness and I feel like nowadays they’re trying to de-emphasize that bitterness, which in my opinion kind of throws off the balance.

Regardless of how Kimmich sees it, though, there’s no doubt that Heady, along with contemporaries at breweries such as Lawson’s Finest Liquids and others, was the launchpad for what is by far the most significant evolution to the IPA style in the last decade.


Funky Buddha Brewery Maple Bacon Coffee Porter


First Brewed: 2011

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I’m almost certain that every element and adjunct in this beer—the maple, the bacon, the coffee—had been incorporated in some other brewery’s porter or stout before 2011, but Funky Buddha putting them together in concert with each other feels like an early entry in what would later be a much more widespread and recognizable trend. Despite the lack of breakfast cereal, or Girl Scout cookies, or an entire tray of cake, this is undeniably what we would now characterize as “pastry stout.” Or, you know … pastry porter.

The source makes sense: As we’ve written in the past, Florida’s Funky Buddha has always been a trend-setter when it comes to experimentation within the arena of “flavored” beer. They’ve been on the front lines for a decade at this point, daringly trying combinations of flavors that sometimes work, and other times flame out spectacularly—no surprise there, as it comes with the territory. But when their creations are on point, their triumphs have gone far beyond the level of “hey, that’s not half bad” and into the territory of revelations. And many of the biggest successes have come within the framework of big porters and stouts, whether we’re talking about the coconut-infused Last Snow, or the breakfast-inspired novelty of Maple Bacon Coffee Porter.

Granted, Funky Buddha was building on the pioneering efforts of others such as Founders Brewing Co., whose beloved Breakfast Stout (made with oats, coffee and chocolate) helped build the framework of the concept. But they pushed that line of thinking several steps further via the use of maple and bacon, making this into an early example in the “I can’t believe they put THAT in a BEER!” school of craft brewery marketing. It wouldn’t take long before other breweries started aping the same concepts, leading to an ever-more-absurd progression of kooky adjuncts.

The important difference, though, is that the flavors of a Funky Buddha concept like Maple Bacon Coffee Porter actually work in harmony with its seemingly absurd premise. Which is to say: They’re not afraid to experiment, but they also know not to go too far. Drink this beer today, and you’ll be impressed by the judicious use of flavoring. It doesn’t taste like liquid smoke, or coffee extract, or a jug of Mrs. Butterworth’s. It tastes like a quality porter, accented by subtle flourishes of all three key adjuncts. That’s the key, and that’s the aspect of a beer like this that subsequent iterations from competitors have often lost in translation through the rest of the 2010s. Too many breweries (and too many consumers) still believe that “more” correlates directly with “better.”

Because make no mistake: This beer could have been a big ‘ole disaster in 2011, and we have contemporary proof of exactly what that would look like. The same year, Rogue Ales released its first batch of Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale, a beer that would probably feature prominently on a short list of the most infamous brewery releases of all time. Note the similarities: Both are maple. Both are bacon. One remains beloved today, and another is both infamous and no longer manufactured. And it has everything to do with the subtlety of how each was executed.

You might love pastry stout, and you might hate it (we have our issues with it, as if you can’t tell), but you have to give it up to the likes of Funky Buddha for their role in showing what the style could be at its best. For better or worse, you can draw a direct line between something like Maple Bacon Coffee Porter and the hype-generating, heavily sought-after pastry stouts from breweries like Florida’s own Angry Chair. There’s no doubt they’re distant relations on the stout family tree.


Westbrook Brewing Co. Gose


First Brewed: 2012

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I distinctly remember the first time I sampled gose at a craft brewery. It was early 2014, and I was traipsing through Denver, visiting some of what were, at the time, the city’s newest generation of breweries. And at the now well-established and nationally acclaimed TRVE Brewing Co., I first read a description containing the words “tart,” “salt” and “coriander,” scratching my head at the thought of a beer with noticeable salinity. After my first sip, though, I was hooked. The style immediately assumed a place of its own in my mental rolodex, filling a niche I never knew needed filling: Lower-ABV, refreshingly tart, salty beer.

It’s difficult to say with any particular veracity, though, which brewery first produced a spin on the traditional German Leipziger Gose style in the U.S.—a style with centuries of history abroad, but little in America. Portland’s Breakside Brewing was definitely one of the earlier ones, faithfully transplanting the mildly tart and aromatic style of the European continent. Anderson Valley Brewing Co. also helped spread the popularity of gose on the West Coast in 2013 and 2014. But of those early goses, it’s Westbrook’s take on the style that would ultimately prove exceedingly influential, thanks to its success in distribution. In the rotation by 2012, it predated the vast majority of its competitors in coming to market, which gave it the power to effectively establish an archetype for “gose” in the eyes of many consumers. And what it built was a new, Americanized understanding of an older German style, while simultaneously helping to popularize the process of kettle souring. Both Westbrook’s method of gose brewing, and the product they created, ended up becoming the standard against which other breweries compared their goses.

EDIT: Storied beer author and all-around expert Stan Hieronymus reached out to inform me that two other breweries experimenting with American gose even earlier were Goleta, CA’s Hollister Brewing Co., and Portland’s influential Cascade Brewing, both of which were experimenting with protoypical goses as early as 2010.

Compared with the Continental goses that came before, Westbrook’s version was both more punchy and more streamlined. Swapping out a more time-consuming souring process for quick kettle souring gave Westbrook Gose a bright acidity that was more purely tart, rather than primarily “funky,” and the relative sourness level jumped up considerably from historical German examples. That sourness gives the beer a distinctive “lemon juice” twang, balanced by moderate impressions of clean wheat breadiness, salinity and pronounced coriander spice. It gives the impression of hot weather beer—the ale world’s version of an electrolyte-replenishing sports drink. It’s also very friendly to additional flavors, as seen in spin-offs like Westbrook’s delicious Key Lime Pie Gose.

And if there’s any two words that sum up how the gose style evolved in the U.S. brewing scene afterward, they are indeed “additional flavors.” Many U.S. brewers quickly seemed to dismiss the novelty of unflavored gose, realizing that the tart backbone of the style played nicely with all kinds of fruit additions and fanciful concepts. Breweries like The Veil made waves by introducing fruited versions so intense that they often read more like straight-up purees than they do any recognizable beer style, while Dogfish Head’s Seaquench became one of the company’s biggest success stories. Gose, like so many other rediscovered beer styles, went from being an exotic novelty to most drinkers in the middle of the decade, to old hat five years later. It’s perhaps the best stylistic example of how a style can be discovered and subsumed into the modern beer scene in the timeframe of just a few years.

Westbrook Gose is still there, though, and its virtues have arguably become only more apparent as the style has drifted further and further in the direction of adjuncts and outside flavors. Without a doubt, it qualifies as well ahead of its time.


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.

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