At the beginning of The Matrix, Morpheus gives Neo a choice: Swallow the blue pill and wake up to his old boring life, or take the red pill and discover everything he’s been missing.
I felt like Neo the other day as I stood in the package store, gazing at an ever-expanding selection of craft ales. Like him, I was teetering on the edge of the familiar, and my quandary was color-coded. I knew that I needed to broaden my horizons and take the red pill. But did that entail a red ale, or a brew of a different hue?
The choice is yours, and you really can’t go wrong (there are, thankfully, no blue ales). With that in mind, here is your quick guide to the craft beer color wheel, plus some recommendations for your own happy hunting.
∎ White ales: American craft brewers love to experiment with this style of unfiltered Belgian ale. A white ale (sometimes called a “witbier”) is pale, cloudy, well carbonated, and usually spiced with coriander and orange peel. These are the beers that you see served with a slice of either lemon or orange.
Blue Moon and Shock Top are two of America’s most popular white ales, but those brands are owned by Coors and Anheuser-Busch, respectively, so if you don’t want to pump funds into those behemoths, consider Allagash White, made in Portland, Maine. That witbier tastes great and is widely available, as are the Winter White Ale from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the Witte from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York.
∎ Blonde ales: Also called golden ales, these beers grew out of the American craft movement as an attempt to wean people off mass-market lagers. They’re crisp and malty, not hoppy, which makes them great stand-ins for pilsners and German-style Kolsch beers. They’re light and drinkable; perfect for warm evenings on the porch.
Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company makes a bunch of blonde ales — their Somersault Ale smells nicely of ginger and citrus, and their summer seasonal Skinny Dip has a great full-bodied taste. Summer Love, brewed by Victory in Pennsylvania, is a solid choice. And if you want to go local, make sure to try Eureka, which is made by the wonderful Tree House Brewing Company in Monson. Eureka is super smooth and smacks nicely of grapefruit — a really refreshing choice.
∎ Red ales: This is a broad category, since it describes traditional Irish Red ales made by old-country mainstays like Smithwick’s and Murphy’s as well as most American amber ales. Reds are malty and well-balanced: sometimes a bit toasty, but never sharp or overly bitter. Good-tasting craft amber ales are all over this country’s taps, New Belgium’s Fat Tire being one of the most popular.
On the local level, try Insane Mane Red, a really nice, smooth ale brewed by the newly-formed White Lion Brewery in Springfield. Ballast Point Brewing Company in San Diego makes a delicious red called Calico Copper. And two of my personal favorites are red ales crossed with IPAs: the Flipside Red IPA made by Sierra Nevada and the Hop Head Red made by Green Flash — both of which strike a delicious balance between sharp and sweet.
∎ Brown ales: Here’s another beer family with old European roots. Traditional English brown ales are sweet, malty, and generally a bit nutty — think Newcastle and Samuel Smith’s. But American brown ales tend to be a bit more hoppy and complex, sometimes featuring some coffee flavor or spice.
My personal favorite is the rich, strong Indian Brown Ale made by Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware. Another great option is Old Brown Dog from Smuttynose Brewing Company in New Hampshire, which has just the dark, reliably warming flavor that its name suggests. Also consider trying the Brownstone ale from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn — that place is turning out some seriously delicious brews.
∎ Black ales: Most of these beers are IPAs made with the addition of dark specialty malts, which create a thicker, more roasted flavor. The blend of bitter hops with a more silky, caramel quality makes these beers pretty unique, and some of them practically eat like a meal.
There are a lot of directions brewers take these in, but definitely give Wooky Jack a try — that beer, by Firestone Walker in California, treats you to a rich, chocolatey, porter-like flavor, then smacks you with a hit of rye. Damn good stuff. The Clown Shoes brewery in Ipswich makes a nice black ale called Hoppy Feet, and the Vermont brewery Otter Creek, based in Middlebury, makes great black ales as well.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, seek out an Imperial Black ale — those high-alcohol flavor-fests will have your tongue dancing. One of my top choices: the Dubhe Imperial Black IPA made by Uinta Brewing Company in Utah.
• Mark your calendars: this year’s American Craft Beer Fest is May 29-30. Hosted in Boston by Harpoon Brewery and the magazine BeerAdvocate, it’s the largest craft beer festival on the East Coast, featuring upwards of 600 craft beers from more than 140 breweries. Last year, 15,000 people showed up. Google it and get your tickets sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, prime yourself for festival fun by visiting the Brattleboro Brewers Fest on May 16. There will be 30 area brewers at the four-hour event, plus bands and food.
• A new Northampton brewery called BLDG 8, created by Meghan Tomalin and brewer Mike Yates, will open soon. Visit their Facebook page for up-to-date info on the facility, which will include a tasting room. It’s under construction on Riverside Drive in Florence.
• Some of you already know this, but the Trübeer store in Easthampton has closed after three and a half years of business. Thanks to owner Sam Braudis for preaching the quality beer gospel.
• Humorous footnote: A class-action lawsuit was filed on May 1 against MillerCoors by a California guy claiming that the company tricked him into thinking that Blue Moon was a craft beer. Misleading advertising from the massive beverage company, he argues, runs counter to the ethos of the Brewer’s Association, which defines a craft brewery as producing 6 million barrels or less per year. It’s hard to believe the lawsuit will go anywhere. But wouldn’t it be fun if it did?•
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org