According to the Brewers Association’s latest Year in Beer report, over 9,500 breweries operated in the U.S. in 2022. That’s an all-time high. Now, one might surmise solely from this unprecedented number of producers that a highly varied field of beer styles was represented. But is that really the case?
IPA continues to be craft’s predominant category, with concentrated hop products and bioengineered yeasts leading a wave of innovation to help breweries boost flavor and satisfy consumers’ voracious lupulin lust. Yet, while it might feel like everyone is drinking nothing but the hoppy stuff these days, lagers remain the world’s most widely consumed and commercially available beers (mass-market offerings rule this arena, but small producers are increasingly injecting delicious diversity).
But what about those styles that, for whatever reason, are wrongly overlooked? As they say in high school, popularity isn’t everything, so a lack of love should not suggest inferior quality. And, if the recent reimaginings of long-standing flagships by New Belgium (Fat Tire) and Rogue (Dead Guy) reinforce anything, it’s that nothing is impervious to change. Meaning, today’s underappreciated styles could very well be tomorrow’s vogue. With that in mind, we asked 15 brewers around the country to share their picks for the beer categories worthy of more attention.
The Most Underrated Beer Styles, According to Brewers:
- British bitter
- Brown ale
- American pale ale
- Extra special bitter (ESB)
- Table beer
- Amber ale
- Helles lager
- India pale lager (IPL)
- Bavarian-style wheat
- Baltic porter
“Hefeweizen, formerly the drink of Bavarian royalty, evokes thoughts among many drinkers of cheaply made, mass-market offerings (or perhaps their first homebrew). The style deserves much more love than it gets, however! With its fruity yeast aroma, bready malt flavor, and luscious full body that is lifted up with high carbonation, there’s really nothing quite like a glass of fresh hef. Versions from Weihenstephan and Paulaner are shining examples — pick some up and give this style another go!” —Daniel Gadala-Maria, head brewer, Finback Brewery, Glendale, N.Y.
“When you ask me about underrated beer styles, my first response is: underrated to whom? Styles that consumers don’t appreciate are often most enjoyed by brewers and vice versa. But a style that I think is often underrated by both sides is the English bitter, or more broadly pub ales. They don’t have the alcohol or the hops that consumers often demand, nor are they quite as crisp as the lagers many brewers swear by. But they make up for that by being sessionable and exemplifying a smooth malt flavor that’s not overbearing and balances well with the restrained use of bittering hops. There are plenty of breweries deservedly well known for making English-style beers. A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of ordering the Pub Ale (OK, maybe I had two) from Strong Rope Brewery at their Brooklyn taproom, and I find myself still often thinking about that perfectly executed example of the style.” —Andrew Tobin, head of quality, Burial Beer Co., Asheville, N.C.
“I think one of the most underrated beer styles in the current era is the forgotten brown ale. Back when beer was ordered by color, brown ale reigned. Whether you’re into the rounded, fruit ester-driven Northern English brown, or something a bit more West Coast and hoppy like the famous Janet’s Brown Ale from the late Mike ‘Tasty’ McDole, there’s something nostalgic about it. Caramel, toasted bread, chocolate, light roast coffee; these are comfort flavors and something you can expect in a great brown ale. If you’re now craving some, check out Wild Fields in Atascadero, Calif., as they generally have a couple to drink. If you’re looking for a grocery store pickup, check out Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale with its focused minerality.” —Andrew Mohsenzadegan, owner and brewer, Flatland Brewing Company, Elk Grove, Calif.
“In my opinion, it has to be rauchbier. When done well, the complexity is unmatched. Depending on the type of smoked malts used, the flavor can range from sweet notes such as cherry and vanilla to more harsh notes like cured ham and bacon. The malts can be played with; to be light and delicate in a wheat beer or in your face in a märzen or roasty porter. With something as American as barbecue, the rauchbier should be right up there in popularity. My go-to is in a märzen followed closely by a black lager.” —Doug Gaumer, owner and head brewer, West Hill Brewing Company, Indianola, Iowa
“Smoked beers get such a bad rap and in my opinion are one of the most underappreciated styles. While an extreme version like a rauchbier can be quite polarizing in terms of the smoke character and intensity, the use of smoked malt in certain beer styles can lend depth and complexity that is otherwise unachievable. Smoked beer does not mean campfire or hot dog. When using smoked malt appropriately, it can lend notes like earthiness, oak, peat, and maple or act synergistically to enhance other aromatics. For one to say that they don’t like smoke is equivalent to saying they don’t like beer. All beer is not the same.” —Patrick Chavanelle, senior R&D brewer, Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
“In a sea of IPA, American pale ale is an underrated beer style. When it comes to a balanced, highly flavorful and just plain delicious beer, it’s really hard to beat American pale ale. There is enough hop character and malty sweetness to make it interesting and enjoyable to drink without oversaturating your palate. Food pairing options are almost too numerous to mention, but big hitters like pizza, grilled meats, fried chicken, spicy Thai food, and sharp cheddar cheese all pair perfectly with the citrus and pine hop notes that exemplify the style. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the definition of the style. It is always good. Go get some now.” —Mark Safarik, brewmaster, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, Del.
“I believe most brewers would agree that a solid ESB is hard to come by. It’s simply not a sexy style for the consumer so it’s not often seen on a taproom menu, but it’s the first one I’ll try if it’s there. What I love about the classic ESB, or extra special bitter, is that with its first sip it brings pure joy to my little brewer heart. I perceive aromas of cedar, pine, and hints of cherry followed by the warming malt flavors of biscuit and toasted bread. The color can be intimidating, appearing as a ‘dark’ beer, but it’s one of the most sessionable ales with its medium body. Truly an underrated ale.” —Georgie Solis, brewer, Walking Stick Brewing Company, Houston
“Table beer. It’s not just an Old World style or for food pairings. It’s a workhorse. Great for a fancy dinner or when you’re working your ass off, it could be the most relevant style of beer. A delicate but uncomplicated blend of malt, hops, water, and yeast that doesn’t tire your palate. Anything over 3 percent ABV is hot. Our table beer, Le Petit Prince (affectionately known as Teeter), is the fuel we run on at the brewery. We recently started canning it in addition to 750-milliliter bombers, which has made it a lot easier to enjoy more often. It would be lovely to start seeing more table beers in cans. Another example, and one I wish wasn’t 2,000 miles away from Texas, is Bière de Table from Brasserie Dunham. It, as well as their Citra de Table, are two of my favorites.” —Sarah Lee Parker, barrel program manager, Jester King Brewery, Austin, Texas
“I want to see people pay more attention to the Belgian table beer. The ‘table’ part comes from the fact that this beer is meant to be enjoyed with family, friends, or even strangers at a dinner table. These beers are low in alcohol (historically 1 to 3 percent ABV but more like 4 to 4.5 percent in modern iterations), with clean estery fermentation profiles and a light and sometimes pillowy mouthfeel; they complement any meal. My favorites are dry and effervescent, but any that incorporate Brettanomyces are even better in my opinion. Allagash’s Hoppy Table Beer or Creature Comforts’ Table Beer are instant buys.” —Zach Kelly, brewmaster, HenHouse Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, Calif.
“I think one of the most underrated styles of beer today is table beer. When properly brewed, table beers can have immense amounts of flavor and complexity yet remain very dry and super crushable. Because the Drowned Lands is a destination brewery, we always have two or three beers on tap under 4 percent ABV, which allows our visitors to enjoy a few and still make a long drive home. And with the growing popularity of N/A beer and low-sugar beverages, my hope is that more people will give table beers a try as a lovely alternative to the more mainstream, higher-gravity styles. Flora Firma is one of our favorite table beers we brew, made with a traditional farmhouse heist of New York-grown pilsner malt, wheat, rye, and oats, fermented with a house saison blend, and hopped generously with Motueka for a zesty lime finish. Ultra dry, flavorful, refreshing, and just 3.5 percent.” —Mike Kraai, founder, The Drowned Lands, Warwick, N.Y.
“Amber ale. I like the style because it can kind of be a catchall and many brewers put all different beers in here — from ESB and alt to hoppy American ambers. It’s often a lower-ABV beer where malt shines that isn’t a stout or porter. When craft was young, they were so easy to find and enjoy, but sadly not as much anymore. There are still some great breweries making amber ale, though: Alaskan, Bell’s, Duck-Rabbit. Let’s bring amber back in 2023.” —Ryan Witter-Merithew, co-owner and brewer, Casita Brews, Wilson, N.C.
“Thank God it feels like the race to dump the most amount of hops, find the wackiest new adjuncts, and push ABVs to the limit is finally winding down. I’ve been craving a return to the classics like helles lagers: beers that shine in their simplicity and have been overlooked in recent years in favor of hop-forward, big-ABV offerings. Approachability can be an overused buzzword, but there’s something special about a beer that a beer nerd and casual drinker can appreciate alike. Bingo Beer’s Lager fits that bill. It’s enjoyable to its core.” —Emily Sanfratella, VP of operations, Beale’s Beer (Bedford, Va.) and Trapezium Brewing Co. (Petersburg, Va.)
“When brewed with pilsner malt and a flavorful yeast strain, combined with some tropical and citrus hop blends, India pale lager (also known as IPL) is magic! The West Coast-style IPL never really took off the way it should have. I cannot think of a single one I tried that I didn’t absolutely love!” —Steve Gonzalez, senior manager of brewing and innovation-small batch, Stone Brewing, Escondido, Calif.
“An underrated beer style that comes to mind immediately for me is a traditional open-fermenter beer like a Bavarian-style wheat. We have a beer in this style named Kellerweis. It can occasionally be found in our taprooms in Chico or Mills River, N.C. When this kind of beer is served up, it’s typically a beautiful golden-hued, unfiltered liquid in the glass with a thick, velvety foam head. If served in the appropriate glassware, it tends to be a statement piece on the bar top when it’s delivered to the drinker. The traditional open-fermentation method is key in getting all the most enjoyable flavors out of this style, and there’s something that feels special about knowing that an Old World brewing technique was used in the creation of the beer. The yeast really shines in this style, with notes of clove and banana that come through — with no actual adjuncts needed if brewed the way the Bavarians do it.” —Terence Sullivan, product manager, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif.
“Baltic porter is a classic dark lager style originated from the Baltic Sea region circa the 18th century and was somewhat similar to the imperial stouts being brewed at the time in the U.K. and Russia. The high-ABV style all but disappeared after World War II until the 1990s, when it saw a resurgence in both Europe and the U.S. Robust dark malt character, notes of chocolate and coffee, and a clean lager finish are all the hallmarks of the style, of which Zywiec Porter from Poland is a standout example.” —Jared Williamson, lead brewer, Schlafly Beer, St. Louis, Mo.