Beer: Anchor Steam Beer Brewery: Anchor Brewing Co. Style: California Common ABV: 4.9 percent
I will admit that, when it comes to beer, I'm enamored with novelty -- the fringe, experimental brews that challenge my palate and keep things interesting. But sometimes in the quest for limited-release, barrel-aged, quadruple-hopped, soured, funked, iced and otherwise fiddled-with beers, we become like Captain Ahab, and our quest for the next white whale causes us to ignore the flagships -- brews that, while common and inexpensive, are no less of a good catch.
Flagship beers pay the bills. They are not flashy and rarely make headlines, but they are quietly purchased more often than any other beer in a brewery's portfolio. Flagships keep the lights on and give brewers the leeway to produce the weird, rare beers we get so crazy for.
And lest we forget them, there's Flag Day to remind us. Celebrated every June 14, the holiday commemorates the adoption of the stars and stripes as our national flag. The entire week is actually designated National Flag Week, during which we citizens are urged to fly our colors. However, Rob Fullmer, president of the Arizona Society of Homebrewers, suggested on his beerphxation blog that we also use this week "to mark the success of one of the more tangible results of our nation's independent spirit -- American brewing."
"Many of us are familiar with the story of New Belgium," Fullmer says. "Fat Tire and Abbey were two of co-founder Jeff Lebesh's first recipes. Lebesh was certain that Abbey would be the top seller. It wasn't to be, of course. Fat Tire was the people's choice and its success allowed New Belgium to support a vast, wide-ranging, flavorful catalog as well as an employee-driven culture."
So this Flag Day I'm turning to a flagship I often overlook: Anchor Steam Beer. As a California Common, one of the few beer styles completely unique to our country, the brew is doubly appropriate for the patriotic holiday. The style dates back to the 1800s, when reliable refrigeration was rare and brewers used coolships -- large, shallow fermenters kept open to the chilly NorCal air -- to compensate. The style also makes use of lager yeast that's been trained to ferment at warmer temperatures. Thanks to Anchor, the California Common is often also called Steam Beer, though the brewery has a trademark on that moniker.
The brew itself is a deep amber with perfect clarity. Pour it well and you'll get an inch or two of highly retentive froth that hangs out for a solid ten minutes before becoming a very thick, sticky top layer.
The aroma would have you believe there isn't much to this beer. Hints of sourish grain, biscuits and freeze-dried apples are all that's noticeable. The flavor, however, disproves this with a swirl of lightly toasted biscuits, sweet red apple, apricot, tangy grain and lightly earthy hops.
The beauty of the California Common is its ability to combine the characters of both lager and ale, combining fruity ale flavors with great drinkability. The smooth, almost creamy body is animated with soft, massaging carbonation before disappearing from the palate in a clean finish, leaving only a slight bitterness behind. A brilliant session beer.
Anchor Steam and its fellow flagships do not ask much of your time or money. They don't require that you wait in line for hours to buy them, or that you travel to some distant locale, or that you trade away half your cellar for a taste. But that doesn't mean they can't be great -- there's a reason flagships are the top sellers. This Flag Week, find time for a flagship, and maybe visit every now and then between searches for the bigger, bolder beers. They'll be there when you're ready.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.