Watered down, flavourless and virtually an insult to the genre, American beer has long been a joke in other parts of the world. But brews are finally changing for the better in the US of A.
How do I know? Because I've tasted malty heaven in Anaheim - the heartland of Americana, home of Disneyland, fast food and super-sized soda.
For most Australians, Anaheim in California is the place you sleep between rides on Space Mountain. Synonymous with drinking good beer? Not until Anaheim's annual Orange County Fest of Ales came along.
Generally I'm a whisky drinker, but on a hot day or a long hike I am open to a playful, lighthearted brew - call mine a girly palate. For my sister Poppy, beer is her go-to. She favours Aussie pale ales like Coopers or James Squire 150 Lashes, and settles in for a "nice cold lager" on long, hot days. She has brewed her own, loves craft beer and is scathing of hop-heavy Americans. We went to the Fest of Ales together as the yin and yang of beer tasting.
Like Australia, the US is consuming less beer than ever before, but the craft beer movement is growing fast (and Australia is the fourth-largest importer of their craft product). California has almost double the number of craft breweries as its closest rivals, Colorado and Washington State, and the mayor of Anaheim is aggressively supporting his burgeoning local beer industry.
Word at the bar is these are not the heavy, hoppy beers begat by Cali craft beer pioneer Sierra Nevada. Hops are female flowers from the Cannabaceae family, cousins to cannabis, and are critical to beer in terms of toning down the sweetness, adding flavour and aroma, and naturally preserving the product.
The choices are many including piney Chinook, earthy Fuggle, sharp, herbal Columbus or the fruity Galaxy favoured in Australia. Measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs), bitter hoppiness blows out the human palate at around 60 IBUs. Although IBUs are measured to 100, you won't taste the difference in bitterness after 60.
In the early days of craft brewing, hops were an easy way to get creative because you could exploit the range of flavours and add them at different stages of the brew or in different forms – fresh, dried or as pellets. Hoppy beers are a craft brew favourite, but also a cliché, and Poppy and I are on a mission to discover beer innovation for the discerning Aussie abroad.
The Fest of Ales and the craft breweries of Anaheim prove a revelation. Who knew there were such edgy, food-forward locals lurking in the shadows of Disneyland?
Here are our top SoCal craft beers, with not a one-legged hopster in sight.
Little Bo Pils
Our master cicerone (that's a beer sommelier) sells this as a "Czech type pilsner" featuring unfiltered hops. His recommendation that "if you like Coors Lite, then drink this" has me worried. Corn syrup flavouring? Pass. But Little Bo Pils is a subtle little bub with a touch of honey and bread. Lots of bread.
This was Poppy's first beer after a long, hot day and the thirsty expert dubbed it "very refreshing. A nice malty, bready thing not drowning in hops like every American beer". Definitely a thing to chew on, Little Bo Pils gets our Aussie-bred tick.
Saint Archer Brewery
This brew won Gold at the 2014 American Beer Festival for the "approachable" coriander and orange peel that spices its Belgian yeast. No hops in sight. Poppy says it tastes like fruit juice, but as a lightweight, hot-weather beer drinker I disagree. It's skollable, sweet and super yummy. I could conk back several bottles and be one happy camper. You can try Saint Archer on Alaska Airlines, too.
Thunderstruck, a 19th Anniversary Ale
Stones has taken a cheeky punt here, with an AC/DC reference AND 100 per cent Aussie hops and malt. We are told tropical fruit up-front will mellow to grapefruit and slabs of papaya. The look on Poppy's face is gold. Then she takes a whiff. "Smells like mango. I hate mango."
It's all over for Poppy but I find the complex flavour intriguing and really satisfying. This is one of my favourites, what our cicerone calls a "rollercoaster" of flavours.
Bottle Logic call themselves the mad scientists of beer and this is their take on a dark lager using French malts. Lagerithm is another Gold Medal winner featuring sweet caramel over a slightly roasted lager. Poppy dubs this the ninja beer, because it "doesn't smell like anything … then suddenly a delicious smash". We both agree it's a terrific ale and crushes any suggestion that American craft beer is all heavy-handed hops.
Another one from Bottle Logic, this is an easy-drinking blonde ale that we both think is a tasty choice if you plan to slam back a few. As Poppy succinctly notes: "If I was back at uni drinking 24/7, that's my beer."
Barley Forge Brewing
A controversial addition to this best-beer list but, as a designer by trade and lightweight beer gal, I insist it gets a call-out. The branding is fantastic – they sell from a converted army truck and their labels are wall-worthy – and I'm a sucker for coconut. The Patsy is their Coconut Rye Stout, brewed with chocolate rye and flavoured with undertones of espresso, and I think it is fantastic. Poppy says it's swill.
Coronado Brewing Co.
Warning bells go off when we hear it's a chilli beer. Every Aussie home brewer I know has tried one and they have all been epic fails. Yet the Saison is a jalapeno beer featuring "all the chilli except the heat" and it's a really interesting drop. Poppy, who is vehemently opposed to exotic fruits polluting her ales, is won over. "I don't normally like flavoured beer, but this is good." And I love it, too. A great drop with strongly-flavoured food. Aussies will love this.
Cismontane Brewing Co.
This dark, decadent brew deserves to be in the clutch of every Aussie beer drinker. It is described simply as "Imperial Stout" with no mention that said oatmeal stout is aged in Maker's Mark bourbon barrels for almost a year. Not a beer to be thrown back, Black's Nocturne is for friends around a fire with tales to tell. The brewers are planning a Brewstillery in greater Los Angeles, so expect more spirit and beer crossovers.
The writer was a guest of Orange County Fest Of Ales and Visit Anaheim.