Not too many years ago, a North American beer drinker in search of flavorful, distinctive  beers had to look overseas. When I came of legal drinking age in 1974, American beer was practically synonymous with one style: pale, light-tasting, crystal-clear lager, refreshing to drink on a hot day or with spicy foods. Typical Canadian beer was similar, if marginally more flavorful. With a few notable exceptions, the only beers that demonstrated the wider range of beer flavors and styles were imported, mostly from northern Europe and the British Isles.

 What a change the last three decades have seen. The familiar pale, mass-market lagers brewed by a handful of giant brewing companies still dominate the North American beer market, and the selection of imported beers is larger than ever. But a third alternative has emerged, in the form of hundreds of smaller local and regional breweries. Among them, these small brewers manage to duplicate nearly every brewing style known in the Old World, as well as some distinctively New World varieties.

Nowhere has this change been more dramatic than in the region bordering the Pacific Coast (and, by a not-too-strained extension, the Rocky Mountain states). The region that gave birth to the “microbrewery” model in the mid-1970s remains the happiest place in the country to be a beer lover. The 1980s and '90s saw an explosion of new, mostly small breweries across America, but nowhere in greater numbers than in the West. Some of these breweries have been and gone, some have consolidated, but many have remained as viable small businesses catering to a local trade. Others like Redhook, Sierra Nevada, and Pyramid have outgrown the “microbrewery” category to become important regional producers, to the point that they have attracted interest, imitation, and in some cases investment from the big brewers.

Whatever the scale, these “micro-” or “craft” breweries have in common the vision of a new generation of brewers. Disappointed in the bland sameness of beers brewed by the huge national brewing companies and exposed to more flavorful Old World models, these pioneers have made it their business to bring back flavor and diversity to American beers. Together, they have revolutionized North American brewing, reviving some traditional styles of beer and ale and developing a few new ones. (There is no Old World equivalent of Anchor Liberty Ale or Alaskan Smoked Porter, to name a couple.)

All in all, the new generation of brewers is providing us with better and more varied beer than ever. Nearly every city has several pubs featuring an assortment of fine beers and ales on tap, and most have one or more brewpubs making their own beer on the premises. It all comes down to more choice for beer drinkers. You can still find Guinness Stout on tap in plenty of places, but chances are they are also pouring another stout brewed a few miles away rather than shipped halfway around the world.

The new role of beer in the West did not occur in a vacuum; it’s gone hand in hand with changes in everything we eat and drink. The West Coast has led the nation in interest in (some would say obsession with) our food — how it is produced, how it is distributed, and above all, how it tastes. Consumers continue to demand more flavor, more freshness, and more natural ingredients in everything from salad greens, bread, and cheese to coffee and beer. We are also becoming more attuned to the seasons, and to balancing our desire for ingredients from around the world with supporting our local farmers, fishermen, and yes, brewers.

The other great trend in West Coast food and drink over recent decades can be seen in the sheer variety of our food tastes, as travel and immigration continue to add new flavors to our collective food vocabulary. Here on the western edge of North America, the way people cook and eat today represents a mingling of food traditions from around the world, with especially strong influences from Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, and regional American cuisines. New arrivals not only assimilate North American traditions, but also those of their immigrant neighbors, and we are all the richer as we grow up increasingly familiar with each other’s food. Shopping for ingredients to recreate the flavors we encounter in restaurants and homes, we find not only more imported items, but more being grown and produced here, from lemongrass and Asian pears grown in Washington to balsamic vinegar and Thai-style sriracha sauce made in California.

Whether you call this blending of flavors and traditions “eclectic,” “New American,” “fusion,” “Pacific Rim cuisine,” or give it some other label, I think it’s no coincidence that a lot of our favorite foods go very well with beer. In a sense, modern West Coast cooking and modern West Coast beer have grown up together, like the local food and drink in much of the Old World. It’s a relationship summed up in the title of this introduction, which might just as well be the title of the book. * 

While the focus of this book is on local brews, I am not suggesting that we should stop drinking imported  beers. Staying familiar with the world’s classic beer styles gives us all-important benchmarks as our homegrown styles continue to evolve. Those who make and enjoy wine, cheese, and other artisan foods would be fools to turn their backs on the best that the Old World has to offer, and the same goes for beer.

Throughout this book I refer to various styles of beer and specific examples of beers I like and consider typical of those styles. However, I do not consider myself a beer expert, just an aficionado. You may well disagree with my classification of XYZ Ale as a brown ale rather than a porter, let alone whether it represents a particularly good example of either. If you prefer another, by all means enjoy it.

I probably shouldn’t worry; most beer drinkers are far too sensible to let anyone else tell them what to drink. Instead, I hope this book will encourage you to explore some new cuisines and consider some new ideas on pairing foods and beers. I also hope that you will find some favorite new recipes for dishes to enjoy with your favorite beers. If that happens, I will consider the book a success.

— Jay Harlow

* Author's note: I am well aware (as I assume are many readers) of the brilliant phrase of French environmentalist René Dubos, who in 1972 advised us to “think globally, act locally” on environmental issues. I believe this advice is as important today as it was 30 years ago, and I certainly do not mean to trivialize it by adapting his construction to a quite different context. If anyone is offended, I apologize.

Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook

Brewing in the West

The Brewing Process

• Beer at the Table

• From the Beer Belt (includes recipes)

• Pizza and Beyond (recipes)

• From the Spice Bazaar (recipes)

• Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy (recipes)

• From the Home of the Chile Pepper (recipes)

• Beer in the Melting Pot (recipes)

Go back to The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook index page.

The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook 

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.

The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook: Eat globally, drink locally
Times have changed for North American beer drinkers who now have many more options: mass-market lagers, imports or regional brews.