f Memorial Day kicks off barbecue season, then July Fourth is the halftime show, complete with fireworks, grill-branded burgers and (woo-hoo!) beer.
You may be loyal to a favorite big-name brew, but microbreweries generally offer a wider variety of styles made with care and higher-quality ingredients.
Just as you wouldn’t serve guests Big Macs at your July Fourth shindig, try impressing them this year with a flavorful microbrew.
Many of them are accessible and available - and what could be more patriotic than a home-state brew?
The wide selection can be daunting for first-timers, so here’s a rundown of Virginia micros you can buy at your local store. With a little experimentation, you might find a new favorite to accompany your old standby.
This tasting included beers from Legend Brewing Co. (Richmond), St. George Brewing Co. (Hampton) and Old Dominion Brewing Co. (Ashburn), which makes Dominion, New River and Tupper’s.
The most popular style of Virginia microbrews is the pale ale. American pale ales are generally quite hoppy (a bitterness derived from a specific genus of flower), and often include citrus and/or pine flavors.
In this tasting, Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Ale topped the list. Its white head showed good lacing atop a foggy, amber orange body. A hoppy aroma with strong citrus preceded very clean, dry, hop flavors, while notes of smooth orange and pine blended with the bitterness. Exceptionally velvety gliding down the throat, this brew was mellow and understated but full-flavored.
New River Pale Ale, a local favorite, also fared well. A clear amber body gave off a similarly hoppy aroma loaded with citrus. Caramel malt flavors (common in English pale ales) began up front, followed by fresh hops. Its long, inviting hop finish with just a hint of wetness kept the sips coming.
St. George Golden Ale had a nose of citrus, apricot, sourdough and woody vegetable stems. Malt flavors were light - like cereal or pasta - with a dry, hoppy finish and cereal aftertaste. Even-handed and not too exciting, this beer would complement spicy food.
Legend Pale Ale was softer, with a butterscotch aroma tinged with asparagus and some hops. Its hop flavors were too separated, dominating along with sharp grapefruit and metallic notes. Dominion Ale was poorest in the category - a tinny combination of bread, orange peel and a hint of caramel malt.
Lagers are the most common style macrobrewed in America, so for Bud, Miller or Coors drinkers, these might be the most familiar.
Of the three lagers tasted, Tuppers’ topped again with its Hop Pocket Pils - a clear, yellow German pilsener with a quickly dissipating white head. Its aroma was rich with grass, lemon, flour, hops and a stray peach note. Its flowery hop flavors perfectly balance light malts, with a dry finish and a long-lasting fade.
Dominion Lager was an orangey yellow pour with a sweet malt aroma of bread dough, some butter and an odd note of lemon. Its taste was grassy with faint lemon and yellow apple, finishing with straw. Legend Lager had a nose of sour lemongrass, salty celery and yeast. Flavors were light grass with puckery lemon and apple tartness. Although inoffensive, lacked a sturdy malt backbone.
The rest (and some of the best)
The rating also included one beer from three other styles: India pale ale, porter and brown ale - all three of which were enjoyable.
St. George India Pale Ale sported an impressive nose of sweet honey with flowery hops. Its flavors were hoppy but with heavy maple syrup, brown sugar and caramel up front, the hops growing through the finish. It was sweeter than most IPAs - tasty despite being a little on sticky side.
St. George Porter poured black with an oak tint around the edges. Its milky, chocolate malt nose preceded sweet, simple chocolate malt flavors, like Whoppers candy, fading with a pleasant, dry finish. It was a bit watery - porters can include coffee, molasses, roasted malt and hop flavors - but still well-rounded.
Legend Brown Ale, the brewery’s flagship bottle, poured a murky, dark, reddish brown with a thick, lasting, off-white head. Its aroma was curiously sweet, a baked bean-like brown sugar. These notes continued onto the tongue, along with gooey molasses flavors and a slight burnt-caramel aftertaste. It could have used some hops for balance, but its enjoyable sweetness would make for a good introduction to microbrews.
What to try (and how to introduce your friends)
Although the Hop Pocket Ale was the best of the bunch, those more acquainted with macrobrewed lagers might find pale ales too hoppy for their tastes. Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Pils was the most impressive lager and will likely stand up best in the face of Bud-Miller-Coors.
If your drink of choice is a brown ale like Newcastle, Legend’s brown might be a worthy replacement, or possibly the thicker St. George Porter, laden with chocolate and coffee.
Is all this old hat to you? Well then, microveteran, try Legend Imperial Brown Ale (8 percent alcohol by volume), a strong concoction of fruity chocolate, caramel, raisin and date flavors. Or check out Dominion Millenium (10.4 percent abv), a bourbon-like barley wine thick with malt and hops.
Grilling with style
Food pairing goes beyond the wine and cheese crowd; complementary food will bring out the flavors in both the beer and your party fare. In general, similarity is the key.
Vibrant, hoppy beers like pale ales are best for standing up to spicy foods like hot wings or chili. Wheats are great with cheese, salads and egg-based quiches. Lighter beers, like summer ales and pilseners, accompany seafood well, bringing out zesty lemon flavors.
Brown ales that are flavorful but on the sweet side are good for chicken, while sturdier stouts and porters are best with a hearty burger. Sausages and hot dogs, though, are good with hoppier lagers because of the meats’ saltiness.
And be creative - you might be surprised at the delight of pouring your favorite stout over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
What do these words mean?
Huh? Wondering what all these words mean? Here’s a partial glossary to help you through the tasting terminology.
The liquid part of a poured beer, which displays the beer’s color. A cloudy body generally means that it is unfiltered and still contains yeast (which is OK).
Dry Not sweet
A dry finish is often desirable, leaving the taster wanting another sip. The opposite can be called wet, sticky or even cloying.
The lingering taste after the beer is swallowed, generally on the back of the tongue.
The foam atop a poured beer. Some head is preferred, as this unlocks the aroma.
A bitterness derived from hops, a specific genus of flower and a basic ingredient of beer.
The clinging of the head to the sides of the glass as the beer is drunk; visually appealing.
Grain, usually barley, that gives the beer sweet, bready and other flavors. A basic ingredient.
The feeling of a beer in the mouth, which can include viscosity and carbonation.
A brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels a year.
Not a technical term, but generally refers to very large breweries, the implication being that they are of lower quality.