Stocking up with beer for the summer isn't as simple as it used to be.
For one thing, people in the know don't stock up anymore. The best beers come with freshness dates -- meaning they, like milk, should be consumed promptly. No more stacking cases in the garage.
Then there are the choices. Remember when Coors was exotic? When Michelob was a special-occasion treat? When music came on long-playing albums?
The growth spurt of "micro" and "craft" brewers in recent years, along with buyers' strong interest in imported classics, has created a variety and quality of beer never before seen in the United States, even in the halcyon, pre-Prohibition days of neighborhood breweries.
(A microbrewer is defined as a brewer putting out fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer a year; a craft brewer specializes in high-quality specialty beers.)
Count among the nation's craft brewers the stodgy giant Anheuser-Busch, which offered only three beers as recently as 1976 (Budweiser, Busch and Michelob), but now offers 24 brands with such unfamiliar names as Crossroads, Elk Mountain and Red Wolf.
Other companies, large and small, are reconfiguring the basic water/hops/barley/yeast recipe with dramatic results: cranberry beers, herb beers and wheat beers; beers brewed with pepper and pumpkins; lagers and ales; clear beers and near beers, lights and ices, and even a dry or two lingering around.
Anheuser-Busch still produces about half the beer consumed in the United States and says the craft-brewing segment represents only about 1.5 percent. But it is the fastest-growing corner of an industry that ran out of sales fizz a few years ago.
There are about 2,800 beers on the U.S. market, up from a few hundred 20 years ago, according to the Institute for Brewing Studies in Boulder, Colo. The suds pour in from Boston and zTC Bavaria, the Philippines and Mexico and everyplace in between. The brewers are small, like Baltimore's fledgling Brimstone, and large, like Sam Adams' Boston Brewing Co., which has grown so big that it really can't be called a microbrewery anymore.
Bud, Miller and Strohs? Try Wild Goose, Full Sail and Oregon Trail. And the quality? There's a terrific range, which is half the fun in trying new and different beers.
"The best beers in the world are being brewed in the United States now," declares Jack Erickson, a professional beer aficionado and writer whose latest book, "Brewing Adventures in the Big East," brought him through Baltimore. (He's impressed with the local offerings.)
"The small brewers are turning the beer industry on its head," Mr. Erickson says.
Most of the "new" products are actually old ones being repopularized and, in some cases, renamed and repackaged. And most still fit into a relatively few families of beer, chiefly lagers and ales.
Ales are brewed at warmer temperatures which, for reasons only your brewmaster need understand, tend to produce a richer, more complex flavor and give rise to some great varieties: from the dark and chocolaty porters to smooth and drinkable India pale ales and flavorful British bitters.
Lagers are the beers most Americans grew up with, which are brewed at colder temperatures and tend to be lighter and more (( quaffable. Pilsener is the most famous and popular lager, largely because of the success of the Pilsener Budweiser.
Most of the American Pilseners are light and watery. And even though beer snobs sneer at Budweiser, it really is the king of beers, measured in sales, and is making inroads into overseas markets.
Folks at the brewery are a little touchy about the flak aimed at Bud, such as Mr. Erickson's description of it as a "lawn mowing beer" made with rice to keep costs down.
"I can say that Budweiser is an exceptionally high-quality beer. From a brewing standpoint, that position can't be debated," says Dan Kahn, brewmaster of Anheuser-Busch's specialty brewing group.
He says the ingredients are all natural. And yes, the company actually does put strips of beechwood into the tanks for the "beechwood aging," an expensive step that gives the yeast more surface area upon which to alight.
Still lagers, but much darker, are the bocks, which take their color and extra flavor from the roasting of the grain. They tend to be sweeter, owing to some residual sugars left in after fermentation, and traditionally were brewed in the spring in Europe to awaken everyone's taste buds from their long winter naps.
A fast-growing lager category that some experts think may grab a significant share of the market -- akin to the ice beer phenomenon of the last few years -- is wheat beer. Miller recently bought a Texas microbrewer strong on wheat beers, and Anheuser-Busch is currently market-testing a wheat beer called Crossroads.
"It's a very bold step, and it will be interesting to see how it is received," Mr. Kahn says. (Keep in mind that Anheuser-Busch only recently started brewing its first ale, after more than 140 years in business.)