Reasonable people can disagree about whether the sport that the rest of the world calls football is a more civilized pursuit than the American gladiatorial sport that plays out on the nation's gridirons each fall and winter. We'll take a well-executed screen pass over a bending corner kick any day, but to each his own. On one point, though, we'll brook no argument. There is no greater pre-sport fan ritual than the American tailgate party. Grilled food and cold beer, enjoyed outdoors with good friends, what's not to like? Well, maybe one thing: the fizzy yellow swill that we see far too many football fans guzzling down during their pregame.
What makes a great craft beer for a tailgate party? While there's no one-size-fits-all formula, you need to keep a few things in mind. First, go for big flavors, but not big alcohol. Beer tends to go down quickly at a tailgate party, so account for it ahead of time and keep the ABV levels at least somewhat reasonable. At the same time, grilled meats and spicy sauces are perennial tailgate favorites, so look for big, roasty malt backbones to match the meat and hop flavors to cut through the heat. Also, remember where you are. Tailgates take place in parking lots. Give extra consideration to beers that are available in cans, which pack more efficiently in a cooler and clean up more tidily. Likewise, if a particular beer is best showcased with elaborate glassware, then you're probably better off leaving it for the victory party when you get home.
With these guidelines in mind, we picked five classic beer styles and a great example from each style.
Founder's Centennial (IPA)
If your tailgate features spicy food, there's no better way to tame the fire than to reach for an American-style IPA. These pale ales get their intense flavor from the copious hops that brewers add to their brew kettles. All those hops translate to intense bitterness but also pungent citrus and pine aromas, a great way to deliver flavors that cut right through the potent heat of chili peppers.
Founder's IPA showcases the grapefruit flavors of the centennial hop variety in its Centennial IPA, but most breweries mix hop varieties for maximum effect. The combination of hops that Lagunitas uses in its IPA achieves a nearly juicy fruit pungency. East Coast breweries such as Harpoon have historically been more conservative with bitterness and hop flavors in favor of a balancing malt character, but they still make fine IPAs. Harpoon's is available in cans.