Have you ever heard of hybrid beers?

The brewing world is so wide and diverse that discussion cannot be limited to just “Beer”.

Simone Massenza
Simone Massenza

The brewing world is so wide and diverse that discussion cannot be limited to just “Beer.
Hundreds of brewing styles now exist around the world, and to navigate this vast ocean without getting lost, one must be familiar with at least some of the classifications. Beers can be subdivided according to color, alcohol content, historical-geographical origin, or fermentation method.


If you consider yourself to be somewhat of a beer connoisseur, and not exactly a novice, you’ve certainly heard of the primary fermentative families. High and Low (Top and Bottom fermentation) alone account for more than 90% of production worldwide.

High and Low refer to the different temperature ranges in which their respective yeasts (yes, two different yeasts are used) perform at their best (higher or lower) and indicates the position in the fermentation vat where the more tumultuous phase takes place. Basically, on one side you have Lagers (low) from Germany and neighboring areas, and on the other side Ales (high), with a strong bond between Belgium and the United Kingdom.

If you’re a true beer-connoisseur, you’ve probably heard of spontaneous fermentation (Lambic and Gueuze, to give you an idea) or mixed fermentation (all those styles in which a second fermentation, involving lactobacilli and/or acetobacter comes into play, without disturbing our Bifidobacterium or Jamie Lee Curtis…), which together make up the microcosm of Sour Ales.

However, few are familiar with the last fermentative family, not last in terms of time, but in terms of number: the hybrid.

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The name already says a lot and implies that they’re beers which straddle the two fundamental fermentative families: High and Low. Americans, as the true cowboys they are, coarsely and inelegantly call it “the b*stard son of German Lagers and English Ales”.

That about says it all…

Hybrid fermentations are, therefore, beers produced with high fermentation yeasts, but prepared at low fermentation temperatures (or vice versa). And why on earth, you might ask, should we complicate our lives when there are already High and Low to choose from? Simple, because even culinary evolution is an ongoing continuum of randomness and causality, and our hybrids are certainly no exception.

First of all, you have to know that all hybrid beers are American, and it couldn’t have been any other way. Born in that meltin’ pot of European cultures, in many cases from countries with a strong brewing tradition (Belgium, Ireland, Poland, etc.), which, when combined, created a new tradition that fully represents the stars and stripes (e pluribus unum), free from barriers and dogmas, yet incredibly rich in creativity.

In a word, American!

These children of a lesser God gave birth to only three hybrid beers in two centuries, quite a rarity. So, if you want to maintain your right to call yourself a true Beer-Geek, then you have to get to know them.


The first one, chronologically speaking, is Cream Ale. America, like a good former colony of King George III, retains a strong British influence (I mean, they do speak English, in their own way). An influence that, in the brewing world, grew rapidly, considering that the previous two dominant cultures, French and Spanish, just couldn’t keep their grades up. (You like to win easily, huh?) 

Thus, American styles began as British styles, house-trained by Uncle Sam, with the helping hand of the native people, who were already skilled fermenters. This was the situation until the early 19th century, when Lagers, especially Pilsners, arrived in the New World. Just like on the Old Continent, there were a success from coast to coast as well! Contrary to Ales, low fermentation beers are cleaner, drier, simpler, and more delicate, subtly focused on grains rather than hops, and without too many fruity esters.

Canada and the midwestern states, the three Ms (Minnesota, Missouri, and Michigan), began to convert their production and produce them in large quantities, gradually and peacefully invading the rest of North America.


And the other brewers? They couldn’t exactly just stand by and watch, so, caught off guard, they decided to adapt their Golden Ales and Blonde Ales to the market. Sort of like the famous saying attributed to Marie Antoinette, “If they don’t have bread, then let them eat cake”, if we don’t have Lager yeast… well, then we’ll use Ale yeast, but treat it like Lager yeast.

Given this talent for making do, I strongly suspect there was an Italian-American involved. Anyway… they were successful because this type of production significantly softens the aromatic-flavor characteristics of an Ale, causing it to resemble a Lager.

The name ”Cream Ale” doesn’t imply the use of milk or its derivatives, unlike, for example, a Milk Ale, but is rather a commercial and marketing choice. Initially they were known as Sparkling Ales (effervescent beers) or Present Use Ales (beers for daily consumption). Then brewers managed to turn a small defect related to low fermentation into an attractive quality, from a communication standpoint. Despite its mildness, it’s still an Ale, so softer, silkier, smoother, and rounder than a Lager, in a word… Creamy!

The counteroffensive worked, at least until 1919, when the United States was delivered a devastating blow with the Volstead Act, also known as the 18th Amendment, or, to friends, Prohibition. The production, sale, import, and transport of alcohol, including Cream Ales, was prohibited. When all seemed lost for our poor hybrid, America’s past enemy, the Canadian Redcoats, came to the rescue! (It’s better than a soap opera!) Having realized that a market for these beers had developed, they began to produce it in the Great White North, ultimately saving it. Then in 1933, having survived this moment of Temperance, both countries continued to produce it.

Today Cream Ales are blonde, bright, light (4%-5.5% ABV), clean, simple, easy-to-drink, and refreshing, thanks to their carbonation, with delicate notes of malt and corn, which, in keeping with American tradition, uses 20% grist in the recipe. It’s perfect for those looking for a pleasant and unpretentious glass of beer.

birre ibride


While the north was engaged in these skirmishes, which, luckily for us saintly drinkers, ended well, we continue our coast-to-coast road trip to California, where they weren’t sitting idle. This is the time of the famous Gold Rush, of Oh Susanna, of the birth of Levi’s jeans (not coincidentally by Bavarian-born Levi Strauss), and of Gold Fever, which, between 1848 and 1855, brought thousands upon thousands of Europeans to California.

And in the same way that our Italian grandparents left with a cardboard suitcase, a wheel of cheese, and a bottle of Fernet, their Central-Northern European grandparents left with the same cardboard suitcase, but with the family recipe for beer and their own yeast, sort of like the mother of vinegar or bread. We’re talking about more than 300,000 desperate people in search of fortune. Imagine how much beer was needed to quench their thirst or to help them forget their bitter disappointment (because only a truly small fraction of them actually got rich).

And so, in the San Francisco Bay Area a new kind of beer production began, which spread throughout California, or rather throughout all of the areas affected by the Gold Rush, with limited technological equipment, no refrigeration, and whatever yeasts they had available. The climate of the Golden State (with a high of 120°F) is ever so slightly different than that of the Bavarian Alps (-10°F in winter), and so they found themselves with a Lager yeast that had to work in unfamiliar conditions..


But necessity is always the mother of invention, and to find some respite from the heat, the beer was put in large, wide, and low open vats on the rooftops of buildings, where, thanks to the cool night air that came down from the White Mountains, it managed to cool naturally.

The temperature difference created immense columns of water vapor that rose from the houses into the sky, giving it the name “Steam Beer”. Interest in this beer grew as rapidly as the gold frenzy, following its same fate, and, with the depletion of the gold deposits, lost its appeal, fading into oblivion. This eclipse lasted until 1981 when, in the midst of the Craft Beer Revolution, a historic brewery, Anchor Brewing, located in San Francisco itself, decided to revive the tradition, even trademarking the name. This is why today every other producer must call it California Common (though it’s still the same beer).

Today’s Steam Beer is no longer produced with rudimentary techniques, but rather with the utmost care, while still maintaining its distinctive aromatic-flavor profile. It’s a clear and amber beer with a fruity, malty, and toasted flavor and a hint of caramel. The use of traditional American hops (not modern citrusy or tropical ones) give it the aromatic notes of wood and mint.

High carbonation and a low alcohol content (4.5% to 5.5%) complete its identikit.


Also in America, specifically in Portland, OR, and then spreading throughout the entire Pacific Northwest, after a slumber of over one hundred and fifty years, the third and final Hybrid Beer was born, and it could be none other than an IPA!

IPA is the quintessential beer of the American Renaissance, iconic in the Craft Beer Revolution, and the first American Christmas Beer, the beer that, for better or worse, has shaken things up more than any other, exposing us to flavors that we weren’t accustomed to. Over the decades we’ve seen many styles, sub-styles, and variations (Session IPA, NEIPA, Black IPA, etc.) appear. In 2018 a new member was welcomed to this widely extended family.

The father of the latest addition is Kevin Davey, a master brewer from the Wayfinder Brewery. This IPA, specifically a West Coast IPA, is made with Lager yeasts, but fermented at higher temperatures, to achieve a fermentative profile as free as possible of esters, allowing the American hops (fruity, tropical, resinous, etc.) to take center stage, aromatically speaking.

Basically, an IPA that, “technically” isn’t even an IPA as it’s missing the “A” for Ale!

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An idea that aspires to maintain a careful balance, straddling the American tradition of California Common and WCIPA and that of Italian Pils (celebrated and revered in the United States), invented by Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano, way back in 1996, which led to the creation, one after another, of IPL (India Pale Lager), Hoppy Lager, and Dry Hopped Lager.

This Cold IPA (by now you know that “cold” doesn’t refer to the serving temperature) is light and clear, has a well-pronounced bitterness, a clean, dry finish,, a very subtle malt base, and an abundance of grass and pine, with hints of tropical, citrus, and fruity flavors.

Will it be the new Big Thing of the global beer scene, surviving and carving out its own place in the market, or will it remain a simple One Hit Wonder? It’s too soon to be sure, also considering that it only arrived in Italy last year. Only time will tell!

PS – If you managed to make it all the way to the end of this article then you fully deserve the title of “Beer Geek”. Well done!