Monday, January 27, 2014

The Most Memorable Beers of 2013, plus a side note

This January has not been particularly kind to me and my emotions. The latest blow, which I've finally conceded to is the loss of my 2013 year-end wrap of beer. It was another epic epistle of great beer encountered in my travels both around my home turf and around the country.

Like last year's rundown, it was a list built not to try and dictate the conversation of what is a best beer. It was a month-by-month review of my travels and great beers found along the way.

I don't know what to say about lists any more. There seems to be a growing chorus groans, yawns, and shoulder shrugs when it comes to year-end best of lists. Anyone can write one, but don't ever let someone tell you what is a best beer, or best anything for that matter when it comes to a matter of taste. Whether it be artwork on a canvas or artwork in a glass, we all differ in our appreciation of what makes something great in each of our respective opinions.

The great thing about it is if you can back up your interpretation of greatness and personal preference with a few words of justification, then no one can tell you that you're wrong — even if you think that Bud Light is the best beer in the world. Hold on, let me double-check that position of mine ;-)

That never stops me though, from sharing with you what are my most memorable beers of the year. I always attempt to put some context around the beers that I encountered throughout the year to give my own justification for what makes them so great in my opinion. I'd started this prior to year-end and put some edits to it early in the year. But it's gone off to the great white space.

At this point, I'm not trying to recreate it. I do recall most of the beers that made the list, so I have that going for me. I have no idea what became of the original version; even plugged through backups to try and find it. Plus, as a sidenote, the place I was planning to publish it, as in past years, parted ways with The Washington Times. So I will no longer be putting articles up in the Communities section of The Washington Times. More on that to come in the weeks ahead.

So what I'll do instead is give you a quick run through and tell you how I was planning to call special attention to:

(as you can likely tell, these are in no particular order other than I saved my most memorable for last)

Yards Trubbel de Yards and Left Hand Stranger Pale Ale. Here were two very good beers that accompanied a very good weekend in the mountains to kick off the new year. They were not by far the only two beers of the weekend, but the unique 9.3% Tripel Dubbel (say what? say yes!) and the satisfyingly session-worthy pale ale (5%) were the most memorable.

Stone Suede Porter and Mikkeller SpontanAle Seabuckthorn. Two beers at quite polar extremes from each other but each delightfully flavorful and impressively served by the friendly, attentive, and well-trained staff at the new Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco. The Suede was Stone's collaboration with the ladies behind the mash paddle at 10 Barrel and Bluejacket and the result was a rich and soft porter with complex floral flavors. The SpontanAle version that I had incorporated Seabuckthorn, which was an education for me and a happy tart one at that.

Magnolia Maiden Voyage. While my mind's on San Francisco, I should also point out the inaugural brew from the new production facility of the city's wonderful Magnolia Brewery. It's long-time pub in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is getting a production partner facility across town in the burgeoning Dogpatch neighborhood. Not only is the name of the first beer, Maiden Voyage, very cool (you do ge the Grateful Dead reference, yes?), this wonderful English Bitter was served on one of the cask engines on Haight Street and it was so good, I ordered a second..and then one on regular CO2 draft as well. Prescription Pils would be filling this slot if it wasn't for Maiden Voyage. Year-round, you can't go wrong with the excellent Prescription on draft or the hand pump.

Iron Hill Cocoa-Nut Single, Penn Pilsner, Strike Blond. These three beers are grouped together for their impact they had on me at the intersection of running and beer in 2013. The Belgian Singel was my post 5-mile race beer at Iron Hill in Media, Pa. and was excellently done with not-overwhelming flavors of chocolate and coconut. Penn Pilsner aided in my pre-marathon carb-loading the night prior to the Pittsburgh Marathon. The following day, I finished in a personal best time of 3:59:36. Coincidence, nah! And, the Strike Blond, ah the Strike Blond. I wrote glowingly of these new guys in the San Jose area when I first met them during San Francisco Beer Week in February 2013 and wore their awesome t-shirt ("You Get Beer When It's Over") throughout the year. They love being active and they love their session beer. So do I. Firestone Walker Pivo Pils, which finally came to Pennsylvania in 2013 and Gunpowder Falls Pils, discovered during a York County new brewery tour with The Beer Yard would be excellent candidates for this beer and running category as well.

Ommegang Wild at Heart. The brewery's first 100% brettanomyces beer was served to me off the fermenter as a sneak peek/taste during its annual Belgium Comes To Cooperstown event (BCTC) at their home in Cooperstown, New York. Since then, the beer has been released in 750ml bottles and should age nicely for a few years. This beer shines in its example of how "brett" is not only about the funk, but the fruit flavors too.

Singlecut 19-33 Queens Lagrrrr. This new brewery from Queens showed up at BCTC for the first time in 2013 and when I was in NYC later in the year, it was their 19-33 Lagrrrr that floored me as a very well-made lager. Saddled up along with a Short Rib sandwich at Pony Bar made for a perfect pre-show meal.

Tired Hands Wachu Saison, Swamp Head Saison du Swamp, Forest & Main Three Tuns Ale, Ship Bottom Double Overhead IPA. A few other new-ish breweries landed some tasty offerings in my glass this year and that bodes well for the future of the industry. The Tired Hands beer was a collaboration with Danish and Belgian hands and at least a year in the bottle when I finally cracked it. The Wachu Saison incorporated Szechuan peppercorns and citrusy tart yuzu fruit and made for one of the most interesting saisons I've had in quite some time. I first drank Swamp Head Saison du Swamp on tap in Orlando at The Imperial Wine Bar and Beer Garden and finally cracked open a bottle nearly a year later that I'd brough home with me from Florida. Saison has long been one of my consistently favorite styles of beers and Swamp Head's version is merely one illustrative reason why. While doing a feature piece on Ambler, Pa. for Origlio's Draught Lines magazine, the very last beer on the last day that I spent in Ambler was the Three Tuns Ale at Forest & Main and it blew me away with such a full flavored presentation of a low-alcohol (4.2%) chocolate almost-stout-like beer. It was a night at the lauded Capone's in Norristown, Pa. where I ran into Rob Zarko who was featuring a few beers from his new Ship Bottom brewery in Wallingford, Pa. It took me but a few sips to put his Double Overhead IPA one my list of top ten IPAs I'd drunk in 2013. But speaking of drunk, be careful because not only was it one of the tastiest of the year, it's also one of the sneakiest 10.4% ABV double IPAs I've come across in a while.

Hardywood Park Craft Brewery Sidamo Coffee Stout. Also a relatively new brewery, Hardywood Park is turning many heads and palates with many extraordinary beers. Nice people too. Good mix, you think? It was almost a year ago when I was at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC and I was able to point several people in the direction of these guys from Richmond, Va. based upon my brewery visit in late-2012. This coffee stout became the latest addition to my list of reasons why these guys will be around for a while.

Evolution Rise Up Stout. While we're talking coffee, I shouldn't forget this beer that I bumped into twice this year. The second time was at the "morning-after" TJ's brunch. As in, the morning after their 10th Anniversary Party throw down in December. I'm a big fan of well-made coffee beers (Victory and Dieu Du Ciel are two that come quickly to mind) and this one is right up there with its deft balancing of bitter coffee and chocolately stout.

Ballast Point Indra Kunindra. Trust me that when I say it's an utmost compliment to be called the strangest beer that passed my lips in 2013. If you read the label and see words like Madras Curry, Cumin, Cayenne, Coconut, and Kaffir Lime Leaf, embrace it and drink it up. Ballast Point hits a home run with its careful melding of these unusual ingredients - or, shall I say, unusual for a beer.

Craftsman's Edgar Russian Imperial Stout and Oak-aged Saison. On one last note about big flavors, big wonderful flavors, I present to you two beers from Craftsman in Pasadena, Calif. They were both consumed at the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica (which if you follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, you know of my fondness for this beachside joint) and with excellent food pairings that only served to further enhance the experience. First there was the oak-aged Saison along with the out-of-this-world Allagash Truffled Salad and then, for dessert, was the brewery's Edgar Russian Imperial Stout and a chocolate cupcake. Great beer and food served by nice people in a beach town like Santa Monica is what life should be more about more of the time.

Courage Imperial Russian Stout. How about something from afar, like the UK? The newest incarnation of the Hartranft/Maida takeover, Strangelove's, debuted this rich stout in Pennsylvania during Philly Beer Week in June. It was deservedly one of the standouts on most attendee post-PBW report cards.

Tröegs Sunshine Pils. Much closer to home, the Hershey-based brewery has really been hitting its stride the last couple of years since moving into its dramatically larger and quite impressive new operations. With the brewery, Hershey has continued to grow into a really well-rounded family destination with recreational offerings for everyone in the family. The Nugget Nectar could have easily been on this list as the 2013 version seemed to strike a hoppier (sorry, couldn't resist) chord with me than in the past few years. Could be that I had a sixtel on tap at home? But, I voted the Sunshine Pils the best regional Pilsner-style offering in the blind Brewvitational Awards conducted by The Philadelphia Inquirer and that was a very easy claim to stick by for this world-class beer. I can't leave the topic of Brewvitational Awards dangling without a mention also of the other first place judgement that I placed upon a beer, the Weyerbacher Riserva. I gushed (it's on video too for posterity) of this wonderful beer's bursting profile of aromas even before you get into the wide and complex flavors.

Victory Hop Ranch. While DirtWolf was getting much of the attention, released at nearly the same time was this beer that presents itself in such a balanced way for a double IPA. I'd say I like the name Hop Ranch better than DirtWolf, but that would just sound superficial. The beer traces its roots to the amazing Liberty Bell Ringer IPA (draft or cask, didn't matter) that was released around the time of Philly Beer Week. The similarity in the recipe is just another reason for Hop Ranch to make my year-end list.

Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15, Deschutes Chainbreaker IPA, Tröegs Perpetual IPA, and Yoho Aooni IPA. Sticking with the hops theme, the Racer "series" continues to blow me away. It started with (and still continue to wow still today) with the Racer 5. Then there was Racer X. Cafe Racer 15 keeps it going with the pedal to the medal. Deschutes finally committed to Pennsylvania full-time in 2013 and that meant I could take Black Butte Porter off my list of beers to seek out when I travel to bring back with me to PA. The Chainbreaker IPA changed my perception of IPA with their version as a white IPA. The citra hops probably helped convince me as well. Then, I could tell you about the now-year-round-produced and year-round excellent Perpetual (and, now in cans) from Tröegs. The most memorable 2013 bump-in with this beer is sort of a complicated story, but the salient points are that Andy Dickerson (Teresa's Next Door) served up a Double Dog Deluxe (all Angus beef hot dog from Burt's Meats topped with pulled pork) at The Beer Yard's annual SPCA event and the Perpetual IPA was in the cup and, voila, another great beer and food moment. Clear on the other side of the country, Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood is home to Far Bar where the beer menu has a full page dedicated to Japanese craft beer, quite a burgeoning landscape. Ask the bartender for a recommendation, as I did, from the list of mostly unrecognizable names, and you might come away as impressed was I with Yoho Aooni IPA. I wrote of the bleak beer scene in Los Angeles six years ago. Far Bar and many dozens other similar places demonstrate that they are finally catching up in the City of Angels.

Sly Fox Grisette. This beer has been around for a number of years, being served on draft almost exclusively at the suburban Philadelphia brewery's pub locations. This year, they canned and distributed it for the first time and no less than three cases of this refreshing beer passed through my cooler and made their way into my backyard, along on train rides, and on to tailgate parties. It sat on my desk as I wrote and it filled my glass during Philly Beer Week debauchery. It is flavorful but not overly full of anything to tire your palate. It's got a bready malt base with wheat to lighten the load. It's got the slightest bit of hops to get your attention. There's a touch of citrus and fruity sweetness. There's a noticeable yeastiness to the beer, but not overwhelming. It's moderate in alcohol at 5.6%. For my body composition, that qualifies as sessionable. And, if you don't want to take my word for it, consider the silver medal it took home from the 2013 Great American Beer Festival.

So this "quick run through" of a memorable list of beers was almost as epistle-like as the original copy I no longer have. But to bring this finally to an end...Amongst tough competition from all corners of the country, for the reasons of portability, all-around pleasing flavor, and dare I say drinkability, the Sly Fox Grisette was the most memorable beer of 2013 in my little nook of the beer world.

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