Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Beer of the Year

Photo: SantiMB, Flickr Creative Commons

I would really suck at creating best-of lists for a given year if it were not for my use of social networking sites like Good Reads and Ratebeer. Because Netflix kind of sucks at letting you view your rating history in an organized way, I don't even really know what movies I've seen this year, much less which ones I liked the best.

I can tell you about beer, though. Over the course of 2010, I sampled 97 previously untasted beers. That may make it sound like I drink a lot, but I have a tendency to never drink a beer twice. With the exception of beers made in my state (and Oskar Blues because they have great beer in cans and New Belgium because they're available locally), I just don't buy beers I've already had. That doesn't mean that there were no beers out of those 97 that I didn't love, though. A few sucked, sure, but some were simply sensational. Here are my best beers of the year based on groups of what I consider similar styles. The state in parentheses is the state where the beer was brewed. With the exception of brewpubs and JailHouse Brewing, that does not mean that is the only state where the beer can be found.

Belgian Styles

This group includes a variety of styles, but they were all unique to Belgium at one time and are usually distinctive because of the flavors imparted by the yeasts during fermentation. There were eight beers in this group.
  1. 5 Seasons Westside Adam's Grand Cru - (Georgia) This is a big fruity strong Belgian ale and worth tasting if you're ever in Atlanta at the brewpub. It may not be on tap (they change their offerings frequently), but they keep most of their stronger offerings in the cellar underneath the restaurant. Just make sure you aren't driving or can at least share with friends. They bottle in 750 ml bottles and these are high gravity beers. Also, Georgia laws suck and you can't take any beer off premises from a brewpub in the state, so you have to drink it there.
  2. 5 Seasons North Coltrane Belgian Ale - (Georgia) It's actually a little bit of coincidence that both beers I'm featuring in this category are from the same brewer (although this is from the location in Alpharetta instead of the Westside location in Atlanta). I don't really seek out Belgian beers like I did a few years ago and about half of the Belgian-style beers I've tried this year were brewed at 5 Seasons. I stop in whenever I'm in the area and they make a lot of different beers. It's going to happen, especially since brewer Crawford Moran makes a lot of beers in the Belgian styles.

There was a time when I'd turn my nose up at any lager. These beers are lighter in flavor and body and I didn't like beer until I tasted my first brown ale, and I wasn't passionate about beer until I had a Rogue Shakespeare Stout back in 2003. My tastes have changed and while I still think beers like Bud Lite are crap, a really good German or Czech lager can be really good, even when they aren't brewed in Germany or Czechoslovakia. Actually, because lagers lack the bold flavors to hide the off flavors created by age and light, the examples brewed closer to my mouth are actually better than the originals more often than not. There were 12 beers in this category.
  1. Chatoe Rogue Dirtoir Black Lager - (Oregon) The darker roasts used in the grain bill for this beer add a level of flavor you don't usually get in a lager.
  2. Terrapin Georgia Theatre Session: Sound Czech - (Georgia) This is one of a series of beers Terrapin is releasing in order to help raise money for the restoration of the Georgia Theatre in Athens. I've been less than impressed with some of the brewery's past attempts at lagers, but this beer is a spot-on example of the pinnacle of pale lagers, the Bohemian Pilsener. I love the noble hops and the fact they weren't afraid to use enough of them to really make the beer shine. I hope the guys at Terrapin decide to make this a regular offering, or at least a summer seasonal. This beer is really too good to fade away. It's nearly on par with Victory Prima Pils.
Stouts and Porters

I've not included imperial stouts in this category, saving them for the High Gravity category later, but this category includes some of my favorite styles. I love the richness and roastiness of porters and stouts. It's a world of alcoholic chocolate and coffee, owing to the fact that the barley and malt used to color these beers are roasted in the same way that coffee and chocolate beans are to create those delicacies. There were eight beers in this category.
  1. JailHouse Breakout Stout - (Georgia) This brewery only opened in late November 2009 and I've been unable to find their beer on my trips to Atlanta until a couple of week ago because the brewery is so small and did not bottle until very recently. I wish I had known about these guys (brewing out of an old jail house in Hampton) earlier. This beer is not only the best stout I've had this year, it's also the best beer I've had in a very long while. Incredible hoppy American-style stout.
  2. Terrapin Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout - (Georgia) Milk stouts use lactose, which isn't fermentable by yeast, to create a slightly sweeter beer with more body. This one included cocoa nibs to supplement the normal chocolate notes expected from a stout.

This group is made up of IPAs and American Pale Ales, beers that live and die based on the aroma and flavor of the hops used. The stronger Double/Imperial IPAs were lumped into the high gravity list and not included here. There were 26 beers in this category, the most of any. I don't necessarily like these beers better, they just happen to be the specialty of American craft brewers. Almost every brewer in the country makes at least a couple of beers in this group.
  1. Hoppin' Frog Bodacious Black & Tan - (Ohio) This may be kind of cheating as the beer is the Akron brewer's mix of its stout and its IPA, but the beer was incredible and doesn't qualify as a stout anymore. Besides, Black IPAs were a relatively new style in 2010, so this counts. A special mention goes to Terrapin Side Project Capt'n Krunkles Black IPA, which was a very similar beer and actually my second highest rating in this group.
  2. New Belgium Ranger IPA - (Colorado) Not only is this IPA good (my best rating for a regular IPA this year), it's also brewed at what may be the greenest brewery on Earth and it's available at my local grocery store even though local stores can't even be bothered to carry Sam Adams. I can live with that.

This does not mean the same thing as "lite beer." That stuff is crap and I won't spend money on it (although I do drink it without complaint when offered because I'm not an ungrateful dick). These are the craft beer styles that are not overpowering and are often the beers that serve as beginning beers for those trying to leave behind Bud, Miller, and Coors for something better and more local. Hefeweizens, Witbiers, American Wheats, and Golden/Blonde Ales can be really good beer when brewed properly. Also, because they are so mild in flavor they, like the pale lagers, are a true test of a brewer's technical ability. These beers just can't cover up flaws in the flavor and aroma. There were ten beers in this group.
  1. New Belgium Mothership Wit - (Colorado) This is a great Belgian-style witbier, which means it's a beer brewed with a sizable portion of wheat added to the standard barley malt that makes up most beer and it is spiced with coriander and orange peel. When done well these are pretty damn tasty and this one is done well.
  2. Sweetwater Sch'Wheat - (Georgia) This is an American wheat. Unlike German hefeweizens with their clove and banana aromas, and witbiers, American wheats don't get much flavor from the yeast. Instead these are usually cleaner in flavor, unspiced and are probably a little hoppier than the European cousins. This is a great example of the style and worth drinking, especially if you're in the mood for something a little lighter.

These beers (ambers, browns, scotch, and old ales) let the malt do all of the talking. Hop aroma and flavor are minimal, no funky yeasts, no flavoring except for the malted barley. There were 11 beers in this group.
  1. Terrapin Georgia Theatre Session: The Iron Tankard Old Stock Ale - (Georgia) This was an earlier edition in the fundraising series for the Georgia Theatre. This was a bold beer that really showed of the malt nicely.
  2. Terrapin Reunion A Beer for Hope 2010 - (Georgia) This was from a separate fundraising series, this one raising money for the Institute of Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research. You know what? Don't judge me for having two Terrapin beers on this list after putting them on other lists two times already and giving them the sole special mention. They've been going crazy this year with more special one-offs than I'm willing to count and they usually make good beer. I've had 12 of their newly released beers this year and even missed out on what was probably the most highly touted special release. This beer was good and unless you are lucky and obsessive, you're never going to get to taste it unless you already have.

Most of the beers in this category are weird for some reason or another. Maybe it's a beer mixed with mead, or spiced, or smoked, or has fruit in it. Whatever the reason, they just didn't fit in the other groupings. There were 11 beers in this category.
  1. Dogfish Head Bitches Brew - (Delaware) I hated the name of this beer when I first heard it. Then I found out that it was brewed in honor of an old Miles Davis album with the same name, a very important one apparently. The beer itself is excellent. It's a blend of 3/4 imperial stout and 1/4 tej, a traditional Ethiopian alcoholic drink made from honey and spiced with gesho. By far the best back story of any of the beers in any of these lists. Luckily, the beer was good too.
  2. Dogfish Head Sahtea - (Delaware) If you know craft beer, you know that any list of unconventional beer is going to have some Dogfish beers in there somewhere. This one was spiced with juniper berries, coriander, cardamom, lemon grass, Indian Black Tea, and ramps leaves. It's easy to go overboard with the spices in beer but this one did a good job of balancing the spice and the beer.
High Gravity

High gravity is a craft beer term that basically means high alcohol content. It was a term in heavy use by those advocating the increase of the alcohol ceiling for beer in Georgia several years back because we wanted to show that the beers we wanted to let into the state were carefully crafted for flavor and creativity and not just jet fuel to get kids dead from alcohol poisoning faster. These beers are not only high in alcohol, but they're also high in flavor. Unless you really like beer, you may be turned off by the heaviness and frequently high levels of residual sugars. These qualities also cause you to drink more slowly and, ultimately, less. These are the beers that beer geeks go crazy for. There were 11 beers in this category.
  1. Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti - (Colorado) The regular Yeti is already a great beer and with the addition of the espresso and the vanilla-like flavors from aging on oak it gets even better.
  2. Southern Tier Mokah - (New York) This one adds coffee just like the Yeti above, but instead of oak adds chocolate. Yum.
In case you're wondering, the Number One Top Best Beer of the Year Award (NOTBBYA) goes to JailHouse Breakout Stout. Honestly, I'd be tempted to go ahead and give it the beer of the decade right here and now, but that's a bit presumptuous.


Courtney said...

I followed very little of that, but I'll be sure to check these beers out when I have a chance. If I remember, which I probably won't.

Mickey said...

Whoa. I need to find some Breakout Stout!

I actually really enjoyed this post, although I fear many of your readers may not. But you knew that.

Interestingly, I tend not to drink wheat beer, but both of your choices in the Light category are the two wheat beers that I've had in the last few years that I've enjoyed more than any others, especially the Mothership.

Travis R said...

I have to agree on your choice for the Espresso Yeti, what a special beer that one is. If you can find it.

Julie said...

Matt disagrees with your Yeti selection. Boo, oak.

This was not actually a difficult post to get through for me (as a non-beer drinker) but perhaps that's because I hang out with beer snobs and I have a basic understanding even though I don't want to taste any of it.

I agree with your assessment of Netflix. It enrages me that they do not even have an "OK" rating. They go straight from dislike to like. Stupid jerks.