Like making a year-end list of best records, creating a list of one’s favorite is a silly yet necessary exercise. Silly because who really cares? Necessary because everybody’s doing it. In no particular order, here are beers that were either released this year, discovered by me this year, or finally made sense to me this year. I apologize upfront for the IPA-heavy list. I’m a hop head and have trouble remembering what I thought about most sours, stouts, Saisons, etc.
Trappist Westvleteren 12
I’ve had Westy before, but it was a small sample at the end of an evening of craft beer debauchery. My bother “won” one of those lottos just to get a chance to buy and $85 six pack. He shared as family is wont to do over the holiday. Half a bottle was more than enough for me to fully appreciate what many consider to be the best beer in the world. I don’t know about all of that or even if it’s the best Belgian quad, but it’s very very good.
Goose Island King Henry
This may have been released in 2011, but we never saw it locally. One evening in Lincoln, Nebraska at an excellent pizza joint offered me the opportunity to try this magnificent beast.
Bells Black Note Stout
I should not have had a glass of this beer, but I did. A sample was sneaked to me as I had to leave a Bells dinner. Imagine the molasses-fueled deliciousness of Expedition, mixed with the sweetness of a milk stout, and brewed in bourbon barrels. Even then, you can’t imagine how glorious this beer tasted.
Three Floyds Zombie Dust
I love me some APA’s but this one is on another level. So much Citra. So good.
Stone Ruination Tenth Anniversary IPA
Specially released IPA’s from Stone are all over my list. This one featured an amped-up version of what was my epiphany beer, if that was even possible… Of course it was! This was as good a tribute as any brewery has ever brewed.
Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA
I actually preferred this one to the September version. It’s possible this one was fresher, but both were consumed well before their best by dates. The idea of a ridiculously fresh IPA is nothing new, but this release made it a priority. There’s no way one of these will ever sit on shelves too long. I hope they continue to brew Best By IPA’s.
Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek (2008)
Obviously, this beer was not from this year, but I finally opened it and was glad I did. No one does lambics and sours like Cantillon. Probably no other more obvious sentence has ever been uttered regarding beer. Lou Pepe was no exception. I suspect the aging altered the beer, but I doubt I wouldn’t have loved it a couple of years ago.
This one is on the brain as I just picked up the latest release of this great Smokestack Series brew. I always liked this beer but never really got it until this year. I don’t know whether that’s trying so many inferior rye beers or just the ongoing development of my palate, but it’s so rich and so good. Aside from Boulevard’s Saison Brett (another all-time favorite that could make this list every year), this is one of the true Missouri craft beer treasures.
The Bruery 5 Golden Rings
I stumbled upon one of these at a Whole Paycheck the day before Xmas Eve and figured it would make the perfect Xmas dinner drink. And it did. No one outside of these guys and Stillwater consistently make beers that go better with food. I was lucky I paced myself of this one would have put me under the table.
Broadway Brewery Columbus Single Hop IPA
Never in my wildest dreams would I have figured a beer brewed here in Columbia, MO would make a list like this, but this one stacks up. I’m sure the freshness factor comes into play here, but I dragged a growler nine hours to Ohio, another three to Cleveland – all of it in a cooler that was probably not properly chilled and a growler that was not properly filled to the top – and the beer survived. Hell, it did better than survive. It was downright delicious.
Odell The Meddler Oud Bruin
I had nearly given up on Odell’s special releases, but this one was decently priced and I like to try anything new in this style. The beer was beautiful from appearance to aroma to the all-important flavors within. It paired well with whatever I was eating that night. This beer renewed my faith in Odell.
Schlafly Tasmanian IPA (TIPA)
Schlafly has been experimenting with different varieties of hops, mostly through special keg-only releases and cask ale. Still, this one was a nice little surprise. It’s one of those beers that nails the hoppiness hop heads are always after, causing us to want to drink one after the other.
Millstream Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout
This is how pumpkin ale should be done. Screw the pumpkin pie and sour varieties. Put your pumpkin in an imperial stout or Baltic porter! As an imperial stout, it’s not my favorite. However, it made me rethink pumpkin beers just as I was writing them off.
Treble Kicker Beer New Slang Saison
My own Saison is easily one of my favorites. I upped the ante with this year’s version for my partner’s tenure celebration. More lemon zest and rosemary = a punch in the face Saison that is not playing around. Add in some dry-hopped Sorachi Ace hops and you have a lemon bomb/balm that needs to brewed again and soon.
Stone 16th Anniversary IPA
This one was met with many mixed reviews, but I loved the twist this one offered some lemon verbena and rye-induced spice that made for one of the more interesting/surprising beers this year.
Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA
Why isn’t the white/wheat IPA more popular? Because no one wants to take on Deschutes’ hold on hoppy beers. No one hops a beer like Deschutes. No one.
Tallgrass 8-Bit Pale Ale
This was my beer of the summer. Refreshingly hoppy goodness in a can carried me through record-setting heat, including a 30-mile bike ride.
Green Flash Rayon Vert
I’m not sure how long this beer has been around, but it made its first appearances in middle-Missouri earlier this year and I’m sure glad it did. Another twist on the IPA (this time with Belgian love), Rayon Vert became the “heavy” beer of summer.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said before about Stillwater’s excellence. I could put any of their beers on this list every year. Still, this one made its debut in 2012 and I for one welcome it to the best lineup of Saisons this side of Belgium.
Firestone Walker Wookey Jack
The Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale continues to dig out a niche in craft beer and Firestone’s entry is no different than the best of the style.
Deschutes Chasin’ Freshies
Did I mention Deschutes’ mastery of the hop. This fresh-hopped IPA and its fresh-hopped APA cousin (Hop Trip) do what fresh/wet-hopped beers are supposed to: capture the essence of Dionysus’ underwear… or something like that.
Mikkeller Royal Rye Wine
Most of the Mikkeller releases I enjoyed this year were not all that new to me. However, the experience surrounding the Royal Rye Wine made this possibly the most memorable beer of the year. Read more about it here.
What did I forget? What would you add? Disagree or agree with any of these?
Folks were worried that Goose Island was ruined forever when they sold out to AB-InBev or whatever they’re called. It seems – at the moment, at least – that those worry warts were wrong.
According to this article from the Chicagoist, GI is using the unlimited resources of its master to expand their barrel program. What does that mean? It means that there will be enough Bourbon County Stout for year-round production.
Let that sink in for a moment.
One of the world’s best, most sought-after, and rarest beers is going to be a year-round release. There will simply be more of one of our favorite beers available at any time of the year. That’s a good thing, worry warts.
This reminds me of labels like Sub Pop and Matador signing big deals with major labels. These indies, realizing the limitations of their distribution and recording resources, signed away something like 49% of their companies to corporate interests in order to get some cash flowing. They then used this influx of capital to promote previously-unknown bands and to give them a boost in touring expenses and recording studios. The result is that they extended their reach and prolonged their lives as productive labels. The bands have benefited as well.
As mentioned above, Goose Island selling out signaled the end of craft breweries for some. However, if GI plays their cards right, it could mean more growth for them and continued struggles for corporate beer makers as their own flagship brands suffer in the wake of quality, craft beer.
So, is Goose Island beer’s Sub Pop or Matador?
It was 85 degrees in Middle Missouri yesterday. That heat carried over the night and I couldn’t sleep. So, I figured I’d share a few videos with semi-witty commentary and other bits for your enjoyment. The first two videos are of the WTF variety.
This one stinks terribly of the old beer guard whining about newbie beer geeks. Yes, let’s squash their enthusiasm so that no one buys craft beer anymore. That’s the crabby/serious take. Otherwise, I find it odd, oddly amusing even. This is how many beer geeks get their start, but there’s usually a second part where they chill out with the beer extremes and blogging it all to find a comfortable spot for all of us. What do you think? Is it insulting or just silly? Or both?
Speaking of silly…
I have no idea what to make of this. Does James Mercer have too much time on his hands? I’m not sure how I feel about the new record (currently streaming on iTunes at the moment and on the way to my house via UPS). Seriously. WTF is this?
In better musical moments…
I’m a big Sharon Van Etten fan at the moment. She feels like this year’s Wye Oak or Eleanor Friedberger. For this AV Undercover session – the first of the new season, Van Etten joins Shearwater for a pretty cool take on the classic Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”.
And finally, it’s good to see that Goose Island doesn’t take themselves too seriously…
Granted, Goose Island is now owned by a decidedly non-craft beer brewing company, but it’s still craft beer. The video below captures that craft beer spirit and pairs it with an obvious Sufjan Stevens track. If only all craft brewers would do this sort of marketing. I could get behind a Stone promo with The Soft Pack playing in the background or maybe a Portland brewer paired with The Thermals. Sufjan Stevens now lives in Brooklyn, but his music probably shouldn’t be used for any brewery outside of Illinois or Michigan. Music about a locale should go with beer from that same city or region. (H/T BeerNews.org)
Breweries brew all kinds of beer, but only a few produce exceptional imperial stouts time and time again. Often, they use one base imperial stout in their aging and barreling programs, but other times they add ingredients to alter the flavor one way or another. These are the five best breweries at producing series of imperial stouts.
(Note – I considered including non-imperial stouts, but the list became too unwieldy and I tend to prefer imperial stouts this time of year. Had I gone with all stouts, Bells would have surely deserved a mention. Their imperial is excellent and their lineup of non-imp stouts is impressive.)
5. Mikkeller – Between the Black Hole series and all those Beer Geek Breakfast/Brunch beers, it’s hard to find a more intriguing set of imperial stouts. Add to that one of the better big beers I’ve had this year in Black, Mikkeller holds the title of best Danish/Gypsy brewer of imperial stouts all by himself.
4. Great Divide – Sometimes, it becomes easy to overlook the great beers that do regularly ship to one’s market. We get Great Divide here in Missouri which is a treat. Their Yeti series of imperial stouts is pretty impressive. They add chocolate, oak, Belgian yeast, etc. for a nice lineup of tasty imp stouts.
3. Three Floyds – I have had one Dark Lord in my lifetime and it was pretty great. If you look at any beer rating site, the top imperial stouts list is littered with variations of this one beer. This fact makes it hard to not rate it in my top-5, but the fact I’ve only personally had one bottle makes it even more difficult to rate it higher than the next two breweries.
2. Goose Island – GI is famous for a couple of things. One is the fact that they were bought out by ABI. The second is that they brew Bourbon County Stout. On it’s own, BCS is an incredible beer. However, GI does several versions that are hard to get, but if you do, it’s totally worth it. On top of that, they sell the base imperial stout used to age in those bourbon barrels known as Big John. Let’s hope the first fact mentioned here doesn’t interfere with the second.
1. Founders – Even beyond all the hype built for the release of Canadian Breakfast Stout in bottles this year, Founders brews a mean lineup of imperial stouts. The breakfast stout is the only beer with coffee (aside from some of the Mikkeller beers) that I will regularly buy. Then, there’s Kentucky Bourbon Stout and their “regular” imperial stout. Plus, there are periodically versions of these beers popping up here and there in kegs all over the Midwest. All of this make Founders the king of the imperial stout, IMO.
Southern Tier – The Darkwater Series is hard to deny. Check out Chokolat, Creme Brullee, Mocha, and Java for four of the tastiest dessert beers you’ll ever find.
Hoppin’ Frog – I haven’t gotten far into the Frog’s BORIS series, but what I’ve had is pretty good. It would help if they had a wider distribution in Missouri, but I can wait for periodic shipments from Ohio now and again. Rumor has it that a DORIS is coming my way.
Alesmith – Alesmith’s Speedway stout is a pretty grand imperial, but I just haven’t had enough of it or any of its variations to be able to report on it. Plus, although well-hyped in its own right, it just doesn’t hold the cachet of a Three Floyds yet.
All over the beer blogosphere Monday morning was the story that Anheuser Busch-InBev purchased Chicago’s Goose Island, a fairly popular craft brewery. The words “sell” and “out” were thrown around more than once. Such conversations reminded me of the early nineties when selling out was a bad thing for musicians. Of course, most of them did it anyway. I even wrote a pretty terrible paper on the subject for an English course I was taking. Every indie band who jumped ship for a major label (and there were a lot of them back then) was scrutinized for their decision. Were they sell-outs? Why did it matter?
It was a pretty big deal to an idealistic and naive me. Of course, I had little idea of what it selling-out actually meant. I vehemently defended bands I liked as not selling-out despite huge contracts with corporate recording companies. I felt at the time that subverting the mainstream from the inside was a way to counteract taking a huge payout from corporate overlords. Then, I started to see how some indie bands were doing the same thing without compromising indie-ness by refusing to sign to major labels and sticking with the indies that gave them their first shot.
As I grew older, I came to realize that idealism is cool, but we’ve got to get paid eventually. For example, I wanted to make a difference in the world by working with kids, but getting paid to do that surely didn’t hurt. I saw the same opportunities for bands. Some were signing major label deals, careful not no run up huge amounts of debt the way their predecessors had. Other bands sold songs to movies and advertisers. At first, this turned me off, but I soon realized that between the additional exposure and guaranteed paycheck, these bands were able to extend careers, making the music I love.
Still, it’s not as simple as saying selling-out is bad or getting paid is good. There’s a ton of gray. Getting a huge paycheck from a faceless corporation can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. It all depends on how one handles it.
To demonstrate what I mean, the following examples show how selling out ruins or even imporves an indie band or musician:
- Sonic Youth’s reputation took a huge hit when they signed to a major in 1990. After years of indie bands mostly floundering either on their own or because they had foolishly signed with a major, Sonic Youth gambled with an offer from Geffen. This moment marked the beginning of the 90’s bum-rush of the underground for the next big thing. Luckily, Sonic Youth never compromised their sound and used their new platform to expose better music to more people. Even though SY had signed with a major label, they somehow maintained their indie spirit through the bands they with which chose to tour and by making some rather non-mainstream music. Today, they release records on their own label and/or indie Matador Records.
- Speaking of Matador, they, like their brothers in Seattle (Sub Pop), signed distribution deals with some majors. One of those deals was with Capitol Records. One musician on Matador’s roster, Liz Phair, had built a pretty promising run of two nineties, lo-fi classics in Exile in Guyville and Whipsmart. Phair’s somewhat mediocre Whitechocolatespaceegg was co-released by the two labels. Eventually, Phair made the leap to that very major…and promptly released the shittiest material of her career, pointing out that her new goal was to make some cheddar while she could. Phair compromising her art to write pop tunes was certainly a bad long-term decision.
- Built to Spill developed a pretty solid following during the mid-nineties with their catchy ditties about adolescent disillusionment. Warner Bros. saw an opportunity to grab hold of a hit machine a la Weezer or Green Day or whatever one-hit wonder was topping the charts at the time. Because of the band’s growing popularity and potential, the label agreed to sign them while allowing a lot of creative control. What resulted is a pretty uncompromising album in Perfect From Now On, filled with anything but three-minute insta-hits. The band has continued to make music the way they want to and WB lets them.
- The story of Modest Mouse is somewhat mixed. I wouldn’t say that they’ve compromised their music for mainstream success, but their breakout hit “Float On” suggests otherwise. Still, even with their Billboard success, they found a way to make it work.
- Nirvana was basically talked into signing with Geffen because Sonic Youth sold them on the idea. Yes, Nirvana sold a shit-ton o’ records, but at what cost? Although Kurt Cobain was destined to go out the way he did, I sometimes wonder if his discomfort with the industry contributed to his ultimate demise. If you listen to Bleach and Nevermind back-to-back, it’s easy to tell that it’s the same band, but a lot of oomph was lost in the production of that second album. They got some of it back with In Utero, but the damage was done. It would have been interesting to see what Nirvana could have done had they not signed with
the devila major label.
There are plenty more examples than these, but the point still remains that selling-out has mixed results. The Goose Island deal does not have to be a bad one. We’ll have to wait and see.
Another related topic that I’ve been mulling over for while is the fact that many indie bands and craft brewers don’t need corporate money, promotion, or distribution to be successful. So, selling-out might be unnecessary, but that’s another topic for another post.
The key to this deal is that Goose Island was plenty successful before they sold out to ABI. They enjoyed more success when ABI took over their distribution, adding a ton of Belgian-inspired beers and expanding the Bourbon County Stout line. My suspicion is that Goose Island will be more like Sonic Youth than Liz Phair, but we’ll see.
As with bands who sign with majors, this move for GI can go well or bomb. Either way, craft beer drinkers should judge GI on their beer and not the company who purchased them. If the beer’s good, continue to drink it. If ABI wants to cut costs and the quality drops, don’t drink it. I still listen to bands who make the leap to the majors if the music is good. Interpol tried it and failed. The result is that I don’t buy Interpol records anymore. Conversely, I think the Flaming Lips’ best work (which is now most of their catalog) is on a major. Selling-out doesn’t necessarily equate failure or success. It all depends on the individual entities involved.
I for one will give Goose Island the benefit of the doubt and wait to see whether their beer stays the same, deteriorates, or even improves before I make my final assessment. However, knowing the company who bought them out, I will watch this developing situation closely.
1Upon discovering and rereading the paper again, I found that my real thesis was more along the lines of “you’re a sell-out if you suck.” I ripped lame hair metal bands for appealing to the lowest common denominator and called them sell-outs. Meanwhile, a band like Pearl Jam was not a sell-out because…well…I liked them a lot at the time. I have no idea how I got an ‘A’ on that paper. I even think I ripped on a few of the instructor’s favorite bands along the way.
2Favorites like Pavement and Archers of Loaf come to mind. I don’t actually think Pavement received that much attention (especially after Wowee Zowee), but it’s well-documented that AoL turned down offers.
3To be honest, I was always paid to work with kids. However, at some point, I had to make the choice of public school teacher over YMCA camp staff. The pay and benefits for the former were much better than the latter.
4There are way more stories of bands who signed with majors, were forced to rent studio space and tour buses, and were left with thousands in debt that was left unpaid when the hits stopped coming. The smart bands refused using expensive studios, producers, and tour busses. Major labels are really just good for distribution and maybe promotion, but that’s it.
5It’s pretty easy to see the lasting effect of this practice. Indie bands of the eighties often fizzled out due to an inability to make a living playing tiny clubs and selling a couple hundred 7″ singles. Conversely, a lot of my heroes from the nineties have extended their careers well into the next century. I envision a day when all the bands of my college years are doing huge world tours like the Rolling Stones. It will either be amazing or totally suck.
6At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with beer. The examples of craft brewers being bought out by corporate beer makers/promoters is a short list of mostly failures. One doesn’t have to look far to find the examples of Leinenkugel, Rolling Rock, or Red Hook to show that selling-out to corporate beer producers is a bad idea. However, I think this Goose Island deal might be different. That and I like to connect craft beer to indie rock whenever possible.
7Some like to point to Nirvana’s signing as this moment, but Nirvana was signed as a result of Sonic Youth signing. Sonic Youth was the gateway band. Nirvana blew the whole thing wide-open, but Sonic Youth’s signing was the beginning.
8In reality, indie labels signing deals with major labels better correlates with the Goose Island deal, but I didn’t have the time to research all the labels who signed deals with major labels. Basically, the ones that I know of, put out the same kind of music they always had. Some survived, but most were dropped when profits tanked. Matador and Sub Pop were able to sign deals that allowed them to continue to do what they were doing long after the majors faltered. They made it work by simply using corporate resources without adopting the corporate homogeneity.
9As was Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, easily the closest the band ever came to a cross-over album. The difference is that Pavement’s newfound willingness to appeal came off as a coincidence. The reason I say this is because the album they jointly released with Matador and Warner Bros. was Wowee Zowee, a decidedly un-mainstream-appealing record. The band never made overtures to go mainstream the way Liz Phair has.
10I don’t blame Liz Phair for selling out. She had a kid to take care of. Ironically, she had better career options as an indie rocker than she did as a pop songstress. Check Pavement’s reissue and reunion tour sales figures. Indie rock worked out for them.
11Writing a lot of catchy, three-minute punk/pop songs is usually a sure way to get signed. The only part that wouldn’t have worked out for BtS is that they have never looked the part of angst-y adolescent heartthrobs. No thirteen-year-old was going to fall for that.
12To put this into perspective, the band’s previous release contained thirteen tracks clocking in at around 46 minutes with only two over the five minute mark and the rest in the 2-4 minute range – ideal for major label releases. Perfect From Now On was 54 minutes long spread over eight tracks. The shortest tracks were 4:52 and 5:33, respectively. The other six tracks were all over six minutes.
13I am considering proposing craft beer and indie rock as models of business success that could be copied in helping our economy recover. There has to be a reason these sectors are doing well despite the failures of their respective industries. Craft beer continues to grow while overall beer sales shrink. Indie labels and bands flourish (or at least make a living) despite all the major labels crumbling around them. There’s something about small, independent businesses that are sustainable and productive for communities in ways that corporations just can’t match. This topic has legs.