In no particular order, here are my ten favorite beers of the year. A few are new for 2011 and some were just new to the market in which I live (Missouri). What did I miss? Are there better examples from the following breweries or of the following styles? Discuss in the comments. Warning: There’s a whole lotta Miekkeller and Stillwater in this list.
Mikkeller Black Imperial Stout – I love the ultra-boozy, thick imperial stout. You know, the kind that is sold in 12 oz. (or Euro equvialent 11.2 oz.) that costs more than many six-packs and bombers. The ABV is obscene and they’re good now or after a couple of years in the cellar. This entry into the sub-style from Mikkeller is astoundingly good. It’s all I can do to keep myself from cleaning the shelves around town of the monster in a bottle. My bank account appreciates it, but my stomach and tongue glare at me with resentment.
Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout – Another huge imperial stout that is maybe the most hyped beer of all-time. Hyperbole aside, this beer lived up to the hype. It’s a mouthful as the maple syrup, coffee, oak, and all the things one would expect from a Founders imperial stout are there. I feel lucky to have tried CBS on tap and still have a bottle to save for later.
The Bruery Black Tuesday – A glass of this fantastic beer crossed my lips at the same event that provided my portion of CBS. More in the vein of Mikkeller’s Black, Black Tuesday is a gigantic imperial stout. Howevern, unlike Black that comes in a bottle more appropriate for a single serving, this Goliath comes in 750 mL bottles, meant to be shared with a group. Still, I lucked out by being in the right place at the right time and got to try this beast next to the one above. Life’s good for the beer geek.
Anchorage Bitter Monk – Moving on from imperial stouts, a surprising arrival showed up in stores this year. Anchorage makes what is one of the more complexly interesting beers I’ve had in a long time. The huge hop presence of a DIPA is balanced with chardonnay barrel-aging and even Brettanomyces… basically a dream beer. Despite its relatively high price point, I’ve noticed this beer doesn’t hang out on shelves for long.
Stillwater/Mikkeller Two Gypsies Our Side – Another beer that finds a way to bring piney hops to the farmhouse, making this hybrid style a sure thing to be cloned over and over in the coming year. Where Bitter Monk relies more heavily on the barrel aging and Brett, this beer keeps it simple but still strikes a chord with the beer nerd in search of a complex, challenging experience.
New Belgium La Terroir – A third, less-intense version of the IPA/Saison hybrid is New Belgium’s La Terroir. Technically, none of these beers really fits a style, but they highlight the best of the Saison/Farmhouse/wild end as well as capitalizing on the resinous hoppiness we all love in our IPA’s. This third in the hybrid group of beers on my list is more of a barrel-aged wild ale with the peachy presence of an Amarillo and Cascade dry-hop.
Stillwater/Mikkeller Rauchstar – Second Stillwater/Mikkeller brew on my list is also another hybrid beer. This beer also happened to just slide into the top-10 as it was consumed the day after Xmas. Yes, it’s a smoked beer, but it’s also highly hopped and there’s that Stillwater tang that’s unmistakable. Really, this was a shockingly good beer that I wished I had more of. Plus, the label is pretty wicked.
Odell Friek – I’ve really learned to appreciate Kriek Lambics and the like over the last year, especially when paired with chocolate. This one delivered and has made a brief return to our market right at the end of the year. It’s very welcome. My previous experience with Odell’s Woodcut series did not end well and I have another of their beers I’ve been advised to wait out. Still, when they do it right, I still have to give them credit. Friek is a freak of a good beer.
Firestone Walker Double Jack DIPA – I realize that this is far from a new beer for most beer enthusiasts, but it was new to our little market this year and very welcome. While some will go more for the bigger, richer, oakier varieties of beer, but this DIPA is exceptional. The only thing that may challenge it is their Union Jack IPA which just arrived.
Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA – Another welcomed sight on the shelves and coolers here was Stone. Then, they came correct with their 15th anniversary ale, a big, hoppy double black IPA. Really, this beer was phenomenal and has extended the legend of the black IPA.
Carrie Wade thinks she’s really funny, so funny that she posted this atrocity on my Facebook wall. Really? We’re supposed to believe that Pavement pairs well with 1 PBR? What, because they’re like hipster slackers of something? Eff that.
I’m taking it upon myself to pair some bands with beers that make sense. Comment freely or suggest your own pairings. The wrong that has been created on Drinkify must be stopped. I mean, we’re trying to build coalitions up in this joint.
Pavement – Saison
I considered choosing one beer for Pavement but settled on a style instead. With a band like Pavement, it depends on the record. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain might require the smooth quirkiness of a Boulevard Tank 7, but Wowee Zowee is a Boulevard Saison Brett all the way. The Saison is one of the more versatile styles out there. These beers can be loved or hated, depending on one’s mood, but they are generally appreciated. The range of flavors (earthy to citrusy to sour to bitter) is only equaled by the range of Pavement’s discography. Also of note is that Stephen Malkmus represents the entirety of the Stillwater lineup of artisanal Saisons.
Wilco – Schlafly American Pale Ale
What goes better with dad rock better than a slightly hoppier pale ale from the St. Louis area? Wilco, of course. This easy-drinking lesson in hoppiness is the perfect beer for the dad who wants to still show that he’s cool without drinking anything too bitter or high in alcohol. I mean, he does have to drive home. I also considered Three Floyds’ Alpha King, but figured it only paired with Wilco’s more obtuse work like A Ghost Is Born.
Fiery Furnaces – New Belgium La Folie
They’re both difficult to love sometimes, but if you put forth the effort to find what’s good, it’s totally worth it. Because of this, both have the most loyal of fans who must learn to ignore all the judgmental stares from their peers for choosing to like something so difficult. I considered several more artsy, more difficult bands (Joan of Arc, Beat Happening) along with other Flanders red ales (Duchesse De Bourgogne, New Garus Wisconsin Belgian Red). The pairing just seems right.
Guided By Voices – Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale
I realize that Bob Pollard drinks Bud, not sissy craft beers, but the classic IPA is perfect for macro-arena rock from the midwest. I was torn on several bands and IPA’s, but I settled on two classics. The best part of the IPA are all the variations it’s birthed along with other possible pairings. Dinosaur Jr ruins your eardrums like a Stone Ruination IPA (which is really an imperial IPA) ruins your tastebuds. Other Stone varieties also pair well with similar indie outfits such as Cali-Belgique (Yuck) or the 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA (Chavez). Of course, there’s always old standbys like a Modus Hoperandi (Superchunk) or Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (Archers of Loaf)…I could go on and on, but there are other beers and bands to pair.
Where was I?
Sonic Youth – Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout
There is a ton going on in a Sonic Youth record. Layers of rebuilt guitars and alternate tunings upon alternate tunings create a cacophony that’s all their own. And over the years, SY has grown into almost a completely different band. While they sound nothing like themselves 30 years ago, only they could have evolved the way they have. This is much like Canadian Breakfast Stout, the much hyped and oft-cited imperial stout of the moment. At the moment, there’s a lot of noise in that beer. The suspicion is that it will undergo a Sonic Youth-like metamorphosis while in the bottle that sits in my cellar. I’ve had a taste, but I can’t wait to have another.
Sufjan Stevens – He-Brew Genesis 15:15
Speaking of having a lot going on, this musician and beer pack a whole lota flavor in relatively small packages. Sufjan Stevens brings one layered opus after another from his home in Brookly, much like the brewers at Schmaltz/He’Brew. The religious imagery and connotations are undeniable…This is a pairing made in heaven.
Wild Flag – Avery/Russian River Collaboration not Litigation
The members of Wild Flag were never in any danger of suing one another, but they have collaborated to create one the year’s best records. The Avery/Russian River collab is nearly as caustic and full of riot grrrl power as Wild Flag is. Plus, at nearly, 9% ABV, it makes you as woozy as one might feel after a Carrie Brownstein windmill combined with a Mary Timony classic rock non-riff. Confused? You should be.
I think I have more, but it will take some time to sort them out. In the meantime, what are your favorite beer/music pairings? Do you like any of the pairings I suggested above? Do you have a better pairing for the bands and beers I listed here? As usual, leave some comments.
The pumpkin beer is a strange, strange thing. Either people crave it, always in-search of the perfect pumpkin beer, or they hate them, preferring to drink a Märzen or even stouts and porters during autumn months. I used to belong to the former group. I don’t know that I ever loved pumpkin ales, but I was certainly always on the lookout for the perfect one.
There have been a few pumpkin ales that have satisfied my needs over the years. Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale tastes and looks like it is boozier than it really is. There’s not a load of heat, but it has the thin, alcohol-y feel and almost no head of a high ABV brew. The Dogfish Head Punkin is another I’ve enjoyed. This is a malty take on the fall classic. Finally, Southern Tier’s Pumpking is the bready, vanilla-dominated version many a beer geek crave.
Interestingly, for me, all three of these beers feature more of a pumpkin flavor than a cinna-nutmeg bomb that tastes like pumpkin pie in a glass. The spices are typically too heavy in pumpkin ales, making them just another failed homebrew experiment with spice. I like that these three beers generally steer away from spice and actually showcase the pumpkin.
That said, even the pumpkin ales I’ve liked eventually grow old. After a while, I feel like I’m drinking vegetables. In fact, I had sworn off this season’s offerings in favor of other autumnal beers. Bottles of liquid pumpkin pie or vegetable just don’t do it for me.
Now, there was once a completely different pumpkin ale that got me thinking there could be potential for the style. Of course, it’s the highest rated pumpkin ale on RateBeer and it happens to come from one of my favorite breweries, Jolly Pumpkin. JP’s La Parcela didn’t blow me away, but it did help me question what could be done with a pumpkin ale under the correct brewer-ship. The idea of a pumpkin beer that is a bit sour and features other flavors outside of nutmeg and cinnamon really intrigued me. However, this was not a fantastic beer for me.
So, the search continued…
And like I said, I thought I had sworn off pumpkin ales. That’s when New Belgium’s Kick hit the store shelves. Kick was the new sour pumpkin ale put out on NB’s Lips of Faith Series…
Lips of Faith is one of the better brands of beers put out by a large craft brewer. Like Boulevard, New Belgium uses less-challenging flagship beers to fund forays into Belgian-styles or even Belgo-American fusions. I am a huge fan of the series. Although I don’t like a ton of NB beers, Lips of Faith brews are always interesting and often quite good. You know what I think of La Folie and that’s just the beginning as far as this series is concerned.
Kick is actually a collaboration with Seattle’s Elysian Brewery. Elysian brought the pumpkin and New Belgium brought the sour in the form of cranberry. The result is a pleasantly subtle experience with just a touch of tartness. I get more cranberry from this beer than I get pumpkin. In fact, this beer is subtle in every aspect, but the tartness is its clear strength.
So, the pumpkin beer I’ve now decided is okay to drink is the one that doesn’t really taste that much like pumpkin. What’s the point? Why drink a pumpkin beer that doesn’t really taste of gourd? Well, maybe I don’t actually like pumpkin beers.
And what does pumpkin add to a beer? Sweetness? Mostly, I think it has to do with the incessant spicing home brewers do to their beers. The pumpkin ale is an opportunity to spice your beer like a pumpkin pie. For my money, the addition of chocolate (La Parcela) or cranberry (Kick) is far more interesting than anything associated with pumpkin pie.
This brings up another point that’s been alluded to in describing Kick: subtlety. I want to give this topic its due, but I would be remiss not putting the idea out there that subtlety is maybe just a nice way of saying “flavorless” or “bland.” I don’t think that’s the case with Kick, but it’s a topic to discuss down the road.
Anyway, my search for the great pumpkin ale has ended with Kick. It’s not exactly where I thought I’d end or the beer others would suspect, but it’s a nice fall beer nonetheless.
1What is it with home brewers and spices? They skimp on hops, but spice the hell out of every pumpkin or winter warmer they brew. And since most craft brewers started out as home brewers, this despicable practice carries on.
2Sometimes quite literally. I bought two sixers one year of Schlafly’s version and quickly wished I hadn’t. I think I actually tossed a couple of bottles and used a couple more for pumpkin beer bread.
3Apparently, they do it for some. The displays this year for Schlafly’s Pumpkin ale are huge and the biggest event at Flat Branch (brewpub here in Columbia) is the pumpkin beer release.
4Some breweries don’t go Belgo-American and typically brew big, extreme beers on the flagship’s profit margins.
5Elysian and I have quite a history. I was once in a bind in Seattle (long story). A friend took me to Elysian to sort things out. That day, I discovered that beers could feature citrus flavors without a lime jammed down their necks. That was like 14 years ago(!).
6This is where I imagine the Wonder Twins go into brewing and take the form of their most important ingredients. “Form of two-row!” “Form of Centennial!”
7See. I hate spice in my beer.
8Particularly chocolate from my friend, Alan. He also supplies Northern Brewer with their cocoa nibs.
I’ve recently reviewed a couple of albums on this blog that I referred to as “growers.” What I mean is that they are records whose greatness is not revealed upon the first listen. It takes several listens to get what the band or artist is trying to accomplish. It may never be a great record, but a grower needs time and commitment to enjoy. One has to give it a chance.
The same can be said for beer styles1. Most beer geeks I know prefer big, hoppy brews that are bitter, rich, complex, the opposite of your basic, rice-based American lager. “Lager” is often considered a bad word in beer geek circles. It’s associated with Bud, Miller, Old Milwaukee, Pabst, Keystone, etc. Watered-down beers that can only be consumed ice-cold are avoided by folks who like to taste their beers2.
However, I think lagers should be given a second look3.
Rogue out of Oregon brews their Dirtoir Black Lager using home-grown ingredients (plus a few grown elsewhere4) to delicious results. The beer is technically a Schwarzbier or German dark lager. Rogue’s take on the Schwarzbier is what one might hope a Scharzbier would taste like5. There’s a pleasant bitter hoppiness present with a sweet chocolate and coffee malt flavor as compliment. Yes, lager heaven does exist and it’s in Oregon.
If the Schwarzbier is the black sheep of the lager family, the Pilsner is the golden boy. However, more than any other beer style, Pilsners have been bastardized in order to sell to the masses. Beck’s, St. Pauli, and Heineken come to mind when one first thinks of Pilsners, but many, if not most, mass-produced American beers are based on the style. This is probably what gives lagers and Pilsners such bad names among beer geeks.
That’s generally how I’ve felt about Pilsners6 until Easter weekend encouraged me to break open my 750 mL bottle of their Imperial Pilsner, a first-time collaboration with Belgian brewers at Orval7. This beer is like a Belgian golden ale in lager form. Bananas8 burst at every sip and temperature. Unlike most Pils, the beer even gets better as it warms. The Boulevard Smokestack series has rarely disappointed me and this is no exception. Really, it’s a great beer to enjoy with spicy foods such as Thai and Indian. And at 8% ABV, it can stand up to rich, fatty foods like few Pilsners can.
To prove my point that lagers are not all bad (or typical), I’ll cite three beers. The third is actually a Kriek, or that’s what New Belgium wants you to believe. Their Lips of Faith Series Transatlantique Kriek is a blend of a Belgian lambic and a special brown lager9 brewed by their own brewer. This is the dirty little secret of many lambics. They are often just regular beers with sweetener and artificial flavorings added to make them fruity. Some are true to form, but this NB Kriek is an original. The folks at some of the beer rating sites don’t like it much10. Unlike the Rogue and Boulevard beers that stuck pretty close to traditional styles and techniques while perfecting the results, this Kriek does things a little differently. The cherry presence is subtle and the finish is crisp and dry. I didn’t feel like I was drinking sparkling cherry syrup…nor did I feel like it was just a lager.
These are not the only reasons one should try a lager now and again, but these are beers you should try.
1Yes, I am actually writing about beer on this blog. It may finally be time to retire this beer blog and consolidate my prose.
2Or at least want their beers to taste good.
3Like I may have to do for wheat beers.
4I believe the yeast strain is German so as to be true to the style.
5I always imagine that German beers are wonderful since beer is so important to Germans, but I am usually disappointed. Germans and British have nothing on Belgians and Americans.
6With the exception of random craft brew releases of super hoppy pils that seem to come and go, never really establishing themselves among the beer elite.
7By far one of the best beers I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting…and it’s readily available almost everywhere.
8Good beer either makes you think “raisins” or “bananas.” It’s cliche but true.
9Although, the bottle says ale and the website says lager. I’ll go with the website for my purposes. The point is that this is a surprisingly good beer.
10Beer Advocates often rate beers on their proximity to a classic style or how much the beer slaps them in the face with over-the-top flavor. This beer does neither, so it is considered just worthy to the beer elitists. However, Beer Raters do like it.