Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It’s been quite a year for beer, there’s a definite feeling of change in the air. Craft beer in the UK got big and crashed into the mainstream. Now we get to see how a niche interest we love fares in the spotlight. For me the last twelve months in beer have been as exhilarating as they’ve been exhausting. In my opinion, this is the best of the best.
Disclaimer: These awards are given out entirely in the spirit of fun, however in order to remain fair and without bias I’ve disqualified anyone I work/have worked with professionally. Basically what this means is that if they paid me money, they’re not here. However it goes without saying that these guys don’t need to be mentioned on here to know how awesome they are.
Best UK Cask Beer - Winner // Five Points Pale Ale
Runners Up: Hammerton N7, Track Sonoma, Moor So'Hop
2015 was the year I fell in love with cask beer again. I also learned a lot about how and why this dispense method is so important, even running my own event: Cask is Important with The Duke’s Head, Highgate back in the summer. This was the toughest category in which to pick a winner as I’ve drank so much great cask beer over the last twelve months. In the end however, the choice was easy: Five Points Pale Ale has just got better and better as this year has progressed. It’s juicy and bitter in all the right places and I always order it when I see it on the bar.
Best UK Keg Beer - Winner // Camden Town Unfiltered Hells Lager
Runners Up: Brewdog Jackhammer, Beavertown Gamma Ray
Something else I’ve really appreciated over the last twelve months is a great pint of draught lager. In the UK I don’t think anyone’s making a better pint of lager than Camden Town Brewery. The regular Hells is decent enough to hold my attention for twenty minutes or so but the unfiltered version is able to captivate me for hours on end. Unfiltered Hells is without any pomp or complexity, it’s just straight up, super refined grassy, herbal, bready flavours with the perfect snap of dryness in the finish.
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer - Winner // Brewdog Born to Die
Runners Up: Fourpure Dry Hop Pils, Chorlton Amarillo Sour
Despite my love for all things beer, be it dark or lager, sour or bitter, the ‘pale and hoppy’ category is still my champion. This year no one has produced a better beer in this category than Brewdog. Born to Die is flavour in high definition. You can pick out the notes of mango, pineapple and spruce with ease. This is as good as beer gets in the UK right now.
Best Overseas Draught Beer - Winner // Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
Runners Up: Brasserie de la Senne Zinnebir, Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro
Another lager and this time it’s possibly the best lager in the world – when it’s fresh anyway. Pivo is too hideously expensive to appreciate properly in the UK and by that, I mean in measures of several pints per sitting. Its quality is found in its elegant simplicity, backed up by a massive hit of herbal, spicy, noble hops that just seem to sing endlessly with flavour.
Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer - Winner // Avery Liliko'i Kepolo
Runners Up: Cantillon Gueuze, Almanac Farmer’s Reserve Citrus
If you’d told me that my favourite overseas small pack beer of 2015 was going to be a wheat beer I’d probably have laughed. If you told me that it was a beer blended with pureed passion fruit it’s likely I’d have smirked with disbelief. Believe it though - Boulder’s Avery Brew Co blindsided me with this clever little beer. It tastes like tropical fruit juice and the tart, dry finish makes it almost infinitely boshable.
Best Collaboration Brew - Winner // Lindemans & Mikkeller Spontanbasil
Runner Up: Beavertown & Boneyard Power of the Voodoo
We may be feeling a little collaboration fatigue after this year. Keeping up with breweries that team up on recipes is exhausting. It’s advancing the craft beer industry on in leaps and bounds though, collaboration results in shared learning and experimentation that might not happen without it. Lindemans are going to surprise everyone over the next few years as they refine their products for a more modern, more mature palate. Spontanbasil is a batshit-insane, borderline genius collaboration with Mikkeller. Yes, it tastes like sour pasta sauce, yes some people hate it, but I happen to think the way in which is polarises opinion is one of the reasons that makes it so great.
Best Overall Beer - Winner // Brewdog Born to Die
Runner Up: Avery Liliko'i Kepolo
Upon tasting the second release of this double IPA I wrote a tasting note that said: "Pliny the Aulder" – in reference to both the way it tasted and this beers country of origin. Matching the greatness of Russian River’s hyperbolic flagship seems to be the focus for a large number of UK brewers. This is as close as anyone has gotten so far. Born to Die is quite simply sublime and I cannot wait for the next batch to be released.
Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label - Winner // Almanac Beer Company
Runners Up: Other Half Brew Co, Boundary Brewing Cooperative
Design is one of my favourite aspects of the craft beverage industry. I like forward thinking, out of the box design, in particular beer labels that don’t look like beer labels and yet somehow do. As well as making some of the most accomplished beer I’ve tried this year, San Francisco’s Almanac has also commissioned, without question, my favourite pieces of design for its bottles. Their screen-printed farm-to-barrel series, particularly the immaculately designed bottles of Grand Cru are a treat for the eyes and do an admirable job of getting you excited about the beer inside.
Best UK Brewery - Winner // Brewdog
Runners Up: Moor Beer Co, Beavertown
I deliberated over this award more than any of the others but after much reasoning there was only one logical decision. Brewdog’s aggressive marketing might be, at times, irksome and irritating but as a result, this year we haven’t stopped talking about them for longer than a day.
Put that aspect of its business to one side for a moment and take a look at the beer on its own. It is, for me at least, easy to see why they are our best. In Jackhammer they’ve created one of the most solid, go-to US style IPA’s that’s available fresh, pretty much whenever you want it. In Dead Pony Club they’ve done the same for a beer that’s half the strength. In Born to Die they’ve created quite possibly the best beer being brewed in the UK right now. Its barrel program is also one of the most established and beers such as Black Eyed King Imp and Paradox are some of the most accomplished barrel aged beers on the market. Every aspect of its beer making is done with both passion and finesse.
But it’s more than that, Brewdog’s success is down to more than just its beer. Thanks to its astonishing growth Brewdog have managed to not just create, but to develop a market for beer in the UK that didn’t exist before. There’s no doubt this market would have evolved organically anyway but without Brewdog’s influence it would have happened at a significantly slower rate. I’m not just talking about breweries here but bars, bottle shops, distributors – everything that forms a part of the beer world. Brewdog were the biggest factor in creating the market space that they operate within. Whether you like Brewdog or not, we should be thankful for that.
Best Overseas Brewery & Overall Brewery of the Year - Winner // Avery Brewing Co
Runners Up (Overseas): Almanac, Cantillon
When I visited Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado earlier this year I was blown away by not only the size and scale of its new facility but by the unprecedented quality of its product. I was already well aware of Avery and a fan of its beers but since scaling up, the quality of their output seems to have followed suit. I spent over $50 just on four ounce pours that day and every beer I tried, be it a wheat beer, IPA, sour or barrel aged stout was immaculate. I left Boulder thinking that Avery had immediately catapulted themselves into my top ten, maybe even top five breweries. After much consideration, I can’t think of any other brewery making such a wide range of beers so well, and that’s why Avery are my brewery of the year 2015.
Best New Brewery Opening - Winner // Cloudwater Brew Co.
Runners Up: Chorlton Brewing Company, Track Brewing
New brewery openings this year have been ten-a-penny in the city of Manchester. Cloudwater are my winner, despite not enjoying a lot of their spring range, but because they’ve worked hard to improve every aspect of their business since their launch. Track blew me away with Sonoma pale ale on cask and Chorlton’s Amarillo Sour was the most accomplished beer to originate from Manchester this year. However it’s the way Cloudwater have gone about their business that makes them my winners. From taking a huge risk and investing in a brewhouse that was probably larger than they initially needed to carefully considered communication and marketing, Cloudwater are finally starting to live up to their own hype. Judging by their output from the last couple of months, I think 2016 will really be their year.
Pub/Bar of the Year - Winner // Moeder Lambic Fontainas
Runners Up: Common, Bundobust
So heavily did I fall for Brussels’ Moeder Lambic Fontainas this summer I finished my evening there three nights on the bounce. From pouring draught versions of classics such as Cuvée de Ranke and Cantillon Gueuze to being open minded towards new beers, especially those from outside of Belgium, Moeder Lambic had all my bases covered. It’s one of those places that just fills me with utter contentment from the moment I enter until it’s reluctantly time to leave.
Best New Pub/Bar Opening - Winner // Common
Runner Up: Two-Bit, Howling Hops Tank Bar
Although, strictly speaking, Manchester’s Common Bar is not a new opening, such was its transformation after this years refurbishment it feels like somewhere completely new. The response from many locals and regulars was not positive. Common have completely changed the look and the feel of the bar, opting for a fresher, café bar style approach with table service and a greater focus on products that aren’t alcoholic drinks, such as food and coffee. However as a visitor, I found the new look Common to be an oasis in the heart of the Northern Quarter, whether I’m in need of something to eat, a quick coffee or some world-class beer.
Beer Festival of the Year - Winner // The Independent Manchester Beer Convention
Runner Up: Lambikstoempers Festival
It would be impossible for me to award this category to any other beer festival. I was filled with a deep sense of joy from the moment my first IndyMan session began until its end – when it left me empty and hungover. I can’t wait to do it all over again next year.
Multi-Site Beer retailer of the Year - Winner // Oddbins
I didn’t want to give this accolade to a supermarket because, although the range across several of these giants has improved there are companies that do a much better job. Wine specialist Oddbins has continued to raise its game after introducing craft beer to its shelves a couple of years ago. Coupled with ensuring that its staff are equipped with great knowledge of the products it sells, I don’t think any other large off-trade retailer is doing as good a job as they are.
Independent Beer Retailer of the Year - Winner // Beermoth
Manchester has got it so, so good at the moment. Not just because it has some of the best breweries and bars in the country but it also has its best bottle shop. Beermoth is a magical place, from the incredible selection upstairs to its quiet and well-considered tasting room in the basement. With their new Café Beermoth location now open too, there’s no doubting that even greater things are in store for this company.
Online Beer Retailer of the Year - Winner // Beerbods
A lot of online businesses are very good at selling a lot of really good beer to a lot of people. None of them engage with these people like Beerbods though. Week, after week I watch Matt, Gordon and the team communicate with beer fans new and old, creating some of the most interesting beer conversation on the internet as a result. I am confident that massive, massive things are in store for these hard-working guys.
Best Beer Book or Magazine - Winner // Belgian Beer & Food
Runner Up: Hop & Barley
For me the pinnacle of beer writing is great, well-paced storytelling combined with equally good imagery. No other beer magazine in print manages to pull this off as well as Belgian Beer & Food. Editor Paul Walsh has a real eye for a story and uses his editorial know-how to ensure that he gets the very best from his contributors.
Best Beer Blog or Website - Winner // The Craft Beer Channel
Runners Up: Belgian Smaak, Called to the Bar
Most people that write or talk about beer are very good at creating content that appeals to people who already really like beer. What Brad Evans and Jonny Garrett at The Craft Beer Channel have managed to do is to create video content that anyone can enjoy, be they beer fan or casual passer by, and that’s not easy to do. They’re also always learning and getting better at what they do. I’m looking forward to seeing what this dynamic duo come up with in the New Year.
Best Beer Article - Winner // Cory Smith - Other Half Brewing Co. — Helping Make Brooklyn Whole Again (for Good Beer Hunting)
I know I said in my disclaimer I won’t give an award to anyone I work or have worked with but this isn’t an award for Good Beer Hunting specifically. This is for an immaculate piece of storytelling from New York based writer and photographer Cory Smith. I wanted to give this award in lieu of not having time to put together a Golden Posts as I did last year. My favourite pieces of beer writing are those that convey process, atmosphere and a sense of place. I don’t think any beer writer has achieved that as well as Cory did in this particular piece this year. (Read the article here)
Best Beer App - Winner // Google Keep
I’m not really one for beer apps these days but the one app that has been a godsend for me recently is Google Keep. For me it’s a multi-coloured vault of ideas, pitches and accepted commissions. It also reminds me of my deadlines and to chase invoices, so really, it’s invaluable.
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer - Winner // Jon Rowett (@RowettBrew)
There’s not been as much on Twitter to smile about this year but one person that always manages to soften my ashen heart is Jon Rowett. Well done Jon.
Best Brewery Website & Social Media - Winner // Doreen Joy Barber – The Five Points Brewing Company
For me the best use of social media by a business is when the person who controls it manages to mix their own voice with that of the company they work for. In doing this, Doreen Joy Barber from Hackney’s The Five Points manages to convey a very modern and very human business that’s super easy to engage with. All other breweries, in fact anyone in the industry, should follow The Five Points immediately to see how social media is done. (You can also read our interview with Doreen from earlier this year right here.)