The 2016 Total Ales Golden Pint Awards

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

When I compiled my Golden Pints at the end of last year I set myself the very strict rule that I wouldn’t give awards to people I work for or have worked with. In the spirit of fun, I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind this year and award the places I truly love, whether they help prop up my bank account or not. To make things fair I’ve denoted anyone I’ve worked with on a financial basis by marking their name with an asterisk. If you have any questions about the nature of my work, my door is always open: - Or simply let rip in the comments section below, the choice is yours.

So without further ado, here are the beers and places that I remembered first when I stopped to take stock of the last 12 months. And please remember, this is all just a bit of fun.

Best UK Cask Beer // Moor So’Hop

Runners Up: Track Sonoma, Fuller’s ESB

I made the decision that Moor’s vibrant and juicy So’Hop was my cask beer of the year right at the start of this year. I remember thinking to myself at the time I wouldn’t drink a better pint on cask all year and I was right. Many came close, in particular Track Sonoma, which is a runner up for the second year running. Marble and the Five Points also produced a lot of excellent cask beer and Fuller’s ESB has become vital to me as a drinker in these last few months. It’s the perfect hard reset beer. However, nothing else I’ve tasted has had the same fullness of body and perfectly executed balance as So’Hop. I’m convinced that Moor is making the best cask beer in the country at this moment.

Best UK Keg Beer // The Kernel IPA (Various)

Runners Up: Brew By Numbers Session IPA (Various), The Five Points Pils

This was an incredibly tough category to pick out a favourite in, as despite my previous blog post I’ve drank a lot of great beer this year. The winner and runners up in this category are beers that I enjoyed so much my first instinct was to immediately have another – a running theme for many of these awards. For me this makes a beer more special than it being rare or wildly flavourful. To be so perfectly executed that the first instinct is to order the same again, that’s true greatness. No brewer in the UK has had that effect on me with draught beer more so than the Kernel.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer // Burning Sky Saison Anniversaire

Runners Up: Fourpure* Juicebox, Northern Monk Brew Co Heathen

Part of me wishes more brewers were making mixed fermentation, wood aged Saison as well as Burning Sky are. But then if it was easy then everyone would be, right? I took a couple of bottles of Saison Anniversaire to a tasting I hosted in the US earlier this year and the reactions from the gathered crowd spoke volumes while I smiled smugly to myself. We have a truly special brewery in Burning Sky, and for me Saison Anniversaire is at the pinnacle of what they are currently producing.

I’ve also drank a lot of great UK IPA this year and after a lot of thought my favourites have been Fourpure’s Juicebox and Northern Monk’s Heathen, the latter being the best riff on the New England IPA I’ve tried from a British Brewery. Beavertown Lupuloid just narrowly missed out on a top three spot, but still also deserves a mention

Best Overseas Draught Beer // Brasserie De La Senne Jambe De Bois

Runners Up: Melvin Asterisk, New Belgium Oscar Worthy Coffee Sour

Jambe De Bois is my current favourite beer from my current favourite brewery, Brasserie De La Senne. It artfully fuses the best qualities of a Belgian Tripel and a modern IPA to form something so meticulously well balanced that I find it difficult to stop drinking it. Which is why, when in Brussels earlier this year, I fell asleep in my hotel room after a lunchtime session on the Bois.

I have to mention Wyoming’s Melvin because I reckon they’re producing the best IPA in the world right now. New Belgium’s bonkers Oscar Worthy Coffee Sour also needs to be mentioned. This taproom only special, which was a blend of La Folie and cold brew coffee ably demonstrated how much room there is still left to innovate in brewing.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer // Brouwerij Boon Oude Geuze Black Label

Runners Up: Augustiner Lagerbier Hell, New Belgium La Folie

Geuze is my favourite style of beer but it’s generally something I only open on a special occasion or when I’m feeling fancy. The best Geuze I tried this year was Boon’s Black Label, which again was a lesson in balance and depth in subtlety – the running theme in this years golden pints. So good I bought a whole case.

Shout outs go to my current bae Augustiner, which is the hero my palate doesn’t deserve and La Folie, which features in my Golden Pints almost every damn year and with good reason.

Best Collaboration Brew // Thornbridge/Brooklyn/Tom Oliver Serpent

Runners Up: Magic Rock/Cloudwater Three's Company, Beavertown/Other Half Duel of Fates

Depth in subtlety, there’s those three words again and this beer has it in spades. Garret Oliver, the man that practically invented the modern concept of brewery collaborations, is still redefining what it means to truly collaborate on a beer. Serpent, a Belgian style golden ale aged in bourbon casks on cider lees from Tom Oliver, was over two years in the making. It could have been an absolute disaster but the resulting beer is so complex you almost get different flavours with every mouthful. I can’t wait to see how it ages.

Some of the best IPA I’ve tried this year has come from collaboration, with Magic Rock and Cloudwater’s Three's Company probably being the best overall UK brewed IPA I’ve tried this year.

Best Branding // Holy Mountain Brewing

Runners Up: Grimm Artisanal Ales, Magic Rock Brew Co

 I find this category incredibly difficult to pick winners in, as there is so much great design out there. My rule is: the best beer branding is branding that doesn’t look like beer branding. With its simple, black and white labels and stripped-back yet intricate line work, Seattle’s Holy Mountain takes the crown in this category. A lot of brewers could learn from the simplicity of its beautiful design.

I’ve also enjoyed design that’s been fun, and I’ve really liked the cans from New York’s Grimm. Here in the UK, Magic Rock has really upped its game, with Rich Norgate knocking out some incredible work, especially on the recent 500ml can releases.

Best UK Brewery  // Burning Sky

Runners Up: The Kernel Brewery, Northern Monk Brew Co

What should have been a gruellingly agonising decision turned out to actually be a very simple one - Sussex’s Burning Sky are my UK brewery of the year.  This is not just because of the high level of quality and consistency present in its beers, which range from excellent cask ales to foudre aged and blended Saison. It’s because its beers have by far the most impressive depth in subtlety out of all the British beer I’m currently drinking. Whether it’s cask porter, the superb Belgian pale “Gaston” or the sublime Saison Anniversaire, Burning Sky are setting the benchmark for beer in the UK at the moment.

Special mentions go to my runners up Northern Monk, who have improved beyond measure in 2016 and The Kernel, who (still) know hops better than any other British brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery // Brasserie De La Senne

Runners Up: New Belgium Brewing, Brouwerij Boon 

Depth in subtlety. It perhaps took succumbing to beer fatigue in the first place to make me realise that I no longer seek boisterously flavourful beer, but crave balance above all things. For me, right now, no other brewery in the world does this better than Brussels’ Brasserie De La Senne. Every beer I try from them is immaculate, and I want to drink it all of the time.

The same could be said for the runners up, New Belgium and Brouwerij Boon but De La Senne pip them because somehow, its beer feels like it’s less for special occasions. A beer for all times is what I really want and that’s what De La Senne offer me.

Best New UK Brewery Opening // Lost and Grounded

Runners Up: Verdant Brewing Co, Elusive Brewing

If there’s one way to stand out in the UK it’s to launch a cutting edge brewery and then not have an IPA or pale ale in your core range. It helps if each of the beers you make is then beautifully made. I was impressed from the off by Bristol’s Lost and Grounded, but what was more impressive is the way they so obviously improved from batch to batch. Based on this, 2017 is going to be a very big year for these guys.

Falmouth’s Verdant takes a runner up spot for proving that there is still plenty of space for breweries to do interesting things with US hops. Elusive Brewing also impressed in its first year, producing beers that already stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the heavyweights in UK craft beer.  

Pub/Bar of the Year // Bundobust, Leeds

Runners Up: The Duke’s Head Highgate*, The King’s Arms Bethnal Green

Usually when I travel to another city I like to grab a coffee and check into my hotel while I get my bearings – but not in Leeds. It’s a 5 minute beeline from the train station to Bundobust and only another 10 before I’ve got a paneer tikka, some bhel puri and a cold beer in front of me. Bundobust is simply a wonderful place, whether it’s for a quiet lunch, or a lively night, this year its been my favourite place to eat and drink in the UK. Please open in London soon.

Except in some ways it hasn’t, because I spend more time drinking in The Duke’s Head this year than I have anywhere else, including at home. The fact that I work for them on events (and behind the bar earlier this year) and still spend most of my spare time there speaks volumes. It’s what a true local should be, and that’s what it feels like, not a place where I work occasionally. Bethnal Green’s The King’s Arms also get a mention because it’s also become one of my favourite drinking spaces to spend time in this year, long may it continue. 

Best New Pub/Bar Opening  // Mason & Company

Runners Up: The Pilcrow, The Prince Bounds Green*

With its clean, relaxed décor, water on the table as standard, great food, great coffee and great booze – not just beer – Mason & Co is my opening of the year. It takes the modern bar blueprint that Mother Kelly’s established a couple of years ago and builds on it. I’m actually surprised it took someone else in London this long to do. 

The Pilcrow fulfils a very similar role in Manchester, despite looking more like an art gallery than a bar from the outside. I’ll be calling in again the next time I’m in Manchester. Finally I have to give a mention to the second pub from the folks at The Duke’s Head – The Prince. They’ve taken everything they’ve learned from running The Duke’s and built upon it. It feels special, in an area that’s been destitute of a good, independent boozer for some time.

UK Brewery Taproom of the Year // Northern Monk Refectory

Runner Up: Magic Rock Tap

As you may have noticed I’ve tinkered with the categories a bit. The aim of this one is to highlight the efforts being made by some breweries to build exceptional spaces than do more than just sell beer at full margin. You know something? I’m actually sick of spending my precious time off drinking in warehouses and railway arches, we deserve better.

The effort Northern Monk put into refining the experience at its Refectory is second to none. More breweries need to step up to the plate if they intend to compete by selling their beer on premise. Magic Rock are also deserving of a mention here because they’ve somehow made a warehouse feel homely, and it’s the closest we have to a US taproom experience here in the UK.

Beer Festival of the Year // Leeds International Beer Festival

Runners Up: London Craft Beer Festival, The Independent Manchester Beer Convention*

I love Indyman, I really do, it gives me a sense of great joy deep inside every time I enter the Victoria Baths. It’s not a festival for everyone though, it does genuinely feels like it’s just for us geeks. Leeds International Beer Festival reaches outside the beer bubble with an almighty fist. It’s the most fun I’ve had drinking beer outside of a good pub all year – and fun is exactly what a beer festival should be.

Beer Retailer of the Year - Winner // Hop Burns & Black*

Runners Up: Beerbods*, Little Leeds Beer House

There is no best supermarket category in my golden pints – why the fuck would we reward vast, multi-billion pound chains that seem intent on ripping the arse out of beer with heavy discounts? I’ve also merged the online and independent retailer category, because I don’t generally buy beer online (why would I when there are so many great independents near me these days.) but I do see the inherent value of it.

What I do look for in retail, be it online or bricks and mortar, are those places that don’t just sell stuff but invest in building a place for the local community as well. I do a lot of work for Hop Burns & Black, and this means I get to spend some time there and see the way they interact with customers. Hop Burns & Black is much, much more than just a shop – you only have to go watch Jen & Glenn DJ or participate in one of their riotous Chilli Karaoke nights to realise this. That’s what makes Hop Burns & Black my favourite beer retailer in 2016.

It’s for this reason I’ve picked my runners up too. Little Leeds Beer House feels like it has that innate sense of community that’s missing from so many retailers. Beerbods somehow manage to build this kind of community without using a physical space, which is why, once again, they’re my pick in the world of online retail.

Best Beer Book or Magazine - Winner // Pallet Magazine

Runners Up: Pete Brown – The Pub, Belgian Beer & Food*

My first reaction to reading Pallet – which is a quarterly collection of essays and photography in and around the world of beer – is how the hell do I make something like this for a UK audience. It’s a beer magazine without ever really being a beer magazine and I absolutely love it.

I also loved Pete Brown’s “The Pub”. After reading the first few pages I thought to myself that he’d win Beer Writer of the Year with it – and I was right, it’s great. Buy a copy now and get a subscription to Belgian Beer & Food magazine while you’re at it, it’s the classiest beer mag around.

Best Beer Blog or Website - Winner // Good Beer Hunting*

Runners Up: Draft Magazine, The Beeroness  

Why am I giving the award to the website I do a significant portion of work for you ask? Well it’s important to remember that I’m not the only contributor. In fact I think there are 14 of us on the editorial team now. When I joined the team mid way through 2015 there were less than half of that.

It’s the other writers and photographers that I want to award here, not myself. Not only does the standard of work get better with each passing article, but it also makes the rest of the team work harder, which constantly pushes up the standard of what we all do. We also have the most kickass editor in the beer writing game in the form of Austin L. Ray – if you’re reading this Austin those edits will be in your inbox shortly.

I can’t get hold of a physical copy of Draft here in the UK, but they produce some of my favourite beer writing and I’m glad I can access stuff of this quality online for free. I also really enjoy the recipes that are regularly posted by The Beeroness and the beautiful photography that accompanies them. I’d like to see more online beer writing reach this standard in 2017.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer - Winner // Jon Rowett (@RowettBrew

Runner Up: David Bishop (@beerdoodles)

Rowett takes the award for best tweeter for the second year running. But don’t just take my word for it - give him a follow. Second place goes to David Bishop for his pithy beer doodles. Come to think of it I think these two folks are the only people I’ve ever given my best tweeter award to. <3 u guys.

Best Brewery Website & Social Media // Allagash Brewing

Runners Up: Cloudwater Brew Co, Beavertown Brewery

Allagash, of Portland, Maine, take home my best social media prize. With simple, photo driven posts that make me feel like I’m walking around the brewery itself while they get me excited about the beer they’re making, nobody does it better.

Here in the UK I’ve admired the efforts from Cloudwater’s Paul Jones, who deftly runs the brewery’s social media. This involves constantly keeping us informed of Cloudwater’s goings on and he’s always on hand to answer questions. We’ll miss him when he’s so busy he needs to hire someone to tweet for him, but I’m sure that hire will be great. Shoutout to the folks at Beavertown too, who despite growing up a lot this year still talk to you, instead of at you, which is something other growing breweries don’t seem to manage.