“Best” is a highly subjective and often contentious word. While it can allow one person to opine their fondness for a particular thing, that same opinion can be meaningless to someone else. It can even provoke ire in those that disagree, although, with sincerity, I hope you find my list of things I think are the “best” agreeable.
I didn’t do this last year for one reason or another, but this year I realised that getting these lists jotted down really helps me to process the last 12 months and approach the next 12 with a clearer head. I’ve also decided not to do the traditional beer bloggers ‘Golden Pints’ because what I ended up putting to paper didn’t really fit with the format originally devised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg back in 2008.
What follows are my favourite things within the world of food and drink of the past 12 months. This includes beer (obv) along with wine and cider—something I now take a far deeper appreciation in—and places, which could be a pub, bar or restaurant. I’ve also included links to my favourite writing, photography and podcasts within my own food and drink sphere from the last 12 months. Dig in.
Bearded Iris — Homestyle
I first experienced Nashville’s Bearded Iris when I was in town for this years Craft Brewers Conference. So enamoured was I with their flagship IPA, Homestyle, that I bought a four-pack home to share with friends. Unfortunately, this not-quite-hazy, yet still juicy, dry and tantalisingly refreshing IPA was so good that I finished the lot before I got the chance. Guess I’ll have to go back to Nashville at some point and get some more.
Burning Sky — Cuvée (Beer of the Year)
It’s dangerous to pick favourites as a food and drink writer, but fuck it, Burning Sky is my favourite brewery. I have loved every beer of theirs I’ve tasted this year. One beer, however, stands out from the rest—Cuvée. I feel confident enough to say that this blend of wine barrel-aged Saison and Lambic from Belgium’s Girardin is currently without peer in the UK. And that’s why this is my beer of the year.
DEYA — Steady Rolling Man
I keep telling myself that I’m over NEIPA. That this pint of juice is my last. Then I have another Steady Rolling Man. For my palate, this is the best example of a modern pale ale currently being brewed in the UK. While it has the Mosaic and Citra notes that have become a carbon copy favourite of every brewery and their mum, Steady has a little extra, perhaps the pine resin notes of Simcoe, or a dry and slightly bitter finish, that just makes it better than its competitors.
Donzoko — Northern Helles
How, at a spritely 24 years old, Hartlepool’s Reece Hugill has created 2018’s most exciting new brewery—without actually owning his own brewhouse and driving his cuckoo brewed wort to his small collection of fermenters—is a little beyond belief. That his flagship beer, Northern Helles, is also one of the most delicious new lagers to enter the market this year extends that feeling. While this isn’t a Helles in the traditional Bavarian sense, this is a stunning lager, and one that somehow condenses the Teesside spirit into a sublimely crushable beverage.
Hill Farmstead — Anna
A lot of praise is heaped on Vermont’s Hill Farmstead—and that’s because, yes, they do brew better beers than most other breweries. I was even lucky enough to try a few this year. The one that stood out for me was Anna, its flagship dry hopped Saison. The intricacy of the fruity hop and yeast notes in this is mind blowing. Anna is as intricate as a house of cards but it’s magic is in its simplicity and how well these intricacies manifest on the palate. It’s a complex beer for simple times.
Little Earth Project — Organic Saison
When narrowing my final list of 15 beers down I was torn between this beer and a couple of different beers from Gloucestershire’s Mills Brewing. What nosed this in front was experience. Tasting this on cask at Affinity Brew Co’s Cask 2018 was one of those moments where time stops and is captured in a Wachowski style ‘bullet time’ frame. The balance of lemon-sharp acidity in this beer reminded me of some of the best Lambic I’ve tried.
Lost and Grounded — Keller Pils
Ah, Keller Pils, where do I start with this beer? If my award for ‘Beer of the Year’ was down to volume alone then this would win hands down. This is the best lager being brewed in the UK at the moment. Thing is it’s not terribly consistent—and I love that. There’s always a little tinkering going on in the background, be that the profile of its acidity or malt structure. Sometimes the hops blow you away, and sometimes they sing you a little lullaby before you go to sleep. I hope I never get bored of drinking this beer.
Mahrs Bräu — aU
It’s near impossible for me to order this beer without breaking into a rendition of Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London.’ What at first generated mild embarrassment I now embrace with relish (Zevon’s record is a total banger after all.) Where Keller Pils gives me a reliably bitter beer, this Franconian lager provides the kind of malt profile strong enough to build bridges.
New Belgium — Transatlantique Kriek
Out of all New Belgium’s wonderful foeder beers, Transatlantique Kriek—a blend of a strong Golden Ale and Kriek imported from Belgium’s Oud Beersel—was perhaps the most uninspiring. That all changed in 2018 when the beer ceased to go through Pasteurisation prior to bottling. Somehow this years vintage came alive in the bottle, with endless notes of cherry Tangfastic mingling with Champagne-like carbonation. Several bottles may have made it into my cellar. (Disclosure: I produced an event in collaboration with New Belgium earlier this year.)
North/Track — DDH IPA
Despite my NEIPA fatigue I struggled to take this beer off my list. Watching North and Track shoot to increased prominence this year has been a delight, and testament to the hard work both breweries are putting into their recipes and QC. I tasted many, many Hazy IPAs in 2018, from all over the world. But this was the best. Most of these beers do have an alarmingly similar (and somewhat tiresome) hop profile, but the combination of the right balance acidity and a dry finish made this one shine brighter than the rest.
Odell — IPA
They say the classics are always the best, and this year I returned to the beer that started my beer journey with gusto. I was initially saddened to see this brewery pull out from UK distribution, but waiting a few months for a taste of this beer fresh from the brewery tap made me realise why. At its freshest, this might just be my favourite IPA (even more so than Pliny the Elder, which I have long claimed to be “the one.”) More reason to drink as much of this banger while the going is good.
Surly — Todd the Axeman
In a world of IPA defined by ‘East Coast’ and ‘West Coast,’ Surly’s Todd the Axeman should be an example to all. This beer combines all the juice of the East with the resinous kick of the West with an almost effortless finesse. A beer I’ll order every time I see it.
The Five Points — Hook Island Red
A late entrant, but no less deserving than any of the others on this list. And, surprisingly to me, the only cask beer to make my final 15. I felt my eyes widen the moment I saw this wonderful rye-infused Red Ale return—on the pumps at Five Points brewery tap The Pembury Tavern no less. Such was the balance of sweet malt, spicy rye and resinous hop that I had to go back to the pub the very next day for more, and the day after that. A magnificent beer from one of the UK’s most under-appreciated breweries—by some, at least. (Disclosure: I have previously been hired in a professional capacity as a photographer by The Five Points.)
TRVE — A Present for Those Who are Present
I haven’t had the opportunity to drink many beers from magnum-sized bottles this year, but of those that I did, TRVE’s A Present for Those Who are Present hit the highest mark. For a brewery with such a small footprint, the nuance and delicacy within their Saisons is remarkable, and none more so within this particular beer. Visitors to Cloudwater’s Friends and Family and Beer festival next year will be in for a treat if they visit this brewery’s stand.
WeldWerks — Medianoche Reserve
Here’s the deal: I don’t like pastry stouts—I find them to be repulsive. But then I’m also the person that skips dessert and heads straight to the cheese course after a meal. One thing I do love though is Bourbon, and well executed expressions of this within beer. With Medianoche Reserve, WeldWerks have not only forged a pastry stout I don’t hate, but have imbued it with the kind of Bourbon character collectors of the spirit would fork out hundreds of dollars for. An impeccable beer.
Wine and Cider
Fuchs und Hase — Pet Nat Vol. 1
At the start of 2018 I still barely understood what pétillant-naturel meant other than if it said “pet-nat” on the label I wanted to drink it. I love what a crown cap signifies on a bottle of wine. It says: crush me. And with this fresh and fruity effervescent white from Austria’s Fuchs und Hase, I crushed it whenever the opportunity presented itself. If you like light and fruity Saison, put this on your bosh list.
Garage Project Crushed — Tropical Phantasm
“I wanted to make a wine that tasted like a NEIPA,” Garage Project’s Jos Ruffell told me at an event I helped put together earlier this year. He was describing one of the wines from the New Zealand brewery’s ‘Crushed’ range, and not without reason. Here was a wine that tasted like liquid juicy fruit, with the haze to match its objective. A perception-altering wine if ever there was one.
Judith Beck — Beck Ink
This was the wine I drank the most of in 2018. It’s good value, it’s an incredibly delicious dark red, and you can give it to anyone that says they “don’t like natural wine” and change their mind. At once unctuous, tart and fruity. A banger, at fifteen quid. Stock up now before everyone else cottons on.
Little Pomona — The Unicorn
Herefordshire’s Little Pomona are one of a small selection of new wave cider makers demonstrating that there is more to modern British cider than Tom Oliver alone. I enjoyed many ciders from this producer over the course of this year, but this slightly sparkling, slightly sweet cider stood out from the rest. Oh, and I adore the branding too.
Oliver’s — The Mayflower (Wine or Cider of the Year)
Thirteen pounds. That’s how much I paid for a 750ml bottle of this incredible beverage—which weighs in at a not inconsiderable 9.3%—in a pub. I shared some of it but mostly I enjoyed the bottle to myself. A blend of Rum, Whisky and Red Wine matured ciders, then cut with Ice Cider, the breathtaking tasting notes make this cider sound, on paper at least, like something of a car crash. The opposite is true, the product being one of singular, stunning definition. It’s still available, it’s a tenner in a good offy. Get some while you still can.
Partida Creus — SM
One thing that frustrates me about most natural wines is how little information is included on the label. The beer and wine worlds are more distant than even I imagined in many ways, but lovers of modern Saison and Geuze should be paying attention to this Catalonian producer. There’s a funk and acidity to their wines that any sour beer lover should be able to hang their hat on. Just don’t expect to learn anything about the wine from the label. (I can at least tell you that SM refers to the Sumoll grape variety, good luck with the rest.)
Patrick Sullivan — Rain 2017
I bought this bottle of wine as present for my Dad, to mark his retirement this year. He hated it. As much as Dad likes to explore booze like I do, when it comes to red wine he likes big, tannic, old school reds. Not crazy, bright pink, juicy nonsense like this. And that’s exactly what this is. I’m unsure if it’s worthy of its £40 price tag, but then I’ve never tasted a wine quite like it. Even more bonkers than a wine from the same producer which was actually called ‘Bonkers.’
Two restaurants have provided me with a jaw dropping dining experience this year, and they share the same building. Upstairs there is the Basque-inspired BRAT, with steak and turbot cooked like you’ve never tasted it before, and a formidable wine list designed by fellow restaurant, Noble Rot. Downstairs is some of the most endorphin-inducing spiced Thai-style cuisine, and lots of good beer to boot. Neck Oil on tap and Cuvée in the fridge. Yet the beer comes second to the amazing food.
Every time I try to leave Hackney this place stops me. Every. Fucking. Time. And I love it. The best neighbourhood cocktail bar in London bar none. Tiny Martinis for a fiver. Shots of Fernet Branca. Cans of Pils in the fridge. The best copy on a cocktail list you’ll ever peruse. You will try to nip in for a quick one and you will always fail.
The UK might not be quite ready for a bar that deals exclusively in sour beer, but Denver certainly is. Goed Zuur (Flemish for ‘Good Sour.’) oozes class, the space is cosy, the staff attentive, the food excellent and the drinks list mental. Try the butter flight (yes you read that right.)
P. Franco (Joint Place of the Year)
I’d like every self respecting hospitality enthusiast to visit P. Franco for a glass of wine. As much as I still find most wine bars to be achingly pretentious when compared to a beer equivalent, P. Franco just gets it. This 20-seater bar, which is basically a big table in the middle of a wine shop, packs in enough vibe for 200. The real highlight though, is the way the staff engage and qualify you, no matter how busy they appear to be. Without this venue the entry barriers to wine would not have been broken down for me this year. This is my joint place of the year for that reason. (Their food is awesome too, but more on that in a future post.)
The Harp — Covent Garden
Such is my love for The Harp that I have started making excuses to visit Covent Garden—a part of London I dislike—just to visit for either a pint of Best, Hophead or maybe some fresh Kernel. It’s a true London gem, and the first pub I always recommend to visitors to our fine city. Even when it’s at its busiest, they’ll always, somehow, find room for you.
The Great Northern Railway Tavern
2018 was the year when, finally, the pub I have lived closest too for seven years became my local. Thanks to a not insubstantial Fuller’s-acquisition-led upgrade and some skilful direction and beer buying from manager Jess Tereise, this place has become a true gem. Both locally, and for visiting out-of-towners.
The Marble Arch
Such is my enthusiasm for this pub that when I caught sight of it for the first time in many months this September, I bounded down Rochdale Road with gusto. This pub has everything, from the decor, to the locals, to the vibe, amazing food and stunning beers. So good it converted me to preferring my cask ale sparkled. And that’s saying something.
The Pembury Tavern (Joint Place of the Year)
I was excited when I heard The Five Points had acquired the Pembo (as it shall henceforth be called) located a mere 100 metres from the brewery and on the five-headed junction from which the brewery takes its name. I was worried when I heard they were refurbing it, because this was a pub redolent with character—although perhaps in dire need of a fresh lick of paint. What they did with it though, was beyond expectation. It has, in a few short months, cemented itself as my favourite beer destination. It’s also run by the absolute boy Pete Walker and serves stunning pizzas from Capish’s Rachael Jones. And it’s five minutes down the road from P. Franco and Every Cloud. My little triangle of East London joy.
Writing, Photography & Podcasts
I wasn’t in the right kind of headspace to enjoy much of other people’s food and drink writing this year BUT what I did enjoy I did so immensely. What follows is some of my favourite content produced in 2018. Much of which is from Good Beer Hunting, which is where my head was buried deep for much of the past few months.
Special mentions go to Stephen Buranyi for his piece on Natural Wine in The Guardian, which is adept at showing both sides of the much talked about industry. I adored Michael Kiser’s interview with Taylor and Dan Suarez, seeing a worrying amount of myself in the latter (but who isn’t a little bit of a control freak, right?) I continue to be endlessly compelled by the Hudson Valley brewery.
Nicci Peet is doing some of the most important work in beer communication with her Diversity in Beer photojournalism project. After you’ve admired her photos you should throw her a buck or two on Patreon. And finally, shoutout to my buddy Claire Bullen, who for my money produced the best piece of beer writing in 2018 when she profiled The Kernel. I was lucky enough to be the first person that read this piece after Claire herself, and nothing has stopped me in my tracks quite like it since. I can’t wait to read what she, and all beer writers produce in 2019. Here’s to the new year.
Kevin Alexander — I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It. (for Thrillist—nb After publishing this roundup I was aware that the narrative of this peace was missing key information regarding the main sources domestic harassment conviction. This is more eloquently explained in this article.)
Chris Hall — Dealing in Lifetimes (for Good Beer Hunting)
Emma Inch — Safe (for Original Gravity)
Michael Kiser — Ep. 185 Taylor and Dan Suarez of Suarez Family Brewery (for Good Beer Hunting)
Nicci Peet — Diversity in Beer (Personal Project)