Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It occurs to me that as it’s still January and I’m still awaiting the delivery of some fine beers from mybrewerytap.com that it would be appropriate to reminisce on ten of the finest beers I had last year. I consider 2011 to me my first full year as a craft beer enthusiast as I like to trace my craft beer ‘awakening’ to my first trip to the USA back in July 2010.
What follows is not a top ten, it’s simply the ten beers from the last twelve months that have stuck in my mind most prominently. Unsurprisingly to me this list is dominated by hop heavy US brews and this is because although not exclusively, this is by far my favourite kind of beer. Alongside some outstanding American beverages are some fantastic European beers and not all of them hop bombs. I am super excited to see what delights 2012 will bring and I have a feeling that next years list will instead be dominated by amazing British craft beer but for now, here are my beers of 2011…
I’m already cheating a little with this one because I first tried it in 2010 and I’ll be honest that I struggled with it back then. On my first trip to the states my palate had not developed enough to enjoy a really hoppy brew but on return journeys I’ve enjoyed it over and over again. Dales Pale Ale is so crammed full of hops it makes the popular Sierra Nevada Pale ale (which for the record I think is great) seem almost bland in comparison. Bitter lemon and grapefruit notes burst on the tongue but and despite reaching a pretty high ABV which similar pale ales in the genre do not it’s still supremely drinkable. Dales Pale Ale is brewed by Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado and sadly is not readily available here in the UK. It may be one of the greatest beers in the world.
I remember sitting upstairs in the Euston Tap about two thirds the way through a particularly heavy session and sending my mate Dom to the bar for ‘something stouty.’ He returned with a pint of thick black liquid that he ‘saw some bloke order and it looked interesting’ and up until that point I had no idea just how interesting it would be. This was my first sip of a black IPA, at first I didn’t know what to think, I was getting hops, glorious resinous hops sitting upon a rich, roasted malt backbone. I looked into the black liquid and wondered how something so dark could taste so bright and lively but soon stopped caring and went and ordered another.
Inversion, from Oregon based Deschutes, is one of several American IPA’s to make this list which is no surprise being my favourite style of beer. Last year I tried more American IPA’s than any other type of brew which made it the toughest decision deciding which ones were my favourites. Inversion is almost the perfect example of how an American IPA should taste alongside Odell IPA (which I didn’t include as I've already gushed about Odell in a previous post) with bitter, resinous hops perfectly matched with sweet caramel malt flavours. The irony about this American IPA is that it’s not actually that pale, more a deep amber colour but semantics needn’t get in the way of good beer.
It’s often important, as a beer geek, not to let yourself get carried away by an obsession with one kind of beer. I don’t turn my nose up at decent Kölsch or lager because just as much effort goes into the brewing of these beers as it does into the beers I prefer, in fact I think a lot more craft breweries will decide to produce a lager of their own this year. British best bitter almost always disappoints me, I find the taste of Goldings hops repetitive and boring but Gem is indeed a diamond in the rough. Instead of dreary leftover dishwasher water Gem is robust and full flavoured with plenty of vim to keep even hop nutters like me interested. This is the best session beer I tried all year and it’s also really easy to find in supermarkets such as Waitrose so you have no excuse not to try it for yourself.
Some beers that I drank last year...
It was a toss up between this and Mikkeller Mild Interpretation, having tried the latter on cask at… err... CASK pub and kitchen in Pimlico. In the end only one mighty Dane made my list and it was Cat’s Piss from Evil Twin brewing that made the biggest impression on me this year. I ordered this beer based purely on it’s name, I had never heard of the brewery and the name to me was a challenge to the discerning drinker that I duly accepted. What I found was one of the most sumptuously hoppy brews I have ever had and I was kicking myself having only ordered a single bottle. Evil Twin beers can be very expensive and hard to find but if you have a few extra shekels in your pocket, dig deep and give them a try. One thing not to try is milking a cat, turns out that cats are not involved in the brewing of this beer at all and I for one find the name to be a tad misleading.
From one hoppy, hazy brew to another, Hazed & Infused is quite simply dry hopped brilliance. The Boulder Beer Company is Colorado’s oldest microbrewery and although they’ve been peddling their wares since 1979 you’ll be hard pressed to find their produce outside of their home state. Hazed & Infused is a lesson in subtlety, unlike most dry hopped American brews its flavours rock gently instead of slam dancing on your palate but it has enough citrus punch to keep even folk such as me entertained. The best thing about this beer is that it’s a measly 4.85% so you can go at it with seemingly reckless abandon, that’s if you’re used to getting smashed at 5000 feet above sea level, which is the norm for denizens of Boulder, CO…
I love Flying Dog, they’re one of the first breweries that made me excited about craft beer and with their beer being readily available in the UK it’s a love affair that’s long to continue. The more astute readers among you may have noticed that I am a fan of the work of one Hunter S. Thompson and Flying Dogs Gonzo Porter is brewed in tribute to the great man. This wild dog version of the beer has been aged for an extra three months in wooden barrels used to make whiskey and as such this already superb dark, smoke laced porter has absorbed rich sweet flavours that’ll take you to Woody Creek and back. It was a limited release at the time but if it ever becomes available again be sure to treat yourself to a couple of bottles.
If you’re into American craft beer then you’re sure to have heard of Dogfish Head and if you’ve tried one of their ales then you’ll know what all the fuss is about. 90 minute is a sublime example of a double IPA with rich, deep malt flavours providing a strong platform for a massive hit of citrus and tropical fruit. Double or Imperial IPA’s have a characteristically thick mouthfeel which can be off putting to people who don’t normally drink or are new to this style of beer but something about 90 minute makes it one of the smoothest sipping IIPA’s of it’s class.
You can’t escape the Brewdog juggernaught, if you’ve taken even the slightest bit of notice of the UK craft beer scene recently then you’ll know the Brewdog have been making waves and ruffling feathers. I for one love them and proudly invested in their Equity for Punks scheme in which they sold off shares to their fans (something I’ll no doubt touch on again at some point.) I worked out that I probably sank more bottles/pints of 5am Saint than any other beer last year and for that reason alone it makes this list. Saint is my go to beer when I have nothing else at hand, the instant it’s pine needle aroma smacks me around the chops I know my thirst will be quenched. It will more than likely be my most consumed beer of 2012 too thanks to Brewdog opening one of their bars a mere four miles from my house, thanks guys.
For a brewery that has only been open for just over half a year Magic Rock have impressed, surpassed even the highest expectations and blown minds with their outstanding brews. I have tried five of their beers so far and not a single one has disappointed, in fact I might go so far as to say that they might be the single best craft brewery in the UK at this point in time. If you read beer blogs then you must already know about this beer, it is absolutely awash with tropical fruit flavours and is perfectly balanced with rich, chewy malty goodness. There is not a lot more to say about a beer that has been so highly praised and the best news is that they recently tweeted that they’re brewing another batch. 2012 will be massive for Magic Rock and massively damaging to my bank balance as a result, in fact when they launched their new Black IPA ‘Magic 8 Ball’ last week I ordered 12 bottles without having tasted a single drop because I just know it’ll be another corker.
So there you have it, 10 absolutely phenomenal beers that you must try. Didn’t see any of your favourite beers in the list? Please comment below and I’ll endeavour to try them at some point. Who knows, perhaps they’ll make next years list!