Too many great beers came out this year. Here are my favorite ten. This is long. I’m not sorry.
10. Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes Bière Ambrée Parfumée au Tarry Suchong
It’ll be a cold day in a warm climate before a proper rauchbier hits this list, but here’s something to hold you over in the interim: an amber ale brewed with smoked tea.
BFM are known for making some rather adventurous efforts; for example, their Cuvée Alex le Rouge is made with vanilla and black pepper. But this is something else. Its subtlety is more like tea than coffee; it really only makes sense over a couple of sessions; and its flavors develop in a way that’s very unlike most extreme beer.
While aggressively smoky, there are a lot of bright, fruity flavors that only reveal themselves at the end of a glass, and the heavy malt profile generously balances the nontraditional ingredients.
9. Green Flash/St. Feuillien Bière de L’Amitié
Unlike #4 on this list, St. Feuillien aren’t exactly well-known for collaborations. A monastery that’s made beer since 1125(!), who make one of my favorite-ever tripels, this is their first collaboration ever – and with a rather unlikely American brewery to boot. What a coup for Green Flash – and what a beer to boot.
Bière de L’Amitié is one of the driest tripels I’ve ever had, with a very potent American hop profile, pine and citrus flavors replacing the floral aroma in normal St. Feuillien Tripel. But the spices really shine here, which I always suspected were in St. Feuillien Tripel, but were too difficult to consistently detect in fresh batches. Somehow, the hops make the spices come through so well in the finish, it’s difficult to not take another sip immediately after.
A few months later, Duvel released a beer called Tripel Hop, which was quite similar in character, if a little less assertive. And of course, Orval’s Jean-Marie Rock collaborated with Steven Pauwels at Boulevard in St. Louis last year.
I’m really happy to see abbey breweries collaborating with west coast breweries. I want more data points on this front, because it speaks to a flexibility that we haven’t yet seen abbey beers display.
8. Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Wild
This is a wheat-based strong pale, brewed with yeast from Westmalle, and hopped to near-IPA levels. (Despite the name, it is not made with wild yeast.) Train wreck, right? Weird malt for the style, too-earthy and too-spicy yeast for the hops, and too much hops for everything else. It would be a modest crime if they took Westmalle’s yeast strain and used it like that.
But it works – and pretty marvelously. A Little Sumpin’ Wild is a highly effervescent, carbonation-stinging, light-bodied pale given the ingredients list, and for this much flavor complexity (and the 8.9% ABV) it’s criminally drinkable. A Little Sumpin’ Wild became my barbeque beer of choice this summer, with just enough body that you know you’re drinking something that demands a little attention. And it holds up well to any sort of grilled food.
7. Brooklyn 2010-11 Black Chocolate Stout
Our long national nightmare is over: Brooklyn Black Chocolate doesn’t suck anymore. Let us never speak of the 08 and 09 vintages again. Let us instead conduct highway robbery, buying this stuff for $7 for a four-pack. Beer of this quality could easily go for $20. It’s one of the best values out right now.
The 2010 vintage gained some of the sharpness of 07 while losing most of the dark fruit funk of more recent efforts. it’s clear that more attention was put into this batch, and the payoff is just tremendous. This beer is near-singlehandedly helping me get through winter, and if you like solid stouts that are brewed with simple ingredients and no bullshit, you’re probably nodding the whole way through this paragraph.
6. Victory/Stone/Dogfish Head Saison du BUFF
2010 was the year of the saison. Almost every brewery that I cared about released an adventurous saison, often with lots of nonstandard ingredients blended in: herbs, lemon zest, lemongrass, peculiar hop varietals. It made for a pretty nice summer: refreshing beers that could still be inventive, pushing the boundaries of what turned out to be an astoundingly flexible beer style. Of everybody’s efforts this year, Saison du BUFF ranked among the best.
Because all of the brewmasters involved here are insane, they decided to release a saison with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I was initially skeptical of this, thinking it a cheap gimmick to garner interest (this is Dogfish, after all), but it’s pulled off really well. Part of this is likely due to the varying proportions of each herb; this tastes more like a rosemary saison than a saison with all four. But with this much expertise involved, we probably weren’t going to get something heinously imbalanced.
Batches were made at each of the three collaborators’ breweries, but my favorite is probably Dogfish’s, with the best water source of the three, and a much earthier yeast strain.
5. New Belgium Ranger IPA
New Belgium’s most famous beer is Fat Tire, a malty, drinkable amber ale with light body. New Belgium’s most famous flagship beer is La Folie, a barrel-aged Flemish Red with five different kinds of malt. Their best summer ale is lightly tart, with lots of sour apple flavor. Recently they brewed a collaboration with Allagash that used Brett yeast and Belgian endives. Oh, and they just made a sahti. Historically, this has not been a brewery that has cared much for hops.
Which makes Ranger all the more astounding. This? From here? There’s no explanation for it. There’s no precedent for it. It was released to mixed reviews from fans who expected something far more aggressive. But I think it’s a world-class IPA, easily the best I’ve had this year. It’s a classic Pacific Northwest IPA with hop flavors that run way more with Belgian IPAs like de Ranke’s XX Bitter and Poperings Hommelbier. It walks the tightrope of being clean and drinkable while remaining continually assertive. No other brewery, short of maybe Russian River, could have conceived of this beer.
Due to its restraint, it’s also a great IPA for teaching people about IPAs. I would not give bottles of 90 Minute to novices, but I would give (and have given) bottles of Ranger to just about anybody, especially those who think IPAs tend to be too bitter.
4. Terrapin/de Proef Monstre Rouge
I don’t remember the last time I had a beer from de Proef that wasn’t a collaboration. They rent their equipment to de Struise and Mikkeller; they bring other brewmasters to work with them in Belgium; they fly to other parts of the world and work there. For whatever reason, though, they seem to refuse to make new beers of their own.
Perhaps we’re better off for it. The fourth in an annual series of beers where de Proef’s brewers invite Americans to make a batch with them in Belgium – earlier incarnations were with Port, Allagash, and Bell’s – this “imperial Flemish red” has little precedent.
The only beer I can reasonably compare it to is the absolute choir-of-angels facefuck that is de Dolle’s Oerbier Reserva; but Oerbier Reserva is merely fermented for a long time, it’s not made like this. They started with Terrapin’s imperial IPA, and then they added rye malt. You’ve never, ever had a Flemish red as aggressive as this one, both in body and flavor. Good on them for furthering the style – and who knows what weird cross-Atlantic blends we’ll hear of next year.
3. Half Acre Ginger Twin
Half Acre killed it this year. A half-dozen of their 2010 beers could hold their own on anybody’s year-end best-of, but this one stood out: an imperial red rye IPA. It may not have had the most hops or the most oh-no-you-di’int label, but it was the most well-crafted beer they made this year – and it had some pretty excellent discounts to boot.
Ginger Twin is very fragrant and strong for a 7%. The pine-y, bitter hops are very nicely offset by a huge rye malt profile, and flavors of grapefruit balance a huge spiciness at the end. If you don’t like really aggressive, spicy rye pales, this probably won’t be up your alley, no matter how balanced it is. But for the rest of us, there’s Ginger Twin, again and again.
2. Goose Island Brewpub/Chuck Sudo Sai-Shan-Tea
Last year, my favorite beer was Brooklyn’s Sorachi Ace, a saison brewed with Japan’s only native hop varietal, with flavors like honeysuckle, lemon zest, and valerian root. Brewmaster Garrett Oliver chose a saison because it would get out of the way, showcasing the unusual hops.
This year’s #2 is brewed with Sorachi, too, but only as a bit player: the real star is a lemongrass tea that works with the hops to form something wholly unique. And the beer itself is much more assertive: yeastier and earthier than Sorachi Ace, meant to hold its ground.
Sai-Shan-Tea was a keg-only one-off at a brewpub near my place, but it was one of the best beers that Goose Island made this year. If there’s any justice, it’ll come back in 2011.
1. Dogfish Head Bitches Brew
I’ll admit I despaired a little at making this call. Dogfish Head are one of the most high-visibility breweries in North America, if not the world. They are exceptionally good at their marketing, which means their one-off extreme beers tend to sell out quickly. Exacerbating the problem, they teamed up with the estate of Miles Davis to create this beer, whose label is indeed the album cover of Bitches Brew, released in honor of its 40th anniversary.
So it sold out even faster than it probably should have, and a lot of it went to jazz collectors. I didn’t hear of bottles lasting more than a few hours in any store in town. I know very, very few craft beer fans who got to try this beer when it was released – and good luck finding a bottle anymore. (They are brewing a second batch, but they don’t yet have an ETA. Given how long it took to make the first run, I wouldn’t hold my breath.)
That all said, I’ll be damned if I found a beer that was more inventive, boundary-pushing, and just plain brainfuck delicious in 2010. The honey and gesho root made for one of the smoothest beers at that ABV that I’ve ever seen – released at the perfect time, and I imagine it’d somehow get even better in the future.
The honey is backgrounded, presumably to form mouthfeel – about the opposite of what I expected – and there are almost no hops in the front; what you mostly get is a very mellow malt flavor, with some dark fruit notes from the gesho, and caramel in the finish. Sweet without being cloying, chocolatey without being too smoky, and with almost no alcohol heat even in fresh bottles, Bitches Brew is one of the most balanced and restrained beers I’ve ever had, and one of the best Dogfish Head beers I’ve had in the past five years. It’s a staggering, endlessly rewarding achievement.
- Huisbrouwerij Boelens Santa Bee
- Duvel Tripel Hop
- De Molen 2010 Rasputin
- Mikkeller Rauch Geek Breakfast
- Bell’s Oracle
- Bell’s Batch 9000
- Dogfish Head/Three Floyds Poppa Skull
- Capital 2009 Barrel-Aged Autumnal Fire
- New Belgium Eric’s Ale
- Revolution Samadhi
- Revolution Gomorrah
- Half Acre Double Daisy Cutter
- Goose Island Bourbon County Rare Stout
- Flossmoor Station/Fiftyfifty/Lucky Bucket Collaborative Evil