2011 saw an unprecedented wave of innovative and eclectic beer—from 100-percent Brettanomyces ales to session beers reimagined— while a torrent of new breweries burst onto the scene. This is our snapshot of beer’s ever-changing identity and a toast to the pinnacle pours from 2011.
Goose Island Beer Co.
Perhaps the first of its kind, this “black saison” is an of-the-moment twist on a Belgian farmhouse ale. Brewed with black malt and black peppercorn (usually, the style’s spice is derived from peppery yeast notes), Pepe plunges the style into a darker, spicier realm than we’d ever imagined. The result layers rich, nutty malts over sweet plum and bubblegum, as robust peppercorn bites the tongue with each intense sip.
Firestone Walker Brewing
Each year, several Firestone Walker beers—many never sampled by the public—blend to create the brewery’s highly acclaimed anniversary release. This year, the brewery let the world in on one beer that’s blended into its commemorative brew by bottling the stunning Abacus. Aged for 14 months in 20-year-old Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, this English barleywine is a pinnacle example of the style: Both the aroma and flavor are packed with luscious, vanilla-laced dark fruits; rich, sweet malts; threads of spicy bourbon and accents of aged leather and tobacco.
From Garrett Oliver’s second foray into cocktail-inspired beers comes The Concoction, a spin on the Scotch/lemon/ginger/honey Penicillin dram. There’s ginger, lemon juice and wildflower honey in the brew, and peat-smoked malt lends the depth and complexity of whiskey; the resulting beer’s high-octane but easy-drinking, and blurs the line between the tumbler and the pint glass.
Nebraska Brewing founder Paul Kavulak draws from his love of wine to craft some of the world’s most elegant barrel-aged beers. Hop God’s a delicate Belgian-style tripel, robustly hopped then aged in Chardonnay casks. The result is a thoughtful blend of citrusy hops and white grape notes bound by smooth oak—a beautiful essay on the complementary nature of beer and wine.
Lips of Faith Le Terroir
New Belgium Brewing
New Belgium made a definitive statement about whether beer’s flavor is influenced by geography with the appropriately named Le Terroir, an intensely dry-hopped sour ale that expresses the terroir of the brewery’s French oak foudres. The variable temperatures and humidity of the Colorado brewery’s aging facilities let the foudres impart a unique tart, woody character in each batch. The result is a cohesive, explosive swallow that balances funky acidity, tannic wood and a hop bite with juicy mandarin orange and peach notes.
Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
The shelves were awash with trendy black IPAs this year, but none wowed as much as Self-Righteous. Often, black IPAs miss the mark with either too much roasted malt or none at all, but this beer finds the perfect blend of velvety milk chocolate, dank pine and lively orange hop notes, all accompanied by a subtle roasted malt bite that makes the swallow sing. Hands down, Self-Righteous is the premier example of the style.
Weihenstephaner Original Premium
Beer’s spectrum of flavors has expanded dramatically in the past two decades, yet there’s something to be said for clean, classic simplicity, and Original Premium has just that. This refreshing, 98-point brew tiptoes over the tongue with soft graham cracker notes and playful berry esters, and reminds us that an exceptionally crafted light lager can still inspire pause.
Dry English Draft Cider
Since the 18th century, England’s Aspall Cyder has championed traditional cidermaking methods, which use fresh-pressed apple juice instead of sweetened concentrate; not surprisingly, its delightfully proper Dry English is an inspiration for the resurgent trend of usurping those ubiquitous ciders. Its ripe apple flavor, light tartness, smooth smoke and touch of funk capture the essence of the ciderhouse’s centuries-old Aspall Hall Farm in Suffolk, England.
Collaboration No. 2 White IPA
Earlier this year, brewmaster Steven Pauwels teamed up with Larry Sidor (formerly of Deschutes) to concoct a hoppy witbier; they dubbed it a white IPA, then returned to their breweries to brew the beer independently. While Deschutes’ version was undeniably hoppy, Boulevard’s struck unprecedented balance: Coriander and sage connect with grassy hops, while the beer’s additional juicy, citrusy hop notes accentuate the lemongrass and orange peel additions.
Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van De Keizer Blauw
Brouwerij Het Anker
Belgian Dark Strong Ale
Cuvee Van De Keizer Blauw is a tightly constructed, nuanced Belgian dark strong ale. Its rich, sugary dark fruit marries perfectly with herbal clove and bready malts; a smooth, drying alcohol punctuates the finish. This beer’s not only one of the most complex examples of the style, but it’s the most even-handed expression of rich malts and yeast flavors we sampled this year.
This brand-new Alaskan brewery burst out of the gates with wild ideas, and Bitter Monk was the best. This Belgian-style IPA’s triple-fermented, first with Belgian yeast, then with Brettanomyces as it rests in Chardonnay barrels, and finally in the bottle for natural carbonation. The result is insanely complex: Bright citrus and pineapple twirl on the tongue with tropical Chardonnay notes and round wood flavors. Light Brett funk bridges the hops and wood, culminating in an innovative brew that straddles the line between beer and wine.
Brouwerij De Musketiers
American brewers have long emulated the flavors of Belgium, and here, the admiration is reciprocated. This Belgian tripel/American IPA hybrid swaps out traditional peppery spice for juicy orange hops and familiar toasted malts; a dose of sweet sugar gives away its origins. This is an exceptional riff on a hallmark American style.
Odell Brewing Co.
For the last few years, Odell’s Single Serve Series—a collection of small-batch, barrel-aged brews—has been a fountain of stellar beer, but Friek, a complex, oak-barrel-aged lambic fermented with cherries and local raspberries, is the series’ most inspired beer yet. Wild tartness pushes against luscious fruit and vanilla notes, creating the most remarkable, engaging fruit lambic we sipped this year.
Mangalitsa Pig Porter
Right Brain Brewery
Right Brain proves its love of pork is second to none with this porter brewed with five cold-smoked Mangalitsa pig heads and a bag of pig bones. The ingredients are jaw-dropping, but the execution is a masterful blend of brewing and culinary skill. Subtle smoked pork notes run through the chocolaty, roasty beer, but the swine truly shines in the finish; a pork essence coats the tongue long after the beer’s drying, roasted malts crest, making Mangalitsa the carnivore’s dream beer.
21st Amendment Brewery
Plenty of imperial IPAs sat in wood this year, but Hop Crisis exemplifies how perfectly oak can soften the bombastic style’s bite. This beer bursts with a mélange of bold hops: Juicy orange, grapefruit and dank pine coat the tongue. But its light oak quietly fortifies the toasted malt backbone, and rounds the beer’s edges to create an imperial IPA as smooth as any we’ve ever tasted.
Newcastle Brown Ale
Northern English Brown Ale
Like many imports, Newcastle was long plagued by a simple problem: clear bottles that exposed the beer to light, giving it a faint skunkiness. But when we finally cracked open this classic beer in a can, it was like drinking from the tap. Everything about Newcastle in a can is right: Toasted malts, earthy hops and nutty flecks converge in a fresh, creamy swallow. The style itself may be overlooked in our fractured, everything-goes beer world, but Newcastle brings it back into the well-deserved spotlight.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
The concept of Crooked Stave’s Wild Wild Brett Series—100-percent Brettanomyces beers brewed to match all seven colors of the rainbow—truly takes a masterful touch to do right. W.W.B.R (aka Wild Wild Brett Rouge) incorporates Hawthorn berries, rose hips and hibiscus for a reddish brew with an exquisitely delicate blend of floral, fruity notes and a gentle acidic bite.
The Lost Abbey
Flanders Red Ale
Somehow, this annual release gets better every year. Our highest-scoring beer of 2011, the 99-point Red Poppy exemplifies the wickedly sweet-and-sour profile of a Flanders red ale with an effortlessly woven tapestry of luscious red currants, rustic tannins and a rousing acidic bite. In this new age of sour beers, Red Poppy is a touchstone of the trend’s history.
La Trappe Isid’or
Bierbrouwerij de Koningshoeven
Belgian Pale Ale
Isid’or is beautifully orchestrated: It proves that a beer can be complex and quiet at once. Soft toasted bread crust offers a perfect counter to sugary orange and clove, while playfully vibrant bubbles make the beer pop. It’s luscious and refreshing at once—an ephemeral example of a classic, everyday Belgian style.
Part kriek, part sour brown, Quelque Chose is a fireside companion and a summer cooler in a single bottle. Whether served hot to draw out rich cherry, vanilla and mulling spices, or cold over rocks for a perkier tart, candied-cherry swallow, this versatile beer is an imaginative creation unlike anything else out there.
Sixpoint Craft Ales
The session beer conversation got loud this year, but no quaffable brew surprised us as much as Sweet Action. Bending the classic cream ale style, this beer packs a dank, tropical hop punch that rivals an IPA, but maintains the style’s hallmark crisp finish. As highly hopped, lighter beers continue to trend, Sweet Action is the best we’ve seen yet.
Joe Short completely re-envisioned the “cigar beer” when he crafted The Gambler, an IPA aged with a blend of black tea leaves. The result is unreal: The tea imbues the resinous, citrusy IPA with smooth smoke and sweet tobacco, creating the spot-on sensation of drinking beer while pulling from a robust cigar. Although it’s yet to win an award from the American Lung Association, we like to think The Gambler’s innovative approach to beer is as delicious as it is health-conscious.
Almanac Beer Co.
In the middle of wine country, NorCal newcomer Almanac brews beers with a vintner’s ethos. Its first release of 2011 is Summer 2010, named for the time it went in the barrel. Designed to pair with the lighter, fruitier flavors of summer fare, this extraordinary brew is a vibrant Belgian-style golden ale aged in red wine barrels with four varieties of Sonoma County blackberries. It gracefully breathes and transforms like wine, showcasing blackberry, pineapple and apricot with each sip.
Stillwater Artisanal Ales/The Brewer’s Art
Brewed with heather, honeysuckle and hyssop, Débutante is a fresh take on the traditional approach to spicing a saison—in short, it’s the most interesting collection of spices we’ve seen in the style. Its peppery, floral aroma is familiar, but the additions stand out in the flavor: Classic juicy orange and musty hay effortlessly blend with earthy heather, honeysuckle florals and minty hyssop, making this beer a shining example of a Belgian style re-imagined and perfected.
White Birch Brewing
Other Smoked Beer
A beer recipe once served at an historic local pub—a dark malt brew heated with a smoldering loggerhead, then laced with nutmeg, cinnamon and a dash of rum—is the inspiration behind owner/brewer Bill Herlika’s Tavern Ale. Designed as a smoked imperial brown, Tavern Ale billows campfire smoke over a bed of oatmeal flecked with raisin, creating a perfect liquid clone of an oatmeal cookie. •