Note: I’d written a last-minute addition for this week’s ArlNow column, but sent it in too late. Here’s the full list. –Nick
Saving me from finding one more angle for a Christmas-themed column, I realized that the 26th will mark the last “Your Beermonger” of 2014—which means it’s once again time for my little-anticipated, completely unscientific Beers of the Year column. As always, this is a list of seven (the list is seven this year, because reasons) beers that I wouldn’t necessarily say were the “best” of 2014, but those new/new to me that I enjoyed the most and/or made the biggest impression. Ok, onto the fun:
- Abita Bourbon St. Imperial Stout: A chocolate-toned, boozy bit of decadent fun that over-delivered in every aspect. There were some criticisms that Bourbon St. was a little ‘thin’, but amid a sea of unbalanced, milkshake-y, rich for the sake of richness Imperial Stouts, even if Bourbon St. seemed light by comparison (I personally didn’t find it so) that isn’t necessarily a knock on it. In any event, Bourbon St. was an important shot across the bow of the beer world from Abita: the Louisiana brewery hasn’t been around for over 30 years by accident, and still has some tricks up its sleeve.
- Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin may not be the perfect beer, but it’s certainly a perfect beer—representing the best in West Coast hop-obsession in an IPA that doesn’t overwhelm in terms of bitterness or ABV. Sculpin wants for nothing, and yet the addition of grapefruit rind does something magical to this beer. The grapefruit doesn’t necessarily make Sculpin better; it’s just more wonderful, more fun, more lighthearted. After trying Grapefruit Sculpin at Stone’s Anniversary Party this summer, I worried we’d never see it in Virginia. A late-December shipment barely qualifies as a cameo in terms of sating demand, but here’s hoping it’s just the first of many runs we’ll see of this delightful beer.
- Sixpoint Sensi Harvest: 2014 was a big year for Sixpoint; a repackaging/rebranding effort saw its core beers move from tallboy can 4-packs to 6-packs of the sleek 12oz cans previously only used for bigger beers like Resin or 3 Beans. The new Sixpoint sixers were arriving much fresher than before, which paid off in a big way when it introduced Sensi Harvest Ale. Back in October I wrote about my love for Fresh Hop and Wet Hop beers, and it didn’t take long for Sensi to become by go-to Harvest Ale. I appreciated its combination of its 4.7% ABV with an intense clarity of hop character. It’s too late to catch Sensi Harvest Ale but the current Sixpoint seasonal, Global Warmer, is highly recommended.
- Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose: This summer’s release of Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink, And The Holy Gose delivered an unexpected hit from the stalwart California brewery. As the summer ended, I figured that was that and we’d have to wait until next year for more—and then the brewery posted a picture of Gose cans ready to be filled, with the words “Blood Orange” added to the labeling. The Blood Orange variant of Anderson Valley Gose isn’t just a tart, light, addictively easy-drinking Session Ale; it’s become the palate-cleanser beer of choice for bottle-shares all-around. A recently-arrived batch of the standard Gose has ignited hopes that one or both beers may go year-round; we can only hope.
- Three Brothers Drift: I only had a couple of issues with Drift: one was that it was labeled as a “Session IPA”, and at 5% ABV it was neither. The much bigger issue I had was that it was only produced for a few months—immediately after trying it for the first time back in July, I emailed Adam Shifflett of Three Brothers to shamelessly plead for it to become a year-round offering. There wasn’t a better Pale Ale introduced in our market this year than Drift. Easy-going and balanced, but not with so much malt as to diminish its bright hop character, Drift became a regular tenant in my refrigerator along with many of my customers. The Harrisonburg-based brewery did extent the production run of Drift into early fall, but Drift won’t be year-round just yet. Look for some last (still tasty) 4-packs on shelves now, or when it returns this summer.
- The Bruery Black Tuesday (2014): Here’s where I admit to the arbitrary nature of my Beers of the Year list: Black Tuesday is exactly the kind of over-the-top, ultra-boozy Stout I was talking about when writing about Abita’s Bourbon St. above. Also, were this purely a “Best Beers of the Year” list, Black Tuesday would have been my number one pick in a landslide. The formula is deceptively simple: Black Tuesday is a Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, released on the last Tuesday of October every year. The reality, as it is so often with beers from The Bruery, is something else entirely: varying between 18-19.7% ABV in different vintages, Black Tuesday showcases a depth of flavor rather than overwhelming the palate. It has a balanced structure (as much as a beer can and still hover just beneath 20% ABV, anyway) rather than burdening the tongue with sweetness or alcoholic heat. Every element, from the chocolate and roasty notes in the malts to the spicy Bourbon tones, is layered just so—if the overall impression of the beer weren’t so massive, I’d dare call it harmonious. TL; DR—sometimes the hype is real. This was one of those times.
- Hardywood Pils: I tried, and greatly enjoyed, the draft-only Bohemian Pilsner Hardywood released this past summer. I was slightly dismayed when word got out that the Richmond brewery would be opting to bottle a German-style Pilsner instead to add to its year-round offerings, but I should have known better. To a beer, Hardywood’s offerings have been impeccably crafted, and Pils is no exception. In fact, I think in some ways Pils may prove to be Hardywood’s most important beer in years to come. The hype surrounding its Gingerbread Stout (and subsequent variants) may have gotten people to line up in droves for limited draft pours and bottle sales, but quietly Pils has become one of my best-selling beers in a very short period of time. Hardywood Pils is everything you want from a German-style Pilsner: refreshingly crisp, flavorful, drier than the Czech-styles on the market, and at 5.2% ABV it’s not overbearing while avoiding coming across as too light. It’s become a go-to beer with a constant presence in my refrigerator; an excellent interpretation of an Old World style that any of my friends can grab a bottle of, understand, and enjoy—distinctly American but with respect for the traditions of the style. Call the segment of the market we work or share an interest in “craft” beer, or “artisan”, or “small” or “independent”—whatever it is, we need more beers like Hardywood Pils to bring more folks into the fold. If you don’t love Lager, you don’t love beer: Hardywood Pils is a great Lager.
Honorable Mentions: Hardywood RVA IPA; LoverBeer Nebulin-a; Ninkasi Tricerahops; Stone Enjoy By IPA (all of them, I don’t care if you thought the February batch wasn’t as good as the April but better than July—they’re all good); Parkway Majestic Mullet Kolsch; Port City Ways & Means; Mikkeller Better Half IPA; Devils Backbone Wood-Aged Kilt Flasher; Stillwater/Westbrook Gose Gone Wild; The Alchemist Focal Banger; Stone Coffee Milk Stout; Robinson’s The Trooper; The Bruery Atomic Kangarue, and too many others to list.
The joy of being a beer geek is being able to try new things, and discover a new appreciation for the art of brewing. I hope, in some small way, that I’ve been able to contribute to your beer geekery this year, and look forward to better year ahead in 2015. Have a wonderful New Year’s. Until next time.