Category Archives: ArlNow Columns

Beers of the Year 2014, Full Edition

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:

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

California Love (Part 1)

Yeah, that’s how we’re starting this week.

I just got back from a vacation visiting my best friend in Los Angeles. Our trip just happened (I swear this is true) to coincide with Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party–my friend’s brother lives near Stone’s location in the Northern part of San Diego County, and we were thinking about going to see the brewery and its vaunted World Bistro and Gardens anyway, so we decided to just go for it.

Rather than simply open the Bistro and have a celebration of all things Stone and only Stone, the Anniversary Party is basically an all-day beer festival split into two sessions; one earlier in the afternoon and one later. Some sixty breweries were featured, with well over 100 beers available for sampling. Tickets weren’t exactly cheap ($45—and yes, I paid for them), but the price ensured a crowd of die-hard craft beer enthusiasts. The crowd was as big as you’d expect considering Stone’s popularity, but not so big that I had any difficulty getting around the San Marcos campus of California State University, where the Party was held. Also, I should compliment everyone involved in setting up and running the Anniversary Party; I can’t remember ever attending such a well-organized beer fest, completely lacking in the B.S. that usually makes me avoid beer fests.

Make no mistake, though: it was a big crowd, and some breweries attracted a lot of attention.

IMG_2061

This was the line to sample what The Bruery brought (their tent is the one straight ahead in the picture)

And the line for Russian River sampling was twice as long, but the pourers worked efficiently and lines progressed smoothly. Overall, very well done.

After the Anniversary Party on Saturday, we were treated to spots in a tour of the Stone brewery on Sunday, along with reservations at the Bistro (those I’ll thank Stone for). The brewery tour itself is…well, it’s a brewery tour—they’re all fairly similar:

“These are tanks!”

“These are tanks!”

 

"MOAR TANKS"

“MOAR TANKS”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

I always enjoy brewery tours though, and at Stone I appreciated not only our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, but the carefully selected samples poured for those on the tour immediately afterwards in the Stone Company Store. Not to mention the well-stocked refrigerator (note the presence of 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, 14th Anniversary Emperial IPA, the new 18th Anniversary Golden Brown IPA, Enjoy By 9.20.14., sixers of Coffee Milk Stout, and not pictured are the bottles of Bastard In The Rye that I couldn’t stop myself from snagging one of):

"Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT."

“Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT.”

There were a couple noteworthy items during the tour: The first, on the heels of my last ArlNow.com column (about the issues California breweries are having with the state’s ongoing drought) was that Escondido—the North County area in San Diego where Stone is located—was under a boil alert the weekend we were there. Testing that Friday the 15th showed the presence of coliform bacteria, so the first thing we saw when parking at Stone on Sunday was a very large truck outside pumping clean water in. By Monday the 18th, the alert had been lifted for all but around 60 of the reported 6,300 water customers in Escondido. While this issue in Escondido wasn’t drought-related, it was interesting to see how an operation their size had to scramble to handle a temporary water emergency.

The other thing that came up on our tour was the news, released the day before the Anniversary Party, that Stone has narrowed the potential locations for its East Coast brewery to three finalist cities: Richmond, Norfolk, and…Columbus, Ohio? Ok, then—I’m still rooting for Virginia to get the nod (and rumors are flying about large spaces in both Virginia cities that could potentially work for Stone), and it sounds like we won’t have to wait much longer to find out for sure.

 

The Bistro

The Bistro

The Bistro is everything you’ve heard about it: a bit pricey but the food is delicious, with carefully chosen ingredients prepared very well. The draft and bottle beer lists are exceptional, featuring more than a few Bistro exclusives by Stone, along with cool unexpected Belgian selections and brews from Evil Twin and Mikkeller. My advice if you’re visiting? Grab a snack and a couple pints and enjoy a walk around the lovely outdoor area; I can imagine that as a really nice way to spend an afternoon.

Getting back to the Stone 18th Anniversary Party, here are some highlights from the beers I tasted there:

Stone Brewing Company stuff: Of course, there were a lot of Stone beers at the Party. I started the day with their 18th Anniversary Ale, which is just arriving in Virginia this week. A ‘Golden Brown IPA’, the malts make a nice counterpoint to the all El Dorado-hopped IPA. I’m partial to El Dorado right now; it always brings a nice, minty feel of freshness and a restrained amount of the citrusy/piney hop character that can be overdone in too many beers. Something I didn’t expect to see was Enjoy By 9.20.14., but it’s always appreciated. This batch won’t be hitting Virginia or DC, but if you need your fix it is available in Maryland. One I’d never heard of was Tiger Cub, a Saison in this case aged in white wine barrels with sour cherries. As you’d expect, opinions varied but I thought it was lovely. The new Coffee Milk Stout was great; not too strong, not overtly sweet, and if the six-packs ever get out here I’ll be stocking up on it for sure. My wife didn’t like the recently released W00tstout 2.0 as much as last year’s, but I found it to be just as punchy, rich, and enjoyable as before.

4 Hands Prussia Passion Fruit: I’d heard next to nothing about St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing before going to San Diego, but now I’m obsessed and it’s solely because of this Berlinerweisse with passion fruit added to it. It’s 3.5% ABV, tart as all get out, and the passion fruit just worked so well in the style. I must have it.

Russian River Compunction: Sure, most folks were waiting in the absurd Russian River line for Pliny The Elder, but many of us were intrigued by Compunction, a Sour Ale of theirs that I personally wasn’t familiar with at all. Turns out to be a Sour Blonde with pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid). I was looking for more fruit character, but Compunction does not disappoint—it’s a Russian River Sour, after all.

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin is about as perfectly-made as West Coast IPAs get; this variant with grapefruit added is just a little more perfect. If we don’t get bottles (or cans? Please?) of this in Virginia it’ll be a travesty. Ok, that’s a bit strong, but I really would like to have some to sell. In the meantime, I’ve heard of bottles popping up in DC, so keep an eye out.

The Lost Abbey Fuzzy Angel’s Share: I’ve only had Angel’s Share once or twice, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but this was wonderful. This version of Angel’s Share was made especially for the 18th Anniversary Party, adding black tea and stone fruit to the 12.5% ABV Brandy-barrel Strong Ale. Heady (especially as it was my last beer of the party), but so complex and just packed with flavor.

Modern Times Black House: Tasty Oatmeal Stout, under 6% ABV, in a can? Yes, please. Clean, smooth on the palate, delightful beer.

Beechwood Alpha Master Pale Ale: “Simcoe, Centennial, and Columbus hops in the kettle. It’s then generously dry hopped for two weeks with Simcoe and Centennial…” yeah yeah yeah, I know, another over-hopped West Coast beer–but wait. This is a 5.6% ABV Pale Ale, clocking in at 80 IBU but not enamel-shredding by nature. The kind of beer I wish more West Coast breweries aimed to make (more on that in a couple weeks).

Port Brewing ChronicAle: This wasn’t at the Anniversary Party (at least I didn’t see it there), but I picked this up the night we landed in L.A. during a BevMo run. ChronicAle, in its canned form, is a 4.9% ABV hoppy Amber Ale that can function as a hoppy Session Beer. The malt works really well here, shouldering the burden of the hops to carry the beer, and adding to the ‘Sessionable’ feel. The best part? ChronicAle comes in six-packs of tallboys, and cost $9.99 at BevMo. This was the first moment I thought to myself “Nick, have we landed in The Promised Land? Yes, Other Nick, we sure have.”

More travelogue next week, along with an awesome visit to The Bruery. See you then!

ArlNow.com Column 6.20.14. (Beer Advertising) Supplemental

(Note: I’m going to start doing these occasionally when there’s a train of thought or a set of ideas that don’t fit into what I’ve written for a particular week’s Your Beermonger column for ArlNow.com. –Nick)

–Stone’ Greg Koch can continue to rail against everything from breweries advertising on TV to ketchup (I swear I’m not making that up); he’s an intelligent, eloquent voice speaking out for those of us who want to take The Man down. Despite Stone’s anti-corporate stance, though, it is undeniably a big business whose beers increasingly are popping up on the shelves of Big Box chain stores and groceries. While Stone continues to rage against the machine, Schlafly’s getting one of those ‘faceless multinationals’ to promote its brewery without the expense of its own national TV campaign. Just something to think about.–

That’s a pretty close approximation of how this week’s ArlNow column was originally going to wrap up. As I was writing, I thought it was needlessly antagonistic toward Stone and Greg Koch personally (who I’m a gigantic fan of), so I scrapped it. But there is a deeper issue for those of us who work with beer and who love beer, and I’d like to delve into that for a moment.

I think Greg speaks for a lot of us with his self-described “screeds”; some of us want our small breweries to take a stand against the corporations whose first commitment isn’t to making the best beer possible, but to increasing the value of its stock. I may take some issue to seeing chains like Total Wine or Whole Foods being allocated so much of Stone’s special releases in light of Koch’s philosopy, or feel an odd ping trying to reconcile Stone’s own corporate ethos and its beers becoming increasingly available in groceries like Giant, Safeway, etc., but there are two important factors to keep in mind here:

1.That beer is being sold by distributors, not Stone. Once the beer is sold to a distributor, breweries have varying degrees of influence as to how its products are sold or to whom they are sold.

2. The beer business is a business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there are real-world issues at play here, and one of them is that Stone is an incredibly popular national name in the beer industry. Any brewers worth a damn is going to want their beers featured in as many supportive markets and retailers withing those markets as possible. There’s a certain extent to which we all need to grow up a little about this.

The achievements of Stone and other top 10 craft brewers (Bell’s, Lagunitas, etc) are remarkable because of the lack of major national ad campaigns involved in their growth. Stone stands out for essentially having a policy of not spending money on advertising. It’s not like Stone doesn’t get into marketing in any way, of course, but it’s still pretty incredible to have the 10th largest craft beer sales by volume without a penny’s worth of bought advertising.

There is room enough in beer for many ideas and approaches, all of which can be correct and all of which can work to the benefit of those implementing them. Even if you’re not politically minded, your decisions as a consumer are inherently political ones: you do in fact vote with your wallet. I do it in my role as a buyer–there are breweries whose items I don’t have an interest in stocking because I don’t want to support their business models. There are brands I won’t carry because I don’t like the imagery of their packaging. That’s my decision to make, just as it’s your decision to think I’m a haughty douchebag for making it, or thinking Greg Koch is an insufferable hipster asshat for not offering you ketchup at the Stone World Bistro and Gardens.

In the end, none of that is as important as recognizing that we can all be right and that when we attack the approaches of well-meaning small breweries, we do the Big Guy’s jobs for them. I don’t get pissed off because Stone, Dogfish, Bell’s, Lagunitas and the like are available at the Giant across the street from me–them being there means we’re winning; that consumers are choosing well-made, interesting, high-quality beer over the stuff that’s been sold to them for decades by, among other methods, gigantic TV ad campaigns.

I’m increasingly becoming fed-up with the term ‘craft beer’, because the point is that there’s nothing ‘special’ about using the highest-quality ingredients to make flavorful, interesting beers–it’s simply doing things the way they should be done. Continuing to say ‘craft beer’ sets us all up to be categorized as just another trend; something for SABInBevMillerCoors to laugh about at their stockholder’s meeting 20 years from now: “Hey remember ‘craft beer’? (everyone erupts in laughter while lighting cigars with Cease & Desist letters and defaulted-upon bank notes)”

History is written by the winners, folks, and as strong as ‘craft beer’ is becoming, it can very easily in-fight itself into ‘passing trend’ status. Stay focused. As the Bard himself said so well:

 

There endeth the lesson.