‘Tis the season to make lists. So, apropos of my love for beer, a quick list of some of the best I have had in 2011. Also includes best pub, and other oddities.
[Note: Since I tend to drink most of my beers from local breweries (unless travelling) the list is somewhat San Diego-centric. (This is not a disadvantage at all for me given the large number and variety of breweries in the area and the fact that the number seems to be growing by a few every year. But unfortunately, you may not find many of these beers at your local grocery or liquor store. All the more reason to visit or better yet, move to America’s Finest City.)]
Lager/Pilsner: Not my favorite style and hence I tend not to drink a great variety of these. Among those I have tried, Lightning Brewery’s Elemental Pilsner easily wins top spot for its full-bodied malty, yet crisp and abundantly hoppy taste. Without doubt the best beer for the San Diego fall season (when it actually *does* gets hot here).
For lagers, I have to immodestly declare that my home-brewed Oktoberfest Lager beat out many of the commercial beers out there in this category. A hint of diacetyl taste – which I have to admit, was accidental – really put it over the top.
(don’t worry, that’s the only one of my home-brews I’ll praise myself)
Saison: 2011 seems to have been the breakout year for this usually spicy, but refreshing style of beer with origins in the Belgian farmhouse (these beers were brewed in spring for readiness to drink in fall after the harvest). Almost all local breweries produced a version (most of which I tried), and I brewed a few of my own in summer. However the Saison I most enjoyed was the New York-based Ommegang Brewery’s Hennepin Saison. It is also possibly the best beer I’ve had all year. The only downside is that it packs a whopping 7% ABV, so not quite a session beer.
Pale Ale: Found Bell’s Two Hearted Ale late this year – actually just this month on tap at a very nice pub in DC – and loved the intense hop aromas combined with the resinous characteristics of the Centennial hops used in the brew.
Also, though not new for this year, but Alesmith’s X (an Extra Pale Ale) continues to be a regular favorite. Karl Strauss’ Pintail Pale Ale is great as well, especially when it is fresh on the tap during spring – love the strong citrusy aroma of this one.
IPA: Finally had a chance to enjoy Pliny the Elder this year and have to agree with the general assessments of it being the best (American-style) IPA in all of the country. Malt sweetness is brilliantly balanced with hop bitterness and lingering aromas.
A very, very close second would be Swan’s (a brewery based in Vancouver) Dry-hopped Casked IPA, which I had at the Alibi Room (see below). Yet another runner-up, again by just a thin margin, is Alpine Brewery’s Nelson, an IPA made with Nelson Sauvigon hops and small amounts of rye. The Nelson hops, which grow only in New Zealand and are hence pretty rare on this side of the Pacific, possess characteristics of the Sauvigon grapes that add a distinctive characteristic to the beer.
Apart from these, Ballast Point’s Sculping IPA remains a local favorite.
Stouts/Porters: Lightning Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Black Lightning Porter – loved the vanilla flavor (extracted from the barrels) in this one. Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter, served on nitrogen, was another favorite.
Cask Ale: 2011 was also the breakthrough year for cask ales, i.e. beer aged and carbonated naturally in a cask. Just like Saisons, almost every brewery was jumping on the bandwagon and producing special versions of their ales in casks (some going to interesting extents such as adding sumac to the beer while casking). Apart from the Swan cask-IPA mentioned, the casked version of Alesmith’s Anvil ESB was quite good.
Barley Wine: Actually this was the only Barley Wine I had all year, but Alesmith’s barrel-aged Old Numbskull is a brilliantly complex beer and deserves a mention.
Honorable Mentions: Unibroue’s (a Quebc-based brewery) Blanche de Chambly – a Belgian White with subtle spice and citrusy freshness. Also, a red ale made with Thai rice that I had at a brewery in Singapore called Brewerkz (run by an American). Can’t remember the name of that beer though.
Most Absurd Beer: A Green Lager at the Red Dot Brewery in Singapore. It was made green by the addition of spirulina, a dietary supplement made from cyanobacteria. The description of the beer claimed it had health benefits, noting that spirulina is supposed to help in ‘regression & elimination of AIDS virus’! Taste was only a small step above the locally available Tiger lager.
Best Beer Name: The Polygamy Porter from the Wasatch Brew Pub in – where else? – Utah.
Ashamed to Admit I Drank it Beer of the Year: Kingfisher Lager. Choices in India were limited.
Pub: The Abili Room in Vancouver. I would have loved this place just for its location right next to a railway yard, allowing you views of the locomotives shunting as you sip a cold one. The fact that they have over 30 beers, many local, and served some awesome food made it even better. Tucked in at the edge of Vancouver’s downtown, I also loved the quaint indoor décor – often designed with a sense of humor (a stacked bunch of non-working antique TVs in one corner instead of the usual big LCDs showing sports).
Close second: Tiger Tiger – the newly opened pub in San Diego. Love the big open space inside and their selection, and their wide range of choice for lower-alcoholic session beers.
A special mention to St Augustine’sin Vancouver for their innovative use of the space in front the urinals in men’s restroom: LCD screens displaying live status of remaining beer in all the kegs served.
Beer Epiphany of the Year: That I do enjoy sour beers, especially the low-alcoholic, highly carbonated Berliner Weisse, called the ‘champagne of the north’ by the Napoleonic army invading Germany. The Lightning Brewery version of this beer, Sauerstrom Ale, was the best, and I did not even require the traditional syrup which is often mixed in to counter the sourness, to enjoy this.
Serendipitous Beer Discovery of the Year: The Central Coast Brewing Company at San Luis Obispo, CA. We were walking towards downtown SLO for dinner and found this brewery just a few blocks from our hotel. Enjoyed their Topless Blonde Ale – a mild pale ale, but was really blown away by the Catch-23 Rye IPA. These guys are generous with their rye addition, which provides an additional malty spiciness to the beer.
Beer Disappointment of the Year: Dog Fish Head 90min IPA. Supposedly one of the best IPAs made in the USA, I just could not enjoy its overtly fruity, and sweet taste. Perhaps it tastes better on tap, so my judgement could change.