Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best/Worst Beers of 2011

2011 has been a huge year for me as far as trying new beers is concerned. I was able to tick off 33 of beeradvocate's Top 100 Beers, tried hundreds of great new beers (and some not so great ones), and discovered some fantastic new breweries. So for my look back on 2011, here are the 5 best and worst beers I tried in 2011. So that this entry isn't just a rehashing of the Top 100 Beers list, these beers will all be beers that are not found on the list.

Best Beers of 2011

5. Brasserie Cantillon - Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus

I'd heard a ton of good things about Cantillon and finally got to try my first one this year. Their raspberry lambic, Rosé De Gambrinus, absolutely lived up to the hype. I can't imagine a fruit beer smelling better than this one. Huge aromas of raspberry and red currant with just the right amount of funk. An absolutely fantastic beer.

4. Avery Brewing Company - Rumpkin

When I heard about this beer, I was convinced that it was going to be a mess. After all, a nearly 16% pumpkin beer aged in rum barrels couldn't taste good, right? As it turns out, I was way wrong. I loved everything about Rumpkin. The rum turned out to be the perfect complement to the sweetness of the pumpkin and pumpkin pie flavors. The high alcohol was evident, but worked beautifully in the beer. This one was a keeper. I'm definitely hoping to get more next year.

3. Great Lakes Brewing Company - Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter

I'm usually not a huge fan of porters. There are a few great ones out there, but I thought that the style wasn't really my thing. That is, until I went to Cincinnati earlier this year and got the chance to try Great Lakes' Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. Holy God, what a beer. I usually don't like smoke flavors in beer, but the smokiness in this beer was just fantastic. This remains my favorite porter ever and one I really want to try again soon.

2. Bell's Brewery, Inc. - Bell's Expedition Stout

I was able to get two 2008 bottles of Bell's Expedition Stout this year. Best...idea...ever. Apparently this beer isn't fantastic fresh, but holy crap is it good with three years under it. Smooth, full bodied and full of rich flavors, this beer has everything I could possibly hope for in a stout. I just wish I had more of it.

1. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery - Miles Davis' Bitches Brew

I reviewed this beer way at the beginning of the year, but it remains way up there on the list of beers I tried in 2011. Part Russian Imperial Stout, part Ethiopian honey beer, Bitches Brew was one incredible beer. Chocolate, coffee, earth and honey flavors coupled with a velvety-smooth mouthfeel to create a beer that is very tough to top.

Before I move on to the Worst of 2011 List, I want to note that the title may be a little misleading. I'm only including beers that I reviewed on this blog. I try to not buy/review crappy beer. Therefore, you won't find beers like Bud Light, Mickey's or Miller High Life on this list, even though I had them this past year and they were far worse than almost anything on this list. Most of these beers would not make the list if I included every beer I've tasted over the past year. Moving on...

Worst Beers of 2011

5. Steinhaus Brewing Co. - Jumping Cow Amber Ale

I'll admit it, Jumping Cow is far from being the worst beer out there. It's been a staple in the Trader Joes' beer section for longer than I've been with the company. My beef with this beer (no pun intended) is more that it's taking up space that should be taken by much better beer. The flavors are inoffensive, they're just so faint that it's tough to pick anything up. It's the quintessential "meh" beer: Not awful, not good, not...much of anything.

4. Stone Brewing Co. - Stone Belgo Anise Imperial Russian Stout

Ok, so I didn't do a full review on this one, but I mentioned it when I was reviewing it's much tastier cousin and I just have to include it here. I'm all for a brewery coming up with new variations on a good beer, but sometimes they're going to backfire, and this experiment did just that. The anise was literally all I could taste in this beer. It was gross. But not as gross as the next three beers, which would have made the "Worst Beers of 2011" list even if I had included beers like Mickey's and Bud Light.

The Bottom of the Barrel

3. Federal Jack's Brewpub - Kennebunkport Winter Ale

So many good winter ales out there, and I had to decide to try this one. Kennebunkport Winter Ale looked harmless enough after I poured it, but it got really, really ugly from there. I've never thrown together descriptions like "buttered popcorn," "metal" and "cardboard" when talking about one beer. The best part of this beer was when it was over. But it still wasn't as bad as the next two beers.

2. Pizza Beer Company - Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer

I tried this with my friend Beau a few months back and we both had similar reactions to it. Pizza Beer is, without a doubt, one of the worst beers in existence. It smells and tastes like week old pizza (and pizza box) that's been fermenting in Bud Light. I can't imagine finishing a bottle of this unless it was part of a dare with the prospect of a very, very big reward.

1. Federal Jack's Brewpub - Kennebunkport IPA

This may be a touch predictable based on how much I badmouth this beer, but it remains the worst beer I've had this year. Not only does Kennebunkport IPA not taste like an IPA, it tastes like a mixture of goat piss and rusty nails. I don't really know what else to say about it that I didn't already say in my review. Somehow I doubt that this is truly the worst beer out there, so I'm making it a goal in 2012 to find a beer that is worse than this.

Have a safe and happy New Years and get ready for some big reviews to open up 2012.


Top 100 Beers Tasted: 33

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Federal Jack's Brewpub - Kennebunkport Winter Ale

I don't think it should come as much of a surprise when I say that I'm not a huge fan of Kennebunkport beers. Of the 5 beers I had tried from them going into last night, only one was mediocre (Kennebunkport Porter) and the rest are awful. And for me, their IPA remains the standard by which I judge all bad beers by. So when a new Kennebunkport beer hit the shelves of Trader Joes a few days ago, I definitely was hesitant to give it a try. My curiosity finally got the best of me though and I gave it a shot last night. Why I do these things to myself, I really don't know.

Kennebunkport Winter Ale pours a deep reddish brown color with a thin caramel-colored head. The beer seemed harmless enough until I held it up to my nose and took a whiff. In a word: unpleasant. The smell has a lot going on, but none of it is good. There's a strange bready malt smell along with a ton of butter, yeast, butterscotch, a bit of booze and some cardboard. I don't know if I've ever been so ready to pour a beer down the drain without taking a sip.

By the time I readied myself to take a sip of this beast, there was only one question in my mind: Could it be worse than Kennebunkport IPA? The smell made the prospect of drinking this beer about as appealing as French kissing an electrical socket, but it still couldn't be worse than the IPA, right? Right???

The taste leads off with something I didn't expect: roasted malt. This wouldn't be bad, except that the roasted malt flavors are quickly replaced by notes of buttered popcorn and metal. The finish has a bit of nuttiness alongside some yeasty/bready notes and some baby aspirin. I tried to finish this, but I just couldn't. My sink got the rest of it. Sorry, sink.

Overall, this was another incredibly bad beer from Kennebunkport. It's on a very short list of the worst beers I've ever had. But was it worse than Kennebunkport IPA? No. It was awful, but not THAT awful. Nothing is worse than Kennebunkport IPA.

Final Grade: F

Top 100 Beers Tasted: 33

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Oakshire Brewing - Overcast Espresso Stout

I absolutely love trying beer from breweries that don't normally distribute to California. Getting the beer is always tricky, but there's something kind of cool about trying something that most people in your area don't get to try. A few days ago, I got just that chance when I tried Oakshire Brewing's Overcast Espresso Stout, courtesy of my friend, Beau, who just moved to Portland. Thanks for a great trade, Beau!

I'm not normally a coffee drinker, but I absolutely love coffee flavors in stouts. Some of my favorite beers out there (Victory at Sea, Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Speedway Stout to name a few) have huge coffee notes that really make the beer. So I was pretty excited when Beau told me he was including a locally brewed espresso stout as part of our trade. Let's see how it turned out.

Overcast Espresso Stout pours a black color with a very thin mocha colored head. I was looking for a lot of coffee in the nose, but only found a bit alongside big notes of roasted malt and chocolate and some faint hints of red berries. Not exactly what I was expecting, but still pretty intriguing.

I started to get the coffee a bit more in this once I took a sip. The taste leads off with some nice notes of roasted malt and day-old coffee. These flavors were followed by some dark chocolate, licorice and hints of smoke and charred malt. Pretty good stuff! My one complaint about this beer has to be the thin mouthfeel. Even though the ABV is low, I was hoping the mouthfeel would be helped by the oats used in the brewing process. Despite the oats, the beer still felt way thin and the mouthfeel just didn't do the flavors in the beer justice. Still, a solid beer and one I'm really glad to have gotten the chance to try.

Final Grade: B+

Top 100 Beers Tasted: 34

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lagunitas Brewing Company - Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale

I'll admit it: Lagunitas is not my favorite brewery. Like REALLY not my favorite brewery. In fact, going into last night I had yet to like any of Lagunitas' offerings (at least the ones I'd tried). However, I'd been hearing a ton of good things about this beer, so I decided to give it a shot.

The story behind the beer's name has to do with this beer replacing the holiday ale that Lagunitas has been brewing for years- Brown Shugga'. This year, Lagunitas realized that they didn't have the brewing capacity to brew Brown Shugga' along with all the other beers they were already committed to. So they decided to brew a beer to replace Brown Shugga' that wouldn't take as long to brew and gave it a name that made fun of their screw up. Definitely gotta love their sense of humor.

Lagunitas Sucks pours a deep golden color with a thin off-white head. Big citrus and pine hop notes waft from the glass along with some big notes of overripe mango. I was a little skeptical going into this one, but the smell definitely intrigued me.

The taste starts with some nice sharp pine hop flavors and then progresses to some faint biscuity malt. The finish brings some huge fruit sweetness with notes of mango, peach and apricot. Overall, I was really impressed by this beer. I don't know if it's the beer to end all beers like some people have been saying, but it's a great addition to the lineup of holiday beers out there. Maybe Lagunitas doesn't suck so much after all.

Final Grade: A-

Top 100 Beers Tasted: 34

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lexington Brewing Co. - Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

Aging beer in bourbon barrels has become quite a phenomenon in the craft beer industry. Almost everyone seems to be getting in on the act, including bigger breweries like Budweiser. But making a good bourbon barrel-aged beer isn't as easy as just throwing a crappy beer in bourbon barrels (as Budweiser found out. They recently retired their bourbon-barrel aged beer). As a brewer, you have to know a lot to pull a bourbon barrel aged beer off: which styles of beer will work with the bourbon barrel-aging, how long to age the beer in the barrels, how much bourbon flavor is too much...etc. It's not easy to pull off but if you do, aging a beer in bourbon barrels can add a great new dimension to the beer.

A few weeks ago, a friend from Cincinnati sent me a bourbon barrel-aged beer from Kentucky. Can there be a better place to make these beers than Kentucky? This beer's a little different than your average bourbon barrel-aged stout. It's a "Kentucky" Ale, meaning it's a blend of an Irish Red and an English Pale Ale that is then aged in bourbon barrels. Sounds strange, but also tasty! I paired this with some of Cincinnati's famous Skyline Chili. So good!

It's easy for bourbon to become the only thing you smell in a beer like this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find some notes of vanilla, golden raisin and brandy-soaked apricots alongside the great bourbon smell.

A little bourbon flavor can go a long way in a beer like this, but this beer seems to have pulled it off remarkably well. The bourbon flavor is definitely the star here, but it's subdued enough that it doesn't overpower everything else the beer has to offer. I didn't get a lot of elements from the red or pale ales here, but a nice bready malt backbone held the bourbon in check while allowing some notes of vanilla and charred oak from the bourbon to shine. This beer is a pretty great example of what bourbon can do for a beer and I'm really glad I got the chance to try this. Thanks, Eileen!

Final Grade: A-

Top 100 Beers Tasted: 34

5-Way Skyline Chili: Spaghetti noodles, Skyline Chili, beans, diced onions and a ludicrous amount of shredded cheese. This needs to become a thing in San Diego because I don't know how much longer I can go without Skyline Chili in my life on a regular basis.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Anchor Brewing Company - Our Special Ale 2011 (Anchor Christmas Ale)

It's hard to believe, but December is already upon us. But rather than sit and sulk, wondering where the year went, let's celebrate the return of winter beers! And what better way to kick the winter beer season off than with the return on one of my favorites: Anchor's Christmas Ale. Similar to the Trader Joes Vintage Ales, Anchor's Our Special Ale series is released near the end of November every year and is slightly different from year to year. However, unlike the Trader Joes Vintage Ale series, every Our Special Ale I've had to date has been remarkably tasty. Let's see how this year's turned out.

Anchor's Our Special Ale pours a deep brownish red color with a creamy caramel colored head. The nose started a little faint, but as the beer warmed, I picked up some nice malt toastiness, pine, raisin, caramel and some faint chocolate.

At only 5.50% ABV, this Winter Warmer won't warm you up too quickly, but the taste more than makes up for the modest ABV. There's a great spiciness throughout the taste along with notes of pine, dark fruit, raisin, roasted malt and a bit of charred malt on the finish. The flavors aren't huge, but they blend really well together and only get more complex as the beer warms. This is another great Christmas beer from Anchor and definitely worth seeking out.

Final Grade: A-

Top 100 Beers Tasted: 34