Tuesday 31 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

I probably drank too much this year. But with the way things are going in London – and in the UK in general – it’s hard NOT to drink a lot, given the unbelievable amount of good beer getting made. It has been nice putting together my Golden Pints as it allowed me to reflect on what has most likely been my best ever year in beer. I put a lot of time into these awards, which I think is reflected in my verbosity. If you read through it all I can’t promise you will be glad you did, but I can guarantee you will see some unique category winners. Some categories were easy to call, some were hard. I hope you enjoy.

Best UK Cask Beer

This category was actually pretty easy for me. The best cask beer I had all year, by some measure, was Oakham Citra Special. Some of you might be wondering what the ‘Special’ is, since Oakham Citra is pretty special on its own. The Citra Special is slightly stronger than the normal version and the hops are ramped up. I reckon Citra Special isn’t an easy beer to find; I had it at The Wellington in Birmingham and I’ve never seen it anywhere else. As a more common option, the Oakham Citra is damn solid, too. I’ll give an honourable mention here to Brodies Citra (I enjoyed a few fantastic pints of this at King William IV this summer while beating Ryan Witter at bar billiards) and Arbor Single Hop Nelson Sauvin (unbelievably juicy and flavorful for a 4% beer).

Best UK Keg Beer

It seems like the best (in my mind) London breweries right now are all focusing on keg beers. As such, this is a hard category for me. If pressed, though, I would put The Kernel IPA Mosaic at the top. It was an absolutely gorgeous expression of the hop and, like most Kernel beers, was eminently drinkable. Other beers deserving of mention in this category include one-off Camden Kiwi Wit (somewhat tragically, I fear not many people got to try this beer); Magic Rock Salty Kiss (great Gose); The Kernel Pale Ale Citra Galaxy (stunning); The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout (Glen Garioch Barrel Aged); and BrewDog Abstrakt AB:13 (ballsy and delicious).

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

Fresh Kernel in the bottle can’t be beat, and in 2013 IPA Mosaic was the best example. Bermondsey neighbour Partizan also produced a couple of standouts with the Porter 9 Grain and the Saison Grisette Orange. Moor Hoppiness also deserves a nod.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

This is an interesting category for me because many of the best ‘draught’ beers I had this year came from the US and were limited and/ or growler-only. Peg’s G.O.O.D. RareR DOS, a rum barrel aged imperial stout, was otherworldly good. I also enjoyed a few growlers of Trillium Fort Point Pale Ale (Trillium, a tiny brewery based in Boston, MA is one to watch out for) and Grassroots Legitimacy IPA.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

For the cans it’s an easy choice: Utica Club. Utica Club is a classic lawnmower beer, made by one of the oldest regional breweries (F.X. Matt) in the US. It’s fairly easy to find if you’re in Central New York; it’s also dirt cheap. Second place for cans is the Alchemist Heady Topper, that stupidly dank and resinous double IPA from Vermont.

For bottles, the choice is much harder. Thanks to some generous Londoners I was able to try a handful of Three Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout variants, among them Bourbon Barrel, Cognac Barrel and Pappy Van Winkle Barrel; all were tremendous but the Bourbon Barrel was tops. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout also impressed. At the paler end of the spectrum, Toppling Goliath pseudoSue (a citra hop pale ale) blew me away, as did Lawson’s Double Sunshine (a juicy DIPA).

Best Collaboration Brew

There were a handful of UK collaborations that stood out in 2013. But the Magic Rock Salty Kiss stands above the rest. A collaboration with veteran Anders Kissmeyer of Kissmeyer Beer, Salty Kiss is a take on the German style Gose, with a Danish twist in the use of sea buckthorn and rosehips as ingredients. The beer was crisp, refreshing and far, far too drinkable. Second place would go to the Arbor / Moor Double Dark Alliance. It was a balls-out coffee imperial porter and if you weren’t ready for it when it came at you it could knock a few teeth out. Siren earns honourable mention for several collaboration beers, including Neither (made with Cigar City and Grassroots), Big Inflatable Cowboy Hat (made with Pizza Port), Even More Jesus and its variants (made with Evil Twin) and the Limoncello IPA (made with Hill Farmstead and Mikkeller).

Outside the UK, most of my favourite collaboration brews had Hill Farmstead involved. A smoked beer HF made with Kissmeyer (Kissmeyer killing it on the collab front) called Holger Danske really impressed me. I also loved Grassroots Brother Soigne, a saison made at Hill Farmstead with the assistance of Luc Bim Lafontaine, formerly of Dieu du Ciel. The beer was brewed with lime, hibiscus and blood orange.

Best Overall Beer

A very, very difficult question, this. For the UK, I tried The Kernel Imperial Stout for the first time. This is a beer that Evin O’Riordain made with Phil Lowry, Simon Siemsgluess and Chrigl Luthy back in late 2010 to celebrate the birth of Evin’s son. To say the beer is aging gracefully would be a tremendous understatement. (I see the boy running around the brewery occasionally and he seems to be doing alright, too.) The Kernel IPA Mosaic was the best pale ale I had from the UK this year. Partizan’s Saison Grisette Orange was the best Belgian-style, UK-made beer of the year.

From outside the UK, the best beer I had was Peg’s G.O.O.D. RareR DOS. For pale ales, the honour goes to Trillium Fort Point Pale Ale. For Belgian-style beers, Grassroots Brother Soigne earns the prize.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

The Kernel, because less is more. When I’m in the mood for an interesting label, though, Partizan is without peer.

Best UK Brewery

By an ever-so-slight margin, I take The Kernel over Magic Rock. Honestly, these two outfits are pretty far ahead of the pack in overall brewing ability. Yes, there are numerous UK brewers who can make an outstanding IPA. Yes, there are numerous UK breweries who can make a sour. Yes, there are numerous UK brewers who know how to barrel age a beer. Yes, there are numerous UK brewers who can make a low-ABV session ale, or a high-ABV stout monster. But how many breweries are there who do all these things and do them all exceptionally well? In my eyes, there are currently two.  

There are many, many other breweries deserving of mention, though, among them:

§  BrewDog: say what you will about their brand and ethos, but they still put out some phenomenal beers. I sometimes wish their beers weren’t so expensive in their own pubs, but the beers are still good.

§  Buxton: these guys do a great job on both the traditional styles (bitter, golden ale, stout) and the more modern (American style IPA, black IPA, sour). I really haven’t had a bad beer from Buxton.

§  Partizan: consistently making solid saisons, IPAs, pale ales and stouts. Recent forays into barrel-aging have been proving fruitful as well. One of London’s most promising breweries.

§  Brew By Numbers: their staple Saison - Citra is likely my favourite regularly-available saison in the UK. Their one-off Saison - Orange was even better (I really hope they brew it again). They’ve also shown prowess in styles such as porter/ stout and Berliner weisse.

§  Moor: these fellas are quietly making some of the best hoppy beers in the UK (Claudia, Confidence, Hoppiness, Illusion, JJJ – the list goes on), while also doing good work on the barrel aging front (with the Fusion series).

§  Tiny Rebel: it really seems like these guys are having fun; all the better that they’re making good beer while they’re at it. The greatest hits from the Best Brewery in Wales include Baby’s Got a Temper, Beat Box, Billabong, Cwcth, Hadouken, Hot Box and the Vader Shuffle.

§  Beavertown: in Gamma Ray they have one of the best widely-available American Pale Ales. In Smog Rocket they have one of the best UK-made rauchbiers. This year they have started delving into wild territory and they have also done some barrel aging. One of the UK’s most exciting young breweries.

Best Overseas Brewery

Hill Farmstead. Not only do Shaun Hill & Co. show mastery over the fundamental styles (i.e. pale ale, IPA, porter, stout, etc.) but they show just as much mastery over more ambitious brews, such as farmhouse saisons (HF saisons really are breathtaking), barrel-aged stouts and saisons, sour reds – I could go on. They even made a lager this year; it was very good, incidentally. It may not be easy to get your hands on Hill Farmstead beers, but believe me, the juice is worth the squeeze. My favourite HF beers for 2013 included Geneology of Morals (Madeira), Birth of Tragedy, Damon, Susan and Nelson Sauvin Pale Ale.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Brew By Numbers and Partizan deserve recognition, even though they both started selling beers in December 2012. Each brewery only had a handful of beers out at that point and each has really blossomed in 2013. Siren has roared out of the gates; though, of course, this isn’t head brewer Ryan Witter’s first rodeo.

Pub/Bar of the Year

I am not sure I can pick a sole victor for this category. I drink almost exclusively around London, so that narrows it down somewhat, but there are a number of superlative pubs in town. I always look forward to visiting the Cock Tavern up in Hackney. Ditto the Craft Beer Co. in Clerkenwell (or the other branches, for that matter). And when I don’t care about drinking the latest BA stout or ballsy IPA, my local – the Cleveland Arms – does the job. And, the Cleveland Arms has a level of character most craft beer bars could only dream of. So it really depends on what I’m looking for on any given day. I’m still waiting for that game-changer pub to bring it all together and locate itself walking distance from my flat.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

As I said, I mostly drink in and around London. With that in mind, I’ll go with Craft Beer Co. Clapham. I’ve only been there once but I loved the ambiance and the beer selection, as with all the CBC outlets, was outstanding. BrewDog Shepherds Bush is also outstanding. The range in there is pretty much unparalleled in London. Of course, there are no casks…

Beer Festival of the Year

Within the UK, I’ll keep it classic and go with the Great British Beer Festival. It’s nice to see young upstarts putting together Craft Beer festivals and what have you; but when it comes to organization, beer variety and overall atmosphere, GBBF still wins. We saw what happens when novices try to cobble together a festival this year, and it wasn’t pretty. Whatever reservations you have about CAMRA, they know how to run a massive beer festival.

Looking outside the UK, the best festival I attended this year was the Copenhagen Beer Celebration. CBC boasts one of the most ridiculous brewery line-ups of any festival in the world. And the 2013 iteration improved on some of the quirks of the inaugural 2012 edition (like, they had free drinking water this year!).

Supermarket of the Year

When Sainsburys throws it into high gear (what with their Beer Hunt and everything) they are hard to beat. On a regular basis, though, Waitrose is a good go-to.

      Independent Retailer of the Year

I’m a Kris Wines man, through and through. Put me in that cramped little shop on York Way and I’m a happy camper. In all seriousness, though, Kris approaches beer with great enthusiasm and he fills his shop with an impressive range of beers not just from the UK, but also from continental Europe and the USA. I’ll also mention that I visited Cotteridge Wines for the first time this year and, if ever there was a time when I considered being unfaithful to Kris, it was while I roamed the aisles of this West Midlands Mecca.

Online Retailer of the Year

Tough to call. I don’t regularly use one online retailer. Ales By Mail, The Bottle Shop and beermerchants have all done right by me in 2013.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

CAMRA does a pretty good job with their London Drinker publication.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I like what Chris Hall has written this year on The Beer Diary, so that will be by choice for best blog. Best beer website goes to RateBeer.com. It’s the best source for information on beers. Also, the sense of community on RB is wonderful. The forum banter ain’t bad, either.

Best Beer App

There really aren’t that many, are there? I probably use Craft Beer London every other month, and it’s helpful when I do, but I tend to visit the same places on a rotating basis. When I’m in a new area, yeah, Craft Beer London is useful. I also use Untappd fairly often but I get frustrated with the errors and duplicate entries on there.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Chris Hall. I always stop scrolling through my feed when I come to one of his tweets.

Best Brewery Website/Social media

I actually don’t spend too much time looking at brewery websites, so I may not be the best judge for this category. That said, Brew By Numbers recently launched a website and it’s pretty fantastic. It has loads of information, the navigation is smooth and the style is clean. I could see myself returning to the page. In terms of social media, there seem to be two types of brewery social media presence: those breweries that tweet everything, like each bar carrying their beer, every thought they have, every trip they take; and those breweries that tweet absolutely nothing.  I’ll also give a shout-out to Brew By Numbers here as well, because they tend to tweet only when they have something useful to say. Please don’t change!

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

Tuna and sweet stout – it’s a winning combination, trust me.

And there you have it. See you in 2014.