Saturday, 2 January 2016

Golden Pints 2015

This was a great year for beer, for the UK and many other places, and what follows are the beers, breweries and places that impressed me the most. By way of background, I do most of my drinking in London (go figure). Although, I got out a bit around the UK, visiting Bristol, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Norwich and...Reading. I also went to the US a few times (to the northeast, where my family and many friends live), and a handful of places around Europe. So even while London is my focus, there's been a fair bit of drinking outside the capital that informs my selections.

Let's begin.

Best UK Cask Beer: 

Siren / Elusive Dinner for One (Vienna pale ale from Finchamstead, England)

This was a stunning beer. Styled as a 'Vienna pale ale', it's a pretty close approximation of British bitter - toasty bread, citrusy hops, a little piney bitterness. There's some interesting side-story to this beer. The brewer at Siren at the time was Ryan Witter, who has since moved on to Hill Farmstead (a brewery that figures prominently in my Golden Pints, incidentally). And on the other side of this collaboration sits Andy Parker of the hopefully soon-to-be-opened, and much anticipated Elusive Brewing. It's fun when a beer has a story.

Runners up: 

Wild Beer Co Bibble (session IPA from Shepton Mallet, England)

Fuller's London Pride (bitter from London, England)

Redemption Trinity (golden ale from London, England)

Best UK Keg Beer: 

Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady Dessert Edition (barrel-aged imperial stout from Huddersfield, England)

As if Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady wasn't special enough. This beer had the addition of chocolate and cinnamon, and the result was a decadent, complex and yet still immensely drinkable masterpiece. Here's hoping Magic Rock makes it again in the future.

Runners up:

Beavertown / Prairie / Caravan Coffee Barrel Aged 'Spresso (barrel-aged imperial stout from London, England)

Magic Rock Grand Marnier Bearded Lady (barrel-aged imperial stout from Huddersfield, England)

Best UK Bottled Beer:

The Kernel India Pale Ale Citra Zeus Simcoe (IPA from London, England)

This edition of the ever-changing Kernel IPA line-up came out around October. While most Kernel IPAs are excellent, this one was absolutely world-class. It was just perfectly balanced, with an other-worldly amount of hop expression - tropical fruits, citrus, a bit of resinous pine.

Runners up:

The Kernel India Pale Ale Citra Mosaic (IPA from London, England)

The Kernel India Pale Ale Citra Cascade (IPA from London, England)

Brew By Numbers 08|02 Stout - Imperial (imperial stout from London, England)

Best UK Canned Beer:

Beavertown / Boneyard Power of the Voodoo (triple IPA brewed in London, England)

This collaboration - a triple IPA - was the clear winner this year. Beavertown has made some great double IPA on their own, and when they teamed up withOregon hopmasters Boneyard, they kicked it up a notch and the result was an absurdly fruity, dank and dirty beast of a beer.

Runners up: I don't have any other stand-out single beers, so will instead give a shout-out to some of the great can breweries out there, such as BrewDog, Fourpure, and of course Beavertown more generally (and even Camden!).

Best Overseas Draught Beer:

Trillium Upper Case (double IPA from Massachusetts, US)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Trillium, they are based in Boston, MA and they produce some of the best hoppy beers in the US. Upper Case is one of their double IPAs. It was extremely expressive and obscenely juicy, with lots of peach, mango, nectarine and citrus fruits.

Runners up:

Other Half Nelson IPA (IPA from New York, US)

Cellarmaker Gracious Days (IPA from California, US)

Funky Buddha Snowed In - Bourbon Barrel (barrel-aged imperial stout from Florida, US)

Hill Farmstead Conduct of Life (American pale ale from Vermont, US)

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer:

Bottled - Hill Farmstead Damon - Port and Bourbon Barrel Aged (barrel-aged imperial stout from Vermont, US)

This double-barrel imperial stout was an absolute masterpiece. The beer has all the hallmarks of an imperial stout (sturdy roast, cocoa, etc.), while the barrels added notes of burnt wood, gooey chocolate, rich berries, cherries and figs. It was stunning.

Canned - TIE

Other Half / Trillium Street Green (IPA brewed in New York, US)

Tree House Eureka - Mosaic (golden ale from Massachusetts, US)

Tree House In Perpetuity (IPA)

Tree House Curiosity 22 (IPA)

Foundation Epiphany (double IPA from Maine, US)

The Other Half / Trillium collaboration IPA was a thing of stunning beauty. One of the juiciest IPAs I had all year. As you can guess, Tree House does great work on the can front. The brewery, based in Massachusetts, US, puts almost all their hoppy beer into can (in addition to kegs and growlers). Like a whole bunch of other breweries scattered around the northeastern US, they make impressively clean, juicy and balanced hoppy beers. Foundation is based in Portland, Maine. I've only had a few beers from them, all in the past year, and they have really blown me away.

Best Collaboration Beer: 

Beavertown / Boneyard Power of the Voodoo

As noted above, this was an outstanding beer. It's fitting that Beavertown takes this category, given that they have done so many great collaborations during the past year or so, including with the likes of Prairie (mentioned above), Dogfish Head, Alechemy, Bellwoods, Kona, Lervig, Mikkeller, Naparbier, Odell - I could go on, but you get the picture.

Best Overall Beer:

Hill Farmstead Damon - Port and Bourbon Barrel Aged

As noted above, this beer was a work of art.

Runners up: 

Trillium Upper Case (double IPA from Massachusetts, US)

Evil Twin Double Barrel Jesus (barrel-aged imperial stout, contract brewed in South Carolina, US)

The Kernel India Pale Ale Citra Zeus Simcoe (IPA from London, England)

Beavertown / Boneyard Power of the Voodoo (triple IPA from London, England)

Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady Dessert Edition (barrel-aged imperial stout from Huddersfield, England)

Hill Farmstead Sue (wine barrel-aged IPA from Vermont, US)

Trillium Pier (wheat IPA from Massachusetts, US)

Hill Farmstead Aaron (barley wine from Vermont, US)

Hill Farmstead Dorothy (saison from Vermont, US)

Best UK Brewery:

The Kernel (London, England)

Looking over my favourite beers from the past year, The Kernel shows up more than any other UK brewery. For me, they brew the best IPAs in the UK, and they are really on another level for this style of beer. They also brew some of the best American pale ale, Berliner weisse, imperial stout, export stout and black IPA. They have produced some of the best double IPA in the UK, although on this front there has been some inconsistency; hopefully they will rectify this area. But overall, The Kernel continues to shine.

Runners up:

Beavertown (London, England) - they boast one of the best core ranges in the UK, and have shown the ability to do some excellent limited releases and collaborations. 

Magic Rock (Huddersfield, England) - again, a solid core range across classic styles, and they also produce some of the best barrel-aged stouts.

BrewDog (Abderdeen, Scotland) - say what you will about them, but BrewDog produce some of the cleanest hoppy beers around, along with excellent high-strength and/or barrel-aged stouts.

Buxton (Buxton, England) - yet again, this is a brewery that has an outstanding range of staple beers, in addition to exciting and well executed experimental beers.

Brew By Numbers (London, England) - one of the few UK breweries to brew consistently excellent saisons. BBNo also do great work with their stouts and low-ABV hoppy beers.

Siren (Finchamstead, England) - Siren can do it all, and they excel at both cask and keg. Their strong stouts are among the best in the world, and their core range is also stellar.

Redemption (London, England) - these guys quietly put out some of the best cask beer in London and, indeed, in the whole of the UK. At the same time, they don't shy away from experimenting and tend to be successful with whatever they brew.

Best Overseas Brewery:

Hill Farmstead (Vermont, US)

There's really no contest here. Hill Farmstead brews some of the best beers in the world across a range of styles, most notably saison, American pale ale, IPA, double IPA, barley wine and porter. They have also proven themselves to be masters of barrel aging. Due to intense quality control and an emphasis on serving local markets, their beer rarely gets outside of the northeastern US. And until a brewery expansion that was completed this year, their beer rarely even made it out of Vermont.

Best Overall Brewery*: 

Hill Farmstead

For the reasons noted above, this is an easy choice.

Runners up:

The Kernel (London, England) - I've already run through their many accomplishments above.

Russian River (California, US) - they are the benchmark for West Coast-style IPA, and they also produce some of the best sour beers in the US.

Trillium (Massachusetts, US) - their hoppy beers are absolutely world-class, while their saisons, sour beers and stouts are also excellent.

Magic Rock (Huddersfield, US) - as noted above, these guys can do it all.

Tree House (Massachusetts, US) - some of the best hoppy beer in the US, alongside world-class stouts.

Tired Hands (Pennsylvania, US) - this brewery only packages a small proportion of their output, mainly their saisons and sours - which are superb. They also make world-class hoppy beers, which are only available on tap or in growler.

AleSmith (California, US) - one of the old guard of American craft brewers, AleSmith has remained on the vanguard thanks to their excellent barrel aging (barley wine and imperial stout, mostly), not to mention their classic IPA.

Best New Brewery Opening:

Cloudwater (Manchester, England)

I feel as though this is something of a 'safe' or 'boring' answer, but I really can't think of many other new breweries - let alone breweries that have impressed me in some way. For me, Cloudwater is not yet a top tier brewery, but they have already made some accomplished beers, and they show quite a bit of promise. I'm excited to see what they do next.

Runner up:

Mondo (London, England) - since launching in February, Mondo have brewed some great beers, particularly with styles drawn from the German tradition.

Best Branding:

Brew By Numbers, The Kernel and Beavertown

For pure simplicity and transparency, I love the branding of BBNo and The Kernel. For their creative side, I love Beavertown. Their labels always invite a closer look.

UK Pub/Bar of the Year:

Craft Beer Co (various locations, primarily London)

If I had to pick a favourite location from the chain, it would likely be the Clerkenwell branch. But all the locations are stellar, offering some of the top beers from around the UK, Europe and the US. The staff are always friendly and efficient, happy to offer advice or samples.

Runners up:

Mother Kelly's (London, England)

Fat Cat (Norwich, England)

Small Bar (Bristol, England)

Best New Pub/Bar Opening:

Mondo Brewing Tap House (London, England)

I'll go with a brewery taproom/bar, if you don't mind. The Mondo taproom is excellent, and easily one of the best taprooms in London. The place offers 15 keg lines, 14 of which are generally occupied by Mondo beers. I don't know of any other brewery taproom in London that offers such an extensive range of their own beers (maybe Fourpure?). The bar area itself is well set up and separated from the brewery; although, you can peak into the brewery if you like. Many brewery bars in London seem like afterthoughts - a bar installed in a corner of the brewery. The Mondo taproom suggests that a lot more thought went into it, and the atmosphere is great.

Best Restaurant for Beer and Food:

UK: Duke's Brew & Cue (London, England)

I love barbecue, and I love Beavertown. The marriage of the two is the stuff of greatness. The fact that the restaurant also offers a stellar range of beers from other breweries makes it that much better.

Non-UK: Prohibition Pig (Vermont, US)

Not only is the food here outstanding, but you can also routinely find some of Vermont's best breweries on tap (Hill Farmstead, Lawson's, etc.). The restaurant is also attached to a brewpub, so they offer their own beers as well. It's an absolutely wonderful place to have a meal.

Beer Festival of the Year:

Great British Beer Festival and Pigs Ear (both London, England)

I spend the bulk of my time focusing on the 'craftier' side of beer, given that craft is the area where London really thrives. But I love traditional cask beer and all the styles that suit such dispense and, as such, I love the opportunity to try beer from breweries all around the UK that I otherwise almost never see. To these ends, GBBF and Pigs Ear are both outstanding.

Supermarket of the Year:

Marks & Spencer

I don't buy a lot of beer from supermarkets, but I like that M&S offers a good range of solid stand-by options. I also like the M&S branded beers, which they contract out to some great UK breweries, such as Adnams and Oakham.

Independent Retailer of the Year:

Hop Burns & Black and Kris Wines (both London, England)

Given the timing, I will offer up a Star Wars analogy: Hop Burns & Black is to Luke Skywalker as Kris Wines is to Obi-Wan Kenobi. While as far as I know Kris has not trained the HB&B gang in the ways of the bottle shop, he has been around much longer and I do think he still runs one of the most interesting and well stocked shops in town. HB&B, on the other hand, is new and exciting, with a lot of enthusiasm and great potential. HB&B bring in great beers, throw events, and keep everyone up to speed on social media.

Both are excellent shops. (And I hope my analogy extends no further and that Kris Wines continues to thrive.)

Online Retailer(s) of the Year:

Beermerchants, Ales By Mail and Eebria

I have used these three throughout the year, in almost equal measure. Each continues to offer an excellent range of beers, and each puts a premium on customer service. All are worthy of congratulations.

Best Beer Book or Magazine:

Original Gravity

I always enjoy reading through this periodical. The editors incorporate a nicely diverse collection of opinions, covering a broad, interesting and relevant range of topics.

Best Beer Blog or Website:

Boak & Bailey, Good Beer Hunting and RateBeer

For intensely geeky, UK-centric reading, I think Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog is excellent. For long-form writing with more of a crafty angle, Good Beer Hunting really excels. For interacting with other beer geeks and gathering information on beers, breweries and bars, RateBeer.com is invaluable.

Best Brewery Content:

TIE

Cloudwater and Brew By Numbers

I don't read a lot of brewery-generated content. That said, what I have read from Cloudwater and Brew By Numbers has been excellent. Both breweries seem to be putting in some effort and should be commended for it.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer:

Stonch

Rarely do I actually agree with what he says. But Stonch offers up opinions that often provoke me to re-assess my own positions. Of course, rarely - if ever - does his banter inspire a change of position, but it's the exercise that I value most.

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*In my opinion, for a brewery to be considered a 'best overall brewery' it must brew a range of styles and do so at the highest level. For that reason, I wouldn't have most lambic producers on my list (for the record, my favourites are, perhaps not surprisingly, 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon and Tilquin).

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