|Ye Olde Four Pack Of Beer|
Much as it was fitting to have the George Washington Porter at #50 on my list, having the Williams Brothers' Fraoch Heather Ale at #25 is appropriate given the lengths through which I had to go to in order to obtain it. I don't recall when I first heard about the style of beer but I knew that I would someday track it down given the fact that my wife's name is Heather and it sounded like her ideal beer style. I had managed to find only one online (the aforementioned Fraoch) and traced its distribution to Maryland--the nearest point to me at a mere three-plus hours away. I meant to go a number of times and never did but then one fateful day I met David--a server at Cloverleaf Tavern who happened to be quite familiar with both Delaware and Maryland. He told me of a magical place called State Line Liquors; his description made it sound like the Disney World of beer and liquor. After vowing to visit the store (and encountering the Fraoch Heather Ale yet again in the 1,001 beers book), I made it a point to go on a 2011 trip to the Dogfish Head brewery. I had an enormous list of beers that I wanted to purchase but at its top was the Heather Ale. You cannot imagine my excitement when I showed my list to one of the employees at the store only to be directed immediately to the beer with the following words, "It's the one that looks like a castle."
Not only was the beer's container the coolest I have ever seen, the brew itself was incredible. The floral notes of the heather penetrated every sip and its light effervescence rejuvenated me with each quaff. The Fraoch Heather Ale wound up being even better than I had hoped, thus rendering its acquisition all the sweeter.
24 Unibroue La Fin Du Monde
I had seen La Fin Du Monde a few times but hadn't thought much of it other than the awesomeness of its name. When a buddy of mine told me that he had had it and that it put him out cold, I knew that I had to try it. I saw it at Joe Canal's in Iselin, New Jersey--one of my favorite beer distributors--and picked it up immediately. Not too long afterwards I wound up purchasing a bottle of Three Floyds' Dark Lord--a behemoth of a beer that warranted a special occasion for its opening and consumption. I thought also of the bottle of La Fin Du Monde that I had chilling in my refrigerator and it dawned on me: I should drink both in honor of the coming Mayan/Zombie Apocalypse in 2012. I decided to have La Fin Du Monde on December 21st, 2011 to mark the supposed beginning of the final year of mankind and opted to have both a Dark Lord and Alaskan White on New Year's Eve--the former at the end of the 31st and the latter as my toast to bring in the new year.
La Fin Du Monde was and is a killer brew that is certainly strong but it's also quite delicious--perhaps disarmingly so. According to its personal page on the Unibroue website, it has won more awards than any other Canadian beer. Having enjoyed a full bottle, I can understand why.
23 Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale
How do you make an already phenomenal beer better? You oak age that bastard (well, Arrogant Bastard in this case). It was one of the first oak aged beers that I had had but it was far and away the most awesome. It was smooth and sweet in all the right places, tickling and teasing my tastebuds on its way down the hatch. It's a beer I have literally yearned for as I've passed it on my way to purchasing a new batch of untried brews...but someday soon we shall reunite. It's been too long!
22 Tommyknocker Hop Strike Black Rye-IPA
I have enjoyed every Tommyknocker beer that I have had but the Hop Strike was the first one to take my breath away. The hop explosion that detonated in my mouth on that first sip was nearly overwhelming (and by overwhelming I mean hallucinagenically delicious) and left me weak-kneed, craving for more. I consumed it greedily and wished secretly that I had a case of it to bring home. Without a doubt my second favorite black IPA of all-time...
21 Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA
...and on to the first! Stone is known for producing some extraordinary brews that are hopped to an insane degree. Who better, then, to make a black IPA--a style that has its strength in its hops? I had this beer the same night I had the cherry stout that they had brewed...which might account for why said stout wound up losing favor. This beer was so big--so huge--that it dwarfed anything else that I had that night and for some time afterwards. It was an expensive bottle ($15 for a double-deuce) but it was so worth it.
20 Tripel Karmeliet
I had this tripel the same night that I had the Tommyknocker Hop Strike and couldn't believe how good it was. Without question, it was one of the most incredible beer-drinking nights of my life. Though I am a fan of tripels, I had never encountered one that really impressed me until consuming the Tripel Karmeliet. Complex and intricate with interlacing flavors, notes, and nuances, it was easily the best beer of its kind that I have had. If I had to describe it in two words they would be elegant and flavorful.
19 Ramstein Oktoberfest
For a long time the Oktoberfest/Marzen style of beer was my favorite. I looked forward to September and October each year in large part because they brought with them the opportunity to sample more brews of my preferred genre. After having had a bunch of flat-out forgettable offerings in 2010, my interest began to wane. When I had a few more new ones in 2011 and found that there was little variety in the flavors and textures of even the good ones, I almost wrote off the style completely...until I heard about High Point's Ramstein Oktoberfest. It wound up being a part of the PhD at Cloverleaf and Beer Whisperer Nicole had tried it at the unveiling up at the brewery citing its awesomeness. When I finally had it, I found that its delectability was transcendent; this wasn't a beer--it was a revelation.
I doubt I will ever encounter another Oktoberfest that can hold a candle to this one but it doesn't matter because the simple fact that I had it at all is enough.
18 Goose Island Pepe Nero (2011)
As awesome as the Tingly Tongue was, the brew called Pepe Nero proved to be even more fantastic. Its creaminess served as the perfect counterbalance to its peppery bouquet and overtones amid other spice notes. I had it first at the Goose Island brewpub in Chicago and have had it twice since; each time I think I have enjoyed it a little more. Some people like to have a bottle of wine on hand at all times--I wish I could do the same with Pepe Nero.
17 Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale
Probably the most surprising entry on my list if for nothing other than the fact that it was total happenstance that I came upon the beer in the first place (chronicled here in a previous entry: http://www.thebeerwhisperers.com/2011/12/lagunitas-sucks.html). With that said, I wasn't expecting anything in particular when I opened the beer but was left stunned by how incredible the brew was. I understand that it came about because of a production era with Lagunitas' renowned Brown Shugga but I say screw it! Make THIS the year-round brew! It is superior to an already incredible beer (the aforementioned Shugga) and is hands-down the best Lagunitas beer I have had among a field of nearly a dozen very, very solid brews.
16 Mikkeller Beer Hop Breakfast
Another hybrid sort of beer, the Beer Hop Breakfast is an oatmeal stout brewed with coffee and has an enticing hop aroma and backbone running through it. Basically, it lets me check off almost every box on my ideal beer list: oatmeal stout, chocolate flavors, made with coffee, and a hoppy disposition. It's like the oatmeal stout equivalent of a black IPA with coffee thrown into the mix. A personal favorite not simply in 2011 but of all-time.
15 Kona Brewing Wailua Wheat
I snagged a bottle of the Wailua Wheat when I placed my last order with Brewforia. I thought that I had already had it but figured I would grab something other than the Fire Rock Pale Ale that I had purchased previously. During my very first sip I knew not only that I hadn't tried the beer during my trip to the brewpub in Kona, Hawaii but also that there was something very, very special about this beer. Upon reading the bottle's label, I came to find that that something special--the beer's je ne sais quoi, if you will--was the inclusion of passion fruit. The aroma was both grassy and fruity--sweet but with the freshness of nature wafting out of my tulip glass. I've seen the beer get slammed on sites like Beer Advocate for not being a traditional wheat beer, for not having a strong wheat constitution, and for having too faint a passion fruit taste and I haven't understood the criticism. Maybe I just got a great bottle but this was one marvelous brew!
14 Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence Stout
Decadent. Think of the best chocolate that you have ever had--the richest, most incredible treat of your life. Then imagine a lava cake made entirely out of that chocolate...and then having that lava cake transformed into a beer. Now you're finally approaching how amazing Ommegang's Chocolate Indulgence Stout is. When I first had it, it came across as sweet in both its aroma and flavor profile; the second bottle seemed a bit more bitter but still delicious. Both times, though, I felt like I was enjoying the most expensive dessert on the menu of a five star restaurant.
A caveat: if you're a newcomer to stouts, hold off on trying this beer. You will likely find it bitter and will not be able to enjoy it in its purest form. When you've had a few oatmeal stouts, coffee stouts, and other stouts with strong chocolate bodies, then come back and give this one a whirl. You will be amazed...
13 Captain Lawrence Captain's Reserve Imperial IPA
The most sessionable imperial IPA I've ever come across--the Captain's Reserve is on my short list for best IPAs of any style and definitely within the top 25 beers I've ever had. It's arguably the perfect imperial IPA and I cannot wait to make a trip to the new facility upstate to try it again. Thankfully said facility will allow Captain Lawrence to begin distributing their beers in twelve ounce bottles so hopefully I will be seeing it soon in a store near me!
12 Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown Ale
I read about this brown ale in the 1,001 beers book prior to my trip to Chicago and sought it out specifically in the small village of Flossmoor, Illinois. It had everything I was looking for in a brown ale: a beautiful mahogany color, sweet, rich maltiness, and smoothness throughout its taste. The next time I am going to the Midwest I will make it a point to stop back in and to enjoy some more of this magnificent brew.
11 Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
The Holy Grail of beers--it took me years to get my hands on some of this delectable IPA, mostly due to an insane increase in popularity coupled with a reduction in distribution to New York and New Jersey. If it weren't for an amazing array of other incredible beers filling out the top ten, this one would certainly have landed in a higher position. 120 Minute is, in my estimation, the de facto hop-head IPA. It's one of the most powerful beers around ranging from 15% to 21% abv depending upon the vintage, which is both a boon and a detriment to the beer. The high alcohol content is in part what gives the beer its character but it also renders it immensely dangerous to the consumer--not because of any health concerns but more that it is SO good that you will find yourself looking to treat it like your favorite session beer instead of as the gentle giant that it is.
It's one of the only beers that I would drive almost seven hours round trip just to purchase a six pack. Hell, who am I kidding? I'd drive double that...but I'd probably want to pick up a twelve pack or a case, not to make the trip worthwhile but to have more of this ambrosiac brew!
10 Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel
I have to give a shout out to Lev over at Holiday Beverage on Amboy Road in Staten Island for introducing me to this beer. I was picking up the bottle of Beer Hop Breakfast when he pointed out this bad boy sitting next to it. He had had both and said that though the one I wanted was good, this one was exceptional; to say that he was right would be an embarrassing understatement. In short, the Beer Geek Brunch Weasel does everything that its brethren does only better and to a larger degree. It too is an oatmeal stout but not simply an oatmeal stout: it's an imperial / double oatmeal stout--twice as awesome! And it's not simply brewed with hops and coffee--it is made with some of the most expensive and decadent coffee in the world!
If they made a bourbon barrel aged version of this beer, I'm pretty sure it would make me collapse with excitement!
09 Captain Lawrence Brown Bird Brown Ale
There are a handful of beers--a truly brief list--that I have dreamt about after having tried them; the Brown Bird Brown Ale is one of them. Not only did I dream about it multiple times after I had it last year, I thought about it the entire day and the day after while I was enjoying a family trip upstate. It's a nearly perfect brown ale and it's not even among their steady rotation of beers!!! The last time I was at the brewery it wasn't there (in truth I had driven there just for the Brown Bird) and I was told that it's a beer that the head brewer throws into the mix when he needs to fill some space on the tap line.
%^&*(!^$)!&$!!!!!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?
I told the guy that it was one of the best beers and brown ales I've ever had and he laughed, saying that a lot of people say that (himself included) and that he doesn't understand why it doesn't get more love. So if you're reading this, please, Scott, consider making this beer a year-round addition to the lineup! It is inimitable in its awesomeness! INIMITABLE!!!
|The coolest bottle art I've ever seen, |
From the moment I saw the bottle of Dark Lord in the 1,001 beers book, I knew that this beer would be summed up in only a single word: epic. I couldn't believe that I was going to be going to Chicago (and, consequently, pit-stopping in Muncie, Indiana along the way to visit the Three Floyds brewery) in May when Dark Lord Day (the one day in the year where the beer is released during the eponymous festival) was April 30th. I vowed to go in 2012 and was hellbent on making the trip out there later this year but for a variety of reasons I realized that it probably wasn't going to happen. Thank God for eBay! I popped on and managed to pick up a bottle for a reasonable price without having to go through the nearly thirty-hour round trip drive or multi-hundred dollar plane trip and car rental to attend the 2012 Dark Lord Day ceremony. Plus, I was obtaining a bottle that had been aged for almost two years when I purchased it--a pretty sweet deal in its own right.
As evidenced by the picture above-right, the beer is simply a black hole and the bottle artwork is frame-worthy. I had previously held North Coast's Old Rasputin as the pinnacle of Russian Imperial Stouts but Dark Lord obliterated any and all supposed retainers to its throne. Don't get me wrong--Old Rasputin is still ridiculously good, it's just that Dark Lord seems to have come from a completely different universe let alone playing field--a place where the fabric of spacetime is made up of strings and particles of Russian Imperial Stout instead of, well, whatever they're made up of in this far inferior universe.
Bottom line: this is an epic, EPIC beer; I can only imagine what the festival accompanying its release must be like and hope someday to attend it in the flesh!
07 Dogfish Head Raison D'Extra
The dark horse of this list, it's one that almost didn't make it because I almost didn't buy it. I mistook it for an overpriced bottle of Raison D'Etre but had it pointed out to me that this one was different. When I took a closer look at the bottle I saw that the design was slightly different and that the label said "extra" instead of "etre." On account of the purported rarity of the brew, I picked up a bottle for me and one for Nicole. After doing some research and finding out that the beer weighs in at a mind-boggling 18% abv, I grabbed one more to age. I enjoyed the original bottle out of a snifter and felt like I was sucker-punched by its potency. It was delicious and seemed to sing a siren song not unlike the 120 Minute IPA. This one, though, was sweeter and warmer--almost like a bourbon in the fire it created on its way to my stomach.
To date, I have had exactly one bottle of this and it kills me that I don't have more because it was truly an awakening for me as a beer lover!
06 Milwaukee Ale House Block Head Brown
I had this on our second run through of Milwaukee on our way back to Chicago and, ultimately, home last May. It edges out Captain Lawrence's Brown Bird by a nose and is truly the definitive brown ale. I didn't just dream about this beer during the ensuing weeks and months--I fantasized about it! Truly a stellar beer whose incredible taste and character would be besmirched by even the sweetest of words that I could offer in supplication.
05 Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40
For my 1,000th beer, I knew that I wanted to enjoy something special--something extravagant. I had seen an assortment of Harviestoun brews for sale at State Line Liquors on my first trip in and, though the 12 and 16 year versions sounded good and were reasonably priced, I was drawn to their most expensive, most aesthetically appealing bottle: the Special Reserve 40. Stout aged in barrels that held single malt scotch for forty years? The concept is awe-inspiring when you think of when the journey of that thousandth beer began almost half a century ago. The beer itself was incredible--probably the single smoothest beer I have ever enjoyed. I could easily develop a taste solely for this magnificent brew but, much like with most high end scotches, it's just a financial impossibility. Still, for my 1,000th beer? It was worth the splurge!
04 Empire Barleywine BB 2009 (Aged in a Heaven Hill barrel)
I have never had Heaven Hill bourbon before but when I tasted this brew, I was smitten. First, the fact that it was a barleywine that was bourbon barrel aged was something I had never seen before let alone enjoyed. Second, the fact that it tasted so much like Jack Daniel's truly put it over the top. I'm not sure of whether or not there is a similarity between Jasper Newton Daniel's charcoal mellowed whiskey and the Kentucky bourbon that made this beer the best barleywine I've ever had...but I'm more than willing to investigate. This brew singlehandedly altered my perspective on a style that I had little to know interest in and enjoyment of.
03 Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery Mango Mama
This is certainly one of the most interesting brews on the list and it's one that I still dream about today. While we were in Minneapolis on our road trip earlier in the year, we decided to visit the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery among a few other local brewpubs. As was the case with most of these spots, I had no idea of what types of beers they made--I just knew that they were ones I had never had before. As I perused the menu, I saw that they had an IPA on the list, which was to be expected as the style has become a relative staple of most places these days. What I found interesting, though, was the "Mango Mama" listed under the seasonal brews section. It was the same IPA that I had seen earlier only aged on mangoes and so we included it in our flight. When it arrived, the bouquet was alluring: the traditional hoppy aromas associated with hearty IPAs along with the sweet scent of mangoes. One sip was all I needed to take to know that this beer was worshippable. It was also one of those moments where you ask yourself, "Oh my God, why aren't more places doing this!?" My wife, too, fell in love with the beer and we enjoyed some good-natured bantering about which of us should get to finish the sample. I wanted so terribly to take back a growler with me but we had already loaded up on a variety of beers to bring home, there was no way I could justify it.
In my heart of hearts, I hope only that I will find this beer--or something even approximating it somewhere down the line.
02 Founders KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout)
I had heard of Founders KBS intermittently throughout the past few years but I never paid much attention to the talk about it. I had enjoyed both the Founders Breakfast Stout and the Founders Dirty Bastard/Backwoods Bastard in 2010--truly loved the lattermost, in fact, so when I found out that the KBS was a bourbon barrel aged version of their awesome breakfast stout, I added it to my beer bucket list. Unfortunately, as with all phenomenal brews, this one is extremely hard to come by in New York. Fortunately, though, fate smiled upon me in the guise of one of my old co-workers. A budding beer aficionado, he informed me that the Whole Foods on Houston Street in Manhattan had gotten a shipment of KBS and was selling it one bottle per customer. He had already procured some for himself and so he asked me if I'd want him to do the same. I kindly asked if he would mind obliging and, generous as he is, he said that he had no problem hooking me up. I knew that it would be some time before I would see him and so I asked Heather to go and see if she could grab a bottle too. As luck would have it, I just so happened to be in the city the next day and managed to grab a bottle for myself, thus bringing my total to three.
Barely a few weeks later, I went to Holiday Beverage and was looking for one random beer or another when I was engaged in conversation by the owner. We were chatting it up and as we were doing so I happened to look up and saw that they had not only the KBS in stock but four-packs available. I walked over mid-conversation and clutched one of the beloved packs in disbelief. This began an entirely new conversation and when the clerk saw how enthused I was not simply about Founders but about craft beer in general, he sent me off with a free Founders pint glass. Gotta love it!
As for the beer itself...there aren't enough superlatives to describe it aptly. A traditional breakfast stout in nature, the coffee flavors are wonderful...but the bourbon...oh mama, the bourbon smooths it out and fills it with warmth and depth before launching it to empyrean heights. It is almost impossibly good and, from what I have been told, when properly aged it becomes even better. I've managed to use what self-control I have available to refrain from enjoying two of the precious bottles in the hopes that I shall transform a brew fit for a king into something that would be revered on Mt. Olympus or in the halls of Valhalla!
AND THE #1 BEER(S) OF 2011 ARE...
I know, I know...beers? Plural? What a cop out! I thought long and hard about what beer should be granted the number one spot--the best beer out of the SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY FIVE that I tried in 2011. I vacillated, I flip-flopped, I wrung my hands and sweated it out--putting one beer there only to swap it with the other. I called in an expert and in the midst of drafting my quandary, I found the solution (I was writing to my wife, for the record, because she's an expert on me and I knew that she would know just what to tell me; ironically enough, it was precisely the conclusion that I came to as I clicked "send" on the email). Reflecting back on my most prolific beer-drinking year, I found that it was a time not simply of stouts and porters but one of IPAs and barleywines. The light and dark joined forces, intermingling as they balanced one another out, taking the forms of delicious, memorable, and ultimately extraordinary brews.
01 Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (Cask Conditioned)
When I attended the 2011 Dogfish Head Analog-A-Go-Go I had no idea that I would be experiencing the greatest single day of beer drinking that I have ever known. When I saw first that they would be having the 75 Minute IPA, I was thrilled...but then I saw that they also had the 120 Minute IPA. I had checked in advance and knew that they would have it on tap at the brewpub...but to have it at the festival (and not have to wait even a few more hours) left me salivating. It took a little while for the behemoth to be unleashed but I was among the first on line to get it once it was ready. As I received my pour, I was told that this was the cask conditioned version--not even just the regular one. I asked what I could expect and was told a dangerously smooth and easily drinkable version of the beer with more balanced and nuanced flavors coming through along with the hydrogen-hop bomb that was to be expected. I took that first sip...
...and was changed forever. My mind was blown, my tastebuds were taken on a spirit quest, and I was left shaken from head to toe. Not only was it even better than it had been described, it was the most sensational thing I had and have ever tasted. The only problem with the beer was that it diminished the awesomeness of everything else I had that day...and I had a lot of great beers that day. In fact, this list is populated with almost every one of the Dogfish Head cask conditioned beers from the festival because they were all truly pedastal-worthy...but none could hold a candle to the 120 Minute. Even the 75 Minute IPA--a beer I had looked forward to having for what seemed like forever, paled in comparison. Hell, even the regular 120 Minute IPA that I wound up having at the brewpub later that day couldn't measure up!
It was that good.
Fortunately, the regular 120 Minute IPA is a close enough approximation to the cask conditioned version that I can pretend from time to time that I'm enjoying the greatest light beer I have ever had. And to Sam and the entire Dogfish Head family, I'd like to extend a heartfelt thank you not simply for making such an incredible beer and hosting such an unforgettable event back in June, but for continuing to innovate, staying true to your original vision while expanding in a multitude of incredible ways, and for brewing the delicious, off-beat, off-centered ales that have made you a household name in the world of craft beer. Cheers!
01 Cricket Hill Bourbon Barrel Paymaster Porter (aged in Jack Daniel's barrels)
Anyone who knows me well knows that I enjoy drinking and sharing beer and whisky as well as creating drink recipes; I'm sure if you asked anyone who knows me remotely will tell you that I love Jack Daniel's. Jack has been my go-to drink since I first started to enjoy liquor with a Jack and Coke being my all-time favorite drink. You can imagine my excitement, then, when early in 2011 I see on Cloverleaf Tavern's Facebook page that they are featuring a beer aged in Jack Daniel's barrels. I dropped everything that I had going on that night, rounded up some friends, and made the nearly hour long trip out to Caldwell to get my hands on a pint of this precious brew.
The first sip of Cricket Hill's illustrious beer wasn't just a revelation nor was it simply an introduction to the greatest beer I've ever had; it was a life-defining moment--something that I will never forget. That first luscious sip was like having the meaning of life whispered in my ear in some beer-related universe; it showed me not simply what amazing beer was but what beer, as an entity, could be--its potential in its purest form. For me (and my tastebuds), that first sip was like the union of soulmates--a perfect union of one of my favorite styles of beer with the unaltered magnificence of the essence of Jack Daniel's. It was like listening to the beer and the whiskey in stereo, with one flavor riveting one ear drum while its counterpart was sensationalized with the seductiveness of the other. I have not merely dreamt of this beer: it haunts me to this day. I can conjure its flavor to mind at will but each time the memory grows a little more vague...a little more distant. Someday, its recollection will be lost forever and I will be left simply with the knowledge that, one cold night at Cloverleaf, I had the greatest dark beer that I will ever encounter.
Thanks for reading my list! I hope 2011 was a great beer-year for you and that 2012 proves to be even greater. A huge thanks to all of the brewers for making the beers on the list, to the servers and bartenders who hooked me up with them, to the friends that I drank with, and, most importantly, to my wife Heather for joining me on this journey and for understanding that it's not about drinking beer as much as it is about the quest towards ultimate beer enlightenment. Sláinte!
--Beer Whisperer Matt