2009 is the year I started both blogging and homebrewing, becoming less of a beer spectator and more of a participant. Both were great journeys, bringing me to plenty of interesting people and places, with a few frustrating and awkward moments any new activity invariably brings. But besides a bottle of beer popping open in my luggage, no real disasters. I'll continue down that path in 2010 con mucho gusto.
Having enjoyed so many great beers in 2009, I simply cannot limit myself to picking just one as the best, so I'll mention a few memorable ones. And yes, there were some bad beers out there, and while I normally don't pick on a small craft brewer who had a bad day, or go after the obvious targets from the big, inter-galactic mega-breweries, I do have a couple dishonorable mentions. So without further ado, here's the First Annual Bay Area Beer Runner Awards for 2009.
The Award Winners
Best Zen-like Beer Drinking Experience: "Hitachano Nest Red Rice Ale" by Kuichi Brewery
It's pink and fizzy like Budweiser Chelada. It has strong notes of strawberry, an odd flavor for beer. Rice used in the brewing process is typically not a good sign. There's a sourness to the brew that suggests a Belgian, or at least European origin, but it's from Japan. Yet, all these unlikely elements add up together for an amazingly pleasurable and memorable beer drinking experience. Give it a one-handed round of applause.
Best Inaccurately Named Beer: "Terrible" by Unibrou
It comes in a big, black bottle with only the word "Terrible" on it in big, bold letters, daring you to drink it. Go ahead, and you'll be rewarded with flavors of raisin, dried fruits, anise, along with a nice toasty and slightly spicy yeast character. Despite all that subtle complexity, you won't notice the 10.5% abv. It's fantastic.
Best Chick Beer: "Raspberry Wheat" by El Toro Brewing
This category was chosen in honor of our hosts. I hope they see it that way. Plenty of brewers cannot resist the temptation to release "chick beers", light beers flavored with fruit. They're often either cloyingly sweet, or highly disjointed with fruit flavors sitting clumsily on top of the underlying beer. El Toro uses a fine touch to harmonize and blend raspberry into the slight tartness of their wheat beer creating something special. I'm not secure enough in my manhood to order this when I'm at El Toro, but have found stealing a sip or two from my girlfriend's glass to be a guilty pleasure. And if you're OK with the concept of fruit in beer, El Toro's aromatic and complex Peach and Blackberry Ales will open you to possibilities of fruit in beer you may thought had never existed.
Best Beer for Dessert: "Creme Brulee" by Southern Tier Brewing
An amazing and faithful reconstruction of Creme Brulee in an Imperial Stout. It starts out with a strong vanilla flavor with lactose sugar providing a custard-like character, roasted malt playing the role of the caramelized sugar, and just a whisper of Columbus and Horizon hops giving it balance. You know it's going to be good just from the aroma, and it just goes down silky smooth. This could have been easily been sickening sweet, but hits all the right notes for just an excellent beer drinking experience. And just behind Creme Brulee in the Beer for Dessert category is Southern Tier's "Mokah".
Best Beer That Makes Me Damn Proud to be Raised in the Midwest: "Blue Sky Rye" by Free State Brewing
I lived in the Midwest between the ages of three and thirty-three before moving to the California Bay Area ten years ago, so I have an affinity for great Midwestern beers. As you might expect from a brewery located in Kansas, Free State Brewing shows great respect for grain in their beers, and their Blue Sky Rye is my favorite example. Free State combines two types of rye with English Pale Ale malt and dark crystal malt, and balance it out with Styrian Golding and Crystal hops. The subtle rye flavors really add dimension to this brew, and it has a wonderful honey like sweetness to go with all those great fresh malty flavors.
Best Beer Tribute: "Bill Brand Brown" by Triple Rock Brewing
I enjoyed this special release at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland this year. Triple Rock used cocoa nibs to add an extra layer of bitter flavor to the rich, roasty, and slightly nutty malt goodness in this brew, elevating a humble brown ale into something very unique and memorable. I'm all for big flavors in a session beer, and have to think Bill would have heartily approved of this one. It's a great tribute.
Best Beer That Renewed My Faith in Lagers: "Premium Lager" from Creemore Springs Brewery
I don't know why people are so dismissive of the lager style simply because there are so many horrible ones. During a trip to Ottawa, Canada last May, I was fortunate to have a couple pints of this lager from Creemore Springs. Nothing complex here, just sharp, fresh, simple flavors of slightly toasty malt with a crisp, bitter hop finish. Great lagers are one of life's simple and overlooked pleasures.
Best Weird Beer : "Siamese Twin" by Uncommon Brewers
If a Belgian Double with coriander, Kafir Lime, and lemongrass sounds weird to you, you're not alone. I picked up a four pack of this last summer, and after finishing the first can, didn't like it. I appreciate being creative and unorthodox, but that does not always equate to being tasty. But by the third can, I'm thinking, "You know, this whole combination works really well". I still don't know how Thai spices take a Belgian Ale to a higher level, but they do. Uncommon Brewers is located in Santa Cruz, CA, where weirdness is a matter of civic pride.
Most Ironic Tribute Beer: "Obama Presidential Ale" by Half Moon Bay Brewing
Does it make any sense to commemorate the first African-American President with an extremely light, straw colored ale that produces such a lacy, lily white head? Is a very timid tasting ale, dialed way down in flavor seemingly so as not to offend, really the right beer to honor a President who's called for sweeping, difficult, and uncomfortable change? There's a fine line between celebrating our new President and a desperate attempt to boost sales by simply slapping the popular President's face on a beer label, and I'm afraid if the beer doesn't remotely resemble anything about Obama, you're on the wrong side of that line. (This beer is normally sold as "Harbor Light Ale" by Half Moon Bay Brewing.)
Worst Beer from a Highly Respected Brewery That Beer Geeks Swooned Over, But I Did Not Like Very Much: "Thirteenth Anniversary Ale" by Stone Brewing
Plenty of beer reviewers and beer geeks raved about this one, which I found to be an out-of-control, harsh tasting monstrosity. I just didn't get this beer, where strong flavors of dried fruit, heavily roasted malt, alcohol, and shovels full of hops were kicking and screaming for my attention. It would seem this brew would age well, allowing the flavors to find a way to get along, but the bottle advised to drink it fresh, just another thing I just couldn't figure out about the brew. (Stone's 12th Anniversary aged beautifully after 6-9 months.) I've always thought Stone's strength was not because they use strong, aggressive flavors, but the finesse and balance they use with these flavors. They seemed to have lost their way with this one.
It's been a great year for beer. Look forward to doing it all over again in 2010!