Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway)
As we approach the end of 2012, end-of-year retrospectives and best-of lists saturate all forms of media across all subjects, and your humble Beermonger is here to throw one more onto the pile. Through an intensely scientific process involving me thinking about beers I tried this year and deciding my favorites, I’ve narrowed down a list of the five beers that made the biggest impression on me this year. Please bear in mind – -this is not necessarily a list of the best beers available right now, though a couple on this list are — I’m just throwing my favorites out there. Without further adieu or qualification:
5. Mother Earth Window Pane Series Pinot Noir Barrel Aged Double Wit Blackberry: I didn’t need to run the whole name out there like that — I just kind of wanted to. I got to try this at SAVOR earlier this year and found it a harmonious, elegant expression of fruit, spice, and wood. What could’ve easily been a sweet or oaky mess instead was light in body for its 9% ABV, with expressive blackberry fruit and hints of the wine coming through from the barrel aging. This beer should have been ‘too much’; instead it was merely my introduction to the wonderful Mother Earth Brewery of Kinston, North Carolina.
4. Firestone-Walker Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA: Every trend breaches its watershed eventually, hitting a critical mass and becoming an annoyance on the whole rather than the charming distraction it once was. Such has been the case for the Black IPA over the past 2-3 years: with blinding speed the style went from innovative new expression of hops to an over-saturated market sector inspiring little more than a pedantic debate over what the style should be called. Then Firestone-Walker’s Wookey Jack came along. Wookey Jack isn’t just one of the best beers of 2012 — it may be the best Black IPA I’ve ever had. At the very least it’s the most cleverly though-out: by using the less sweet rye malt instead of the more cloying barley, the big hop character of Wookey Jack is allowed to shine through more while still adding the subtle dark malty touches that are the hallmark of the style. I brought in as many cases as I could of Wookey Jack while it was available; I’m hoping to see it again sometime in 2013.
3. Maine Beer Company MO Pale Ale: Two brothers running a tiny brewery in Portland, Maine have gotten me worked up in the span of weeks like few brewers have been able to do in years. I’ve selected MO because it’s been my favorite Maine Beer offering so far, but the brewery’s entire lineup earned itself the number three spot on this list. From the clean, classic Peeper Pale Ale to the fantastic Lunch IPA, the earthy hops of the Zoe Amber, and the roasty sweetness of the Mean Old Tom Stout, I’ve come away from every new Maine Beer I’ve tasting with a greater appreciation for their ability. I can’t say I’ve experienced a beer this year with the same level of clarity, structure, and boldness of its hops that MO presents. Dedicated to freshness above all else, supply of Maine Beers is low but slowly increasing; if you see any of them, don’t pass up the opportunity to try them.
2. Port City Downright Pils: With one variety of hop and one type of malt, Alexandria’s Port City Brewing Company created an instant classic that has the important distinction of being a great ambassador for craft beer. With the general public’s awareness of craft beer growing, it’s beers like Downright Pils that can bring people into the fold who aren’t necessarily fans of hoppier stuff. I can’t tell you how many people came to me this year asking for a craft beer that everyone could enjoy, but more often than not I’d end up sending them home with some Downright. With its familiar style and unfamiliar level of craftsmanship, Downright Pils is the craft beer for those who think craft beer is nothing but Double- and Triple-IPAs. It also played a great role in saving my sanity during the process of buying and moving into my new home. With any luck, Downright Pils will join Port City’s year-round lineup sometime next year.
1. Stillwater Artisanal Ales Premium: In my “Beers of the half-year” column, this was my pick for best of the year. We saw another release of Premium here in Virginia recently, and being able to enjoy it again has only strengthened my opinion. This riff on a classic “Premium Lager” recipe (think stuff you’d see commercials for during the game) keeps the original ingredients, adjuncts and all, but alters the amount of the ingredients used. Fermented with gypsy brewer Brian Strumke’s Farmhouse yeast strain and two wild yeast strains, Premium turns out as a floral, complex, and eminently drinkable creation. Premium has no right to be great, yet it’s brilliant. I did not encounter a smarter, more clever, drinkable (only 4.5% ABV!), or flat-out fun beer concept this year.