Monday, May 16, 2011

The Squirrely wrath Beer Chronicles, Part I

I know a little bit about beer.  I've been brewing my own for just short of 19 years and am a National-level BJCP-certified beer judge.  How does one get to be a beer judge, you might ask?  The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, my friend...practice.  In any case, as anyone who has not been living in a cave on the dark side of the moon for the past twenty years knows, craft brewing has returned to America after Prohibition - thank you, all you early 20th century do-gooders - killed it.  In fact, craft brewing has become so popular that it can almost be confusing going to a store for beer these days and being confronted with a virtual rainbow of choices...and I have been asked, "What do people who know about beer drink when they are drinking beer?"  To that, I have to respond:  It doesn't matter what I drink.  The best thing you can do is to just try different beers - and in the process, support you local craft brewer - and decide what you like.  Beer is a big universe - far bigger than the budmillercoors crowd would have you believe - and you need to find your own space in it.  It's about what you like.  However, for those who feel they need guidance, I'm here for you.

This is going to have to be multiple posts as there is just too much to write about.  This first post will be devoted to my favorite breweries, the second will be about my favorite brewpubs, the third will be about my favorite beers, and finally, the last will be a short tutorial on beer appreciation and what makes for a good beer.

...and so, it begins.

The Squirrely wrath List of Top Ten Breweries

Before I begin, let me qualify what follows by saying that my favorites are limited to breweries that I have actually had an opportunity to sample their wares.  Obviously, this list is subject to change as my range of experience expands and, if you think there is a glaring omission here, by all means let me know.  I really don't need an excuse to try a new beer.

Drum roll, please.....

  1. Sierra Nevada - It's not much of a stretch to call Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, "iconic."  This beer defines the American pale ale style and it is virtually impossible to drink any American pale ale without comparing it to Sierra Nevada's relentlessly hopped version.  Sierra Nevada's other beers are uniformly good - and their seasonal Celebration is awesome - but their Pale Ale alone earns them a place on this list.
  2. Deschuttes - The person who introduced me to this Bend, Oregon brewery said, "These guys just don't know how to make bad beer."  I'd disagree; they don't even know how to make mediocre beer.  Deschuttes' Black Butte Porter is probably the best example of this style being brewed today.
  3. New Belgium - Just as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has defined what can be done with hops in a beer, New Belgium's Fat Tire sets the example for what can be done with a malt-dominated beer and their other beers are uniformly interesting and tasty.  When their 2 Degree Below seasonal is available, I never pass it up.  Besides, they had a brew dog named Arrow that is posthumously remembered in their Mighty Arrow just got to like them for that alone.
  4. Anchor - Fritz Maytag, of the washing machine Maytags, bought an abandoned brewery and, arguably, began the craft brewing revolution in America.  While Fritz's rather ruthless defense of his "Steam Beer" trademark has not sit well with many brewers, Anchor Steam remains another iconic, exclusively American beer style and Anchor's annual Christmas Ale, good, bad, or just plain weird, is always much anticipated in the beer community.
  5. Uinta Brewing - Utah's arcane beer laws place alcohol restrictions on beer brewed within the state and yet, Uinta has worked within those boundaries and produced Cutthroat Pale Ale, easily my favorite low alcohol beer.  Whenever, I am back in my home state, my trunk is invariably filled with cases of Cutthroat.
  6. Marstons - Okay, your brewery is in Burton-on-Trent, the heart of Britain's brewing better know how to make beer.  Fortunately, this 1834 established brewery has had lost of practice and, just as SNPA defines the American pale ale style, Marstons Pedigree defines the English version.
  7. Cantillon - One word, "lambic."  Forget what everything you think you know about what beer is and try a bottle from this Belgian brewery.  You might hate it, you might love it, but I promise it will be an adventure.
  8. Victory Brewing - This Pennsylvania brewery is another place that seems incapable of making uninteresting beer.  Their Hop Devil is a not to be missed beer and their limited release of Yakima Twilight last year...all I can say is, "Wow!"
  9. Stone Brewing - When a brewery names their flagship beer "Arrogant Bastard Ale," it's pretty much a sign that they don't give a crap about what you think about their beer...and that's a good thing.  Stone is know for making big, complex, high-alcohol beers and, if you are not collecting their yearly Vertical Epic releases...well, why the hell not??
  10. Chimay - Belgium is blessed with many, many, many breweries, all brewing their own unique beer styles most of which never make it to the United States.  Chimay is generally available and all of their beers are just dang good.
This is my list and be warned that, were I to write this blog next week or next month or next year, the list might well be different.  It's a tribute to how much good beer there is being made in America these days that my list of Honorable Mentions is rather lengthy:  Ninkasi Brewing (Tricerahops Double IPA), Russian River (Pliny the Elder), Three Floyds (Alpha King, Robert the Bruce), Goose Island (Nut Brown Ale), Bells (Two -Hearted Ale), Middle Ages (Druid Fluid...funny story here, but it will have to wait), New Glarus (Elkhorn Octoberfest), and others that, no doubt escape me at the moment.

Say what you want about the U.S. of A. right now, but it's a great time to be a beer-lover.

But wait, there's more!  Here's a special added bonus feature:

Inevitably, there were breweries worthy of mention that I neglected to add to the above list, most notably Flying Dog Brewing - they make great beer and have Ralph Steadman designing their labels; wrapping awesome around awesome.  I also have to, begrudgingly, add Dogfish Head to the list.  I mean, their 60, 90, and 120 Minute IPA's are great beers, but for the love of Gawd, Sam, enough with all these silly, gimmicky beers.  Ice from Antarctica for the brewing water for Pangea?  Get back to me when you're ready to take beer seriously again, Dogfish.

...and a posthumous mention of the William S. Newman Brewing Co. of Albany, NY.  For me, the craft brewing revolution started in 1982 when I walked into Newman's, carrying my then 1-year-old Daughter #1, and bought a box of beer (this was a 1 gallon, soft plastic container in a cardboard box) from Bill Newman himself - he actually went into the back and filled it.  Here's the conversation:

Bill:  First time here?
Me:  Yeah.
Bill:  Wanna taste?
Me:  Okay.
Bill (pointing to Daughter #1):  What about her?  She want a taste, too?
Me:'s a little early for her, but I'm good. Set me up.

Newman's packaging sucked and the beer was, by today's standards, mediocre, but it was one of the first ripples of the tidal wave that was coming.


    1. 3. New Belgium: I'm confused, unless this isn't the same Fat Tire as what I'm thinking. I thought the name of the brewery was Fat Tire, I didn't know this was just one type.
      Same goes for 9. Stone Brewery. I guess i thought Arrogant Bastard was the name of the brewery.

      But anyway: I was actually just think the other day how I need to go to the store and find some Widmer Hef. Don't think I will find it out here, I'm lucky to get my hands on Redhook.

    2. Sarah: Sadly, Spanish Peaks beers make only very infrequent appearances here in the southern Nevada provinces. What can I say? So many beers, so little time.

      Maya: New Belgium makes Fat Tire along with a rainbow of other beers. Same for Stone. Arrogant Bastard is just one of their beers.

    3. Pleased to see Goose Island get an HM. Big fan of the Honker's Ale.

      Any thoughts on the Rogue Ales brewery?

    4. Oh, and what about the Alaska ones, they do really nice summer wheats... Sad about Spanish Peaks, their honey raspberry is delicious.

    5. Charly: Goose Island is a great brewery run by good people. John and Greg Hall were strong supporters of both craft brewing and home brewing when I lived in Chicago. They've taken flack recently for selling to Anheuser-Busch, but I figure that, if someone is willing to put enough zeros on the check, why not? The new owners have promised to keep the Goose's "gooseness". We are all hoping...

      As for Rogue, good beers and their brewpub in downtown Portland is delightfully seedy, but I just haven't had any Rogue beers that grabbed me around the neck and said, "I'm awesome" but that could just be me.

    6. Ah, the memories...I used to distribute a few of those brands. :) Curious if you've tried any of the Snake River Brewing, Odells, or Alaskan Brewing beers? I used to sell those as well. They all thought pretty highly of themselves. ;)

    7. Falahime: Odells is definitely an awesome brewery. Alaskan Brewing makes drinkable, but "safe" beers. Their Alaskan Amber would be my pick of the litter, but even that is pretty weak cheese. Sadly, I've never come across any Snake River beers.

    8. Good list F.I.L.
      I've been turned onto Mad river in Blue Lake, CA, they have consistently tasty stuff and a solid hop range. Laugunitas is always a good HM, try the hairy eyeball if you get the chance. Also, I find it hard to believe Daughter #1 would refuse a beer tasting, no matter how young. She's a good little drinker.

    9. I've heard good things about Mad River, SIL, but they haven't shown up in Las Vegas and I haven't traveled anywhere where they are available. Laugunitas is distributed here, but I just haven't picked them out of the rainbow of other available beers yet, but so noted...

      ...and as for Daughter #1 at Newmans, in truth, her preferences on tasting the beer are not recorded, but my rule, when it comes to such things, is: If I'm carrying you, I get to decide what you drink.