Monday, 12 January 2015

My (First Annual)

Beers of the Year


The name of the blog is IPA Tales, so when it came time to pick my Beer of the Year winners, it was clear there would be plenty of IPAs and their friends on my list.

But the beauty of being only one year into this craft beer addict thing is everything is new, at least in terms of annual 'Beer of the Year' stories. Some styles - especially the ones on the other side of the hops/malt spectrum as my beloved IPAs - would be newer than others.

From Stouts to Saisons, there were more than a few styles that I didn't get around to until later in 2014. What the hell was I waiting for? would be the prevailing theme here, and none fit that description better than Stouts.

If you look at any list of the best rated beers in the world, there will be a few Belgian abbey-style beers and a Double IPA or two but the bulk of the top ten will be filled by Imperial Stouts. Rich, strong and with complex flavour profiles, Stouts are the Big Papis of the beer world.

And I hated them. Dark and kind of evil looking, I avoided Stouts for more than half a year before I started reaching out to give them a fair chance. Little by little, they won me over and I eventually liked enough of them to pick out three finalists: Wellington Imperial Russian Stout (Wellington Brewery); 8 Ball (Lost Coast Brewery); and Skinny Dipping (Sawdust City).
Wellington Imperial Russian Stout

This was a tough one. From the perfect patio sipping stout (Skinny Dipping) to bitter chocolate deliciousness (8 Ball), this was a difficult choice. But the champ in this category is all dark chocolate, dark fruits, roasted coffee, toasted malts and awesomeness.

Winner: Wellington Imperial Russian Stout (Stout)

In the Wheat Beer category, two beers stood out: Hoegarden and All or Nothing. Hoegarden is the gold standard for wheat beers, with beer being produced in the Belgian town of Hoegarden since the middle ages. But, considering All or Nothing makers Underdogs Brewhouse are Oshawa boys (and considering I searched for the damn beer for weeks before finally finding it at the 1847 Bistro  in Brooklin), I have to side with the lads from the Shwa.

Winner: Underdogs All or Nothing Hopfenweisse (Wheat)

ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, is an English style that captured my fancy this year. Finalists in this category included Paddlers Pride from 5 Paddles Brewery - the only beer from my local brewery that I really liked - and the classic from Fullers Brewery of London, England, ESB Champions Ale, which is bursting with toffee and caramel flavours, balanced by orange and sweet fruit hops.

Winner: Fullers ESB Champions Ale (Bitter)

There were two styles in the IPA realm that only provided two finalists: Rye Pale Ales and Triple IPAs.  As for the latter, there were just two finalists because I only had two Triple IPAs all year and both were outstanding. But while Devil Dancer from Founders Brewing was excellent, it was clear that a collaboration between Sawdust City and Nickel Brook would take top spot.

"Really, really HUGE and intoxicating citrus hops. Grapefruit, mango and bitter orange, as well as lots of resiny pine dominate the tongue and the finish is all pine, silky smooth and chewable caramel malts and more citrus, with just a touch of booze at the end" is what I said. That and, "out-freaking-standing beer."


Winner: Sawdust City/Nickel Brook 11.05 (Triple IPA)

There were several Rye Pale Ales I liked this year but two stood out: Cameron's RPA and Super Guy Imperial Rye Pale Ale from Beyond the Pale, which I found just once: on tap at Buster Rhino's. The Cameron's beer was excellent, but Super Guy? That was an awesome, spectacular beer that I wish I could find again.

Winner: Beyond the Pale Super Guy Imperial RPA (Rye Pale Ale)

I was all set to anoint Pursuit of Abbeyness, an Abbey-style beer from Bowmanville upstarts Manantler Brewing, as my Abbey champion, because it was very good and because I had nothing to compare it to. And then, lo and behold, there it was: Rochefort Trappiste 8. This is the little brother to Trappiste 10, an authentic Belgian Trappist beer that is the second highest rated beer in Belgium and the ninth ranked in the world, according to Rate Beer. The '8' was malty and complex and I liked it, but I was still leaning towards the Bowmanville boys. But a few days later I found the real thing: Rochefort Trappiste 10. This beer smelled of dark fruit of various ages (plum, raisin) and was sweet and bitter at the same time. I think we have a...

Winner: Rochefort Trappiste 10 (Abbey)

There were a number of categories that delivered up just one qualified entry; sometimes because there weren't that many good ones out there but mostly because I wasn't a fan of the style - yet anyway. But from "sunshine in a glass" (Sorachi Ace) and "really, really silky smooth" (Innis & Gunn Canadian Cherrywood Finish) to "why did I wait so long?" (Amsterdam Spring Bock), as well as an Imperial Nut Brown Ale (Flying Monkeys Division By Zero) that knocked my socks off., there were plenty of one-off winners.

Winner: Mill Street 100th Meridian Organic (Lager)

Winner: Steamwhistle (Pilsner)
Winner: Nickel Brook Malevolent (Black IPA)
Winner: Amsterdam Spring Bock (Bock)
Winner: Innis & Gunn Canadian Cherrywood Finish (Scotch Ale)
Winner: Flying Monkeys Division By Zero (Brown Ale)
Winner: Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (Saison)
Derniere Volonte

The Belgian IPA category is one I didn't get enough of this year. I found Derniere Volonte, from Montreal's famed Dieu du Ciel Brewery, just twice. Cali-Belgique from California's magical Stone Brewing but once, and I barely remember it. Princess Wears Girl Pants, a Sawdust City beer that bars and beer drinkers had some trouble identifying (but I described it as 
"Belgian, wearing German clothes and speaking with an American accent") was available only for a limited time. All were outstanding, but the beer that I described as a "creamy and deliciously smooth delight" (and was a finalist for my Mid-Summer Beer of the Year) takes top honours.

Winner: Dieu du Ciel Derniere Volonte (Belgian IPA)

The Session Ale category was a tight race and as I write this I still hadn't decided on my winner. My first exceptional under-five per cent beer was All Day IPA from Michigan's Founders Brewing, which I found fantastic in Florida and just as awesome when I drank the six I brought back with me to Oshawa. Break of Dawn was a surprise beer I enjoyed on the Buster Rhino's patio one summer's day and raved about to Black Oak Brewing that night on Twitter, only to find out it was a seasonal brew and about to be gone. "We will save you some at the bottle shop," I was helpfully informed. (Sigh...) The third finalist also made its appearance at Buster Rhino's and I enjoyed the spectacular juiciness of Citraddiction (Great Lakes) the rest of the week. I have to pick one, so I'll go abroad here...

Winner: Founders All Day IPA (Session Ale)

The heart and soul of the beers that I love is found in the Pale Ales, the beer style that too often gets pushed aside for IPAs and IIPAs and shouldn't be. I've had some marvelous ales this year with these three making the final cut: Epic Pale Ale from New Zealand; Canuck from Great Lakes; and Rhyme or Reason from Collective Arts Brewing. I went back and forth on this category as well before going with the pale ale I've been touting all year.

Winner: Collective Arts Rhyme or Reason (Pale Ale)

Ah, the IPAs. My true love and the name of this blog. For this category I have dispensed with the usual three finalist rule and have narrowed it down to a mere dozen: Smashbomb Atomic (Flying Monkeys); Brutal (Rogue); Moralite (Dieu du Ciel); Centennial (Founders); My Bitter Wife (Great Lakes); Sculpin and Grapefruit Sculpin (Ballast Point); 60 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head); Headstock (Nickel Brook); Instigator (Indie Ale House); Fat Tug (Driftwood); and Red Racer (Central City). 

From that list of 12 beers I managed to narrow it to seven: Smashbomb (my first love); Moralite (a brew I had once and have searched for ever since); My Bitter Wife (my Mid-Summer Beer of the Year); Sculpin (I had to choose one of the two); Instigator (another one-and-done delight); Fat Tug (a wonderful gift from my brother); and Headstock, which has been growing on me every week.

What to do. What to do. In the end I went not for the beer that may have had the greatest one-time impact on my taste buds, but instead for the brew that has been my loyal friend for the entire year.

Unapologetic IPA

Winner: Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic (IPA)

The final beer category - Double IPAs - lacked the quantity of finalists (I pared it down to six) but more than made up for that in quality, with the likes of Twice as Mad Tom (Muskoka); Witchshark (Bellwoods); Unapologetic (Stone collaboration) Ruination (Stone); Immodest (Nickel Brook) and 90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head). At least four of these six were in the running at some point during the past 12 months for Beer-of-the-Year honours.

My champion was the beer that I enjoyed only twice, but considering I devoted an entire blog to its glory I guess I liked it a lot.

Winner: Stone/Beachwood/Heretic Unapologetic IPA (Double IPA)

Picking my Brewmaster of the Year was difficult because I am not an insider at any of the major breweries - all I can go on is the beers they produce. And when it comes to brewing a variety of fantastic beers, I opted for four finalists: Sam Corbeil of Sawdust City in Gravenhurst; Steve Wagner of Stone Brewing of Escondido, California; Mike Lackey of Great Lakes Brewery of Toronto; and Ryan Morrow of Nickel Brook Brewing of Burlington.

Tough choice, but I went for the young gun from Burlington, who also acts as the head brewer of Collective Arts Brewery and will be the top brewer at the new Arts & Science Brewery in Hamilton when it opens later this year.

Winner: Ryan Morrow, Nickel Brook (Brewmaster)

There were quite a few Breweries that wowed me this year. South of the border Stone and Ballast Point sparkled from sunny southern California and Founders (Michigan) and Dogfish Head (Delaware) never failed to impress. Closer to home my love was shared with Flying Monkeys (Barrie); Great Lakes and Bellwoods (Toronto); Nickel Brook (Burlington); Sawdust City (Gravenhurst) and Dieu du Ciel (Montreal). 

Smashbomb Atomic
Great Lakes is the reigning, two-time Canadian Brewer of the Year and it's easy to see why: all their beers are good and some (My Bitter Wife...Mmmmm) are simply excellent. They also brought out the Toronto Argo cheerleaders for my one visit to the Etobicoke brewery, so that's a bonus. But Stone Brewing of Escondido, California? All I can say is this a brewery that can do no wrong. I found Stone beers in Florida and I found them on each trip to Western New York. And each new Stone beer I tried was exceptional.

I wanted to choose a local brewery here; I really did. But I have to be true to my tastes. Stone can do no wrong.

Winner: Stone Brewing (Brewery)

The most cherished category is Beer of the Year and though I could go on for ages on the merits of some of the outstanding beers I've enjoyed during my one year as a craft beer junkie, I would just end up repeating what I've already written. So I will just name five category winners and my Mid-Summer Beer of the Year champ (My Bitter Wife) as finalists and pick my grand champion.

The final five are Smashbomb Atomic (Flying Monkeys); Dernier Volonte (Dieu du Ciel); Unapologetic (Stone/Beachwood/Heretic); Rhyme or Reason (Collective Arts); 11.05 (Sawdust City/Nickel Brook); and My Bitter Wife (Great Lakes).

Winner: Smashbomb Atomic (Flying Monkeys)


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