Sunday, October 12, 2008
If 2005 was the apex of extreme beers, as Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian said in a talk this weekend, then the 2008 Great American Beer Festival showed that beer makers are toning down their experimentation but getting better at what they've concocted.
Sour beers and big IPAs once again seemed to be the talk of the festival, but those that drew the most raves were not pushing the alcohol boundary as much as smoothing out their bold tastes without mellowing them. You didn't see chai and green tea ending up in every conceivable style of beer anymore, but the coffee beers that used to be hit and miss seemed more universally to be filled with java flavor.
Trying to encapsulate all that happened and was learned over the three best beer days in America isn't easy. Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing multiple pieces about trends and beer books and even optimism that the craft brewing industry will survive this recession with a measurable dent.
But to start with, I just want to rattle off one man's impression of the absolute best of this year in just a few categories. And then you can either tell me that I'm a genius or that my taste buds should be cast aside into the seventh level of hell. Sound fair?
Best in show: In a year of high-minded sour ales, Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Cassee reached the highest point. This barrel-fermented wild sour ale from Massachusetts came onto you with a sour cherry nose but evolved several times in your mouth, finishing with a bold green apple pucker. Just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, I urged nearly everyone I was with to try it as well, and I got the same reaction. There was nothing gutsier or as well done as this gem.
Best porter/stout: Bluegrass Brewing's Kick in the Baltic Porter was four things at once: Chocolatey, smooth, warming and even slightly sweet. I never knew beer this well-crafted could come out of a state (Kentucky) that I've only associated with whiskey.
Best hoppy beer: After drinking Breckenridge 471 IPA, I hit as many great IPAs and double IPAs as I could in succession, wanting to put them up against each other. While Great Divide's Hercules Double IPA came close, nothing equalled this double's combination of flowery goodness and a sweet back taste that makes it dangerously easy to drink.
Best Scottish/red ale: Texas-based Real Ale Brewing's Real Heavy is a big, big take on the Scottish style that amps up everything in even measure and leaves you surprised and how nice it can turn out.
Best wheat: Few things are as enjoyable as the way that New Belgium's Mothership Wit glides over your tongue. This organic wheat beer touches several taste buds but does so in a gentle way, leaving you wanting more.
Best eye-opener: There are so many to choose from here. But to my mind, nothing bends a style better than Papago Brewing's Orange Blossom. The Arizona brewery's orange wheat beer tastes somewhat like a cream soda with a kick and with a fine yeast profile to boot. Friends who dislike wheats and dislike fruity beers admitted to me that this is something they would drink.
Nice roll-up. I too thought there were more well done sours that in years past. These sours hit you upfront with tartness, but then quickly faded with a supporting cast of sweetness. One of my favorites sours was Interlude from Allagash.
I would have to say that my favorite balanced Beer would be 1500 Pale from Drake's Brewing Co.