The Top Ten Beers I Consumed In 2015
Looking back on the craft beer scene at the end of 2015 is difficult because…it’s kind of a joke. I am surely not alone in thinking that at times I feel like a character in a game racing around Southern California trying to slay a dragon while ten thousand similar characters are on the hunt as well. If you don’t make it to every bottle release prepare to pay a king’s ransom for whatever you missed. If you’re not using the fastest of high-speed Internet connections and refreshing websites at the top of the hour (which you determine within a fraction of a second by syncing your computer’s clock with whatever the hot world clock of the moment is) you’re not going to score “tickets” (read: bottles) to “events” (read: new releases) at your favorite brewery. Want the most sought after and limited bottles from local brewers? First you have to fork over hundreds of dollars a year to join a club or society that only really gives you the access to then spend more money on bottles.
I drank a lot of beer this year. At least I feel like I drank a lot of beer. December still has roughly two weeks remaining before 2015 turns to 2016. According to Untappd (an app/website I truly love and am happy to support) I have consumed 552 unique beers this year. That’s more than one a day. Granted some days — like April 9th for example — I sampled a great number of different ales while chauffeuring my sister around San Diego’s myriad breweries. On other days I consumed zero. Hell, I haven’t had a beer in the past week as I’ve been home sick with some kinda of annoying virus that has been ravaging my body. I’ve been lucky enough to consume some of the best that American craft beer breweries have to offer, and it still feels like I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s out there. Nevertheless, here’s the top 10 (top 20 really, because there are 10 honorable mentions too) from this past year.
- Southhampton Imperial Russian Stout (2014) – Southhampton is a small brewery in New York that releases bottles in sometimes amazingly tiny numbers. I think in 2014 only 650 bottles were produced. I was lucky enough to share this with some friends back in New Jersey when I was home working the WFMU Record Fair, and it was silky and chocolate-y without any real hint of booze. Delicious.
- Terrapin Moo-HooChiato Chocolate Espresso Milk Stout – On my first trip to Georgia in 2005 (or was it 2006?) there was Terrapin at every liquor store and bar I visited. Back then they had a coffee stout, a rye pale ale, and a couple other bottles I can’t recall. To my knowledge, there was nothing like the Moo-Hoos and the Wake-n-Bakes that are being produced these days.
- Clown Shoes Luchador En Fuego (2014) – There’s a beer in my top ten that is one of the biggest “wants” in the country called Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout. People love its combo of cacao, vanilla, chilis and cinnamon. Tickets for its release down in Florida sell out instantly every year. Beer Advocate calls it the 37th best in the world. And yet, Luchador En Fuego is actually…kinda awesome in an eerily similar way. It’s a chocolate beer mixed with chiles and aged in quality bourbon barrels. For a fraction of the price (and a fraction of the effort) one could happily consume cases of Luchador while the rest of the globe climbs over one another to obtain a single bottle of Hunahpu’s. I’m hopeful it will be released again in 2015.
- The Bruery Mocha Wednesday (2015) – I consumed a lot of imperial stouts with coffee in 2015. Several of them are on this list. For someone who doesn’t drink that much coffee, I somehow take in a lot via alcohol consumption. One of the best on the market is Mocha Wednesday, a “society exclusive” from The Bruery. The base beer is called Black Tuesday (perhaps The Bruery’s best-known and sought-after annual release), and by mixing it with cacao nibs and coffee you get Mocha Wednesday. After many, many hours of drinking in Hoboken earlier this year, I found myself on a rooftop with a cigar, drinking this 19.2% ABV monster straight from the bottle. I have no shame.
- 4 Hands Madagascar (Batch 2) – Madagascar gets its names from the generous amount of whole vanilla beans that are added to this imperial milk stout while it ages in bourbon barrels. It’s one of the most vanilla forward beers on the market, and as such it’s one of the hardest to track down. It’s probably a level below Goose Island’s Bourbon County Vanilla Rye and Bottle Logic’s Fundamental Observation, but to be mentioned in the same breath as those whales is a pretty awesome achievement. This was my beer of choice to celebrate the Mets defeating the Cubs in the NLCS, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last drop.
- New Glarus Raspberry Tart – One night earlier this year I was sharing some bottles with some local restauranteurs and one of them was discussing his recent trip to the midwest. He talked about dining at Alinea and Next, drinking at Aviary, and — oh yeah — his trip to New Glarus, where he purchased cases of beer to ship back to Los Angeles. He produced for us a bottle of Raspberry Tart and at first taste my mind was completely blown. A berry bomb with almost no alcohol presence, it was one of the most unique brews I’d ever encountered. A few weeks later a trading partner informed me that he’d happily trade me all the New Glarus I want (plus some other rarities) for an old bottle of Pappy Van Winkle (12yr.) I’d been sitting on. I think he ended up giving me 10 bottles in all, four of which were from New Glarus (including one of their rarest offerings, an “R&D” sour beer made with peaches I’ve yet to crack). Don’t worry, I held onto my other Pappy bottles.
- Jackie O’s Oro Negro – One of the best trades I completed this year sent a couple big beers from the SoCal area (from The Bruery and Modern Times) to a drinker from the MidWest who sent me a care package full of Jackie O’s and other local breweries in return. While I’ve yet to try the Bourbon Barrel Black Maple he included as part of the trade, Oro Negro was fantastic. An American Double Stout brewed with walnuts and conditioned on oak, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and Habanero peppers, it was the star of a bottle share I attended over the summer. The other bottle I received from Jackie O’s was called Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground, so of course I drank it after the Mets disposed of the Dodgers in the NLDS.
- Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic – Perhaps the most revered brewery in the world, Cantillon is pretty hard to come by here in the States because retailers love to price gouge, and buying online from sellers overseas makes for expensive shipping costs. Nevertheless, if I can score enough bottles to justify the shipping, I’ll order one or two boxes a year from Belgium and that’s enough for me. My first time trying Kriek was earlier this year, and it was delicious. It’s got that weird basement funk you find in a lot of Cantillon bottles, but the cherry flavor keeps it from overwhelming too much. That said, there’s something about that dirty, earthy, barnyard flavors that I love. I’ll get more into that later…
- Three Floyd’s Dark Lord (2012) – Most fresh batches of Dark Lord are waaaaaay too “hot” to enjoy. If it’s not the “soy sauce” flavor, the heat from the alcohol is the main complaint you’ll hear about each iteration of Dark Lord. The one I cracked from 2012 had very little soy sauce to it, and its time spent aging in the bottle mellowed out the heat enough to really enjoy it.
- Highland Park Brewery Griffith J. Griffith – The brewery of the year for me this year was HPB. No question about it, they’ve produced an incredible number of top-flight beers in 2015, and it seems like each one has been more impressive than the last. I almost don’t want to include their other bottles on this list because they’re still easily attainable, and once HPB blows up they’re going to be much, much harder to obtain and enjoy. Easily the most coffee-forward beer I’ve had…maybe ever…I’d have to think long and hard about what has a equally massive depth of flavor. The fact that you can hardly taste the alcohol in this 12% ABV beast is terrifying, because it’s so easily drinkable. Fuck. Maybe I’ll have some right now…
And now, the top 10:
10. Cantillon Saint Lamvinus (2009) – Lambics, like that girl who had a crush on me in second grade and I wouldn’t give the time of day, only better with age. Yeah, back then she had “cooties” and cut her hair short so I made fun of her and called her a boy, but once puberty hit she started on an upward trajectory towards smokeshow hotness. And who am I? A fucking nobody! Anyway, this bottle of Saint Lamvinus was aged for six years and it probably could have laid down for another few without going past its peak. STL is an unblended lambic made with merlot and cabernet-franc grapes aged in Bordeaux barrels. This is going to sound really fucking weird, but this beer is so dirty and funky it actually smelled like manure. And it tasted fucking amazing. I have to say this was one of the most bizarrely entertaining beers I have ever consumed. Everything about that aroma screamed WRONG but it tasted so right.
09. Hill Farmstead Susan – You’ll never believe my surprise when I showed up at work one day to find an overnighted growler from Vermont with 750ml of Susan inside. It was like a gift from the Gods. The combination of citra, simcoe and riwaka hops make for a stunning IPA. And it looks nice in a glass too. When was the last time you looked at Heady Topper in a glass? There’s a reason The Alchemist says to drink that shit straight from the can. It doesn’t look pretty. Susan looks pretty.
08. Kane Sunday Brunch – I’ve been dying to try Sunday Brunch – and its spicy cousin Mexican Brunch – for some time. When Kane announced the arrival of a new bottling system one could imagine that the opportunity would arrive soon. No one was prepared one Saturday morning when the beauty shot of a Sunday Brunch bottle turned up on Instagram. My sister and some friends raced down to the brewery to score some, and even though two of the three friends came up empty somehow I lucked my way into a bottle. The coffee and cinnamon were quite forward here, though I got barely essence of maple syrup. The nose was a beautiful bouquet of sweet and roasty malts with hint of cinnamon. One of the best smelling beers of the year. And- as you can probably surmise by its inclusion on this list – one of the tastiest too!
07. AleSmith Vietnamese Speedway Stout – I brought this to a bottle share thinking it would be a fun one to open with friends, and while I was expecting big coffee flavor I was totally unprepared for the unadulterated chocolate bomb that greeted me instead. I’m sure the description “alcoholic chocolate milk” seems like a nonstarter, but you have to drink this to understand. It’s one of the most delicious imperial stouts I’ve ever consumed. A candy bar in a bottle that is 12% ABV. Make sense?
06. Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout – I described this one earlier when singing the gospel Luchador En Fuego. Hunahpu’s is a imperial stout aged on cacao nibs, madagascar vanilla beans (which you’ll remember from earlier is the vanilla bean de jour these days in the craft beer world), ancho chilis, pasilla chilis and cinnamon. Mix it all together and add 11% ABV and what do you get? The second most memorable beer I had all year! What’s the first, you ask?
05. Westbrook Mexican Cake – Yes, fine, whatever. Maybe Hunahpu’s is “better” in that it’s more complex and nuanced than Cake. But you know what? Fuck that. At the end of the day, if you ask me which one I’d rather be drinking right now, I’d take the Cake! Why? Because Westbrook doesn’t fuck around with pasilla and ancho chilis. They use fresh habanero peppers, so the heat is lasting, more intense, and deliciously good. If you like chilis in your beer, you can’t do much better than this. Other than that the recipe is similar, with cinnamon, cocoa nibs, and vanilla beans rounding out the ingredients. Dynamite.
04. Cantillon Fou’ Foune – I was lucky enough to try an “aged” Fou’ this year (2013 I believe?) and a fresh Fou’ this year (2015). Both were delicious, but the younger version was a little bit more sweet and acidic, and thus the better of the two. The apricots used in this brew are stoned by hand before being soaked in 2 years old lambic. The beer extracts the taste and the aromas very quickly and the resultant nectar of the Gods is bottled after two months. Seriously it’s one of the best beers in the world. Period. I’ve got a 2014 bottle sitting in my pantry right now, I’m just looking for an excuse to dome it. Anyone wanna join me?
03. Russian River Pliny The Younger – I finally broke down and attended a PTY event earlier this year. I wrote about it here. More than likely it will be the only time I line up to try a beer, because I like to think I have better things to do with my time. That said, I reserve the right to go back on that statement once February rolls around. And, for what it’s worth, I had a really fun time drinking all those Russian River sours. And, yes, Pliny The Younger is one of the best IPAs (sorry, triple IPAs) in the world. If you haven’t gone to a PTY event in your life, try it once. You’ll be able to say you had it, and then you can move on and let all the other neckbeards out there ride the hype train year after year while you drink yourself silly on some other powerful and tasty elixir.
02. Lawson’s Sip Of Sunshine – Like this one, for example! You don’t have to line up for hours to obtain it, it’s available pretty much every week instead of once a year, and it comes in a can so you can…you know…take it home and drink it on your own instead of having to be at a specific place at a specific time. I love Sip. It’s juicy, and fruity (citrusy) while being a total hop bomb. I love cracking a can and getting that first whiff of one of the best smelling IPAs in the world. I kind of wish I had a can on me now but I drank my last one on Thanksgiving. Shame on me.
01. Highland Park Brewery Raised Eyebrows – One of the most exciting and unexpected beer things to happen to me in 2015 was “Sour Night” at Hermosillo during this past LA Beer Week. It fell on a Wednesday I believe, and I was off work so I got there relatively early and scored myself a table so I wouldn’t have to stand around all awkward and bunched together with the hordes struggling to belly up to the bar. Yes, Lazy Susan (the peach beer) was unbelievable. But nothing they offered on draught that night came close to reaching the soaring heights of Raised Eyebrows (batch 1). Passionfruit and guava have historically been winning beer ingredients (here’s looking at you, Otiose) but together in concert, and aged in a combination of stainless steel and red wine barrels, my fucking GOD was this an outstanding product. Batch 2 (100% barrel aged) was just released a week ago, and as I write this I’m suddenly remembering I have to go pick up my bottles from the Hermosillo before the 27th. Maybe I’ll do that right now, actually…
Raised Eyebrows. Beer of the year. All hail Highland Park Brewery, “the next big thing” (please don’t become the next big thing, I love you too much. Stay mine forever.)
So Hideous – Yesteryear [MP3]
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