I’ve thought a lot about what to call this list.
“The 10 Best Beers of 2014.” (Direct and commanding.)
“The 10 Best Beers I Drank in 2014.” (Direct and commanding, but acknowledges that I didn’t drink every beer out there.)
“My 10 Favorite Beers of 2014.” (Similar to above, but acknowledges that “my favorite” doesn’t necessarily equate to what is “best.”)
“The 10 Most Memorable Beers I Drank in 2014.” (A bit wordy, but getting warmer — Allagash White might have been one of the 10 “best” beers I had last year, but it wasn’t so memorable because I’ve had Allagash White 100 times. But that misses a crucial element.)
And then I hit on this: My 10 Most Memorable Beer Drinking Experiences of 2014. Too long, perhaps, but it is precisely what sits below: a list of the 10 (or so) beers that most wowed me in 2014 as I drank them. There is a distinction in that language worth noting.
Drinking beer is an incredibly variable and (ahem) fluid experience — to the point that I argue there isn’t necessarily a thing such as, for instance, “drinking a Zombie Dust.” Hear me out.
Two key principles create variation in what happens when we drink beer. One is the beer itself, and there are at least three reasons for that: batch variation (not uncommon in craft beer, though rarely desired by the brewer), the degree to which hops degrade (a fresh Zombie Dust and a 3-month-old Zombie Dust are completely different beers) and the many issues that can affect a beer for better or for worse between creation and consumption (such as age and how the beer was stored).
The other varying factor is the beer drinker. Did we eat tuna fish for lunch? Good & Plenty during the afternoon? A Certs after work? Any number of flavors can throw off our taste buds in subtle ways.
The point is simple: Many factors can affect how we taste beer. This is important to remember when evaluating “good” and “bad,” and it’s part of the reason I am uncomfortable calling something I drank once at midnight in a bar in San Francisco after several other enjoyable pursuits one of the “best” beers I had in 2014 (though it is listed below because it certainly tasted remarkable in that moment).
So that’s how we got to this list: My 10 Most Memorable Beer Drinking Experiences of 2014. Or, if you prefer, my 10 best beers of the year, in no particular order.
1. Yodo Con Leche (5 Rabbit Cerveceria)
This imperial porter, made with Costa Rican coffee and a Latin American caramel called dulce de leche, was recommended by someone (I forget who), which led me to order it at lunch one afternoon. I was instantly wowed and thought, “This must be one of the 10 best beers I will drink all year” — and a list was born! 5 Rabbit has been nailing its food-driven beers for a while now, but Yodo Con Leche was special: a creamy body and beautiful harmony between the coffee and caramel flavors. Yodo was a limited spring release, but it is scheduled to return in April, once again in 750-milliliter bottles and on draft. I’ll be stocking up.
2. Euchred (Begyle Brewing), The Illinois (Goose Island Beer Co.) and Taras Boulba (Brasserie de la Senne)
There’s good news and bad news about these three beers, each of which relied on bold hops for what made it special. The good news: fresh, all three were outstanding. I remember my first sip of each: Euchred was from a bomber that my buddy John brought over to watch the Super Bowl; The Illinois was a fresh 12-ounce bottle that my nose knew was special the moment I opened it; and Taras Boulba was at a bar in Ghent, Belgium, based on a recommendation from the bartender. The three beers were quite different but shared a fresh, hoppy liveliness. Now the bad news: When I returned to each of those beers later in the year, I was gravely disappointed. Begyle continues to make Euchred, but I’ve never been as impressed as I was at the fresh bottle John brought over. When I opened a second bottle of The Illinois a week later, it had already degraded to an average beer; a couple of weeks later, I had to pour a third bottle down the drain. (Brief aside: The Illinois was my March Beer of the Month, and I felt bad about that when I realized how badly the beer degraded; however, I’ll repeat that it was outstanding when fresh.) Taras Boulba, which I found on tap at a bar in Louisville, was fine but had none of the freshness and wonder that it did 35 miles from the brewery. The lesson is clear: drink those hops fresh …
… And drink those barleywines aged. In March, in the peaceful little town northwest of Los Angeles where Angelinos go to unwind — Ojai, population 7,500 — I walked into Ojai Beverage Co., a combination bottle shop and bar. Ojai is a supremely laid back and somewhat off-the-radar place, so it made some sense that OBC’s coolers held not only the newly released 2014 version of this wonderful barleywine, but also the 2013 incarnation. In a Chicago beer store where beer nerds relentlessly comb the aisles for such rarities, no such thing would be possible. A year-old version of Sucaba would have been gone the moment it hit shelves. After my triple-take that a beer meant to be aged was in fact available aged, I bought the bottle and carried it to the bar (which OBC allows — very cool) to share with my brother and a friend. The best English-style barleywines improve with age, and that certainly was the case for Sucaba and its beautiful amalgamation of vanilla, ripe fruit, brown sugar and bourbon. I later tasted the 2014 version, and, though delicious, it mostly made me miss the 2013 bottle. Fortunately, I have another 2014 Sucaba that should be ready to drink any month now.
4. Cantillon Gueuze (Brasserie Cantillon)
My beer pilgrimage to Belgium in 2014 included a stop at Cantillon, which some people consider the greatest brewery in the world. I have no doubt that the low ceilings and worn concrete floors of this 114-year-old facility, in a modest neighborhood 15 minutes from downtown Brussels, made their revered funky, sour gueuze seem even more magical. Beer isn’t just about what’s in the bottle; it’s about experience. Especially 4,000 miles from home.
5. Bombay by Boat on cask (Moonlight Brewing Co.)
I visited San Francisco’s legendary Toronado bar in May hoping to find a holy grail of sorts: Pliny the Elder, an India pale ale from Russian River Brewing Co. that’s barely available outside of California. It was on tap, and it was deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelicious. However, after a couple, I switched to Bombay by Boat, another local IPA that was served on cask and won the evening for me: fresh, bursting with pine and citrus and with an intensity only heightened by its cask pour. I admit that the joy of this beer might have been in the lack of expectation. But the lesson was clear: Be open minded and don’t let dogma cloud your senses.
6. Apex Predator (Off Color Brewing)
A Chicago treasure that debuted in 2014 and was my August beer of the month. Back then I described it as “a zesty explosion of orange, lemon, clove, honey and a touch of vanilla laced with bright yeast” that “bursts with refreshing effervescence before segueing into that web of gratifying flavor, and then landing with a bit of a lemony-bubble gum sensation.” I’ll stick with that description. Bonus points: Apex Predator is available year-round for the eminently fair price of $7.99 per four pack.
7. Go To IPA (Stone Brewing Co.) and Pale Ryder (Bosque Brewing)
This was the year of the session beer, which is code for “the beer you can drink over and over and over and remain a respectable human being.” (Such beers are generally accepted as under 5 percent alcohol.) This was the year for the hop-forward session beers in particular. I tried as many session IPAs as I could, and the clear standout was Stone’s Go To IPA. It bursts with juicy hops but stays clean and lean. It’s everything a session beer should be. I am, however, a bit concerned about its future. I was initially a huge supporter of Stone’s Enjoy By (insert date here) IPA when it was first released in 2012, but there has been a clear change of ingredients, and I now find that beer undrinkable. Here’s hoping they don’t do such a thing with Go To. The other hoppy session beer that impressed me in 2014 came from that craft beer hotbed of New Mexico (no, seriously — the state cleaned up at the Great American Beer Festival). Bosque Brewing’s Pale Ryder is a 4.8 percent pale ale with ample amounts of rye and Chinook hops. It’s a dream of a session beer, and if it was available in Chicago, it would always be in my refrigerator.
8. India Saison (Nogne)
I had this on draft in July at a bar in Louisville and still remember it clearly: Dry, peppery, snappy, crisp, and best at nearly room temperature. Craft beer has increasingly been about creative hybrids that defy style, and this hop-forward saison from Norwegian brewery Nogne was as good an example of that creativity as anything in 2014.
9. Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison (Moody Tongue Brewing Co.)
Here’s a good example of what I was talking about above with regard to taste. The first time I tried this beer I wasn’t impressed. I don’t know why. Unclean glass? Had I eaten Good & Plenty? Was I grumpy because the Cubs were still terrible? No idea. What I do know is when I tried it again a couple of weeks later, I said “Holy &%!#” — the highest possible compliment that can be paid to a beer when it catches you so completely off guard by its genius. That was Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison: impossibly bright, tasty and drinkable, with one of the truest food flavors I’ve ever encountered in a glass. I had to have a couple of more pints to be sure I liked it as much as I suspected — and I did. The beer has been on the market steadily since it was first released in late August and is expected to be in 12-ounce bottles (along with a handful of others from Moody Tongue) by spring.
10. Proprietor’s (Goose Island Beer Co.)
Almost four years after THE SALE, it’s safe to say that Anheuser-Busch InBev hasn’t ruined Goose Island. The thing that was glaringly obvious at the time of THE SALE but many of us missed is that it was never in AB InBev’s interest to ruin Goose Island. Why would it buy a brewery with good beer and massive credibility just to demean its investment? Sure, it’s reasonable to worry that AB InBev saw Goose Island as nothing more than a brand to exploit, quality be damned. But you have to assume some things about the world’s largest brewer: those guys know beer, and those guys know business. Sometimes those things work against each other (cheaper ingredients equal bigger profit), but sometimes they don’t (shortcuts alienate savvy drinkers). What we are left with almost four years after THE SALE is a Goose Island that is allowed by its St. Louis-by-way-of-Belgium corporate overlords to take the same chances it always did. Among the best examples is the annual Bourbon County series. For the second year in a row, I was particularly wowed by Proprietor’s, a beer distributed only in Chicago that features a different recipe every year. This year’s version boasted a big cinnamon taste upfront that released into a wonderfully long spicy chocolate finish. It was a decadent balance of sweet (a syrup made of coconut water and panela sugar), spicy (cocoa nibs) and savory (cinnamon) — and the ultimate stocking stuffer. Can’t wait to see what Goose comes up with for Proprietor’s this year.
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