Best Beers and Suchlike of 2012

Ampleforth Abbey Beer: tasty goodnessI was lucky enough to try a lot of new and interesting things this year, and having an amazing brewery open up just a short walk away has been especially lovely (but more on Tired Hands in a moment). My highlights this year cover a range of styles, but as always, I have a soft spot for something I can actually have more than one of without quickly reaching stumbledom.

I got in a bit more travel than usual in 2012, and highlights of my trips included discovering The House of the Trembling Madness in York – a quirky medieval building I would happily move into – as well as more modern good-beer-bars like the Holborn Whippet in London. Closer to home, I finally visited Tröegs Brewing Company’s new(ish) Hershey brewery and was pleasantly surprised at the excellent food on offer in addition to the known quantity of the beer. I managed two beer runs – The ODDyssey Half-Marathon, which included a welcome Sly Fox Dunkel at the end, and my usual Dogfish Dash 10K, although I was slower than last year (but the beer lines were faster, so it evens out).

Finally, the pleasure of once again having good beer within walking distance cannot be overstated, and the variety and innovation on offer at Tired Hands Brewing Company is nothing short of amazing. I have yet to have even an ‘average’ beer there, and the fresh-baked bread and other local nibbles are equally wonderful – the setting is glorious as well. I could easily make a ten-best list of their beers alone, but that would hardly be fair to anyone else; long may they continue their fine work.

And so, in no particular order, my ten favorite beers of the year:

Rosie Parks Oyster Stout, Fordham Brewing Company, 5.5% ABV, Dover, DE
This was a very pleasant surprise; I thought it would be something quite good, although not earth-shattering, but it went well beyond my expectations. There was definitely a briney, sea-breeze feeling about it, and it paired very well indeed with the roasty (but not overdone) malts. This would quickly become a go-to if I could find it nearer to home…no such luck yet. Given the recent kerfuffle over what does and does not ‘count’ as a craft brewer (if you worry about that sort of thing), this is an ideal beer to prove that what really matters is whether or not it’s a good beer, not who may be a partial owner of the brewery.

Trauger Pilsner, Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company, 4.8% ABV, Croydon, PA
It can be easy for some beer snobs to dismiss pilsners, given what passes for the style in mass production, but this is a really wonderful beer, one that is well worth seeking out. It’s crisp and refreshing, but has a lovely rounded flavor (I realize we’re getting into slightly pretentious territory here, but bear with me) with a very distinctive maltiness. I hope to see this in wider distribution in 2013 – it would be an ideal summer beer.

Once Upon A Time X Ale – November 22nd, 1838, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, 7.4% ABV, Somewhere in MA
This was another in the occasional series of collaborations between Pretty Things and beer historian Ron Pattinson, this time demonstrating that ‘mild’ did not necessarily mean low in alcohol. It was particularly interesting to compare it to the 1945 version (from the records of the same London brewery), which clocked in at only 2.8%, though I rather enjoyed that version, too. Deep gold and lots of hops may not be our modern idea of a mild, but then, that’s what primary sources are for. I look forward to more in this series.

Ampleforth Abbey Beer, Ampleforth Abbey, 7% ABV, Ampleforth, UK
I’d been ‘off’ non-Belgian dubbels for a while; I’d had too many that weren’t quite right – some were too sweet, others were just a bit too ‘homebrewey’ for my taste. But this changed my mind completely – it was everything a good dubbel should be, and then some. This featured lots of malt, complex flavor and just the right amount of sweetness; clearly, British monks are onto something good, just as their Belgian counterparts have been for centuries. This was truly a highlight of my UK trip, and I would love to see someone begin importing it to the US.

Ruby Mild, Rudgate Brewery, 4.4% ABV, York, UK
I do love a good mild – and unlike the Pretty Things version above, this was very much the modern version. I may not often agree with CAMRA, but they awarded this beer a gold medal in the mild category this year, and it was very much deserved. I did not have the chance to try others from the brewery, but I would very much like to – if anyone would like to send me off to write about Yorkshire beers, please just get in touch

Sunshine & Lollihops, Daniel Thwaites Brewery, 4.6% ABV, Blackburn, UK
Another low-key, but thoroughly tasty beer, and very summery – gentle floral hops set against a slightly sweet malt backbone. This is a beer brewed for Nicholson’s Pubs, which was in itself another nice surprise – why had I spent years going to Wetherspoons pubs (though some are fine), when Nicholson’s are better on food, beer and child-friendliness? I’m not normally one for chain pubs or restaurants in general, but some ownership groups get things right.

Farmer’s Glory, Wadworth & Co., 4.7% ABV, Devizes, UK
It’s somewhat amusing by American standards to see a beer like this listed as a ‘strong’ bitter, but there is something to be said for subtlety. Yet again, there’s nothing particularly unusual here, just a well-crafted, very refreshing beer with a solid malt flavor. While we do have some beers like this in the US, I admit I do miss having more of this sort to choose from, especially on cask.

Blonde, Black Isle Brewery, 5% ABV, Munlochy, UK
Lest we think that (BrewDog aside) all British beer is ‘normal,’ Black Isle breaks the mold. This small organic brewery in Scotland is making beers that defy simple categorization, and this beer does that admirably. What looked like an unassuming blonde ale (or lager, depending on your interpretation) was remarkably complex – crisp, but a little sweet; refreshing, but full of interesting malt flavors and a hard-to-place (but very pleasant) finish. Interesting indeed.

Scratch 68 – Zwickel Licker, Tröegs Brewing Company, 5.4% ABV, Hershey, PA
A collaboration between Tröegs and your favorite session beer fan and mine, Lew Bryson, this was one of my favorites in their always-interesting experimental beer series. This beer went up against a saison designed with equally-beloved local beer scribe Jack Curtin, and I enjoyed that as well, but had to give the edge to Lew’s brew. I love a good zwickel beer, and this fit the bill perfectly; I’d love to see it come back as a summer regular.

Good Good Things, Tired Hands Brewing Company, 6.2% ABV, Ardmore, PA
It was incredibly difficult to choose just one from Tired Hands, my new local – as mentioned above, everything has been outstanding, from a kvass made with house-baked bread called Slava Oner to the potent Westy13; in between I’ve really enjoyed things like Deuce, a brown ale with a kick, and Ghost, Goblin and Vampire – Halloween beers the way they should be done. But Good Good Things stood out; it’s a bit like a cross between a Berliner Weisse and a very hoppy IPA; on paper, that may sound bizarre, but in practice, it’s tremendous. Wildly refreshing and very complex at the same time, this is just one of example of how they are doing ‘creative’ right at Tired Hands. I expect to see even more on next year’s list.

So, that’s 2012 in a nutshell (though there’s always more to read)…happy new year to all!

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