Critic's List: Joe Stange's Best in 2019

Apologies in advance for some European bias. These picks span a year of travel and a trans-Atlantic move back to the States, where I now gawk like a yokel at the weird and wonderful American beer scene.

Joe Stange Dec 31, 2019 - 5 min read

Critic's List: Joe Stange's Best in 2019 Primary Image

Top Three Breweries

I’ll limit this to three visited (or re-visited) in the past year, but those are not too shabby. I have to mention Brauerei Schönram, for the flavorful, moreish lagers that were like my daily bread when living in Germany. Then to Belgium for 3 Fonteinen, the Pajottenland lambic brewery and blendery that assembles my favorite oude gueuze—dry, earthy, ebullient, perfectly melding musty-grapefruit-like acidity with soft bitterness. Maestro Armand Debelder has stepped away from the kettles to do more of the talking and holding court—which he clearly enjoys—while the beers haven’t lost a step under former protégé Michael Blancquaert. Finally, a few miles northeast of there in Brussels, the Brasserie de la Senne has moved into larger digs but continues to push the needle on how much gorgeous noble hop character can be crammed into a glass of ale (which nonetheless remains hugely drinkable). I tend to talk about fresh Taras Boulba or Zinnebir in Brussels with the same reverence that others reserve for how Guinness tastes in Dublin.

Top Five Beers

Here are the five I enjoyed most in the past year—purely hedonistic, in sepia-toned flashback:
Widawa Smoked Baltic Porter 24° (Chrząstawa Mała, Poland) I kept going back to the well for this beast at the Kraft Roku festival in Poznan, Poland, last winter. A beer that thick and strong (10.5 percent ABV) should not have been so hard to stop drinking.

Hogshead Gilpin Black Gold (Denver, Colorado) During a week in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, I tried a lot of excellent beers. This was the most memorable, from a brewery that specializes in cask ale—a last of the evening, full pint of pitch-perfect, creamy, almost fluffy, sweetish-but-dryish, chocolaty London-style porter.

Benedict Světlý Ležák 12° (Prague, Czech Republic)
This is the beer I have to drink when in Prague, preferably at the old Břevnov abbey’s rustic tavern. This pale lager’s flavor and aroma get a compelling chamomile-like punch from unusual heirloom Saaz hops, while bitterness is enfolded in the residual sweetness from traditional decoction. It’s not “crisp”—a false god, that—it’s lush.

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Firestone Lager (Paso Robles, California) My beer of the summer … at the lake, on a boat, with family, or just killing time by the smoker. In my mind it stands with the better examples of Bavarian-brewed helles. It’s a convincing showcase of clean malt character and that je-ne-sais-what-the-hell-I’ll-have-another. As a bonus, it’s widely available.

Senne Jambe de Bois (Brussels, Belgium) In recent years, I’ve nurtured a steady hankering for hop-forward Belgian triples (or tripels). I think this is the best of them. I know a handful of places in Brussels that serve this beer on draft; I hoard them like secrets. I never used to have time for this beer. It was too easy to drink for its strength (8 percent ABV); it was too dangerous. Now I’m older. I’ve re-learned what I knew as a college student: Life is short.

Today’s drinkers ought to pay more attention to…

Their own idea of good beer. Hype is often hilariously misplaced. Spend more time with beers you already know you like; they could become lifelong friends.

Today’s brewers ought to pay more attention to…

Foam stability. People on social media broadcast all kinds of murk these days—and pictures of cans, lots of cans, only cans, what’s up with that?—but few things are sexier than a big, bright glass of beer with a tall, sturdy cap of foam. They market themselves, I promise. Just try it.

Top beer destination

Denver, Colorado. Have you heard of it? Sorry, I’m new here. What an absurd array of fun places to drink quality beers. Then, in the morning, you eat a green-chili breakfast burrito and start all over.

Favorite Thing that Ought to Be a Trend

Large Willi Becher glasses with volume markings (and extra room for foam).

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