Critic’s List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2020

After 13 years living abroad, our Missouri-based managing editor spent the past year getting reacquainted with the American beer scene. Here are his beery highlights.

Joe Stange Nov 13, 2020 - 8 min read

Critic’s List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2020 Primary Image

Top 10 Beers of the Year

2nd Shift Two Trains (St. Louis, Missouri) I’m a believer in “Midwest Coast.” Give me a bit of caramel for richness and body—we like our calories—but judiciously. Or, maybe we just drink them long before oxidation becomes an issue. Here we’re talking about an ever-evolving double IPA with tropi-dank hops at the heart of that sweet thickness, its drinkability lethal at 9.3 percent ABV. Old school for the new school. We bought a keg for our home draft system—one of the best and unhealthiest decisions we made all year.

American Solera Loral Roberts (Tulsa, Oklahoma) I love Loral hops—they’re like a supermodel wearing cosmetic glasses to appeal to nerds. The lemony citrus has wide appeal, but there’s just enough herbal-earthy Noble-ness to lure the lager-heads while brightening a range of classic styles. (Such as saison—head nod here to Perennial Prism: Loral Cryo.) In this case, a Kölsch-style ale makes an elegant frame, merging a clean malt base with zesty-hop lemonade. Simple, perfectly executed, and one of the most refreshing beers I had all year.

Bierstadt Helles (Denver, Colorado) The Slow Pour Pils in its stemmed glass with doily gets plenty of attention—love that foam—but I’ll take that Helles in the hefty krug mug. Reverently brewed, this is not another wan and watery American lager pretending to be German-style—it’s the real thing: malt composition like the finest, lightest, purest honey, given structure by soft herbal bitterness, finishing clean and dry so that further gulps are automatic.

Boon Oude Geuze Vat 110 (Lembeek, Belgium) In the eyes: brilliant orange-copper, with sparkles fit for a flute. In the nose: barn wood; spilled white Burgundy on the cellar floor; unripe blood oranges stuffed into a gym sock then thrashed around the musty basement of a used-book shop. Tart, lively, with soft bitterness and a squeeze of sour grapefruit, brushing like cobwebs across the tongue into utter dryness. Incredibly light on the palate for 8 percent ABV. This is the work of a master who casually shrugs while we effuse.

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Boulevard Pale Ale (Kansas City, Missouri) This is an old friend and a comfort—useful things in 2020. Hear me out: I won’t dispute the greatness of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale; I just happen to like Boulevard’s better. It’s got that light-caramel-biscuit-malt middle, but—like most Boulevard beers—it’s lively, well attenuated, and dry. Along the way, the hops deliver a hit of grapefruit-peel fruit punch. It’s delicious, attractive, unassuming, finely tuned, and too often overlooked.

Grains of Wrath Dystopia (Camas, Washington) One of my favorite IPAs of the year reminds me of where the style was going before haze took over. In the aroma and flavor, pleasantly sweet orange peel and tangerine emerge, while a touch more honey-malt heft than other golden-colored West-Coasters helps to hold it all together. There is plenty of bitterness for structure, but no sticky resin to impede further drinking, finishing clean and dry. Alluring and addictive.

Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Barrel Selection Foeder 21 (Beersel, Belgium) American lambic enthusiasts underrate Oud Beersel—maybe because it’s more affordable and available than sexy Cantillon. I try to keep at least one bottle of the Oude Geuze on hand, but Foeder 21 was an eye-opener. I don’t how to compute the brewery’s claim that it went through a madeirazation process—that would mean oxidation and warmth. More compelling to me is that lightly sweet, Riesling-like stripe from extended time (four-plus years) in white-wine casks. It softens the gueuze’s edges while adding depth, reminding me of another longtime favorite: Cantillon Vigneronne.

Port City Long Black Veil (Alexandria, Virginia) Remember black IPAs? Port City does. The brewery continues to release this stunner every winter. Its rich cocoa-espresso-malt base is every bit as robust as the award-winning Porter, getting woodsier depth from piney-minty hopping. A modest caramel center embraces and integrates the ample bitterness and restrained roast. It was a joy when I found it fresh on draft in January, and every bit as good after cellaring for several months, as the hops softened and melded with that comforting malty middle.

De la Senne Taras Boulba (Brussels, Belgium) This modern classic was fresh on draft in Breckenridge last January, at the festival whose full name is Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines. Despite everything there was to taste and learn at that remarkable festival, I found it impossible to resist going back for one of my all-time faves—five times. Extra pale, light, dry, lively, with a quick bitterness, full of zesty-herbal hop flavor getting spicy depth from moderately expressive yeast—take me back to Brussels and plug me into the source.

Urban Chestnut Stammtisch (St. Louis, Missouri) Listen: The Zwickel is arguably a better beer (not to mention more popular and available locally), featuring elegant lightest-honey malt flavor balanced with a soft, earthy dusting of bitterness. But for me, the Stammtisch is more of an addiction, thanks to that redolent floral-herbal hop character and firm, rugged stamp of 40 IBUs. It embraces the flavor of Hallertau but cranks up the bitterness a half-notch for the brewer’s palate.

Today’s Drinkers Should Pay Attention to…

Smaller breweries. It’s been a rough year for them, while those big enough to package and appear on supermarket shelves have had a relative advantage. With our beer money, we vote for the local choices we’d like to keep.

Today’s Brewers Should Pay Attention to…

Flagships and fine-tuning. The revolving door of constant variety is tiresome—not just for brewers—and it rewards mediocre one-offs. Are you in this for the long haul?

Promising Thing That Has Come out of this Year of COVID-19?

Appreciation for people. I want to be in a crowded dive bar again. I want to wait in line at a festival and chat with strangers from anywhere. I think 2021 is going to be a blast.

What’s Your Guilty Pleasure Beer?

Big, fat-bodied imperial stouts, adjuncted or otherwise. I skip dessert and save this for a nightcap. St. Louis has several breweries that embrace the decadence, and I pondered larding up my Top 10 with them. Instead, I’ll mention a few here: sweet-savory choco-pretzel Perennial Take 10; cinnamon-oatmeal-cookie 2nd Shift Mládek, baked till crispy and dunked in mocha; Side Project’s standard-setting Beer : Barrel : Time, which I sipped and re-corked over a long holiday weekend while the bottle breathed and deepened like a big Cab; and the hefty, roast-balanced depth of Wellspent Black Is Beautiful—essentially the brewery’s base stout, which in barreled-and-cherried form as Mister Maraschino scored a 99 with our blind-tasting panel.

Predictions for 2021?

Real lager continues its ascent, while West Coast–style IPA kicks its comeback into another gear. Hazies won’t go away any time soon, but the future is increasingly bright. The next realization: IPL was ahead of its time. Hoppy heller bock, anyone?

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