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Critic's List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2021

After a long year, as opportunities to travel begin to blink back into existence, our managing editor shares his most memorable beers and experiences.

Joe Stange Dec 11, 2021 - 7 min read

Critic's List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2021 Primary Image

Top 10 Beers of the Year

Rockwell Kazimierz (St. Louis) is my beer of the year, all things considered—so I might have felt a bit smug when GABF gave it gold. I loved the first batch of this big, rich, super-smooth Baltic porter, so I was leery when head brewer Jonathan Moxey told me this year’s batch was different; it spent twice as long in foeders. It got even better, dialing up its subtle, wood-driven vanilla notes a half-notch to further polish a profile that already drank too easily for 9.2 percent ABV.

Otherlands Brighten the Corners (Bellingham, Washington) When it seems like every brewer in the state is saying you need to go there, you go. What we found was a house of hospitality devoted to slow food and slow beer, with a Franconian-inspired brewer fussy about things such as decoctions, spunding, horizontal lagering, and real foam. I got fully stuck into this supple, addictive helles with its luminous leafy-lemon Mittelfrüh hop flavor. We were the last to leave.

Ozark Early Train (Rogers, Arkansas) I already dug Ozark’s session-strength flagships—a deliciously piney Pale Ale, and the Lager with its convincing Bairisch lilt—plus their justifiably sought-after bourbon-barrel stout, BDCS. Then they stunned me with this wood-kissed, mixed-culture beauty that squeezes the best from Brett—redolent of white Burgundy on a cellar floor, strewn with pear, pineapple, and lilacs. Utterly elegant—pleasant rather than barny—with low acidity helping to push those fruit notes over a dry but soft profile.

Russian River Pliny the Younger (Santa Rosa, California) Sharp, fresh-squeezed aroma, with lower dank-earth notes that skirt the well-trod pinewoods trails; a round, malt-driven, lightest-honey hug that envelops ample bitterness before they intertwine like copulating serpents then vanish into the weeds; juicy but bitter, big, balanced—pre-lactose, pre-cloy—for a drinkability that is ridiculous at 10.25 percent ABV. It’s old-fashioned yet fresh and new. Why aren’t there more like it?

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Fair Isle Knitting Circle Batch C (Seattle) From an evolving, terroir-driven, saison-inspired brewery, we uncorked a master class in layering gentle flavors for great complexity and balance. Beer aroma can be pretty, and this was gorgeous—notes of lemon peel, vanilla, elderflower, grapefruit, blood orange. Gentle acidity balanced light sweetness for easygoing flavor; oak-vanilla flirted with citrus and hops into a tangy finish. I kept going back to the glass to pick apart the interplay of hops, fermentation, and wood.

2nd Shift Samsquatch (St. Louis) This brewery does many things well, but I’m especially partial to their “hop sandwiches”—bitter, brusque, unapologetically caramel-malted, yet continually refined. Samsquatch is one I love more every time I drink it—full of zesty orange crush and pine, its juicy, almost savory, duck-sauce/malt-driven middle harmonizing with dank hop bitterness before going clean and dry despite its gravity. American brewers are starting to pull the tarps off their retro IPAs—neglected, up on blocks out back—but Steve Crider never stopped fine-tuning his hot rods in the garage.

Left Handed Giant Feels Like Heaven (Bristol, England) The odds were squarely against this beer. From a trendy haze-brewer in Britain, this stout overcame long distance, a COVID-era ban on public booze in Bangkok, and being served illicitly (if discretely) in a paper cup to emerge as one of the most delicious things I tasted all year. It’s richer than its 6.4 percent ABV—big-bodied, creamy, smacking of chocolate and toasted nuts, yet with a pleasant balancing bitterness. Its pastry-ish recipe features walnuts, milk sugar, cacao nibs, and vanilla—but I knew none of that at the time; those flavors were all in service to the beer.

Real Ale Hans’ Pils (Blanco, Texas) Austin is a great town for lager—see Live Oak and ABGB—but I rarely hear folks talk about this real lager from Real Ale. It ought to be a cult beer. I like my pilsners bitter, and Hans’ checks in at 50 IBUs. Minty-herbal Tettnanger in the nose gets a lift from clean brioche, while that firm, bracing bitterness finds its foil in just enough malt sweetness—beautifully integrated, with swirling notes of bitter herb and woodruff. I’d love to get back to Austin, find a bar that has this on draft, and not leave for a good long while.

Alma Mader Premiant (Kansas City, Missouri) If I lived there, Premiant would be an everyday fixture in my garage fridge next to Boulevard Pale Ale and KC Bier Helles Lager. It features a full embrace of Saaz in all its spicy-herb glory, snappy bitterness at 40 IBUs, and a gentle sweetness that brightens the profile and holds it all together. Set your calendar alerts for when it’s pouring from their side-pull tap.

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De La Senne Taras Boulba (Brussels) probably makes my list every year I get to drink it. This year, it only happened because a friend helped me acquire a keg of dry, bitter, lively, quenching, zesty-herbal Belgian joy. We bought a new coupler, plugged it into the home draft system, and drank it dry.

Today’s Drinkers Should Pay Attention to…

Beer bars. The pandemic plus the popularity of brewery taprooms has made it tougher for bars that specialize in variety and hospitality. Let’s patronize the businesses we want to exist.

Today’s Brewers Should Pay Attention to…

That inner voice that tells you what you actually want to drink. Not every beer you sell has to move as fast as your hazy IPA. Steer the variety.

A Beer-Related Thing I Can’t Wait to Experience Again Post-COVID

Belgium. That’s the thing.

One Beer That Deserves More Attention Than It Gets

Weihenstephaner Original Helles (Freising, Bavaria) is one of the greats. There may be a sixer of it sitting cool and reasonably fresh in a bottle shop near you.

Favorite Brewery Visit of 2021

Live Oak in Austin. It was a surreal experience, trudging through the snow in its beer garden amid a winter storm that paralyzed the city. I enjoyed my share of their gorgeous German-stye pilsner, Gold—maybe more than my share.

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