Top 10 Beers of the Year
Urban Chestnut Schnickelfritz (St. Louis, Missouri) Chosen because this turned out to be a year when you want to settle in with beers you call old friends. Perhaps ordering a glass when we were in St. Louis in February was a mistake, because then I missed Schnickelfritz through the long, hot, crazy summer. Fluffy and spicy, hold the banana.
Russian River Temptation (Santa Rosa, California) Hard to believe that 20 years after Vinnie Cilurzo first released what most would call a perfect beer, he is still tinkering with it. But now he’s integrated the brewery’s custom-made coolship into the process. Layers of orchard-fruit and grape flavors, artfully balanced by acidity.
Orpheus Everything Lasts Forever (Atlanta, Georgia) A blend of one-, two-, three- and four-year-old spontaneously fermented beers made with Georgia wheat and Atlanta microbes, using a coolship that looks like no other. Despite its complexity—something new with each whiff or sip, such as berries, hay, citrus, grape skins, funk—and expected acidity, there are no rough edges.
Halfway Crooks People Power (Atlanta, Georgia) A one-off brewed as part of Threes Brewing’s national campaign to support the American Civil Liberties Union, this pilsner pulls together all the best elements of Halfway Crooks’ lagers. The sulfur character is sneaky and seductive, the palate firm but gentle. The hops arrive with a bright floral note and depart with spicy bitterness.
Dovetail Rauchbier (Chicago) I had to break my promise to make Live Oak Grodziskie an annual choice because the events of 2020 meant no Texas, no Grodziskie. This beer scratches my smoked-beer itch, but not in the same lean, hoppy way. A harmonious mash up of bacon and chocolate.
Burial Culture Keepers Festbier (Asheville, North Carolina) Briefly, at the end of summer, beers with fest in their name arrived in waves. This was the best of them, with bready malt flavor lean enough for a summer day, yet rich enough for a rainy September evening. Like the two previous lagers, uncomplicated without being simple.
Birds Fly South Skin & Bone (Greenville, South Carolina) A collaboration between pupil (BFS cofounder Shawn Johnson) and teacher (Saint Somewhere founder Bob Sylvester), aged in chardonnay barrels on local peaches. I don’t know how you teach funk, but both have mastered it. Bold, juicy, tart peach flavor and subtle grape notes tied together by that funk and acidity.
The Lost Abbey Tiny Bubbles (San Marcos, California) The gose that Eric Rose, no rhyme intended, created at Hollister Brewing was the first American version of the style worthy of being served at Ohne Bedenken in Leipzig. Now in the hands of Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey, the brand is just as alive, tart, and refreshing.
Wellspent Buck (St. Louis, Missouri) One of the rare small brewery–related feel-good headlines in 2020 was “Wellspent returns from the dead.” Buck is short for buckwheat, one of the not-particularly-traditional grains in the grist that play nicely with Sorachi Ace hops. Not sure how many drinkers “get” this 3.2 percent ABV beer, but I sure do.
All Together IPA (Various, Georgia) Call it the Catch-22 beer for 2020. I tasted four of the 855 takes on this national collaboration led by Other Half Brewing. Under other circumstances, I might have traveled to find scores of them, but under other circumstances, it would not have been necessary to brew the shared recipe.
Today’s Drinkers Should Pay Attention to…
A beer, the fourth time they drink it. This, of course, requires drinking said beer multiple times on multiple occasions before passing judgment.
Today’s Brewers Should Pay Attention to…
The quality of their raw materials. Stamping a date on a can and insisting customers drink it on the way home does little good if the ingredients used aren’t (a) top-flight and (b) fresh.
Promising Thing that Has Come out of this Year of COVID-19?
In at least some cases, this pandemic has caused both those on the brewery side of curbside pickup and those on the consumer side to think more about their luck and privilege… and to act accordingly.
What’s Your Guilty Pleasure Beer?
Mexican lager. I may have suggested this category was the invention of a marketing department. So please don’t tell anyone I enjoy Marble Cerveza (Albuquerque, New Mexico) and Good Word We Used To Be Cool (Duluth, Georgia).
What Style of Beer Story Do You Least Enjoy Writing?
Tasting notes. In contrast, reading vintage notes is a guilty pleasure. You can find online what rock critic Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell wrote in 1975 for Oui magazine. Their notes include this lovely entry about Straub in Pennsylvania: “At moments, we thought this was just wonderful and wrote down comments like ‘springy’ and ‘soft-edged.’ Then at other times, like now, too drunk to know if we were more or less drunk than we had been the times before, we wondered what we could have meant.” I also like hauling out James Robertson’s The Beer-Taster’s Log from 1996 (available used). It is surely the only place you can find notes comparing different vintages of Harley-Davidson Heavy Beer from the late 1980s.