This is tough, picking six beers. There are so many.
Like all brewers, I recognize good beer. Orval, Edelstoff, Pilsner Urquell, Westmalle, Schneider, et al. You know them because they’ve all been listed here before. So, I submit a different perspective.
Memorable beer is more than notoriety or—heaven forbid—adherence to style guidelines. It’s about time and place—time spent with friends or enjoying a great view or just relaxing on the couch with family. Beer doesn’t stand alone; rather, it’s part of a fabric. We should have a word for this—something like gemütlich.
These beers are from brewers I admire. Some are here because of fond memories. All have that elusive combination: a perfect marriage of drinkability and complexity. It’s relatively simple to brew a beer for easy drinking, or even one with big flavors, but to have both is a different matter altogether. I strive to brew such beers, so I appreciate that moment when I taste one.
Drinkability? I know it as “disappointment.” It’s when my pint glass goes empty all too quickly, as if it had a cracked bottom. And complexity? A well-made beer surprises you. Each sip is a revelation, like the next chapter of a great book. Beer doesn’t need to be loud, but it should play a part in a scene.
So, let’s take a tour through time and space.
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord
(Keighley, England, United Kingdom)
The brewery calls Landlord “the classic pale ale.” Normally, I’m skeptical of such claims, but in this case, I have to agree. At 4.3 percent ABV, this is the consummate English bitter. Many years ago, I spent a rainy day with Timothy Taylor’s brewmaster Peter Eells. We stopped for a ploughman’s lunch and a couple of pints at his local—a Yorkshire pub, creamy cheddar, and a sparkling glass of Landlord. I could stop there! This beer is a perfect combination of Golden Promise barley and whole-cone Golding and Fuggles hops, skillfully blended with that iconic Yorkshire yeast character. Years of effort went into fine-tuning this opus to perfection—malty backbone, citrus hops, and fruity yeast. Peter is retired now, but he’s a skilled craftsman who should be remembered.
BridgePort IPA is another ale built for drinking! BridgePort Brewing was Dick Ponzi’s baby, but it was Karl Ockert who coaxed BridgePort IPA into perfection. Karl and I were classmates at UC Davis—both products of Michael Lewis—so I drank this beer from the early days. I know the brewery no longer exists, so I’m cheating a bit—nonetheless, it’s part of my dream six-pack. After all, I see lots of beers in this space that I’ll never find.
In 2000, Brewing Industry International Awards in Burton-upon-Trent named BridgePort IPA its World Champion. Did you catch that? Burton-upon-Trent! Everyone knows about the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when Napa wine finally got respect. This was kind of the same thing. Today, American IPA is the envy of the world, so Karl’s medal may not seem notable now. However, at that time, the victory was a watershed moment.
My family and I lived in Portland during the heydays of Widmer and BridgePort. I remember the echoed voices in the crowded BridgePort beer hall, the long wooden tables, and the sparkling pints of IPA. I could smell the hops from arm’s length. Nirvana! (Don’t they call Portland “Beervana?”)
BridgePort IPA clocked in at 5.5 percent ABV and 50 IBUs. Karl was never much for dry-hopping; instead, he relied on a traditional hopback to conjure fruit, pine, and citrus from Willamette Valley whole-cone hops. There’s something about that oily feel of whole cones that you don’t get dry-hopping with pellets—that was Karl’s belief. I think he was right.
Kulmbacher Edelherb Pils
(Kulmbach, Bavaria, Germany)
Studied brewers will mention certain cities with reverence—Pilsen, Munich, London, Dublin, Burton, Milwaukee. And Kulmbach, too. It’s known for rich and malty brews, and you cannot go wrong with most German pils on draft, but I have a soft spot for Kulmbacher Reichelbräu Pils, these days sold as Edelherb. I drank a lot of it during the cold winter of 1997 in Selb, near the Czech border.
At that time, Reichelbräu Pils was made with Alexis barley—a clean, grapey malt. Alexis was a breakthrough for German breeders, like Klages in North America. The beer is 11.2°P [OG 1.045], 32 IBUs, sparkling blonde with a beautiful brimming froth and, of course, a Noble bouquet; sweet, with just enough crisp bitterness to keep you coming back for more. This beer is not one of those embraced by the “chattering class,” but it’s a solid choice.
In 1997, my wife [Deb Carey, New Glarus founder and president] bought a 100-barrel copper brewhouse from a defunct brewery in Selb. It was immaculate, built during the glorious German rebirth of the 1960s. It did two brews per week for 35 years, meticulously maintained by the Ploss family. In those days, two or three Bavarian breweries were closing each week, so you could get such a brewhouse for about $14,000. Still, that price maxed out our small startup. So, I hired three local workers, and we spent six weeks extracting the equipment from Brauerei Ploss. German breweries were built to last: walls at least a foot thick and more rebar than concrete, it would seem. Tough work. Have you ever tried talking German police into closing a main thoroughfare so you could load out two 12-foot copper kettles? I have.
Anyway, to save money, I took a room above a dive bar. Started work before sun-up. No hot water in the morning. The owner had no sympathy for an ausländer, so every day started with an icy shower. We worked until supper, enjoyed at this friendly gasthaus. I’m sure if I went back today—warm, well rested, on a full stomach—Reichelbräu Pils with schnitzel and pommes might prove pedestrian. At that point, however, it was five-star.
Russian River Pliny the Elder
Okay, all brewers pick Pliny the Elder. Sorry. But this really is a special beer made by special people. You cannot find more charitable folks than Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, nor better brews. Pliny the Elder is the original. That sentence is not lost on me. When I drink this beer, for some reason, I think of Pilsner Urquell. It seems strange, but the impact, at least for me, is similar. If Josef Groll had been born in Santa Rosa instead of Vilshofen, I bet he would have made a blond beer like Vinnie’s. After all, Vinnie attributes some of his success to proper water.
This golden giant fits my definition of a perfect beer. Dangerously drinkable, even at 8 percent ABV, with enough bitterness to remind you that “life is good.” My wife, who normally prefers lager over any IPA, drinks this beer while softly mumbling, “This is good beer.” I only heard this reverent and hushed tone one other time—when we visited Ken Grossman in Asheville, North Carolina. “This is a nice brewery.”
If I could pick a seventh beer, it would be Heady Topper, another noble. Jen and John Kimmich are wonderful people. I applaud all that they stand for—that’s enough to garner my support, but the beer is special. If you don’t know their story, check it out. They graciously received me a year ago when I passed through Vermont. Not only do I love their bracingly well-made beer, but I have a soft spot for married-couple teams. Business is tough. Like the song goes, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” Any brewery owners reading this know what I mean—especially the married couples.
Coors Banquet Beer
I’m disappointed Coors Banquet isn’t more widely available, but then again, it needs to be fresh. When I travel in the Northern Rockies—maybe for barley harvest—I always look for it. My brewery friends mostly order random IPAs, but I seek out Coors Banquet. There’s nothing wrong with IPAs (or Coors Light, for that matter), but Banquet is special. Beer nerds should have more respect for the classics—the OGs.
In 1983, I worked for a startup brewery in Montana. Being young and dumb, my favorite pastime was soloing the back country. At that time there were 800,000 people in the whole state—same as in my hometown of San Francisco—so I enjoyed the elbow room. I could go for days without seeing a single soul. I was okay with that. Just me, my Kelty pack, a compass, and a couple of topo maps. (This was before Steve Jobs and GPS ruined us.) When I’d pop out of the woods, I’d look for a roadside grocery and grab an ice-cold Coors longneck. Always fresh, light, sparkling, and effervescent, with just a hint of herbal Mittelfrüh hops. I hope that someday Coors will use that hop again. It was a special combination.
Bell’s Oberon Ale
“If we shadows have offended….” If you don’t know A Midsummer’s Night Dream—Oberon was king of the fairies—or Puck’s final monologue, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted. Then you’ll better understand Larry Bell. Larry’s a pioneer and, certainly, John Mallet and crew are great brewers.
All Bells beers are noteworthy, but I’m an Oberon guy while most of you are Two Hearted people. Oberon easily fits my definition of a great and memorable ale—easy-drinking at 25 IBUs and 5.8 percent ABV. The combination of citrusy hops, bready malts, and fruity orange notes from a very special house yeast makes this a winner. For Midwesterners, summer means Oberon.