Top Three Small Breweries (15K bbl or less)
Scratch Brewing Company (Ava, Illinois) It would not matter that Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon have done so much to expand the perception of what ingredients belong in beer if the ones poured at Scratch weren’t excellent. They are—full of flavor and enhanced by their rural surroundings.
Brasserie de la Senne (Brussels, Belgium) The beers from Brasserie de la Senne consistently align with my palate. They are not fussy, but are instead focused, dry, and properly bitter. Or in two words: Tarus Boulba.
Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey (San Diego, California)
This seems like a cheat, because this is one of several breweries that brewed only a bit less than 15,000 barrels in 2017 passed that in 2018. But the suggestion that wineries should prove themselves across ten vintages before they may be called great seems particularly relevant here. The beers are still getting better ten years after PB/TLA won World Beer Cup Champion Small Brewery in 2008.
Top Regional or National Brewery (15K bbl or more)
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, California and Asheville, North Carolina) Soon enough, Sierra Nevada will be looking back at forty vintages of pale ale but will also be delivering something delightfully new. Exhibit A: Southern Gothic Unfiltered Pilsner. Exhibit B: the newish path down to the river, running beside a stone-filled creek, at its palatial North Carolina brewery, already like none other in the world.
Top 5 Beers of the Year
The Lost Abbey Veritas Peach (San Diego, California)
Also known as Veritas 018, Veritas Peach is a return to peaches (and nectarines and apricots) that were prominent in the much-heralded Veritas 015. It’s definitely wild in an American way, but seamless in a Flemish way.
Live Oak Brewing Company Grodziskie (Austin, Texas) Grodziskie was on my list last year, and it will be every year until enough people are drinking Grodziskie that it screws up the Live Oak production schedule. It’s now for sale in cans, proving that sixteenth- and twenty-first–century technologies can work as well together as, well, champagne and smoke.
Urban Chestnut Brewing Company Stammtisch
(St. Louis, Missouri) In a can at a ball game, Stammtisch makes Busch Stadium better (granted, I’m not a Cardinals fan). At the brewery with the Poutine of the Moment, it makes you want to establish your own stammtisch (a group that meets regularly) of Stammtisch drinkers. I am excited that I can make a long list of new and very good pale lagers from breweries in the Southeast, but this is what I judge them against.
Dovetail Brewery X01: Flanders Rauch
(Chicago, Illinois) Some beers sit on a seesaw, nicely balancing two full flavors. The X01 experience is more like being on top of a rolling ball; smoke and sour notes contrast then blend, likewise with seemingly endless flavors . . . black cherry, toffee, and more.
Zebulon Artisan Ales Tangerine Tripel (Weaverville, North Carolina) At its heart, Tangerine Tripel is a deceptively strong, dry beer—one a Belgian would call “digestible.” Tangerines in the recipe strike a partnership with the yeast to enhance fruity, spicy flavors without overwhelming a gentle whiff of fresh peaches.
One Classic Beer You’ll Always Order if It’s on the Menu
Russian River Brewing Company Blind Pig IPA (Santa Rosa, California) Pliny the Elder was perhaps the first “double IPA” and deserves the attention it gets, but the combination of bright fruitiness and firm bitterness in this not-so-easy to find “regular” IPA remind me of why less can be more.
Favorite Beer City
St. Louis, Missouri. When lager was still brewed seasonally and the city ran out in 1854, newspapers across the country printed the story. St. Louis has been a beer-drinking town for-just-about-ever. You can’t stumble from one place to another as you can in Asheville, North Carolina, with the shadow of the eagle looming overhead, but real people drink real beer in real places where they may choose from as wide a range of beers well-made by their neighbors as anywhere in the country. (Disclaimer: We lived in St. Louis for six-plus years before moving recently.)
Favorite Beer Bar, or Beer Bar that Everyone Should Experience
Apollon Platebar, Bergen, Norway. Grab a beer and shop for vinyl, new or used, while listening to music that appeals. They have a solid selection of beers on tap, plenty of them Norwegian, offered in different sizes. Make the beers Georgian (as in the state) and open one of these near our house, please.
One Beer Gadget/Accessory You Can’t Live Without
This is a trick question, right? Despite the growing popularity of cans, a bottle opener remains essential (although I did have an interesting conversation with a woman behind the counter at Sidney’s Wine Cellar in New Orleans about YouTube videos of people opening bottles with their eye sockets).
Most-Used or Go-To Beer Glass
Mine is a tasting glass from Congresso Técnico de Cervejeiros Caseiros in Florianopolis, Brazil. It’s made with high-quality (thin) glass from Cristal Blumenau and is broadly in the shape of glasses designed for IPA. It holds 8 ounces comfortably and treats all styles elegantly. Oh, and it brings back great memories.
Best Beer-Related Experience
After Lars Marius Garshol, who is at work on a book about farmhouse brewing that needs to be available yesterday, and Sjur Rørlien led us on a Sunday adventure into the Dyrvedalen valley near Voss, Norway, Joe Stange put it best: “Today we got to be Lars.”
We saw wort being boiled for five hours inside a shed that dates to the eighteenth century. Kveik yeast would soon need only forty-eight hours or so to ferment that into 10 percent beer. Bjarne Røthe said he expected neighbors would be stopping by Wednesday for the “oppskåk,” a drinking party held at the end of primary fermentation. I wish we could have stayed.