IN A YEAR that saw Anheuser-Busch actually brew a pumpkin-flavored ale, you might worry that small brewers would have a tough time coming up with anything original.
I mean, if the beer borgs of St. Louis are going to start churning out a quirky seasonal variety flavored with allspice and cinnamon, what’s left for an industry that depends on creativity and unusual flavor?
In 2005, craft brewers continued pushing their beers toward the edge of bitterness with ample batches of freshly grown hop buds. Indeed, the simple India Pale Ale is no longer hoppy enough for American brewers. One of the most popular styles of the year was the Double or Imperial IPA, with levels on the International Bittering Units scale stretching into triple digits (a standard IPA runs about 50 IBUs). Excessive hops are now such a popular “extreme” ingredient that Boston Brewing boasted it was using “enormous, almost reckless, quantities of Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops” in its new Samuel Adams Imperial Pilsner.
Yo, I like hops as much as the next beer guy. But as you’ll see from Joe Sixpack’s Sixpack of the Year, craft beer offers plenty more than buds.
In no particular order, here are my favorite new beers of 2005.
1. Dreamweaver Wheat. Troegs Brewery in Harrisburg does not make a single bad beer. And some of its beers – Mad Elf, Troegenator Double Bock – are just plain great.
Add Dreamweaver Wheat to that list. The ale, spiced with the same yeast strain used to produce Mad Elf, is a thoroughly refreshing flavor bomb. Think mandarin oranges doused with cracked black pepper.
In the past, you had to hunt down this beer on tap. But Troegs this year thankfully made it part of its year-round variety bottle case.
2. George’s Fault. If you missed the final keg Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant (1516 Sansom St., Center City) tapped in October, you are spit out of luck – unless brewer Gordon Grubb can persuade Home Sweet Homebrew owner George Hummel and former Philly beer legend Brandon Greenwood to return for an encore.
The trio twisted an old homebrew recipe and took home a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival – a fitting tribute to Philadelphia’s brew-it-yourself beer-making guru. But even if you didn’t know the background of Hummel’s ale, the taste alone would tell you that this one was special. Made with honey, orange peel and coriander, George’s Fault packed a huge flavor that cloaked its 9 percent alcohol punch.
3. Stegmaier Anniversary IPA. Released to celebrate the Lion Brewery’s 100th anniversary, this beer was welcome proof that:
A. The Wilkes-Barre facility is entirely capable of producing a much better bottle than its run-of-the-mill Pocono lagers and ales.
B. It can do it at a very reasonable price.
At about $18 a case, this IPA (another Greenwood creation) could be the ultimate go-to ale, reminiscent of those hop flavors of old Ballantine Ale. Crack open a bottle for a huge garden aroma, followed by a well-balanced malt kick. Sadly, it’s looking like Lion won’t continue brewing this in its 101st year.
4. S’muttonator Doppelbock. If Smuttynose from New Hampshire didn’t package a variety case with four different flavors, I don’t think I’d ever enjoy its beers down here in Pennsylvania. Good as it is, I don’t really want to get stuck with 24 bottles of, say, Shoals Pale Ale.
But I’d bend that single-flavor rule if we’re talking about S’muttonator, one of Smuttynose’s so-called Big Beers. This double bock – a rich, malty lager that’s the liquid equivalent of a fresh Amoroso’s hoagie roll – is the kind of beer you want to chew all night.
Except, you’ll fall over under the weight of an alcohol content that approaches double digits. Which makes me wonder why they bottle it only in those 22-ounce bombers. Those babies can inflict some seriously tasty damage.
5. Peche Mortel. Among beer freaks, this was THE huge, new beer of 2005. Bottles of this go for $20 or more, and still no one can keep it in stock, thanks largely to well-heeded word-of-mouth publicity.
It’s an espresso-flavored imperial stout by a Quebec brewpub called Brasserie Dieu Du Ciel, which roughly translated means “Oh my God! ” No kidding. Peche Mortel (Mortal Sin) is the brewery’s first bottled beer, and it breaks at least three or four of the Ten Commandments.
Like, Thou Shall Not Mix Caffeine and Alcohol. This is the beer Starbucks would pour if they carded you before filling those Venti cups.
6. Supplication. Having committed a mortal sin, the prayer for forgiveness is upon bended knee. For me, that was found in the humble, assured restraint of Russian River’s Supplication.
Fermented with three different yeast strains, this brown ale is intentionally soured, like a Belgian lambic. But it pulls back from that assertive, mouth-puckering sourness and fills the mouth with complex layers of flavor. One sip gives you oak undertones, the product of a year’s aging in used pinot noir casks. The next hits you with a subtle whiff of cherries. Then malt, then champagne, then cider and then those cherries again.
There is a lot going on in brewer Vinnie Cilurzo’s beer, but rather than discordant notes competing for attention, the flavors are in harmony. I hear angels singing – forgive me, I am suitably awed.
The 6 runners-up:
1. Saison Vos by Sly Fox Brewing (Phoenixville).
2. Samuel Adams Imperial Pilsner by Boston Beer (Massachusetts).
3. Gonzo Imperial Porter by Flying Dog Brewing (Colorado).
4. Fort by Dogfish Head Brewing (Delaware).
5. Urthel Bock by Brouwerij De Leyerth (Belgium).
6. Hop Hog by Lancaster Brewing (Lancaster).
Joe Sixpack was written this week with a 1996 bottle of Samichlaus.