Joe Sixpack’s 2013 Beer of the Year

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JUST BEFORE the end of 2012, the Brewers Association, the Colorado-based organization that represents small breweries across America, issued a fatwa against poseurs in the beer world.

The campaign, called “Craft vs. Crafty,” sought to expose breweries that did not meet its definition of “craft” brewers: “small, independent and traditional.” Its hit list included the likes of Blue Moon and Shock Top, because they’re fronts for big, bad Coors and Anheuser-Busch, respectively. Yuengling, Lion and Straub were outted because, although they’re more than a century old, their use of adjunct ingredients, including corn and rice means that they’re not traditional enough for the organization.

Others, including Goose Island, Leinenkugel, Old Dominion, Widmer and Mendocino, were condemned because they’re owned by large conglomerates.

The full list has since been cleansed from the BA’s website, but I saved a copy. Download the PDF here.

For breweries and beer lovers, the attempt to define “craft” led to a lot of finger-pointing and turned 2013 into the Year of Recrimination.

Mostly, I’ve sat this one out, preferring instead to just drink good beer regardless of who made it. I don’t want to have to decide, for example, if Georgia-based Terrapin – which makes Hopzilla, one of my favorite Double IPAs – qualifies as a true “craft” brewer now that MillerCoors owns a minority stake in the brewery.

Defining “craft” seems fruitless. But after many fine beers last year, including one that I’ve chosen as Joe Sixpack’s Beer of the Year, I now know what is or isn’t a craft brewery:

¶You are not a craft brewery if you’ve never made or would not consider making a collaboration or a one-off.

¶Only a craft brewery would allow an amateur or competitor to operate its brew kettles.

¶Only a craft brewery would make a beer once, and never again.

¶And only a craft brewery would make Sleight of Hand, a/k/a Sierra Nevada Beer Camp #94 Belgian-Style Black IPA, the best beer I drank in 2013.

Don’t go looking for it at your local beer store. It was shipped in July as part of Sierra Nevada’s annual Beer Camp variety 12-pack, and it’s surely gone by now.

A Belgian-style black IPA, I know, sounds as if it should be a train wreck of contradictory styles: a sweet-bitter, dark-pale, Belgian-English ale made in California.

Yet, it not only worked, it blossomed. A combination of Nelson Sauvin and Sorachi Ace hops, with an estery Belgian yeast strain, produced fun flavors of fruit and edgy spice. It was like a mash-up of the best scenes from all the “Die Hard” movies. Undoubtedly, this was the most original beer I’ve tasted since my first glass of Flying Fish’s superb Exit 16 Wild Rice Double IPA.

The background on this beer is a true testament to the “craft” of brewing.

First, a disclaimer. I attended Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp in 2010, and it was one of the best beer experiences I’ve had. Imagine two days of brewhouse learning in the Sierra Nevada mountains, with a glass of fresh ale never more than three steps away. This isn’t just a simple brewery tour; it’s a scientific exploration led by absolute pros who teach exactly what goes into the flavor of beer.

Beer campers design their own beer, select ingredients and brew a batch. Each year, Sierra Nevada picks the three most interesting creations and bottles them for a late-summer variety pack.

Sleight of Hand was the brainchild of a bunch of homebrewers in California who won a contest to attend the camp. They didn’t know each other beforehand, so they first formed a private Facebook group, created a Google spreadsheet and began trading ideas – the true act of collaboration.

Once they focused on a style, essentially a Double IPA/Belgian Dubbel hybrid or Double Dubbel, Sierra Nevada propagated the proper yeast strain and away they went.

“Once camp started, we met and discussed the style with Brewer Scott Jennings, who then helped us dial in the concept regarding strength, color, hops and mouthfeel,” said one of the homebrewers, Gregory Nagel, of Orange County, who writes the O.C. Beer Blog. “It was truly a group effort, getting input from everyone, on the final brew.”

They wanted a strong IPA, but something a little more “food-friendly” than the standard hop bomb, Nagel told me. The imported, fruit-like hops would give it an unusual character.

As for the malt, he said, “The group voted to make it black just because we could.” The color was extracted from grains late in the brewing process, during a step called “sparging,” which is akin to running water through coffee grounds a second or third time.

That ensured that the beer would be dark but not roasty; hence the name, Sleight of Hand.

“People see a dark beer and assume it’s thick, roasty and chocolatey,” Nagel said. “Our beer was tropical, with notes of coconut, banana bread, lemon and grapes . . .

“I was in tears, how good it was . . .. ”

So, let me review: My favorite beer of 2013 was an insane invention of home-brewers on a beer-soaked adventure at the third-largest independent brewery in America, which bottled just enough for a variety pack, and then moved onto its next project.

Maybe that’s not the definition of craft brewing, but it’s surely the spirit.

While Sleight of Hand may be off the market, you can make a five-gallon batch of the beer yourself. Privately, the homebrewers call it Fart Toss BIPA because of its original, gaseous label. Here’s the recipe.

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