My Top Five New Beers of 2012, and a Screed on Beer Freshness
2012 was, by far, the greatest year of my craft beer-drinking life.
I tried a ton of beers I’d heard amazing things about — including Surly Furious; Pliny the Elder (though not yet on tap, which is undoubtedly a different experience than a nowhere-near-as-fresh-as-intended shipped-across-the-country bottle); Zombie Dust (I fell so hard for this single-hopped paean to Citra that I arranged a trade for an entire case of it) Alpha King, Gumballhead, Dreadnaught, Apocalypse Cow and Arctic Panzer Wolf; Two-Hearted Ale; and Heady Topper, among others — imbibed 366 unique beers in 366 days, and reached my 1,000th unique check-in on Untappd.
And with the personal milestones out of the way, I thought I’d take a moment to recognize my favorite new releases of 2012. Note that this list was culled from beers that were released for the first time in 2012, not beers I drank for the first time in 2012, even though the latter obviously holds true.
5) Troegs Perpetual IPA - I realize this is a bit of a cheat, as Perpetual IPA debuted in limited bomber release in 2011, but I hadn’t heard of it until this year after Troegs decided to both add it to its year-round lineup and sell it in six-packs, so I’m counting it as new in 2012. Troegs markets this beer as an “imperial pale ale,” but that’s not really a real style, and anyone who has quaffed this hoppy delight instantly recognizes all of the hallmarks of what tastes surprisingly closer to a hopped-up west coast-style IPA than the more balanced, maltier IPAs typically favored by east coast brewers. Perpetual boasts six different hop varieties — boiled with Bravo, Chinook and Mt. Hood; hopped back with Mt. Hood and Nugget; and dry-hopped with Citra and Cascade — and the Citra and Cascade dry-hop is the dead giveaway for why Perpetual exudes a delightfully citric west coast-style aroma and flavor profile. As an unapologetic hop head and New Yorker, I tend to scoff at certain east coast takes on my favorite style, but Perpetual is an IPA the northeast can be proud of.
4) Southern Star Pro-Am 2012 Imperial IPA - I spent a lot of time in Texas this year as I have family in Houston, and one of the most important things I learned is that the craft beer scene down in Houston is on the cusp of exploding. In addition to several terrific breweries in the Houston area — where Karbach and Saint Arnold lead the way– there is excellent beer being crafted from brewers across the state, including Deep Ellum, (512), Live Oak, Real Ale, Independence, No Label, Austin Beerworks, Jester King, and many others. Southern Star hails from Conroe, Texas, which is about 40 minutes north of Houston, and this purveyor of delicious canned craft beer has already made a huge name for itself among Houston craft beer connoisseurs, with its flagship Bombshell Blonde and delicious Pine Belt Pale Ale, which, following a recent revision made to its recipe (the old recipe was Batch 326; the new one is Batch 408), now straddles the line between APA and IPA (6.3% ABV). Southern Star also puts out an annual Pro-Am release, and the 2012 edition — a collaboration between the brewery and contest winners Steve Capo and Charles Vallhonrat, a.k.a. The Sly Bastards — was not only one of the best Imperial IPAs I tasted in 2012, but one of, if not the best in all of Texas.
3) Lagunitas DayTime - Packing an absurd amount of flavor and taste for a sub-5.0% ABV beer, Lagunitas’ DayTime (subtitled “A Fractional IPA”) gives Stone’s Levitation Ale a run for its money as the most delicious sessionable craft beer in existence. I’ve searched in vain for the hop profile, but I can tell you with near-certainty that DayTime is brewed with copious amounts of Citra. In fact, following my second or third time having this delightful brew, I realized what it reminded me of most — Zombie Dust Light, if such a thing existed. DayTime is pure beer-drinking delight, and the only misstep Lagunitas has taken here is the fact that it was issued as a seasonal/limited release. With any luck, DayTime will make the jump to year-round sometime in 2013.
2) Hill Farmstead Susan - If you are reading this chances are I don’t need to tell you about Hill Farmstead. The celebrated Greensboro Bend, Vermont brewery — who, along with Russian River and Three Floyds, make up perhaps the three-most highly regarded and worshipped breweries in the country — debuted its newest IPA, Susan, at New York’s celebrated Blind Tiger Ale House, along with several other HF treats on Sunday, November 18. The scene was absolute chaos, with the entire place packed floor-to-ceiling with beer geeks clamoring for a taste of whatever they could get their hands on — people were ordering as many as four 12-ounce pours at a time for themselves; I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I was fortunate enough to score a seat at the bar about 10 minutes before keg-tapping, and got my hands on one of the first pours of Susan ever in Manhattan. It was a good thing I got it when I did, because the keg kicked in 30 minutes(!). And oh my was it worth it. Bursting with all of the wonderful citrus flavor and aroma of many of my favorite IPAs, I quickly realized what Susan reminded me of more than anything else — my beloved Zombie Dust (sensing a theme here?). There’s obviously a ton of Citra here, but it’s also a showcase for Riwaka and Simcoe. To date, Susan is the only beer I’ve had that has given Zombie Dust a true run for its money, and hopefully it returns to the city sooner rather than later.
1) Stone Enjoy By IPA - The paramount lesson I learned in 2012 regarding drinking craft beer was the importance of freshness — especially when it comes to my two favorite styles, IPA and DIPA. I realize this may sound obvious, but I’m ashamed to admit that prior to being properly educated I didn’t think it was that big a deal to let an IPA or DIPA sit in my refrigerator for weeks (or even months!) after purchase as long as it was being cooled. My thinking was that by burying a good beer in my fridge I’d be pleasantly surprised to stumble on it at a later date and pat myself on the back for keeping it around. Holy crap was I wrong. There is no greater detriment to your enjoyment of an ultra-hopped-up IPA/DIPA than not drinking it as soon as humanly possible. I learned this the hard way with several cans of Heady Topper I acquired in a trade. I drank my first four-pack immediately and was utterly blown away by the outrageously aggressive hop flavor and aroma; I cracked the second four-pack open not a month later and the hops had essentially vanished to the point where I had an 8% all-malt travesty on my hands. Granted, Alchemist owner and brewmaster John Kimmich implicitly warns you in a lengthy screed on the side of the can to consume Heady as freshly as possible, so it didn’t come without fair warning, but holy hell was he not kidding!
Which brings us to Stone’s Enjoy By IPA. The “Enjoy By” conceit is not only a genius marketing plan — “this beer is brewed not to last!” as if it will turn into toxic sludge on December 22 — it’s also a clarion call and challenge to brewers, distributors and retailers alike. To other brewers, the challenge is simple: let’s see you brew a beer this good, and also ensure that your enjoy by date is easy to find and not hidden behind a seemingly random code of letters and numbers or not present at all. To distributors and retailers it’s a little more difficult: do you have the stones to do the right thing and remove a product from the shelves after its enjoy by date and eat the loss? Given the beer’s extraordinary popularity, I can’t imagine there have been any bombers left come the sell-by date, although as Stone continues to perfect the logistics of this experiment it seems like a reasonable assumption that the beer will eventually become available more regularly and distributed in more locations, perhaps presenting a tough decision for shopkeepers in the near future. Either way, continuing to educate the consumer on the importance of beer freshness by bringing the issue front-and-center should only further enhance craft drinkers’ overall enjoyment
Being the crazy person that I am, I tracked down the first two iterations — 09.21.12 and 11.09.12 — despite neither being distributed in New York City, and the beer only got better with each edition. And with 12.21.12 finally arriving in NYC, getting to have Enjoy By on tap brought the experience to an entirely new level of pure hop bliss. Simply put, this beer is a hop head’s dream. The hop bill for this 9.4%, 88 IBU gift from heaven is as follows: Calypso during the mash; Super Galena hop extract for bittering; Simcoe, Delta, Target, and Amarillo for flavor; Motueka, Citra, and Cascade for aroma; Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy for dry hopping. That’s eleven different hop varieties. Eleven!
In a year that saw the brewery crank out eight(!) limited one-off releases by my count — Ruination 10th Anniversary; Bottleworks’ 13th Anniversary; two versions of the Smoked Porter; the Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout, Perfect Crime and Saison du Buff collaborations; and of course, Enjoy By — in addition to its standard array of annual releases (Double Bastard, Old Guardian, Anniversary Ale, etc.) as well as its ridiculously stacked everyday lineup, Stone once again reminded us why they continue to be among the most respected craft brewers on the planet, and will remain at the very top of the craft beer game for a long time to come.