2008 Beer in Review

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I'll say it. The best beers in the world today are being made in the U.S. Let foreigners joke about our watery "macrobrews," but meanwhile our craft-brewing tradition has gathered steam the way all endeavors do in our young country: with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and heaps of technology. Give us a thumbnail sketch and a couple of engineering degrees and we can found a tradition in anything you want.

And it pays to try them all. Beer is inherently unstable (unlike wine, its flavors start to get musky after a few months in the bottle), so there's no real reason to hold a blind allegiance to the beers you're comfortable with—they have likely only been getting worse on their long journey from the brewery. Why not try a beer from just down the block? With some 1,500 smaller names scattered around the country, finding great new beers is just one more benefit of traveling.

So here's my personal month-by-month review of the top 12 beers of 2008. That's 12 down, 1,488 breweries left to try. At this rate, my beer-tasting career should last me until the year 2132. It's shaping up to be a tasty century.

January: I emerged into 2008 on the South Island of New Zealand, fresh from a nearly beer-free month in Antarctica. I wound up in Riverton, along a lonely stretch of coast beaten by the mighty Southern Ocean. The only open restaurant turned out to be closed when I walked in, but they invited me for “staffies” anyway, serving up three foamy, deep-yellow Speight's Gold Medal Ales in succession and refusing payment. It was the perfect accompaniment to stories of gales, fish tales, and what climate change is doing to the local paua (abalone) crop.

February was deadline month, and my deadline beer is the Lost Coast Brewery’s Indica Pale Ale, brewed deep in Northern California’s “Humboldt Nation” (a county infamous for a certain controversial medicinal herb). The beer’s name is a rather adolescent pun, but as an India pale ale it’s straightforward and serious. Bitter hops explode from it, perfuming your mouth and nose in little aromatic puffs.

March is the month for Lost Coast’s Eight-Ball Stout, a beer so good I started calling my surfboard after it. Springtime in northern California sees the year’s coldest water temps. As you emerge from 50-degree water, wetsuit dripping, clambering over mussel-pocked rocks and holding a slender fiberglass plank in one raw pink hand, it helps to have something to look forward to. If it’s a thick, toasted, molassesy oatmeal stout dark enough to blot out the gorgeous California sunset, so much the better.

April saw visits to the Koreatown of San Jose, California, where I investigated the ultra-fresh Korean fried-chicken fad. You eat popcorn while the chef fries the drumsticks from scratch. When it arrives, the crispy skin is an airlock holding back scalding, partially vaporized chicken juice. The only solution is a giant bottle of OB Blue shared in small glasses with everyone at the table. Served extremely cold as damage control for the impatient eater, it’s exactly right.

In May I was involved in a neat project using technology to save whales from ship traffic off Boston (the Boston Globe described it here). Parts of Boston resemble a far-western county of Ireland, and one upshot is you can walk into any bar and get the world’s most famous stout, Guinness. Fizzed with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide, the bubbles are tiny and soft, yielding a creamy taste rather than a carbonated sting. This beer is much milder (and lower in alcohol) than its reputation. Order it on a whim.

By June I was ensconced in an upstate New York lifestyle complete with a backyard vegetable garden and nonstop bicycling. During those sweltering months two brews from the Ithaca Brewery kept me alive: the fearsomely hopped Cascazilla Ale and its only slightly less wanton sibling, Flower Power India Pale Ale. Cold, fruity in the throat, and searingly carbonated.

A return to the West Coast over July 4th brought me back inside the blessed distribution halo of the Deschutes Brewery. If it’s hot, you drink Mirror Pond Pale Ale. If it’s cold and damp, Black Butte Porter. And if night is falling and your time out West is nearly over, you spend all your energy drinking Obsidian Stout. Many people fault this beer for being too complex for a stout. It’s smoky, peaty to the point of whiskeyness, with a sweetness that vanishes halfway through the sip. My longtime favorite beer, it’s like drinking mouthfuls of the winter solstice.

The highlight of August was a friend’s wedding, and with it the opportunity to drink from a keg of authentic, locally brewed root beer. If you haven’t done this recently, give it a try. Good root beer (non-alcoholic, of course) is sweet, rich, and caramel, with that woodsy taste of birch twigs and fragrant roots, reminding me of damp Appalachian hollows and fallen leaves.

In September my carefully planned birthday weekend on Martha's Vineyard coincided with a drive-by drenching from Hurricane Kyle. Under the circumstances, huddling in the Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs was a good way to spend the afternoon. I drank the Steeprock Stout and shelled peanuts as rain poured down in torrents through our car's sunroof.

October. Foolish brewery names are a constant risk in an industry dominated by young guys who spend a lot of time drinking. But don't write off Smuttynose Brewery just yet. (It's actually the name of a quaint island off New Hampshire.) One way or another, their Robust Porter gets the name exactly right. Great beers should evoke tastes rather than ladle them onto your tongue, and that's the way this beer treats its dark sugars and woody bitterness.

In November I discovered Butternuts brewery's Moo Thunder canned stout. It's a good, Guinness-like stout that gets extra points for delivery. Aluminum takes much less energy to recycle than glass, so putting beer back into cans, and keeping the flavor intact, strikes a blow for the environment. Pour it into a glass and feel virtuous while you watch the head develop.

I’m still auditioning brews for the role of “beer of December”, and I have high hopes of encountering some promising newcomer as I head out on a holiday-season road trip. Surely someone out there can offer a suggestion or two?

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