Monday 21 December 2009

What Am I Looking For? (My Beer Of the Year Award)

I was in the pub recently with award-winning blogger Woolpack Dave and his partner Woolpack Anne. The conversation between Dave and I (Anne, despite being entirely sober, was nodding off) was about what we look for in a beer; the quest, the never-ending search for the next great beer.

Ten years ago I was infatuated with American IPAs. I thought they were the be all and end all. My first couple of trips to California in the late nineties had convinced me that big, bold and assertive beers were the future. This thought was part of the inspiration for creating Microbar. I wanted to bring a bit of the  US's craft beer culture to the UK.

Since then, I have mellowed in my view. I like to think my understanding of what sells to whom and why (in the socio-demographic and individual senses) is rather good. Years of experience and observation have tempered my enthusiasm for hop-blasts and caused me to re-appraise my early view of them as saviours of beer (I still love them and crave them especially here in Cumbria where one hop cone is passed around the various breweries for a waft over the wort).

No, today I'm looking for something that transcends the thrill of blasts of flavour and bitterness.

I'm wary of the description "balanced". For me, that word brings to mind obsessions of an older generation of cask ale drinkers: the regional brewers, sessionability, CAMRA and boring brown beer. "Balanced" is too close to "b*lan**d" for my liking.

There is no single word for what I'm looking for. Here's a selection that go some way toward describing what I crave: harmony, complexity, layeredness, aroma, integration, surprise, poise, nuance, finish, moreishness.

I hope that those descriptors give you some insight into my selection for Jeff's Beer of the Year 2009.

GOLD: Anderson Valley's Boont Amber. I first came across this on draught in a bar in San Francisco in 2003. Since then I've dreamed of its symphony of malt and superlative but subtle hop character. Fortunately someone had the good sense to bring some in for the GBBF.

From GBBF '09

SILVER: Budvar. Yes good old "ordinary" Budvar. Throughout the year I've regularly been noticing that Budvar has gained hop character in a particularly beautiful way – it meets all, rather than just several of my criteria. Many times I thought my mind must be playing tricks on me as it's such a well-established and familiar beer. Anticipating having my mental health questioned I asked the chaps from Budvar UK if there had been any change to the beer in recent months. Breezily they replied "Oh, that's since the new head brewer took over last January." I swooned. The brilliance of my tastebuds confirmed!

BRONZEJarrow Brewery McConnells Celebratory Port Stout.  Neither really stouty or porty, nonetheless a great beer - undercurrents of treacle, chocolate and coffee with an abundant smack of hoppy orangey fruitiness. Despite pseudo-Victorian pumpclip imagery, it's actually quite modern in its flavour profile.

There are many, many more deserving of honourable mentions. If I get time later I'll add some. Now I'm off to start my Christmas shopping.


Peter Russell said...

Nice list Jeff, is the Budvar change evident in draught and bottle? I may consider getting some in for my philistine relatives this Christmas!

Mark, said...

I like symphony as a word that describes what I'm sometimes clutching for when I use balanced.

Those beers that aren't bland, but rather blend flavours together so that nothing overpowers, nothing steals the show yet you can appreciate all of them at the same time.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Definitely the bottles Pete but I expect the same is true of the draught.

I don't keep an array of splendiferous beers at home but a good lager is the only thing I make sure I never run out of. Budvar has been that lager in the past few months. OK, there countless other great lagers out they're not in Tesco in Barrow-in-Furness.

I'll picking some up in time for Christmas day.

Alistair Reece said...

Budvar is one of those beers that you simply cannot go wrong with. It might not be the most extreme, weird, out there beer on the planet, but I defy practically any "craft" brewer to create such a moreish lager.

Unknown said...

I could suspect that Woolpack Ann might just be getting tired of listening to two beer bores talking about beer, again.

As for Budvar, I'm going to try and understand what you're talking about this year, really I am.

Kelly Ryan said...

Tried the Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout with the Reluctant Scooper a month or so back... great beer with a yummy scotch oats with loads of muscovado sugar and cream character to it. Keep an eye out for it!

John Clarke said...

A "balanced beer, don't frighten the horses" is an excuse used too often by too many breweries as a reason for making dull beers. I can perhaps see the sort-of merits in that argument if you are a large family or regional brewer with a large core trade - they would mess with their "cooking" beers at their peril, I guess. However that doesn't mean why they should be so timid with seasonals and one-offs, although far too many of them are. Too many micros also fall into that trap (and I'll tell you what, the stuff I've had from East Anglia is far worse than anything I've drunk from Cumbria) and for them there really is no excuse.

This means, as you suggest, that the term "balanced" has become somewhat pejorative when in fact it can be a very positive quality. Budvar for example is a wonderfully balanced beer in my opinion but like you I rate it highly.