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Hophead: Beer Of The Year

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It's almost time to pop the cork on your favorite bottle of bubbly (and surely anyone reading this column will know that beer is bubbly too). That means it's time for Hophead's contribution to City of Ate's endless stream of Year In Review posts.

While I may not have sampled all of them (some haven't made it to Texas yet), the following beers receive honors in the first-ever Hophead Beer Of The Year Awards. Good or bad, local or not, these beers made a difference this year. And keep in mind, a Beer of the Year award is not necessarily an endorsement of the product--remember, Hitler won Time's Man of the Year award way back when.

Happy New Year, everyone. Have fun and drink good beer--here are a few ways you could do both, by the way. And if you have other noteworthy beers of the year to mention, please share in the comments.

10. Rahr Blind Salamander
It was great to see the Fort Worth brewery team up with Texas Parks and Wildlife to raise funds to protect an endangered species--a status that makes the titular amphibian a kindred soul to Texas brewers, as Rahr's Tony Formby joked. Ironic that one is endangered because of lack of regulation, the other because of an excess of legislation.

9. La Fin Du Monde
La Fin Du Monde from Quebec's Unibroue is an excellent Belgian-style ale, worthy of inclusion on Beer Advocate's "Top Beers On Planet Earth" list. But is it worth $250 for a six-liter bottle when you can get a 750-ml for less than a Hamilton? Even after talking it over with Sigel's beer buyer, I'm not convinced. But considering how quickly these large bottles (like the similarly priced 9-liter Piraat tripel) sell out, some beer lovers are.

8. Shiner 100 Commemorator
The little brewery in Texas celebrated its 100th anniversary with a very well-made doppelbock that really outdoes Spoetzl's flagship Shiner Bock in the taste department. Surviving Prohibition, the Depression and Texas' nonsensical alcohol laws for a century is an achievement worth commemorating, and this strong, dark amber lager is a great way to do it. Hopefully it proves popular enough that Spoetzl will bring it back after the limited run ends, as the company did with the Bohemian Black Lager.  

7. Estrella Damm Inedit
Marketed as the first beer specifically created to pair with food, this Spanish witbier may help advance the beer cause. If it's good, that is--I haven't tried it myself, and it ranks a pretty middling B- average on Beer Advocate. The breathless backstory of its creation and its elegant wine-shaped bottle could convince some stubborn oenophiles to try it. On the other hand, the marketing throws other beers under the bus with a bullshit claim that no other beer was brewed with food pairing in mind. I'm pretty sure Brooklyn Brewery founder and brewmaster Garrett Oliver, who wrote an entire book about pairing beer with food, would take exception to that claim. Whether Inedit does more harm than good for beer's reputation in the long term remains to be seen, but it certainly made a splash in the food world this year.

6. Michelob Rye P.A.
The fact that an Anheuser-Busch beer is branching out into niche styles seems to be evidence that the big boys are feeling some heat from the craft-beer industry. As expected from a masses-pleasing behemoth, most of their attempts are, well, not so good, Al. But to my shock (top), the Bavarian Wheat wasn't half-bad, and the Rye P.A. was actually pretty good. As with Inedit, I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for beer overall. But a genuine attempt by a macrobrewer to offer a quality product should be applauded. My optimistic guess is that craft-beer lovers will continue to drink craft beers, but some macro-beer drinkers might end up trying it and finding that they like beer made with actual ingredients.

5. Tactical Nuclear Penguin
Leave it to the Scots to brew the strongest beer in the world--at 32-percent ABV. Compared to Utopias, at least, this BrewDog offering is a relative bargain at £35 per bottle--or invest in the company and get a 20-percent discount. Whatever it sells for, the publicity the Penguin got for its company and for the beer industry is priceless.

4. Samuel Adams Utopias
Non-carbonated, served at room temperature and packing an astounding 27-percent ABV and $150-per-bottle price tag, this highly unconventional beer got the attention of the food world and made a convincing case that even beer can satisfy the most refined of palates--even if the mysterious pluralization is kind of annoying.

3. Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
This was the most memorable drink I tried at Flying Saucer's Fall Beer Festival--and that's saying something, because there were some great beers there (and my memory from the event is pretty foggy). It looks like a stout but has a heavenly grapefruit-peel hoppiness along with toasty malt notes. Stone continues to confound beer lovers' expectations.

2. Anything from Dogfish Head
Speaking of confounding beer lovers' expectations, this has been a great year for the Delaware brewer, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Owner Sam Calagione was prominently featured in the David-vs.-Goliath industry documentary film Beer Wars, and growth led Dogfish to increase tank capacity by 50 percent. Yet rather than succumb to the temptation to lure in ever more potential customers, the company continues to innovate with highly unusual experimental flavors--most of which turn out quite nicely--as well as resurrect ancient beer styles like last year's Aztec-inspired chocolate beer, Theobrama. Oh, and they still push the envelope with extremely strong beers, averaging 9 percent ABV. 

1. Dale's Pale Ale
The flagship beer of Colorado brewery Oskar Blues, Dale's Pale Ale is a fine American pale ale that really made inroads into the Texas market this year. But as good as Dale's and other Oskar Blues beers (like Hophead faves Ten FIDY, Gordon's and Old Chub) may be, perhaps the most noteworthy thing about it is that it comes in a can. Debunking the "metallic taste" myth and the notion that cans are suitable only for cheap flavorless lagers at once, the brewery proudly boasts of the superiority of aluminum vessels. And they make a pretty convincing argument, too. No light or ingressed oxygen damage to the beer, easier portability, easier recyclability and lighter shipping weight add up to a better, longer-lasting beer--and a more environmentally friendly one, too. Other brewers--including Texas' Southern Star--are starting to notice. Hopefully the next decade will see more follow suit.

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