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25 beers you wouldn’t kick out of the fridge

Another list. This one from Men’s Journal.

It’s received plenty of attention on beer discussion boards – see Rate Beer discussion; Beer Advocate – because notice in such a high profile publication always seems like validation.

It helps that it is a list of very good beers:

1 Firestone Walker Pale Ale
2 Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
3 Stoudt’s Pils
4 Russian River Temptation
5 Avery Mephistopheles
6 Anderson Valley Boont Amber
7 Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale
8 Full Sail Session Lager
9 Rogue Brutal Bitter
10 Bell’s Expedition Stout
11 Southampton Double White
12 Smuttynose Big A IPA
13 Penn Weizen
14 Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale
15 Ommegang Hennepin
16 Samuel Adams Black Lager
17 Sprecher Hefe-Weiss
18 Alaskan Amber
19 Deschutes Broken Top Bock
20 Lost Abbey Avant Garde
21 Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bier
22 Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock
23 Allagash Interlude
24 Alesmith Speedway Stout
25 New Glarus Yokel

I like that it gives extra credit for striking a balance between innovation and tradition.

I like that they made Firestone Walker Pale Ale their No. 1, even if I might prefer the Double Barrel Ale, because the brewery wins medals right and left in blind tastings but can’t seem to get any love from online beer activists.

I like that it is cutting edge – with the funky little (4.6% abv) Bam Biere from the funky little Jolly Pumpkin brewery sneaking in at No. 21. And you can’t be much more up-to-date than Lost Abbey Avant Garde from Port Brewing (a beer that deserves a post of its own – in the next few days).

What I don’t like is the promo on the cover – “25 Greatest American Beers” – or the headline on the story – “25 Best Beers in America.”

What a silly notion. You need only compare the list Men’s Journal published in 2004 to the 2006 list (in 2005 the magazine picked the “Best 50” beers in the world, equally silly).

Only one beer – Alaskan Amber – made the 2004 and 2006 lists. Did everybody else forget how to brew?

No, 12 of the 23 breweries that were on the 2004 list (two breweries had two beers) also made the 2006 list. But instead of calling Deschutes Mirror Pond Ale No. 1, as in 2004, the authors listed Deschutes Broken Top Bock at No. 19.

Instead of honoring Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils – No. 2 in the U.S. in 2004, No. 1 pilsner in the world in 2006 – they singled out Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock (No. 22).

You can’t sell magazines publishing the same list every year. Of course, that’s not altogether bad for the breweries on the list, because it gives them more accolades to promote (one more thing I like about the list).

Still … 25 Greatest?

No. What they really published is a list of “24 really good beers we didn’t write about two years ago and Alaskan Amber.” A job well done, but a lousy headline.

Firestone Walker’s ’10’

Will the project Firestone Walker Brewing has going now earn the Paso Robles, Calif., brewery more respect at the beer ratings sites?

The brewery won Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company (encompassing all breweries producing between 15,000 and 2 million barrels) in both the 2004 and 2006 World Beer Cup – but few of its beers reach the 90th percentile at Rate Beer and Beer Advocate.

The brewery plans to release a beer called “10” in October to help mark its 10th anniversary. The beer will come from a blend of 10 individual ales made over the preceding 10 months. Firestone Walker uses its own unique Firestone Union system (somewhat like Burton Union at Marstons) for fermentation. The 10 beers that will make up “10” are then aged in oak bourbon barrels.

Components in the final beer will include an imperial oatmeal stout and barley wine. Brewer Matt Brynildson sent samples of both to the National Homebrew Conference last month for a presentation Todd Ashman gave about the use of wood in brewing. Both beers are intense, already delightfully complex – showing differing effects from time in wood – and would surely get high marks at the beer rating sites.

The individual components of “10” are also periodically available for sampling at Firestone Walker’s taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton on the Central Coast.

“The beer is being brewed in pieces, which will be put together like a puzzle to make the final blend,” Brynildson said. “It is similar to a winemaker’s job of blending different lots of wine. In the end, the beer will resemble a Port wine in complexity, alcohol and sipping pleasure.”

The brewery is in the heart of one of America’s hottest wine regions and winemakers often drop in at the tasting room. Brynildson plans to invite some of them to help determine the final blend.

We already know it will be a “10.”

Finding nuance at a bargain price

What does the phrase “beer is the new wine” mean?

Using it as a chapter heading in The Big Book of Beer, Adrian-Tierney Jones favors the idea that beer will claim a place at the British dining table where glasses of wine currently reside. Other writers refer to a sense that beer has taken on an aura of sophistication, or that if you want to spend $10-$15 for an interesting (750ml) bottle of an alcoholic beverage that hunting for beer has become as interesting as hunting for wine.

Todd Wernstrom doesn’t use the phrase in a column in the February/March issues of Wine News, but the idea fits in perfectly with his discussion of wines at this price lower in food stores (a price range considered high end for beer). He writes: “What matters now isn’t what’s in the bottle but what’s on the bottle: labels with little animals; labels with bright colors; labels with names that range from the silly to the vulgar.”

He’s just getting started.

… if I have to see one more collection of pretty people with impossibly straight and white teeth exulting the moment while hoisting a glass of some $8 wine that glints in a prosaic sunset, I’ll end up sideways with stomach cramps. These so-called “lifestyle” shots are an even more cynical selling strategy than using bodacious babes to sell cheap beer. Even the most obtuse Bud drinker knows deep down that putting away a six pack will get him nothing but drunk.

In a publication where the word beer is almost never used, he discusses “looking again for nuance.” Then he writes, “Beers that actually capture the essence of what has been lost in everyday wine are largely made by the micro-size brewers. Names like Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Brooklyn Brewery, Victory, New Belgium Brewing Company and Allagash are now well known in my house and among my friends.”

He makes several points:

– They are all unique.
– The embrace their terroir – and although the idea of beer terroir is even murkier than wine terroir (but worth exploring later) he defines it as a function not of where beer is made but of the choices made by the brewmaster.
– They convey their sincerity and genuineness in their marketing efforts.

The bottom line: “The best part of all these beers is that they are bargains when compared to the vapid entry-level wine we are being peddled.”

Here we might part company. Bargain is a tricky word. He would argue fairly that an expensive bottle of wine is a better choice than beer because he prefers wine to beer. Here the view is that beer often surpasses the best wine in many situations.

However, I share his frustration with marketers, no matter the alcoholic beverage.

Sadly, the advertsing whizzes just don’t think we’re smart enough to make choices based on something other than pretty pictures, and the winemakers don’t think we can taste the difference anyway.

By the way, the column was headlined, “Make it real.”

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