Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 Best Beers of 2014


This year was both an awesome year and a lousy for me as far as beer experiences went. Traveling around New England in July for my “beercation” was a fun and memorable experience. I also went on several daytrips for beer, such as the Cooperstown Beverage Trail and downstate to the Gilded Otter and Peekskill brew pubs. Additionally, I met my girlfriend Renee in May and have shown her the wonders of both craft beer and homebrewing and now she’s hooked.

Unfortunately, my experience as a semi-professional reviewer of beer was not that great in 2014. A lot of that might be due to my self-imposed exile from craft beer throughout the month of February. That’s not to say I didn’t review any good beers at all, I did. In fact, there was a plethora of beers that scored a 9 or 10 on my scale. It’s just that in years prior there’s been even more that ranked that high.

But nevermind the lousy beer, here’s the good beer!

The criteria for a beer to make this list:

These rankings are based solely on beers that I reviewed for the first time in 2014.
  • They didn’t have to be newly released in 2014 (some of them have been around for years), just beers I’d never had until this year.
  • The beer doesn’t have to be available locally to qualify, but it must be a commercial bottled or canned brew of some sort (i.e. you can buy it in a store somewhere; it’s not a test batch; draught-only release; or someone’s homebrew).
  • A re-review doesn’t count.
  • A vintage is acceptable as long as I’ve never reviewed any other vintage and it must be readily available (a 15-year-old vintage from some guy’s cellar doesn’t count).
  • Only one entry per brewery is allowed.
Lastly, I’m not trying to argue my personal taste as fact, or that these beers are superior brews of their respective styles according to BJCP or other such guidelines; just that these are my own hedonistic preferences.
Hunahpu's Imperial Stout 201410. Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout
This is a beer I’ve wanted to try for a long time. Hunahpu is kind of the Three Floyds Dark Lord of Florida in that it’s brewed in limited quantities and was only available for purchase from the brewery one day a year (due to a fracas that happened at this year’s release, Cigar City has decided to simply release the beer through normal distribution channels from now on).

My tasting notes:
Right away there was a huge sensation of dark baking chocolate; intensely bitter, but also rich with chocolatey sweetness. Dark cherry and other fruit flavors are prominent as well, probably likely derived from the use of massive amount of malt in the brew (a lot of imperial stouts tend to have similar characteristics). On the second half, a strong surge of cinnamon spice sweeps across the palate creating for a Christmas cookie-like taste. As it goes down, there’s a gentle warmth from the peppers, though I would not consider it ridiculously peppery or spicy. All in all it’s quite delicious, though a bit repetitive. I’d probably prefer a touch more sweetness, but what’s here is extremely pleasant.

Monk’s Café Flemish Sour Ale 0039. Monk’s Café Flemish Sour Ale
I’m so used to drinking American sour ales that I’d kind of forgotten the style had originated in Europe. Monk’s Café Flemish Sour Ale is an authentic, Old World style sour beer and I can see why it’s maintained such high popularity all these years.

There’s a strong fruity flavor here, especially of black cherries, currants, and raspberries. Is that from the malt, yeast, or bacteria (or is the beer made with those fruits)? There’s a light, but consistent sourness from start to finish. Slightly tart at first, but finishes quite rich and sweet with notes of chocolate and vanilla. I detect the faintest hint of a vinegar character, though it’s more like a raspberry or maple vinaigrette, and it works perfectly here.

Great Divide Yeti 0018. Great Divide Yeti
Great Divide Yeti is one of those Hall of Fame-type beers I’ve always heard about for years, but have never been able to try until recently. Anyway, this is a beer with a great reputation and it’s well-deserved. This is the embodiment of an imperial stout done not only correctly, but pretty much perfectly.

Sweet confectionery flavors right from the get-go. Dark chocolate concentrate, iced coffee, black licorice and a hint of spiced rum are all present immediately. They’re sweet, but not ridiculously so. Through the middle comes a more rustic palette of roasted malt and French Roast coffee. However, the bitterness comes from the strong hop presence, which also makes for a surprisingly citrusy taste with some pine character as well (especially on the finish). There’s a lingering dry, slightly pasty aftertaste, but it’s quite pleasant. This is a well-balanced, highly robust, and delectable brew all around.

White Birch Small Batch Ale Sour Brown 0017. White Birch Small Batch Ale Sour Brown
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m more impressed when new breweries can make an awesome sour than an imperial IPA or stout. I’ve tried most of White Birch’s lineup and found it to be pretty good across the board, but their sours have been nothing short of fantastic. I think the Small Batch Sour Brown might be the best of them. It’s a delicious combination of genuine brown ale and the allure of sour.

The sour flavor is, not surprisingly, the first thing I notice about the palette. It’s not quite as intense as some others, though it is far from mild. Slight vinegar notes; the acidity really comes through. The rich brown ale brew is in no way obscured. I get notes of chocolate, brown sugar, vanilla, and maybe a hint of coffee all through the middle. More sourness on the back end with a slight berry or fruity-like flavor.

Maine Beer Another One 0046. Maine Beer Another One
I rated three beers by the Maine Beer Company a full 10 out of 10 this year. It was difficult trying to decide which of them I’d use for this list (the other two being Weez, and King Titus). I opted for “Another One,” because it was the most memorable experience of the three.

This beer definitely follows the path blazed by Heady Topper and many brews of the style. There’s a light maltiness with notes of honey, but otherwise the hops dominate. A delectable delivery of tropical and stone fruit right off the rip: pineapple, mango, passion fruit, pomegranate, etc. It’s not citrusy per se. There’s an underlying spiciness which becomes very apparent on the second half. Notes of basil, pesto, and oregano can be found. It’s definitely bitter, but not aggressively so. Just the right amount of IBUs to wow the palate without ruining it.

DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus! 0015. DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus
Flavored stouts and porters have been around for years, with chocolate and coffee usually being the most popular flavors. But why hasn’t anyone tried making one with peanut butter flavoring? After all, the natural chocolate flavors from a dark beer would seem to be a perfect complement for peanut butter. If it has been done before I’m not aware of any other than DuClaw’s “Sweet Baby Jesus!” It delivers exactly as promised, and is exactly what I want a dessert beer to be.

This beer is a robust porter at the core, and it definitely shows immediately with strong notes of dark malt, roasted barley, a hint of coffee, and some burnt toast. There’s a dry bitterness through the middle, but transitions to sweetness on a hairpin turn with strong milk chocolate flavors. The finish is the best part as an authentic peanut butter flavor emerges to make for a delicious candy-like palette. The label indicates the beer is brewed with “artificial flavors,” which probably means that peanut butter character is simply a flavoring concentrate, but it’s still impressive since it tastes like the real deal and the last sip is as fun to drink as the first.

Victory Hop Ranch 0014. Victory Hop Ranch
Ever since Heady Topper blew up, every brewery has been trying to emulate it. And while I wouldn’t consider Victory Hop Ranch a clone of that beer, it’s definitely in the ballpark.

I was genuinely surprised by how tame the bitterness was. Big IPAs like this tend to smack your mouth with their IBUs, but Hop Ranch is actually quite tame with a rather sweet, tropical fruit juice flavor throughout most of the swig. It would almost seem better classified as an imperial pale ale than a double IPA. The brewery’s description only mentions one malt and two hops in the ingredients list – could the recipe really be that simple? There is, not surprisingly, a spicy/herbal flavor on the finish and in the aftertaste. Slight garlic or onion, plus plenty of grass, and they round out the palette nicely.


Southern Tier Rum Barrel Aged Pumking 0013. Southern Tier Rum Barrel Aged Pumking
Southern Tier’s “Pumking” has always been my favorite pumpkin beers, as well as one of my favorite beers in general. I didn’t think they could improve upon it, but somehow they managed to do so by aging it in rum barrels. If any spirit would complement this type of brew, rum is definitely it. The natural spices and sweetness work to accentuate the authentic pumpkin pie flavor of this brew.

Huge cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove spiciness are all prominent throughout the palette. There’s also a constant sweet pumpkin pie flavor from the pumpkin puree, which is enhanced due to the rum barrel aging. Vanilla is quite strong as is the taste of rum, though it lacks to aggressive booziness of an actual spirit. Little in the way of true bitterness, though the natural spice and alcohol character do offer balance (not that the sweetness is cloying, anyway). Delicious all around for sure. Totally worth the $16 price tag. This was a limited release, so if you see it, I highly recommend buying it.
Kasteel Winter (2013 vintage) 001 
2. Kasteel Winter (2013 vintage)
The Belgians aren’t known for adding confectionery flavors and other additives like coffee and chocolate in their beers. That’s what makes Kasteel Winter a very surprising brew since it’s not the kind of beer I’d associate with that country. And yet, it works as both a classic Belgian strong dark ale as well as a flavored brew. It’s a win-win.

Strong dark chocolate flavors envelope the tongue right away. It’s a delicious, authentic, candy-like flavor. It doesn’t taste like simply cocoa powder or some kind of extract flavoring. There’s a light bitterness through the middle – somewhat dry with a hint of spice. It quickly morphs into a sweet iced coffee flavor with cream and sugar. The alcohol lingers in the background, constantly imparting a warmth and a rum-like vanilla flavor. The classic Belgian yeast esters are also noticeable – they create for a mild taste of dark fruits and spice. Overall, this is one of the most unique Belgian brews I can ever recall having.

He’Brew Funky Jewbelation 2014 0031. He’Brew Funky Jewbelation (2014 edition)
Let me disclaim this ranking by stating that I am not being a homer by putting this beer at the top of the list (or the bottom, as it were). I truly did find this to be the best beer I had all year. It’s a blend of seven Shmaltz beers that have been aged in two different types of barrels. And on top of that, it’s soured, which makes it even more amazing since souring a beer and making it not only drinkable, but delicious, is quite difficult.

Up front I get sweet milk chocolate, coconut, toffee, and caramel. Towards the middle there’s dank, resiny hop flavor and mild bitterness. On the finish there’s a strong sour/tart sensation coupled with the taste of fruit juice and flavors of pomegranate and black currants. There’s a tartness that lingers in the background from beginning to end, but it never distracts from the main palette. It all adds up to an absolutely delicious and consistently engaging brew as each swig has something unique to it. I don’t get much in the way of barrel character, per se, aside from a mild earthy/woody/vanilla flavor; but that’s okay since the final product is so enjoyable.

See also:
Top 10 Best Beers of 2013
Top 10 Best Beers of 2012
Top 10 Best Beers of 2011
Top 10 Best Beers of 2010
Top 10 Best Beers of 2009