Top 20 “Best in World” Extravaganza

Ok, I guess “extravaganza” makes this sound a little more grandiose and bigger in scale than it ended up being, but it was still a selection of beers within (and some without) the top 20 rankings of “best in world” lists at and/or the top 100 at (which is an alphabetical list, unranked). So indulge us for just a little, ok?

Kindly hosted by NBeer’s Sanlitun location thanks once again to Xiao Biar‘s magnanimity, I was joined by Jim Boyce (aka BeijingBoyce), Tom Gaestadius of Arrow Factory and Tracy W, executive editor of Beer Link Magazine.  Unfortunately unable to attend were invitees from Slow Boat and Jing-A.  We’ll try not to rub their noses in it for the rest of their lives – at least not TOO much… 😉

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

Perhaps most relevant to the goals of this blog, albeit only getting one paragraph (sorry!), is the one soon-to-be-available-in-China item, thanks to Xiao Biar’s connections: the Festina Peche Berlinerweisse from Dogfish Head.  Although not a “top 20” beer, it is arguably the most widely-available beer in its style category within North America, and it was a good aperitif for the evening ahead.  Boyce remarked how dangerously drinkable the beer was, and that to preserve his manly image he would forever have to consume this peach-infused beer in secret.  Xiao Biar anticipates availability in Beijing sometime this month.

(photo courtesy of Tracy W)

First up from the “Top 20” list was the famed – but recently dethroned – Trappist Westvleteren 12.  I brought along two bottles, one from the 2012 North American release, and one more-recently-brewed (February 2015) and only officially available in Europe.  The difference was noticeable, with some remarking that the older bottle was perhaps even more alcoholic.  The mystique behind this beer and its difficulty/cost in obtaining at one time certainly helped boost its ratings (i.e., “you can taste the rarity”), but the large batches sent to North America markets for fundraising perhaps scratched its once impeccable shine.  Still a great, world class beer by any stretch of the imagination, but here’s an obvious instance where the subjective element comes into play.

So who usurped the once (and future?) king?  A bunch of Double IPA’s in succession, and then most recently an imperial coffee stout or two.  The first Double IPA that beat the vaunted “Westy 12” was Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, which is nowadays only available on draft, for just one week of the year.  They even prohibited the use of “growler” bottle fills, so the beer has to be consumed on-site.  So alas, this was not a treat I could offer to my companions that night.  But I gave the next best (or in my opinion, the better) thing: Pliny the Elder.

(photo courtesy of Tracy W)

Elder is commonly cited in American craft beer lore as the “first Double IPA”, a happy accident when (allegedly) brewer Vinnie Cilurzo miscalculated the malt bill twofold and thus compensated by doing to same to the hops.  Or was it the other way around?  Doesn’t matter.  History (sometime in the early 2000’s) was made, and even after more than a decade in existence, it remains in the top five of the “Beers of Fame” list on BeerAdvocate, which only includes beers that have been on the site for 10 years or more.

It’s really not hard to see why, once you start consuming this creation.  The key thing about Elder that I personally think beats Younger, is its balance.  This can get tricky, because anyone not used to hoppy beers would of course never deem such a beer “balanced” in any way.  So there is that subjectivity again.  But for those willing to consider expanding their horizons, you realize that hoppy beers aren’t necessarily about bitterness.  When fresh, and when used late in the brewing process (or even after), hops provide flavors and aroma that have almost nothing to do with bitterness.  They can even seem SWEET – particularly with New World hop varieties that give tropical and citrus fruit characteristics.  In fact, Russian River Brewing has gone on record to state that for bittering Pliny the Elder, they only use hop extract.  All the solid, fresh hop material goes into late or dry hopping.  For me, and I think the consensus at the table agreed, this beer is the ultimate archetype for how a Double IPA should be brewed.

But there was a contender for the crown, slowly biding its time in the remote countryside of Vermont ever since only a year or two after Pliny the Elder’s debut.  In 2011, through the tragedy of Hurricane *Irene, it was ironically the destruction of their brewpub which shot a little-known (outside of the northeast US) beer called Heady Topper into the ranks of craft beer legends.  Despite the loss of the brewpub, The Alchemist‘s newly-acquired production brewery and canning line were spared.  In the aftermath, brewer John Kimmich decided to brew one beer and only beer only – the capacity of their equipment couldn’t keep up with demand even with this specialization.  Cans of Heady Topper soon caused pilgrims from all over the country (and the world) to line up at the remote brewery, often causing traffic and commotion in a rural, residential area.  Eventually they had to cease on-site brewery sales due to complaints from the neighborhood.  They also had to stop distributing to other nearby states (my home of Massachusetts unfortunately being one of them) because even their local Vermonters were unable to keep a steady supply for themselves.

So again perhaps the scarcity created this feedback loop into further scarcity, and thus influencing the subjective evaluation of the commodity.  I think it’s a delicious beer and certainly worthy of its top 10 ranking.  But for my personal tastes, and apparently again the consensus at the table this night, we all preferred Pliny the Elder.  It comes back to that perception of “balance” again.  Whereas we could all probably imbibe multiple servings of each beer, the one we would rather do that with didn’t happen to go in Vermont’s favor.

(As a side note, Heady is a hazy, cloudy beast.  The writing on the can even states to drink directly from the container and NOT to pour it in the glass.  Kimmich claims you lose aromatics and flavors the moment you pour it out.  I and many others think it’s because the beer looks like a wheat beer more than your typical IPA.  Early on in its production, it wasn’t just hazy, it was chunky.  Not the most visually pleasing of liquids to put in your mouth.  Nowadays, thanks I assume to some tweaking in the production process, it’s usually the aforementioned state of haze.  But I maintain my belief that there’s no reason NOT to pour the beer into a glass in order to fully appreciate the beer.  Try smelling a beer from the can and saying it’s “just as good” or “better than” pouring into a glass.  I dare you.)

notice the haze… (photo courtesy of Tracy W)

Anyway, back to the comparisons, I think Heady Topper is more in-your-face with the hops, which tend towards the aromatics of a certain :ahem: …distantly-related plant species.  The malt is almost an afterthought, though just enough to play counterpart against the bitterness.  Pliny the Elder is a beer that still lets the lightly caramelized malt make its presence known, and in harmony with the fruity sweetness of the yeast esters and tropical and citrus notes of the hops.  Again, this is subjective, and if you ask someone else, you could easily get a different answer.  Obviously, the Internet consensus has Heady Topper beating Pliny the Elder handily, and for a time was regularly switching places with Younger for the top spot, after the latter had dethroned Westy 12.  I’d even argue that several of today’s newer hazy/cloudy Double IPA’s currently vying for the crown are at least in part inspired by Heady. But let’s move on…

(photo courtesy of Tracy W)

Since everyone’s palate was now either on overdrive or simply exhausted, it was time to refresh and reinvigorate.  I thought the best way to do this would be with a crisp yet flavorful sour beer.  Keeping with the New England mini-theme, I brought one of my personal favorites, even though it doesn’t make any of the “best of” lists.  Night Shift Ever Weisse is a Berlinerweisse-style beer (although pushing the limits with an ABV of 5.5% in a style that traditionally stays well under 4%) that also uses strawberry, kiwi and hibiscus flowers.  I poured this into a pitcher in order to incorporate the yeast evenly for every sample tasted.  It was an instant hit, somewhat to my (pleasant) surprise.  Everyone loved it, including Thomas and Boyce, who are generally not diehard sour beer fans.  Despite this bottle being a year old (a new batch was just released), I did manage to keep it refrigerated for the entire duration.  As such, it still managed to preserve the fruity and floral characteristics from the added ingredients, resulting in a harmonious interplay with the otherwise mouth puckering acidity.

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

Palates refreshed, it was onto the barrel-aged imperial stouts!  I started with #18 in the current “Top Beers” (but also keeps an admirable #5 on the “Beers of Fame” list) – a classic known today as “KBS.”  Formerly going by the moniker of Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Michigan-based Founders Brewing Company changed the name in order to avoid legal battles with the very state that provides the bourbon barrels for them.  I think that regardless of what you call it, it is easily one of the best widely-distributed (but still difficult to obtain) barrel-aged coffee imperial stouts (say that three times fast) in the world.

The red banner on the upper left says, “Product of the U.S.” Sorry, Canucks… (photo courtesy of Tracy W)

But that’s not all.  Thanks to Boyce’s Canadian heritage, I thought it would be nice to mark our reunion (after nearly 5 years) with something that honors his country.  Granted, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, since nothing about the beer is actually “Canadian” other than the use of a Mountie astride a horse on the label.  Even the maple syrup – which sat in the bourbon barrel before being reused once more for the beer – is from Michigan.  Canadian Breakfast Stout (aka “CBS” – probably named such to avoid a border war – which of course the US would win… well, sort of…) is basically KBS, but aged in the aforementioned bourbon barrels that previous also held Grade A maple syrup.  In a way, this was a consolation for not being able to bring the current, putative “#1 Beer in the World” despite it being from my home state.  (Hey, gimme a break, will ya?  It’s a long drive and only released sporadically throughout the year.)  However, I don’t think anyone at the table would have noticed even if I told them.  They were too enamored with this bottle of CBS, despite being nearly 4 years old.  Some fellow beergeeks might flog me for holding onto this beauty for so long, with claims that it’s better fresh, but I still think it’s drinking deliciously and could probably still survive a couple more years.  The coffee remains strong and espresso-like, and the hops (which I personally thought were a bit strong for this vintage) have faded enough to let the maple sweetness really shine through.  It’s back at #8 on the list for good reason, whether it’s a recent batch or an older one.

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

(photo courtesy of Jim Boyce)

The final “top 20” beers were Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout and its coffee-infused variant, which sits at #13 on the list.  (The “plain” Bourbon County is #11 on the “Fame” list.)  I saved these for last not necessarily because they’re better, but they are stronger (by at least two percentage points of ABV) and arguably bolder in flavor.  I call them “bourbon-” and “coffee-bombs” respectively, and they are in no way subtle.  The 2014 release of the coffee version uses Zirikana beans.  (The variety changes every year, but the roaster, Chicago’s Intelligentsia always collaborates with their brewpub neighbor on this annual release.)  Good, strong coffee, with fresh beans, often give off tropical spice notes, and here they play nicely with the sweet tobacco, toasted coconut and vanilla provided by the bourbon barrels.

(photo courtesy of Stone Brewing Co.)

To close out the evening, I went even more off-script and provided a spiced imperial stout.  Stone’s Xocoveza is one of many in the cutting edge (?) trend of craft beers using either curry-like or Latin-inspired spice mixes, such as that found in Mexican hot chocolate or horchata.  A collaboration brew with homebrewing champion Chris Banker, and craft brewer Cerveceria Insurgente of Baja California, Mexico, Xocoveza uses chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili pepper and coffee to make an imperial milk stout that, despite not being in the overall top 20, is ranked #8 within the style category.  Boyce found himself tolerating a sample, but others were intrigued.  Thomas in particular is a fan of cinnamon.  The complex of spices is something that could only have come about with cultural exchange – regardless of whether it happened peacefully or not…  Which upon reflection is one of many things we actually have to thank the great civilizations of Mesoamerica for, along with half the ingredients used in this beer.  A pensive, introspective way to finish an epic night of epic beers.

(* – I thought it was Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and told everyone at the table that.  Oops.  It was Hurricane Irene in 2011 after all. [Back to jump])

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