European Brewery of the Year: Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar

After a small and unavoidable interruption, we return now to the final of my Brewery of the Year honours, this for the European brewery that most caught my attention. And it is a small and to me previously unknown brewery on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar.

At a mere 1,200 hl of production in 2013, 70% of which was sold locally, I suppose it’s not altogether surprising that this family business had escaped my notice. But after tasting my way through seven beers in the brewery tasting room – really just an extension of the family home – I was heartily glad to have been finally able to make its acquaintance.

Run by Ronald Mengerink and his family – even the kids help out – De Dochter impressed me across the board, with the dry-hopped and rather unBelgian Belle Fleur, a pale ale aptly named with some lovely floral notes; the rich and chocolaty Embrasse, a 9% alcohol brown ale that bridges the gap between strong porter and abbey ale; Ensemble, a limited run barley wine with great complexity and balance; and Bravour, a restrained smoked malt beauty.

The admittedly unwieldy name of the brewery means “The Daughter of the Ear of Corn” and is purportedly an old synonym for “beer,” although according the brewery’s own website the full phrase was “The Juice of the Daughter of the Ear of Corn.” Perhaps that was deemed too long, or maybe borderline rude. It matters not. What counts is that this is one of the most impressive northern European discoveries I have made in the past several years and, thanks to a planned move and expansion, should in the next few years have its beers a bit more widely available.

Keep an eye open, because this “Daughter” is one to watch, and a most worthy European Brewery of the Year.

Asian-Australasian Brewery of the Year: Kiuchi Brewery

I didn’t get to Asia or Australasia in 2013, not even close. But I was fortunate enough on several occasions to have representatives from the region come to me, both individually and collectively, so that I had ample opportunity to taste a great number of Australian, Kiwi and Asian ales and lagers.

And of all those beers from all those breweries, one specific brand stands out in my memory: Hitachino Nest Nipponia from Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery.

It was presented to me at the New York bar Jimmy’s No. 43 by Toshiyuki Kiuchi, the head of the company who was at the time touring the U.S., just prior to a beer dinner we were co-hosting. I loved the bright flavours it presented, and the way it took what I’ve always viewed as a relatively simple and straight-forward hop, Sorchi Ace, and coaxed a greater complexity out of it. But most of all, I loved the story of how it was brewed from a nearly extinct variety of barley, brought back to existence from a few seeds through the efforts of the company, which even went so far as to ship the grains to the U.K. for malting, and then back to Japan for brewing.

Prior to that point, frankly, the Kiuchi beers had never made that strong an impression upon me. Thereafter, however, perhaps stimulated by a greater and growing interest in the company, I began to discover brews of interest far beyond their merely pleasant White Ale and Red Rice. Beers like Dai Dai IPA, which is hardly an IPA, but is still a most fascinating and enjoyable quaff, and XH, a strong, whisky-edged ale I’m embarrassed to say languished for months in my beer fridge before I was inspired to taste, and thoroughly enjoy, it.

Still, at the end of the day, my thoughts drift back to the glorious lack of logic that resulted in Nipponia, and that’s reason enough for me to make the Kiuchi Brewery my pick as Asian-Australasian Brewery of the Year.

Latin American Brewery of the Year: Cervejas Bodebrown

Since I began this year-end awards, many people have asked about my criteria. To which I answer that I simply choose the breweries that have made the greatest impression on me during the year previous,  for one reason or another.

In the case of Latin America, that brewery is Curitiba, Brazil’s Cervejas Bodebrown.

Now, I could say that Bodebrown’s impression was fostered by beers like the Wee Heavy, long a Brazilian favourite, or the Black Rye IPA, sampled during last year’s Mondial de la Bière, or the always intense and intimidating Perigosa, Brazil’s original double IPA. And frankly, I would be entirely justified in so doing.

But oddly enough, the beer wasn’t really what brought Bodebrown to mind when I thought about which Latin American breweries had the most impact in 2013. Rather, that role was played by the gadabout head of the brewery, Samuel Cavalcanti Cabral.

Not only was Samuel seemingly everywhere last year, introducing the world to not just Bodebrown beer, but Brazilian craft beer in general, but he also seemed to be front and centre every time a visiting brewer or beer notable showed up in his home country. In such fashion, he has positioned himself as a sort of ambassador of Brazilian beer, and it’s a role he fills quite admirably, supporting the efforts of his company, his brewing school, his hometown of Curitiba – fast becoming the capital of Brazilian craft beer, thanks again largely to Samuel – and his fellow Brazilian brewers.

For those efforts, and also for his fine beers, I am delighted to pick Cervejas Bodebrown as my Latin American Brewery of the Year for 2013.

U.S. Brewery of the Year: Allagash Brewing

I tasted a lot of craft beers from the United States in 2013, from the wares of new breweries in the south and Pacific northwest to old favourites from across the land, in Wisconsin, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and everywhere in between.

There was one brewing company, however, that consistently impressed me, to the point that by the late summer I had scheduled a visit to the recently and spectacularly expanded facility. That brewery was Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company.

Now, I’ve been fond of Allagash for some time – who wouldn’t like a brewery that makes such a damn fine tripel? But in 2013, almost every bottle I opened from the brewery had me sitting back and staring in amazement at my glass. A few examples:

–        Coolship Red, made in the fashion of a Belgian lambic fruit beer, but with Maine yeasts rather than Belgian ones effecting the fermentation, was simply spectacular when I tasted it in August, with a bewitching maturity that had lingering notes of sweet fruit blending seamlessly with the citrusy, horseblankety, hay and funk of the body, along with a very soft spiciness.

–        Curieux, the always illogically delightful product of Allagash Tripel having been aged in Jim Beam barrels, reached a new level of complexity in 2013, and scored a half-star higher in my revised rating for the next edition of The Pocket Beer Guide.

–        Confluence, described on the label as “ale fermented with Brett and dry-hopped,” achieved the seemingly impossible, with a funky, hoppy character that should please lambic lover and IPA aficionado alike.

–        Prince Tuesday, a beer made in collaboration with Rising Tide Brewing, offered one of the finest aromas I nosed all year, mixing carnations and passionfruit, lemon and key lime, or as my wife so astutely put it, “smelling like happiness.”

Of course, there were others besides, many of them, but these “Best of…” posts aren’t supposed to be about the qualities of individual beers. No, they are meant to highlight the brilliance of a single brewery over the course of a calendar year, and in that regard Allagash achieved in spades, making it my no-doubt pick as U.S. Brewery of the Year for 2013.

Canadian Brewery of the Year: Le Trou du Diable

It’s safe to say that Canadian craft beer is not terribly well-known internationally. Ask the average British beer aficionado, for example, and it’s likely they’ll be able to tell you more about Italian or even north Yorkshire craft beer than they will about the Canadian stuff.

Where Canada has made a mark on the world stage, however, it has been largely through the efforts of Québécois brewers, first the folk at Unibroue – now Sapporo-owned, but still turning out fine ales – and more recently the talents behind Dieu du Ciel. And now I will add a third to the list of French Canadian beer names to watch: Le Trou du Diable.

Based in Shawinigan, mid-way between Montréal and Québec City, Trou du Diable has been slowly and surely upping their game for years, first with a pair of tasty barrel-influenced beers, La Buteuse and Dulcis Succubus, then with a series of other impressive brews, some stronger and others more sessionable, some conditioned in wood as part of an extensive and growing program and others simply brewed and bottled. Each year since my first encounter, the brewery has grown more noticeably confident and impressive.

It was a portfolio tasting in Toronto this past summer, however, that cemented in my mind just how far Trou du Diable had come. From their porter, cleverly named Le Porteur, to their political in-joke brew – don’t ask! – Shawinigan Handshake, at 7% alcohol, a frighteningly thirst-quenching “Shawiniganer Weisse,” the brewery just keeps cranking out tasty, unapologetic beers one after the other.

The brewery name literally translates to “Devil’s Hole,” but refers to a set of Shawinigan rapids and not what you were probably thinking. Like most of the brewery’s beer names, it’s very French and very local, and for Anglos likely very hard to pronounce. None of this will matter in the long run, though, because it’s the quality and character of what’s behind the difficult names that will have you hearing more about this brewery in the months and years to come, and makes Trou du Diable my pick as Canadian Brewery of the Year for 2013.

Ontario Brewery of the Year: Black Oak Brewing

In 2013, a brewery I have long admired for its great potential seemed to finally find its mojo, something it only took it about fourteen or so years to do. West Toronto’s Black Oak Brewing has made some tentative moves forward through its years of existence – moving from the suburban then-craft beer wasteland of Oakville into Toronto, celebrating its 10th anniversary with the brewing of a terrific ale, getting its seasonal releases out on time – but last year was when things really started to come together for the company.

I say, thank goodness!

I’ve spoken of Black Oak as a brewery with almost limitless potential for years now. The brewery’s Nut Brown Ale is a terrific beer, better now than any time previous, and its Pale Ale is a solid refresher and also a bit of a gateway craft beer, while seasonals from the Christmas Nutcracker spiced porter to the Summer Saison – not really a saison at all, but a light, spiced wheat ale – have always been solid, and the anniversary 10 Bitter Years was a bit of a landmark brew when it appeared as Ontario’s first truly, unapologetically hoppy and strong and still well-balanced ale. But something was always missing.

That something seems to have finally appeared in 2013, with a major rebranding effort, a tightening up of all the beers and a renewed emphasis on the necessity of sales and marketing, the last of which being something with which Black Oak always seemed to struggle. Basically, Black Oak is back, defiantly and resolutely so. And if you question this as anything more than strictly a cosmetic change, I invite you to grab a bottle of the brewery’s Nut Brown Ale, always a solid two-and-a-half star beer (in Pocket Beer Guide terms), now a borderline-better-than-three star.

For its great step forward, and its wise use of space in hosting a select number of beer commissioners, I salute Black Oak Brewing as my Ontario Brewery of the Year for 2013.

Best Beer Place of 2013: CASK Pub & Kitchen, London

As is now tradition, I will start off my “Best of the Year” awards with the most interesting, significant, compelling, and most of all, beer-glorifying bar or restaurant I visited in 2013. And unusually for me, it was this year past a place I enjoyed for far too short a period.

CASK Pub & Kitchen on Charlwood Street in London’s Pimlico district was one of those places I recognized immediately upon entry as something special. When I arrived for a lunch meeting with my World Atlas of Beer and Pocket Beer Guide co-author, Tim Webb, last June, the room was nearly empty and the scent of the cleaners hung still in the air. Despite these handicaps, however, the environs seemed welcoming and hospitable, an impression that was confirmed almost immediately by the staff, who rather than plunging their noses more deeply into their newspaper or social media obligations, noted my presence with a quick and friendly “hello” and kindly endured my lengthy examination of the bar’s 10 casks and multitude of taps.

Oh yes, the beer. When they opened in 2009, CASK was one of the first places in the U.K. to embrace equally traditional British cask-conditioned ale and new craft beers from the island and abroad, and they continue to be one of the best. Combined with numerous fridges filled with various imported and domestic bottles, this results in an abundance that may prove daunting to even the most spirited of beer adventurers. And unlike any number of beer places, they do this not at the expense of, but in addition to a more than respectable selection of wines and spirits.

While Tim and I did enjoy our lunches – not the best burger I’ve had in England, but certainly up there amongst the best – it was the hospitality, comfort, service with a smile and, of course, the marvellous (if sometimes pricey) selection of beer that won me over to CASK, and rated it as my Best Beer Place of 2013. I only wish that further obligations that day had allowed me to tarry longer, rather than needing to rush off after only a few hours.

CASK Pub and Kitchen, 6 Charlwood Street, Pimlico, London;  

Best of 2013 Coming Up — Finally!

Okay, so I haven’t blogged and have barely social media-ed at all for the last month. I have reasons, personal ones that I won’t air out here, but which have left me rather preoccupied since before Christmas. Family stuff. It’s getting better, though, so I’ve been able to mull over my annual Best of the Year list. 

Ordinarily, I would have by now posted my regular slate of winners: Best Beer Place and Brewery of the Year for Ontario (my home province), Canada, the United States, Latin America, Australasia and Europe. But like I say, I’ve been busy with other stuff of late.

That all changes next week, though! Beginning Monday with the Best Beer Place of 2013, I will commence with the accolades, hopefully and barring any unforeseen developments finishing before the end of the month. 

So as they say on the television news: Stay tuned!

European Brewery of the Year: Birrificio Montegioco

I acquainted or reacquainted myself with many breweries and beers across Europe in 2012, from pints grabbed between drams during a journey through Scotland to the many and diverse brews encountered while judging at the Brussels Beer Challenge. Without question, however, one of the most captivating and compelling European beers I tasted last year arrived my first day in Rome this past November, when I was handed a glass of a beer called La Mummia.

It was also my introduction to the brewery that would ultimately earn my nod as European brewery of 2012: Birrificio Montegioco.

Mummia is a beer I was told is aged for a full three years in barrels that previously held Barbera wine, so it’s not at all surprising that its character is tart and fruity, with ample spicy-vanilla notes. What did come as a bit of an eye-opener, however, was the relative delicacy and nuance of the beer, which segues seamlessly from one of the most attractive aromas I encountered in a beer in 2012 to a softly tart and surprisingly fresh-tasting and sweet-ish body, with white peach and apricot notes, culminating in a dry, spiced orange finish.

Were that all Montegioco had to offer, I would have been impressed. But there was more to come.

Among others, I sampled: Runa, a mildly fruity golden ale used as a base beer for other brews, but delightful on its own; Tibir, a peachy and passionfruity ale fermented with local wine must; and Tentetripel, a warming and candied pear-ish treat for the end of the night. About the only misstep encountered was Demon Hunter, which I found to be overly boozy for its body, but even that is personality disorder I suspect would be adjusted were the beer allowed to age for a time.

All told, the brewery displays a skill and finesse with a multitude of style, the likes of which I might expect of a seasoned brewery in a mature craft beer market, rather than a seven year old operation in rural Italy. For this reason, and for how it exemplifies the extraordinary brewing taking place today all across Italy, my pick as European Brewery of the Year is Birrificio Montegioco.

Australasian Brewery of the Year: Yeastie Boys

Before we get to my pick of Australasian brewery of 2012, I need first offer a caveat of sorts, it being that my experience with Asian breweries remains unsatisfyingly limited. Thus far, my Asian travels have been limited to Thailand alone, and while I have sampled a decent amount of beer from that country and also Japan, I am hopeful of greatly expanding my understanding of the region in the months and years to come.

And so it is with respect to breweries like Swan Lake Beer of Japan, Brewerkz of Singapore and the long-enduring Cooper’s of Australia that I return to New Zealand for this year’s Australasian Brewery of the Year, tipping my hat to the contract brewing firm, the Yeastie Boys.

“Audacious” is a word which comes to mind when speaking of the two man team behind the Yeastie Boys. As in, creating a beer brewed entirely from peated malt, Rex Attitude, and then “doubling” it up as Rex, a 10% alcohol version of the same peated-up monster that should be disastrous, but is somehow, almost impossibly even better than its similarly ridiculous but tasty little brother. As in, crafting a strong, Scottish-inspired ale,  Hud-a-wa’ Strong, and giving it a tropical fruit backbone through the use of Nelson Sauvin and NZ-grown Cascade hops. As in, well, calling their company Yeastie Boys.

What’s more, when they developed a hoppy black ale, and a rather masterful one, at that, they resisted the temptation to jump on the “black IPA” bandwagon and described Pot Kettle Black instead as a “hoppy porter.” Perhaps not an audacious move, but one which appeals to my anti-style-expansionism self.

True, Yeastie Boys is a contract brewer, but in New Zealand, where a small population base is stretched across a long and isolated land mass, or rather, masses, that is a status without the perception issues that tend to dog it still in North America and parts of Europe. Indeed, contract craft brewing seems at times almost the Kiwi norm rather than the exception.

For beer that is bold and flavourful and deliciously irreverent, the Yeastie Boys are my choice as Australasian Brewery of the Year.

Friday: 2012′s European Brewery of the Year!

Latin American Brewery of the Year: Microcervecería Gourmet Calavera

Anyone who regularly reads my work will know that I’ve been getting increasingly enthusiastic about developing craft beer markets in Latin America of late, most specifically in Brazil, but also in parts of Argentina and Chile. And this year past, I added the youthful but gradually developing craft beer scene of Mexico to the mix.

From my time tasting in Mexico, I was able to identify ten solid craft breweries with strong potential. Of this ten, the standout for me was and is Microcervecería Gourmet Calavera.

There are other craft breweries in Mexico that are doing things right – Cucapá, Jack, Primus and Minerva all spring to mind – but none to my mind doing as many things so well and showing such potential as Calavera. From their highly credible American Pale Ale, loaded with tropical fruit and citrus notes, to the brewery’s trio of Belgian-inspired brews, led by the spicy, peppery Tripel, to the perhaps style defining Mexican Imperial Stout, with its roasted chili-chocolate notes, this is a small brewery with many successful irons in its fire.

But fine beers are just the starting point. Calavera has also shown great initiative in both getting its beers out to market and promoting the nascent Mexican craft beer scene as a whole. Its involvement in the pioneering craft beer program at the Fairmont Mayakoba hotel and resort is indicative of the brewery’s inventiveness on both of these fronts.

And so, for stretching Mexican beer styles and helping to promote craft beer in the outrageously oligopolistic Mexican market, my pick for Latin American Brewery of 2012 is Microcervecería Gourmet Calavera.

Thursday: 2012′s Australasian Brewery of the Year!

U.S. Brewery of the Year: New Glarus Brewing Company

As per my Canadian experience documented yesterday, profligate tasting opportunities made selection of an American brewery of the year a task that was, to say the least, daunting. I sampled more great beer in 2012 from a larger range of breweries in the United States than I have in any year past, and choosing one to highlight above the others was not a task I relished.

Still, choices must be made, and when I thought back on all the beers I tasted over the past twelve months, I realized that no brewery provided quite as many “wow” moments as did the Wisconsin stalwart, New Glarus Brewing.

A look through my notes reveals the tale to be told: marzipan-esque Enigma, part of the “Thumbprint” series of beers we can only hope to see return; gorgeous, complexly fruity Serendipity, a lovely brew crafted as a place-holder for the Wisconsin Belgian Red when the local cherry crop failed; unorthodox Dancing Man Wheat, strong at over 7% alcohol with barbecued banana notes and white peppery spice; cherry pie-esque Cherry Stout, another “Thumbprint” beer; restrained Snowshoe; Kentish-American Hop Hearty; the list goes on and on.

Of course, the rap against New Glarus is Spotted Cow, the ubiquitous Dairy State beer some deride as overly simplistic and dull. But if its success is what allows Deborah and Dan Carey to produce such a remarkable line-up of fringe, occasional and one-off brands, then I say “Let it flow!”

The sole negative, as I see it, is that you can only buy New Glarus beers in Wisconsin, which is tough on the rest of us, but a sign of the Careys commitment to their motto: Drink Indigenous.

For great beer and tremendous growth in their home market, New Glarus Brewing is my choice as U.S. Brewery of the Year for 2012.

Wednesday: 2012′s Latin American Brewery of the Year!