And I was catching my breath
Staring out an open window, catching my death
And I couldn’t be sure
I had a feeling so peculiar, that this pain would be for
Cliché after cliché about how unusual the previous calendar year has been but it feels necessary to acknowledge it. I don’t think I’ve let a year with this blog go by without referencing the previous 12 months in some way, whether through a brief review, divination or the Golden Pints awards format.
Last year I didn’t do the traditional Golden Pints for the first time, but split across two posts were my nods to the beers, breweries, media and events that had made my year enjoyable. This time I have opted for just a list of my favourite beers from 2020. Beer is subjective so many here I haven’t seen referenced elsewhere. However, considering the sheer amount of small pack I consumed last year, I find it intimidating that I haven’t tried the vast majority of beers being referenced on other peoples “Beer of the Year” lists; on blogs, podcasts or various social media forums.
Firstly, a quick word on the potential breweries of the year. Those that would have been shortlisted either have a beer below or are referenced somewhere. These tend to include the breweries that provide a wide range of styles, rather than the typical best sellers and, bar the odd one or two, tend to remain my favourite breweries at all times, not just over the last 12 months. The breweries of the year would include Torrside Brewing, Burning Sky Artisan Brewers & Blenders, Marble Brewery, Red Willow Brewery, Burnt Mill Brewery, Elusive Brewing, Abbeydale Brewery, Thornbridge Brewery, North Riding Brewery, Siren Craft Brew and a really welcome return to form for the excellent Cloudwater Brew Co.
For events, the only one that I attended was the Manchester Beer & Cider Festival 2020 in January which I think had its best year yet. I congratulate the many that managed to move events to online but personally I didn’t want to spend too many hours on Zoom, instead choosing to embrace the opportunity to be with my family on an evening as much as possible. Ironically if more of the online events occurred around tea time, when I would normally be in the pub, I would have been more likely to participate. But the Beer O’Clock show podcast events and the Independent Salford Beer Festival were particular online beer highlights, the latter being an example of how to do things in a format that we would all still enjoy if this goes on for longer than we hope.
As for the year ahead, I have no intention in predicting what will happen in the industry, nor do I want to contemplate the future of pubs further than I already have. But yes, I would trade every beer in my stash and any future online purchases for just one pint of cask poured bitter in a pub. I do hope that some more beer blogs from opinionated enthusiasts emerge, as newer bloggers seem too concerned about rocking the mash tun to offer one. And if not blogs then podcasts, video media, whatever it may be as many suffer from the lack of actual opinion. Everyone is a journalist, nobody is a columnist. It didn't used to be that way.
Enough of that though. On with the beers that I felt worth mentioning in 2020.
It may seem like an unnecessary mention considering this beer will make any end of year list as long as it is in production, but my relationship with Jarl took on a different sense this year. Having it on cask in a pub only once, over a memorable couple of days in the local where I stayed until I could drink no more, it became the first beer I ordered in mini-keg when the pubs closed. It was the only beer I ordered more than once in mini-keg,
On first order, the existence of beer served this way was still quite rare, but it really helped me adapt to my publess life, as somebody whose black dog loomed heavy over the closed public houses. Didn't I say I just want to drink Jarl? It turns out that particular mantra is still correct even when sat in a spidery potting shed. I will be willing to travel miles and miles for a pint of it in the pub when the day finally comes, even if it is a day return to Edinburgh.
Whenever I am on a beer retail website, the first word into the search box is still "smoke" and anything that is retrieved in the results is added to the cart; perhaps the reason I've had a ridiculously spicy smoked barbecue sauce in the fridge for two years. I still hope for the day that British breweries fully embrace the rauch, though preferably not in the fake way we have taken on mild and lager recently.
This beer was one that fell into an online purchase
just by being smoked but it turned out to be further proof that the fumes belong
in beer. It certainly seems more prevalent north of the border anyway. I don't
get on hugely with regular Blackhouse, though I imagine it is much better
served from a handpull. However this lovely mix of meaty and peaty flavours and
a beautiful smooth finish made this beer the first five star review of
2020. It had, to turn a phrase, everything that I am looking for.
Burnt Mill Brewery - Gardens of Green: Nelson & Amarillo - (6.2% Dual Hop IPA)
Not the last choice from Burnt Mill and they could have made up a huge chunk of this list. Burnt Mill are the only brewery that don't do an enormous range of styles - and I mean that with the greatest of respect - that I still hold in very high regard. Unlike some of Instagram's other favourite teams, I find this brewery's ability to homogenise all the types of IPA currently on the market into beer that doesn't insist on regional nomenclature quite exceptional.
This Gardens of Green series expressed that. The picture is actually of the delicious Idaho & Wai-iti version but it was the Nelson & Amarillo combination that I tasted at the start of the year that made me salivate (unfortunately the can was binned before it was snapped.) A delicious showcase of hops that remained both juicy and a little bitter. Delicious stuff.
Like Jarl, there is no necessity in mentioning this beer as long as it exists. However, this year signalled the first time I'd really enjoyed Sonoma in a format other than handpulled cask. I've always been able to give or take it in keg and I really felt that the initial bottle run did nothing to present the beer as inteneded. But in can format it became a different beast. No, it became the same beast. It was like tasting the beer that excited me in the Crown & Kettle for the first time over 5 years ago. I quickly ordered a case of 24. And then more.
I would still trade it all in for just a mouthful of it perfectly served through a sparkled han... you get the idea by now.
Burnt Mill Brewery - Great Bitter Lake - (8% Double IPA)
I said they'd be back and they could have been back several times with their West Coast beers. I bought a six pack of this excellent Lost & Grounded collaboration - Big Thaw 2; a 6.8% West Coast Style IPA. It could have easily made this list. As could the 5.5% smaller sibling of Great Bitter Lake, simply named Bitter Lake - one of the best American style Pale Ales I had.
However, just beating them for its no nonsense sheer bitterness, purchased by the box full after I had asked Twitter where I could find such a beast, is the 8.0% Great Bitter Lake. It is bitter. Piney, resinous and just effin' bitter. It got better as the box got emptier, showing once again that IPAs always need a couple of weeks to settle down. Put me down for a box of any rebrew.
Cloudwater Brew Co - A Gentle Nod to Welcome Visitors - (9% American Barleywine)
A really strong year for Cloudwater, who seem to have collected the required money for the full set of beer style encyclopedias, having previously only been able to purchase the IPA volume with a spare $50 found in Chandler's jeans. A couple of Red Ales, Imperial Stouts, an English Barleywine and a Baltic Brown could have all featured on this list. But this beer... this beer...
Now I'm a fan of American Barleywines and know exactly what I'm looking for. I also know exactly what I miss as so many of the excellent ones that used to be imported over here have stopped in the last 3 or 4 years. This one though didn't require tasting notes. It had the *stop, push, stare* effect. The uncontrollable shoulder pop to acknowledge how tasty it is. It was fantastic.
The name and the can are also gorgeous.
When pubs reopened in July, I didn't venture to too
many. I mostly stayed local and in places I knew would operate safely. It was
brilliant to be back drinking cask ale again, though understandably the choices
weren't as varied week to week, with limited distribution. However, there was
so much North Riding beer in that time that it hardly mattered. Various
iterations of their Session IPA kept me entertained on many after work pub
I had stated a few times online that I just wasn't getting on with Mosaic as a hop in 2020. So many of the beers I was having with it were tasting slightly fudgey to me; almost reminiscent of diacetyl. Even North Riding's wonderful Mosaic Pale Ale.
It was, in horrid irony, on the final day of my local being open in October that I had a pint of Mosaic that tasted as I had always recalled it. It was bursting with aroma and so much flavour. It was stunning. "Drink us dry" the pub had instructed as they were set to close. And I did. A memorable way to have my final taste of cask served beer to this date. A visit to the brewpub was very much on the agenda last year until *all of this.* Hopefully soon.
Magic Rock Brewery - Magic 8 Ball - (7% Black IPA)
Despite its denigration by Jim (of Jim’ll Paint It fame,) the Black IPA was much more available in 2020 in comparison to previous years. There were outstanding examples from Red Willow and Leviathan, as well as a late Double Black IPA entry from Northern Monk that could easily have made this list. (I still have a can left so there is still time for it to jump into the running for 2021.) I also drank a full mini-keg of Torrside's Late to the Party and that was as excellent as ever.
The more ceremonious entries came from two resurgences of old. One being Thornbridge’s Wild Raven appearing in cans for the first time and tasting terrific. However, it was the return of Magic Rock’s Magic 8 Ball, some 8 years after my first time of it that I heralded. Coincidentally, I didn’t care much for this beer upon initial release, finding the balance a little off for my tastes. so any insistent calls for its return were not from my own corner. But this year’s returning version struck a perfect chord between dry roastiness, tropical fruit and crisp bitterness. It was, ahem, magic.
People have every right to take an ethical stance on their food and drink purchases and I have no problem with that. From a quality perspective though, Magic Rock have had an excellent year, with Ringmaster and High Wire tasting outstanding on cask and the supermarket versions of Cannonball and Dark Arts being much more consistent than other offerings on the shelves.
Whilst Black IPA felt rejuvenated this year, Red IPAs proved elusive still. Having said that, they did still exist through breweries such as Elusive Brewing and the excellent Sleepless from Red Willow.
It shouldn't have come as surprise that the brewery that brought us Liquid Mistress would be able to pull out the Red IPA of the year and one of my favourite beers from the last 12 months. This was the sort of fruity and bitter number that makes it difficult to understand why this style has never been popular. As with every year, I hope to see more soon.
Incidentally this was the "classic" version of this beer. I didn't try the nitro version and had little interest in it.
I didn't document my beer drinking on Untappd as thoroughly as usual last year, but I still try to keep the log up as much as I can to remind myself of trends. This year it showed a 6 month lull where no beers received a 5 star rating. Book-ending that period was the afore-mentioned American Barleywine from Cloudwater - and this.
Those of us that drank Cloudwater's early releases have been puzzled as to why the hopfenweisse was removed from the roster, garnering most of the best reviews amongst drinkers that I know. I hoped that this Double version would mark a triumphant return but I wasn't prepared for the shoulder popping goodness. "All the banana and all the tropical juice, blitzed together like some obscene holiday fishbowl" read my Instagram review. To some that probably sounds unpleasant but it was a corker. Incredible stuff.
2019 was supposedly the return of "West Coast" style beers but I, like many of my peers, found them all ... soapy. Whether breweries were afraid of bitterness or had simply forgotten what they were doing, I was really concerned that my taste recollection of the Pale Ale/IPA style that I loved was either a deceptive memory or lost to the archives.
There were still some failings this year and most of them came as the ABV moved over 7%. Some of them were from breweries that only started life as the trade to low bitterness had begun. It almost felt as if they were purposely making bad West Coast IPAs so that they had an excuse to never make one again. As witnessed above though, some were doing it excellently.
It was in the 5%-6% range, so often forgotten now, that this style produced some amazing beers. The earlier mentioned Burnt Mill Bitter Lake was a good example. But on the shortlist for this blog also came Burning Sky's Out of Vogue, Duration Brewery's Baubles of Vanity and the Track/Thornbridge collaboration Time to Think. Any of those four beers could perfectly showcase the style to somebody unsure as to what the scene has been missing.
Then came Oregon Trail. I'd heard much about it, mostly across numerous podcasts. I knew I was going to like it but that didn't prepare me for it being faultless. Faultless. It does what so many of us have been asking for perfectly. And that is all I can say about it.
Torrside Brewing/IMBC - 3 or More Beards in Conversation - (11% Imperial Black IPA)
Another year, another end of year review that could be taken up by just Torrside beers. Some were brewed this year, some were not. Without glancing at an app I could have listed White Barleywine, King Bugbear, Impending Sense of Doom, Centennial Imperial Porter, Perfect Circle, Time Capsule, Imperial Fire Damage, Valour, Imperial Mild, One Way Ticket to Pluto, I'm Spartacus, Charm Offensive, various iterations of American Barleywine, Rauchwine, various iterations of Heavy Rauch and a number of the Dogs of War series.
It was this collaboration with Indy Man Beer Con (sadly missed this year) that stayed with me though. I love Black IPAs and Torrside certainly know how to make everything Imperial strength but this was still a pleasant surprise. "Oh fuck off" I kept repeatedly saying to nobody whilst drinking this in my shed. "Oh fuck off." Because occasionally I wonder if I have given Torrside unwarranted immunity that makes me love almost everything they do. Then I drink a beer like this and think "oh fuck off" as I'm still wittering on about it to a largely disinterested household 4 hours later. It was very good.
As I could write and write about the beers I've enjoyed, I will hold it there for this year. For completion's sake, the below beers were to be mentioned in this blog before I realised it was going to be this length. Some were already mentioned in the prose.
· Burning Sky - Out of Vogue
· Burnt Mill/Lost & Grounded - Big Thaw 2
· Alpha Delta - Attis
· Red Willow - Sleepless
· Thornbridge Brewery - Halcyon
· Cheshire Brewhouse - Gibraltar Porter
· Newbarns - Extra (Dry-Hopped Pilsner)
· Track/Thornbridge - Time to Think
· Marble/North Riding – Chocolate-Ginger Blended Porter
Without resorting to a prolonged outro, 2020 was a year of reflection. A look back on previous sporting events, as current ones were put on hold. A look back at old soap storylines, as new episodes couldn't be produced. A look back on the events we had shared, as future ones were postponed. In beer drinking, a look back at this year shows habits from any previous year and how little I change. Smoked beers, Barleywines, Black IPAs, Red ales and west coast style pales. These are the beers I have always loved and, whilst I do not deride the different, I do not pretend to be on a beer journey that is to suddenly change direction any time soon. These are the styles I enjoy and long may they keep being produced.
Happy New Year. Stay Safe. Stay Honest. Stay Loving.