My Top 10 Beers of 2013

I won’t call this post “The Best Beers of 2013,” because I haven’t had them all. Also, it’s not always the beer, but the friends, family, or experience that make the beer something memorable. Beer is both a communal and personal experience, and these experiences are mine.  You can enjoy these beers too! Just bike 550 miles, learn to homebrew, and be willing to break into a brewery.

#10 – Bruges Zot – De Halve Maan Brewery – Bruges, Belgium

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The perfect beer for a late night Belgian bar crawl with beer loving, film critiquing, Brits.
On our La Tour de Trappe adventure we met some really awesome people. The two most memorable were Rob Bayley and Louise Boyd, the crazy film reviewers over at Goats in the Machine. Now we had a LOT of beers with these two, but one beer will always stand out, and that is Bruges Zot. We drank our way across Bruges, but this was the beer that we drank to end the night. This is a really great Belgian Pale Ale that is fruity, hoppy, and incredibly lively. You can find it in the US so I suggest picking it up and giving it a try.

#9 – Ypres – De Struise Brouwers, Belgium

This is a double barrel aged Flemish Oud Bruin aged for two years in Bourgogne and Wild Turkey barrels. It is both sour and sweet. It is thick and dark brown. It smells and tastes of sour cherries, wine, oak, caramel, vanilla, and coca, with wood and whiskey in the finish. It is hard to find but I have seen it at Dawson’s in Severna Park for those of you in Maryland.

This beer is not only incredibly tasty, but reminded me of our ride through Ypres on our trip across Belgium. If you’re not familiar with World War I history then you should know that Ypres was the site of five major battles, and was one of the locations that participated in the unofficial Christmas truce between the British and the Germans. Total casualties at Ypres were over 850,000. This is a very Flemish beer, named after a Flemish town. It’s impossible to look at this bottle, drink this beer, and not think about what happened at Ypres.

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This beer also took me back to college when I studied in Germany and visited the World War I battlefield of Verdun, France. That trip was with some great friends that I studied with in Schwäbisch Gmünd. This beer not only took me back to that trip, but also reminded me of my time studying in Germany, travelling Europe, and sharing those experiences with some incredible people.

To this day, when a toast is made and glasses are clanked together, you will always find me tapping the glass on the nearest bar or table before taking a sip. I do this to toast and remember all those friends that are not there to share that drink with me. This started when I left all those friends in Schwäbisch Gmünd, but over the years I have added many others to the list of those that I remember. This beer particularly brought those people to mind, and caused me to reflect on years past and friendships come and gone.

#8 – Orval – Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval, Belgium

Orval has always been a favorite of mine, but drinking one right after touring the Orval Abbey, and pairing it with cheese from the monastery, was a moment I never wanted to end. That could also have been because of the 60 miles of hills we had to ride to Rochefort when we left Orval.

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One of my favorite beers ever, and some cheese.

Orval was by far the most beautiful abbey that we toured, and the beer was one that I kept drinking throughout the trip, even when other beers were available. This Belgian Pale Ale is different from every other Trappist beer. While the other Trappists are full of malt and fruit esters, Orval goes a completely different direction. It gets its uniqueness from a number of factors including a unique water source, dry hopping, and Brettanomyces yeast, which likely came from wild yeast collected in the region around the abbey.

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The pool at Orval that gets its water from the same source as the brewery.

The water at Orval comes from a natural spring and is high in bicarbonates. This water contributes to the bitterness and dryness of the beer. The beer is also dry hopped to give it a floral and citrus aroma. The water, dry hopping, and Brettanomyces yeast create a very complex beer that has hints of pepper, citrus, hay, lemon, leather, horse blanket (I swear its a good thing), a slight sourness, and a sharp dry bite of a finish. This beer is incredibly complex but also incredibly simple.

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I totally could have solved this puzzle, but I stopped when I realized it represented the complexity of Orval’s flavor. Who would want to undo that?

#7 – White Thai – Westbrook Brewing, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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White Thai is like a Belgian Witbier but with lemongrass, ginger, and Sorachi Ace hops, a hop that was developed for the Japanese brewery, Sapporo. This hop has an intense lemon aroma and flavor, and sometimes has hints of cilantro and coconut. All of these flavors come together in White Thai to create this amazingly refreshing beer that pairs perfectly with most spicy Asian cuisines.

One of the main reasons White Thai made my list is that the wife and I ended up in Alabama for school during the first few months of 2013, and that is where we discovered this beer. White Thai reminds me of the family and friends we spent those months with, my classmates from school, and the incredible El Rey Burrito Lounge in Montgomery, Alabama where we first tried White Thai.

#6 – Aged Abt 12 – Brouwerij St. Bernardus, Watou, Belgium  

Abt 12 is an awesome beer. It’s actually the same recipe as Westvleteren 12 (often called the best beer in the world), with the only difference being the yeast. St. Bernardus even brewed the Westvleteren 12 for a number of years before the abbey had its own brewery, so they know what’s in it. I’ve had both beers on the same day, at their respective sources, and St. Bernardus Abt 12 is better. However, even the Abt 12 can be improved.

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Honestly, most beers probably taste amazing after a 70 mile bike ride.

On our La Tour de Trappe adventure we spent two nights at the bed and breakfast connected to the St. Bernardus brewery. That’s right, we slept at the brewery! This place was incredible and they gave us a key to the beer cabinet with all the St. Bernardus beer we could drink. On our second night we were joined by four other Americans and after a few Abt 12s one of the the other guests mentioned that he had read online that there was a secret door that went from the B&B to inside the brewery. Did I forget to mention that the staff leave the B&B/brewery once they give you your room and beer keys? We found that door. WE FOUND THAT GODDAMN DOOR!

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Translation: “Heavenly nectar within reach (and hidden behind our secret door).”

Inside were dust covered crates of Abt 12. Based on the bottle date they had been aging in cellar like conditions for at least five years. We accidentally knocked over a crate and shattered some bottles. Most bottles survived, but one had its cap popped off just enough that we could hear it hissing. We decided that too many bottles had died a needless death that night and this one should be ceremoniously put to rest by drinking the hell out of it.

This Abt 12 was one of the best beers I have ever tasted. It smelled like clove, raisins, plum, fruitcake, and sweet malt. The flavor was similar but it was incredibly smooth, creamy, and sweet. The clove was up front and quickly joined by fruitcake, honey, brown sugar, apple, pear, dried fig, dried date, and other dried dark fruits. It was sweeter than fresh Abt 12 and there was no hint of alcohol in this 10% ABV beer. Regular Abt 12 is one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted, and this aged bottle went a step further.

#5 – Sprøøs Jøøs Winter Warmer – The Pig and Hound Brewery, Annapolis, Maryland

Sproos Joos

In early 2013 I wanted to make a spruce beer. I think it was a combination of living in Annapolis and reading that spruce beers were popular in the American Colonial period. After doing some research I started noticing spruce trees around Annapolis. How I came about getting access to the first spruce tree is a long story, but let’s just say it involved a three piece suit, a croquet match, and a gay dinner party. All of those things came together to teach me that I had to wait until late-April/early-May for the soft green spruce tips to form. The tips are what you need to make a proper spruce beer that doesn’t taste like Pine-Sol®.

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Spruce tips, brought to you by hippie power.
When the tips started forming I roped the wife into joining me while we rode our bikes around town collecting the tips off of various trees around Annapolis. We looked and felt like dirty hippies on an urban foraging adventure. In the end it paid off and we got a few pounds of tips.

I worked on the recipe for a while. I have never put this much research into a beer, but I eventually settled on a modified version of Charlie Papazian‘s clone of Alaskan Brewing’s Winter Ale. The beer came out malty sweet, with flavors of dark caramel, pine, and citrus. The spruce really showed up toward the end and gave the beer a Christmas candy type flavor.

The beer ended up winning “Best Use of a Local Ingredient” at the Annapolis Homebrew Club’s Brews by the Bay fundraiser for the Annapolis Maritime Museum, and took second place at the 2013 MALT Turkey Shoot in the Spiced & Vegetable Beer category. This is the beer I was most proud of making in 2013. It’s the first beer I shared with Liz over at Naptown Pint, and it will become a fall & winter staple in this house for years to come. You can get the recipe here.

#4 – 9th Anniversary – Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. Fort Worth, Texas

Rahr was struggling when I left Texas for Guam in January 2007. I was slinging Rahr all across North and Central Texas throughout 2006, and things were improving for the brewery, but they still weren’t good. The delivery truck had been sold, almost all the staff had been let go, and Fritz, the owner, was handling almost every aspect of the operation by himself. The amazing volunteers at Rahr were the only reason beer was even making it onto shelves at this point. Fritz wouldn’t even let me invest money into the brewery because things were so dire that he was afraid it would all be lost. Things got so bad that Fritz and the family were getting ready to leave Texas so Fritz could take on another job at the same time that I was leaving for Guam to start another career.

It’s nearly seven years later and I just enjoyed my first bottle of Rahr 9th Anniversary. Fritz and the family moved back years ago to take over operations. The brewery is going strong and adding constantly adding new capacity. This beer not only represents a lot of hard hours put in by a lot of great people, but it is a damned delicious Belgian style ale. The aroma is full of soft grain, light fruit yeast esters, and a lot of lemon citrus due to more of those Sorachi Ace hops. The taste is very similar but with the addition of coriander, white pepper, and complex light malt flavors. If you’re in Texas, then pick at least two. Drink one now and age the other for a few months.

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Rahr beer, chips and salsa, and TCU Horned Frog Justin boots. This is Fort Worth, Texas.

#3 – Austin Homebrew’s 20th Anniversary Stout – BeeGone Brewery, Fort Worth, Texas

I have to be honest. I haven’t even tasted this beer. My dad and  brewed this up just before his birthday and it hasn’t even been bottled yet. But the point is that I brewed this with my dad. I have barely seen either of my parents since I left Texas and this was an opportunity to spend a day with my dad, drinking beer, enjoying the time together, and creating a (hopefully) great beer. Maybe I’ll get a chance to try this in the next few months.

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At this point it would have tasted like a molten hot kettle of burn.

#2 – Tsjeeses Reserva 2012 – De Struise Brouwers, Oostvleteren, Belgium

This #2 beer is actually the best tasting beer I came across in all of 2013. This is another one from our La Tour de Trappe trip through Belgium and The Netherlands. I had this beer in the former catacombs of an old church near the heart of Bruges, Belgium at a bar called t’ Poatersgat. It is a must visit if you are in Bruges.

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The location may have had a slight impact on my enjoyment of this beer.

The Tsjeeses Reserva 2012 has so many complex malt and spice flavors that I think I would still be at a loss to describe them all if I had a six pack in front of me. This is also one of the most mysterious beers I’ve come across. According to my research this beer could have been aged in bourbon, port, or oak barrels, but I have no idea which. I can say that this beer was full of  raisin, nutmeg, vanilla, oak, hints of rich earth, and loads of dark fruit flavor. I didn’t pick up bourbon, or port, so I have no idea what this was aged in, but it was incredible.

Those of you in Maryland may be able to find this at Dawson’s in Severna Park, but I don’t know anywhere else in the country that has this beer.

#1 – Brasserie Cantillon Zwanze Day 2013

My #1 beer for 2013 wasn’t the best tasting (that actually goes to #2) but it was the most rare, and one of the most memorable. It was the final beer of out La Tour de Trappe trip. A lot of beers from that trip made this list and that was because the entire trip was one of the most memorable in my life and many of the beers were fantastic. We talked about this trip for over three years, planned it for several months, and the trip itself could not have possibly been better (unless someone else had paid for it).

Cantillon’s Zwanze Day is a once a year event where a special beer is released all around the world at the exact same time. Bars from Belgium to Japan receive a single keg each, and begin pouring this rare beer all at once. Zwanze Day 2013 was our last full day in Belgium and this was such a great beer to end the trip.

The 2013 Zwanze was a top fermented Abbey style beer, meaning that it was brewed like a Trappist beer, but not made inside the walls of an Abbey or overseen by Trappist monks. What made this beer unique is that it was further fermented with the wild yeasts from Cantillon, blended with 10% Cantillon Lambic (a sour beer), and aged in various types of wooden barrels.

The beer was woody, earthy, musty, and fruity. There was apricot, sour peach, over ripe banana, a mineral water saltiness mixed with a caramel sweetness, and a slightly acidic sourness. There was very little carbonation, and it was almost creamy. It wasn’t like any Trappist and it wasn’t like any of Cantillon’s other sour beers, but it was also like both of those styles.

I drank this beer and reflected on the entire trip. Making new friends, and visiting old friends. Our pursuit of Trappist ales and Belgian sours was coming to an end and here were both of those beers in one glass. This was truly unique, the perfect final beer of our trip, and the crown jewel of my 2013 beer adventures.

We would have been morbidly obese in this photo if we hadn't biked the whole trip.
We would have been morbidly obese in this photo if we hadn’t biked the whole trip.

But wait there’s more!

Honorable Mention – Chubby Wumpkin Scottish Wee Heavy

Collaboration beer with Red Couch Brewing and The Pig and Hound Brewery

Technically this is a 2012 brew so it only gets an honorable mention. However, I still have bottles of this beer and it is actually better with age. This beer makes the list because it’s the beer I brewed at the very first Annapolis Homebrew Club brew-in, and I brewed it with my good friend Jay.

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Jay, managing my brand new brew rig on his own after I abandoned him to go pick up more ingredients. I’m a dick.
This beer ended up being one of the best beers I have ever brewed and one of the best Scottish ales I have ever tasted. This beer also ended up being a favorite of Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen in the summer of 2013. We drank this while discussing the fact that Annapolis water is excellent for brewing beer, and that some varieties of hops grow incredibly well here.

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Former Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen and Alderman Joe Budge discussing beer with me.
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