Beer I’ve Been Drinking: 2012 Year In Review

Often, a writer’s final column of the year is a cop-out - a “best of” post that pulls paragraphs and content from previous columns and sleepwalks through the holiday week.

This is one of those times.

Of course, since this column started in September, I can’t rely on old content from previous columns. This is all fresh stuff, people. The best of what I experienced in 2012, from design to breweries to trends to beers.

Let’s get started.

2012’s Best Brand Refresh - Brewery Ommegang  Brewery labels and bottle design are woefully behind the times for most breweries, whether purposely (in an effort to capture brand nostalgia) or on accident (brewers are more focused on making great beer, not designing great bottles).

Sometimes, though, design and taste come together - see: Odell Brewing Company, Great Divide Brewing Co., Rush River Brewing Company - and it was Belgian-inspired Brewery Ommegang that made the biggest jump this year, transforming its jumble of mismatched bottle labels into a consistent and elegant brand. (Just be careful on that website - it’s a usability nightmare.)

2012’s Best Trend - Hoppy Light Beers  A point of clarification - I don’t mean light as in low-calorie, but light as in pale and clean. This isn’t a new thing, granted, but with the recent release of Schell’s Citra Pils and Boulevard’s 80-Acre, we’ve seen a definate uptick in Sioux Falls for hopped versions of styles that aren’t typically super-hopped. They’re different, but I sure like them a lot.

2012’s Most Tired Trend - Beer Collecting  Beer’s made to be consumed, not saved and resold. Yet, there’s an insane collectors side to beer - especially high-alcohol, low-distribution, high-cost beers like Surly Darkness, Bourbon County Stout or one-off stuff from Three Floyds. There are people who will go to all lengths not only to drink every beer, but to collect and trade the fancy stuff. They’re called “beer tickers,” according to Michael Agnew from Growler Magazine, and according to his article they may be ruining the beer scene.

It’s a great article that spotlighted the growing tendency of craft brew people to forget about enjoying beer and instead fight to try everything - to notch off another prize. And, it turns out, no one’s safe - despite my annoyance with the trend, even I fell into frantic collection mode. Ask me how many stores I went to looking for Bourbon County Stout, then ask how close I was to buying a $85 six-pack of Westvleteren 12.

On second thought, don’t ask. You don’t want to know.

2012’s Best New Brewery - Rush River Brewing  Well, it’s not really a NEW brewery - the opened in 2004, after all. But they’re new to ME, and that’s all that matters for this article.

Unfortunately for me, they’re one in a long line of great breweries from Wisconsin that don’t distribute to South Dakota, so my experience with Rush River has been almost exclusively at bars in Minneapolis and at beer tasting festivals. They’ve always been good, they have a great design sense, and they have a wide range of styles that ensure everyone can find something to love.

2012’s Most Lusted After Brewery - New Glarus Brewing  Aside of a taste of a friend’s Spotted Cow a few years back, I have never even touched a beer from New Glarus. They don’t distribute outside of Wisconsin. Even Minneapolis people need to travel over the border to get it. And travel they will - New Glarus is known nationwide for making fantastic beers.

Because I’m ridiculous (see “2012’s Most Tired Trend”) I’ve already planned a trip over the border in February, when I’ll buy New Glarus beers until my car bows under the weight. Then, I’ll hope and pray that everyone was right about how good it is.

My Favorite Beers of 2012  Let’s clarify this list - these are my favorite beers that I tried for the first time in 2012. Some of these beers are old. Some of them are commonplace. And, because I’m a nice guy, I made sure all five beers can be purchased in Sioux Falls. This led me to leave two others that would have made the top five: Surly Cynic (how had I missed this before?) and Stone Brewing’s 16th Anniversary Ale.

  1. Shift - New Belgium Brewing Shift broke onto the scene as the beer New Belgium used to launch their new 16-oz can lineup. I loved it immediately - the perfect summer beer if by “summer beer” you mean “delicious pale ale/lager hybrid.” And I do. That’s exactly what I mean.

  2. Chainbreaker White IPA - Deschutes Brewery Released earlier in the year, Chainbreaker takes the traditional IPA and puts a Belgian spin on it, a combination that I found worked really well, launching the beer over Black Butte Porter and Red Chair NWPA to claim the throne of “Favorite Deschutes Beer.” Light and refreshing in a way that traditional IPAs struggle to achieving (though, to be honest, this is more Belgian ale than it is IPA) Chainbreaker is not just a good Belgian-style IPA - it’s a damned good beer altogether.

  3. Deconstruction 2012 - Odell Brewing Company Wild ales are hit and miss - overcarbonated, too dry, too funky, too boring - but the hits are wonderful. Odell’s 2012 Deconstruction - a golden ale blended with various experimental beers in various aging barrels and fermented with wild yeasts - sounds like an exercise in extreme beermaking but instead is a wild ale full of hits. I’ve had different years and different vessels - at a festival, on tap, from the bottle - and each time has been great.

  4. Emerald Rye - Schell’s Brewing Company My introduction to the rye bite came with Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye, but this smoothed out rye lager from Schell’s quickly became my favorite rye beer upon its launch. It’s hopped to the gills (Excessively? Almost) yet still malty, with a bite of rye. It’s also beautiful - a ruby red color that is not emerald in any way. Beer names. I don’t get them.

  5. Ayinger Oktoberfest - Brauerei Aying It should come as no surprise that Germans can make a great Oktoberfest, but until this year I had almost exclusively drank American-brewed Oktoberfests - a trend that stopped as soon as Kerrie found Ayinger Oktoberfest on sale at HyVee. One drink and I was in love. In love not only with the beer itself, but with what an Oktoberfest really could be - malty, caramel-y and slightly sweet, light and drinkable, a far cry from the typically syrupy and overdone versions brewed by Samuel Adams or Schell’s.

Ayinger Oktoberfest also opened my eyes to the possibilities of German beer - especially those six-packs and big bottles that get shoved to the nether regions of the beer cooler, pushed off in favor of American craft brew. Maybe it’s their old-town labels and gothic lettering, or maybe it was the fact that I can’t read the marketing copy (it’s in German, you know) but I had always scanned right over the foreign craft brew section of the cooler.

No more, though. No more. Writing a beer column hasn’t just forced me to be on deadline and given me an opportunity to try new things - it’s also taught me a lot about beer culture and opened my eyes to new perspectives.

It just goes to show you - there’s so much out there, even a classic can fall under the radar. Here’s to another year of drinking new favorites and discovering old classics. Happy New Year, everyone.