Well, I guess the first thing to say about 2006 is that it really didnít hold a lot of surprises. I knew from the outset I would find fewer new beers than the past couple of years and I did. I fell back to my old levels of just a shade over 600 new brews in the year. At the beginning of the year, I undertook my big beer trip, so it started off with lots of new beers, many of whom finished the year on my Best Of lists. But the back half of í06 was exactly what I thought it would be all along. Not much going on. I took a rare non-beer-related trip, something Iíve been meaning to do more of. And, somewhat against my will I might add, I scaled back my trips south of the border. But all in all, whatís shaken out has been just fine, a normal year of beerhunting, pretty much how expect 2007 to be as well. Iím not in a race with anybody.
So howíd things go in 2006? Letís see.
Best New Brewery:
Of course this is ďnew to meĒ. Iím going to go with Duck-Rabbit on this one. I didnít get a shot at their Baltic but I was really, really impressed with their Porter. I also thought their Brown Ale was excellent and enjoyed the Milk Stout. Itís true that there arenít all that many ďnew to meĒ breweries anymore, but I always find a few that are pretty damn good and Iíd say Duck-Rabbit is as good as any I found last year.
Travelling around the west coast youíll find lots of solid contenders here. There were a few I considered for this honour, but I think Iíve got to go with Pelican. Itís the total package. I mean, the pub itself isnít anything special and I didnít eat there but the setting just might be the best brewpub setting Iíve encountered. Certainly it matches up to the best in the Pacific Northwest and there are a lot of well-situated brewpubs up here. The beers are a rock solid lineup, especially India Pelican Ale and Tsunami Stout. Getting a crack at a four-vintage lineup of Stormwatcherís, the breweryís somewhat elusive barley wine, was a special treat that capped off a rainy visit. This year, I hope to get there in the summer, which must be a total zoo.
Iím starting to sour on the whole beer fest scene. I used to love the whole ticking thing but thatís gotten a bit oldÖespecially at fests where you end up ticking a bunch of crappy beers and leave the good ones behind because youíve already had them. And then you get too drunk and yeah, beer fests are starting to get old for me. But I did enjoy a return visit to the Oregon Brewerís Festival. The timing on Friday afternoon was bang-on for me to get all the great beers I wanted and get out before the crowds descended. With the weather perfect and Portland being the great beer city it is, I really felt at home at this fest. Sweet gig.
I donít know if I had a major contender for this. Little crawls like my jaunt around PDX after the OBF, my Circumnavigation of Mt. Hood Brewpub Expedition, the Uber-Duck Island stumble, and anything that ends up at Stumbling Monk tend to win the day for me. No clear cut winner in this category, just a lot of pretty solid crawls.
Anglo-American Beer of the Year:
Considering I didnít like last yearís at all, I was pretty happy with this yearís Fullerís Vintage Ale and the fact that I rated it under the glow of Christmas lights during a rare Vancouver snowstorm probably didnít hurt. Being able to taste the almost mythical Dave from Hair of the Dog and having it live up to the hype was pretty sweet as well.
But the best in this category went to a most unlikely contender, Corne de Brume from Ń líAbri de la TempÍte, one of the most remote microbreweries in the world. Iím not normally a fan of Scotch ales unless they are truly brilliant but this one sure as well was, and wins the category because it was the only beer I had this year that raised the bar for its style significantly higher.
Lager of the Year:
I didnít have any beer from Nynšshamns this year, which opened up the lager category. A surprise third place nod goes to Phantom Schwarzbier from utterly unknown (and way the hell off the beaten track) Methow Valley, in Washington State. Thereís a few other equally remote brewpubs in WA, some of which Iíve been to and some of which I vow to get to this year. The standard of brewing is just too high to leave their stories untold. Second place when to a beer whose reputation preceded it, Death and Taxes from Californiaís Moonlight Brewing. I canít believe Joet has these guys and Russian River, and Bear Republic, all in his backyard. Thatís sick.
The winner, however, was a beer that not too many other people flipped out over, Anchor Bock. I loved it. I split a bottle with Per and even he didnít think too much of it. What can I say, that one just really turned my crank with its rich malts.
Belgian & Specialty Ale of the Year:
Russian River checks in with both Rejection (I seem to like this one more than most folks) and Deification but my overall winner was the unique, immensely complex Abbaye de Bon-Chien from Switzerlandís Brasserie Franche-Montagne. Iíve always love this breweryís eccentric products and me having a vibe for what they do canít have hurt. But this is a seriously great beer.
Stout/Porter of the Year:
The previously mentioned Duck-Rabbit Porter came in thirdÖwhat a beauty. Second place goes to Coast Range for their Russian Imperial Stout. Pretty easy category to do well in, yes, but Iím really fussy about which ones I like and which ones I truly love. This I loved.
The winner was Narkeís Stormakts Porter. Not the silly barrel-aged thing thatís trendy around Ratebeer. That just seems like a great way to bugger up a near-perfect beer. Wow.
Wheat of the Year:
So many of BCís hefes taste great the first time out, only to falter on subsequent tests. Iíd say Tree Hefeweizen falls into that category but that ultra-malty bottle I shared with Poperinge in Calgary was good enough for third place this year. Number two, because I toss rye beers in with the wheats, is Big Timeís Powderfinger Rye. As an aficionado of Big Time, I had hoped to find this beer on my umpteen previous visits and it never happened. Their ryes were famous in the mid-90s and I still hadnít had it! Amazingly, I had to go to the OBF to find it, but it was worth it. Those classic Big Time recipes were all formulated by guys whoíve gone on to PNW brewing stardom and when you taste one itís not hard to see why.
But the best, defying tradition, is the Weizen-Bock from Washingtonís Alpine Brewing. This hardcore German brewer has been hit and miss for me in the past but they really nailed this yearís Weizen-Bock and everyone Iíve talked to whoís had it agrees. Brilliant stuff. Watch for it again this spring at the finer Seattle establishments and hopefully again at the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale in BC, where it stole the show last year.
Pub/Bar of the Year:
I like how when contemplating this category all my visits to Stumbling Monk seem too blurry to count it. Fair enough. Seattle has lots of choices. But I think this year I have no choice. One of my favourites is closing for good so in a year where it was as strong a contender as anybody anyway, I have to give it to the Rose & Raindrop. You donít find a beer bar like that everyday, and as a cornerstone of my last three visits to Portland it will definitely be missed.
Session of the Year:
It started at 9am with about a dozen barley wines and went downhill from there. The Hard Liver Barley Wine at Brouwerís featured just a killer selection of barley wines Ė hardly a dud in the bunch Ė and after drinking the heavy stuff all day we continued to a bunch of other pubs before ending at Stumbling Monk. It was a long session, but good company and great beer really made that a brilliant day of beer drinking. I canít wait for this yearís Hard Liver.
Pint of the Year:
Watching local brewpub Dix improve of the past year and a half, going from a place I was embarrassed to take people to a must-visit has been heartening to say the least. Following the progression of certain of their beers has been a lot of fun, too. Their IPA had been getting progressively better and then one day, at cask night no less, it reached Simcoe-bomb perfection. That IPA changes with each batch. It may never reach those heights again. But I lost myself in it for a while there. And thatís what I want in an IPA, to be washed away in a sea of hoppy goodness.
Brewpub Meal of the Year:
I had a lot more brewpub food than I usually do. Some of it was actually pretty good, although I did find myself tired of the whole beer-and-pizza matrix for a while there. Near as I recall, nothing I had anywhere really blew my mind. No real disasters either, thankfully, again to the best of my sometimes fuzzy recollection. Despite my misgivings about being stuck eating pizza, the pie at North Fork is among my favourites anywhere, and since I had some of that Iíll give it the nod.
Drainpour of the Year:
In Cuba, they not only have crappy bottled beers for the proletariat, like Hatuey and TinŪma, but they also have nameless draught swill thatís quite a bit cheaper. And really hard to find for foreigners. But with enough Spanish and a bit of luck, you too can try the ultra-thin, not only hopless but probably barleyless as well, ďclaroĒ of the people too poor to drink a twenty-cent bottle of Hatuey. Swill in the truest sense of the word.
Vintage Beer of the Year:
Not much of a year for this type of stuff, but letís face it, when one of the very few vintage beers you get to taste is poured by Alan Sprints and is called Dave, thatís pretty much all you need to know. I could have awarded this prize last July.
Beer Style of the Year:
Big, big year for both IPA and barley wine. The overall quality for both was quite high as well. Kind of makes it a toss-up. It was a balanced year overall, without too much dominance. I mean, IPA is a given with my travels on the West Coast. Barley Wine is also a given since I went to Hard Liver. Tough call. Iíll go with Barley Wine, if for no other reason than I had so many good ones that it restored my faith in a style Iíd gone sour on after too many sloppy, mailed-in examples.
Beer Glass of the Year:
Ever since I inherited Joe McPheeís glass collection Iíve used that worn-up Corsendonk glass a heck of a lot. Not as strong a winner in previous years but a winner all the same. Thanks, Joe.