We’re taking another resurfacing breath from winter vacation today to bring you this most important of lists. Because odds are that you’re celebrating New Year’s Eve, and statistically speaking you probably drink alcohol and may be itching for a few suggestions to impress your snooty friends with. So with those considerations in mind we turned to Kevin Conway, guitarist of the band El Drugstore and one of the most discerning palates in metal, to request a rundown of the top beers of 2014. Cheers.
El Drugstore are currently a few snifters deep into the writing of a new record. You can check out the band’s most recent recording, Plague Ship, at this location.
This list is a reflection of a few simple facts. First, I spend way too much of my disposable income on beer. Second, I am constantly surrounded by awesome people that I enjoy drinking beer with who are always willing to split a box of expensive beers being shipped from some obscure location, join me on a trek to some bar to taste something new and weird, and occasionally gift me with something delicious just for the hell of it. Third, I luckily take notes on every new beer I taste, because there’s no way I’d ever remember all this otherwise.
These are my 25 favorite beers out of the 700 or so I tasted in 2014. Please keep in mind that I am not an expert. I have no formal training and I find that I sometimes perceive what I taste in beer differently than everyone else in the room. Your mileage may vary.
1) Hill Farmstead Arthur – After many years of waiting, this was my first ever Hill Farmstead experience, courtesy of the one and only Dave Witte. I can say with certainty this brewery lives up to the hype. This one is simple and perfectly balanced with touches of citrus, saison yeast, tartness and lactic notes.
2) Lawson’s Finest Double Sunshine IPA – Another super-hyped beer courtesy of Dave. Double Sunshine doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, but it’s just the best example of a double IPA you could possibly dream up. This beer is very bright with a great crisp mouthfeel. I could drink this all day.
3) Pizza Boy Permasmile – Pizza Boy still makes it tough to drink their bottled sours. Outside of the massive bottle release they did earlier this month, most of their sours require you taking a 750 ml bottle to the head in one sitting since they’re only for on-site consumption. Permasmile was so good I didn’t mind the challenge. This beer balances great peach and apricot notes with just enough barnyard funk to keep it from going off the rails.
4) Allagash Coolship Resurgam – This is one of the most complex beers I tasted all year. Peach, apricot, musty funk, strawberry and a peppery backbone come together in one cohesive package. It’s hard to fathom how so many disparate elements can come together so seamlessly.
5) Prairie Artisan Ales Funky Gold Mosaic – The funk in this “funky” beer is present but understated, coming together with nice citrusy and leafy hops to create something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
6) The Ale Apothecary Be Still – This was a weird one but unbelievably memorable and well-made. Bottled intentionally flat, Be Still gives you heavy doses of red wine, coffee, cocoa, leather and some lactic notes. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s a beer you’ll never forget if you can get your hands on it.
7) Prairie Artisan Ales Bomb! – Bomb! is living proof that not every stout needs to get stuffed into a barrel.
8) Almanac Sourdough Wild – Almanac pumped out great sour beers all year long, but most of them ended up tasting pretty similar to me. To be honest, I didn’t really taste sourdough in this beer. Nonetheless, Sourdough Wild really stood out from the pack with a staggering array of tropical fruit flavors balanced by lactic notes.
9) Stone Fyodor’s Classic – This is the bourbon barrel aged version of Stone’s omnipresent Imperial Russian Stout. The IRS is already one of the best deals on the market, being easily had just about anywhere for about $7. Imagine all that goodness amped up with some syrupy bourbon deliciousness. This seems like an obvious one for them to put into distro at some point. A man can dream, right?
10) Russian River Pliny the Elder – Yep, finally got to try Pliny the Elder this year. And it’s really good! Much like Double Sunshine, you have a pretty good idea what this beer is going to taste like before you even drink it. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the best hoppy beers you’re ever going to taste.
11) Pizza Boy Sunny Side Up – Little Amps! Coffee Edition – Pizza Boy makes a ton of variants of Sunny Side Up, and they’re all very good. The Little Amps edition is very straight forward with tons of coffee, chocolate, plus some caramel, fudge and marshmallow as the beer warms. This one is set apart from the rest by its surprisingly strong carbonation. They’re putting this in bottles now, so seek it out if you find yourself in the Harrisburg, PA area.
12) Kane A Night To End All Dawns – I am an unabashed homer for Kane, and ANTEAD is probably my favorite beer they’ve ever made. That said, the 2013 bottling was all over the place. Every time I cracked one it tasted like a completely different beer. This year’s version brought the consistency it so desperately needed. I just wish obtaining this beer didn’t require standing in line for 6 hours.
13) Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Bomb! – I mentioned before that Bomb! is proof that not every stout needs to end up in a barrel. That said, putting Bomb! into rum barrels is a very tasty idea.
14) Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek – This is a wonderful combination of Hostess Cherry Pie filling, barnyard funk and a champagne-like mouthfeel. Their Intense Red kriek is nice if you can get it, but this is vastly superior.
15) Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout – Instead of flying to Tampa and dealing with the mass of humanity fighting over this beer at Hunahpu Day, I just bought this off an auction site. This also lives up to the hype! It’s another fine offering in the growing lineage of adjunct stouts with chili peppers, but man am I glad I didn’t get on a plane to get this beer. Drink this happily if you can get your hands on it without losing your mind, but Prairie Bomb! is better, will cost you less and is way easier to obtain.
16) Hill Farmstead / Kissmeyer / Cambridge Nordic Saison – Witte hooks it up again! This collab is about as clean of a beer as you can imagine, delivering great citrus and grain notes in a lightly tart package. This Shaun Hill guy sure knows what he’s doing.
17) Alewerks Bitter Valentine – Now Witte comes through with the local Virginia flavor (have I mentioned what a nice guy Dave is? He’s pretty good at drumming too. You probably knew that part already though). I’ve been obsessed with Alewerks ever since I tasted Cafe Royale for the first time, and Bitter Valentine was near the top of my list to hunt down. It’s dank, citrusy and grassy with a substantial mouthfeel. I really wish Alewerks would distribute outside of Virginia.
18) North Coast Old Rasputin Anniversary Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout – There was a time when this beer used to sit on shelves in NJ, but I haven’t seen it around here in a few years now. I happened upon this year’s edition while out in Pittsburgh and was happily reminded of why I loved this so much. The barrel treatment is the dominant characteristic here. I used the word “Unbelievable” as an entire sentence twice in my notes on this one. I may have been drunk.
19) Prairie Artisan Ales Puncheon – Prairie just might have been my favorite brewery this year, and Puncheon was another great addition to their pantheon of diverse offerings. The oaky sweetness from the barrel treatment cuts the funk and citrus notes just enough to give you an awesomely balanced experience. I can’t stress this enough. If you live in Shelton Bros. distro territory (since I’d imagine there aren’t too many people from their home base of Krebs, Oklahoma reading this), seek out all Prairie brews you can get your hands on.
20) Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine – I refuse to chase trucks around, so I regularly get shut out on all the sweet adjunct variants Goose Island puts out every November (anyone want to hook me up with a Vanilla Rye?). For some stupid reason, the Bourbon County Barleywine sat on shelves forever last winter. That was dumb. It’s awesome. You should have bought it.
21) Thomas Hooker Liberator Dopplebock – We all love German-style beers from Connecticut don’t we? Liberator presents itself more like a stout than a dopplebock, but it’s so tasty I find myself hard-pressed to complain about it being slightly off-style.
22) Jester King Mad Meg Farmhouse Provision Ale – I’m not enough of a baller to acquire all of the brewery-only releases Jester King pumps out, although I’m hoping to cash in some chips to get my hands on Atrial Rubicite in the near future. That said, I’ve done my best to keep up on the stuff they’ve put into limited distro. Mad Meg is for sure the king of that hill. It’s very underwhelming out of the gate, but really opens up as it warms. It has great peach and citrus notes with a backbone of musty funk.
23) Lost Abbey Framboise de Amorosa – People kill Lost Abbey for their quality control issues, but they know how to deliver a delicious beer when it manages to show up at your door carbonated. Framboise de Amorosa is no exception. This is a delicious lactic raspberry dream.
24) Victory Oak Horizontal – Oak Horizontal is the bourbon barrel aged version of their already awesome barleywine, Old Horizontal. The barrel profile on this beer is a dead ringer for that of Victory’s dearly departed stout, Dark Intrigue. Oak Horizontal is a barleywine and perhaps not as good overall as Dark Intrigue, but it brings me back to some of my favorite formative beer experiences.
25) Russian River Supplication – I got to taste a pretty wide cross section of the Russian River “tion” series of sours this year. They’re all good, but much like Almanac’s offerings, a lot of them taste similar to me. Supplication stood out with its tart cherry and musty funk goodness.
As enjoyable as my beer exploits were this year, the price point on a lot of these fine beverages is a little steep. I humbly submit that there is probably a ton of great beer right in your own backyard that is delicious and won’t cost you an arm and a leg to acquire. Whether you focus on that stuff or go nuts trying to chase down the newest hyped-up release, life is way too short to drink shitty beer. Cheers.