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My New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to be an omnivorous drinker: to appreciate beer in both quality and quantity. I had long been beguiled by promises of sexier beer—aged in bourbon, wine, brandy, and raw oak barrels; inoculated with yeast strains from far-off lands; infused with enough hops to endanger the species—but for every big beer I enjoyed, three others assaulted my palate. There’s a time and place for triple bocks aged on lees of Malaysian kumquat wine, but at the end of the day I want to come home to a beer that tastes like, you know, barley and hops.
Though I won’t deny that alcohol has a fun side, at a point it becomes a barrier to enjoying another beer. Sometimes I want to taste a good beer without the side effects (if Fuller’s made a nonalcoholic version, their buttery London Pride would replace my morning oatmeal). In 2010, while creative upstarts flourished and boutique breweries mugged for the cameras, America’s most celebrated beer makers returned to their roots with quietly seductive “session” beers, the wonderfully English term for beers tame enough to accompany you through the night.
So here are my top five beers of the year. Two are brand new; three are new to D.C. Hopheads, you’ll note there’s not a single IPA on the list. Feel free to retaliate and tell me everything I missed, such as, say, Oskar Blues Gubna. But at least I can enjoy all of my favorites in one sitting.
5. Victory Mad King’s Weiss: New ideas are churning at Victory, which sent a number of small-batch kegs to D.C. in 2010, such as their Pursuit Pale Ale series, which tested various configurations of Simcoe and Citra hops. The year’s standout was Mad King’s Weiss, a brewpub standby that appeared briefly in August at Room 11 and ChurchKey. It’s an all-around hefeweizen, squarely within the German tradition but hitting every note—from wheat to honey to clove—with a little more oom-pah.
4. Saison du BUFF: I’m loathe to admit liking any beer with its own cinematic trailer, but there’s no ignoring this collaboration between Dogfish Head, Victory, and Stone. It’s brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, but what sounds like a nauseating gimmick actually makes for a zesty, herbaceous saison. Balanced with citrus-heavy hops, it really is a new American riff on the classic European farmhouse ale.
3. Hopfenstark Saison Station 16: Rough and spicy, rye is becoming a popular ingredient in brewing, and it’s most at home in a bone-dry saison. In Hopfenstark’s hands, the rough-hewn malts meet lemon notes and lactic, sourdough tang for a memorable take on the style from one of the bright spots in the burgeoning Québécoise brewing scene.
2. 21st Amendment Bitter American: With Bitter American, brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan propels the growing West-coast trend of low-alcohol, high-hop ales. Notably, Stone takes a crack at one with Leviation Ale, but the complexity O’Sullivan achieves with his rich specialty malt makes the others pale in comparison (ahem). The 21st Amendment brewpub in San Francisco has poured the summer seasonal since 2007, and after making its D.C. debut last year, it will see full release in cans come summer 2011.
1. Sierra Nevada Tumbler: The last two years have been huge for Sierra Nevada, which has put out 10 new beers—a stunning number considering the size and ubiquity of craft beer’s friendly green giant. Its 30th Anniversary series and collaboration with Dogfish Head have drawn the most publicity, but while they were tinkering with imperial stouts and barleywines, Sierra Nevada quietly perfected the world’s least assuming beer style: the brown ale.
In the 1990s and the first half of the last decade, brown ales were staples of brewpubs and start-up breweries; they were crowd-pleasing, mostly identical, and usually not terrible. A few breweries still produce good versions, notably Smuttynose, Avery, and Bell’s, but the style has been falling out of favor—just this year Goose Island discontinued theirs. Meanwhile, the traditionalists at Sierra Nevada took a crack at the style and created the best brown around. Tumbler opens and closes with dry autumnal roast, bookending a rich, lingering body of chocolate and maple. (A touch of smoked malt helps set the mood.) A year ago, I’d have laughed in your face if you’d told me my new favorite drink would be a plain-Jane brown ale, the neglected fogey of beers. But between traditional hefeweizens, hoppy session ales, and comforting shades of brown, it seems plain is making a comeback.