The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.
What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.
There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.
I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.
Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.
As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).
As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.
Best UK Cask Beer
To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.
This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.
That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.
Best UK Keg Beer
This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.
Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.
Best Overseas Draught Beer
I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…
Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.
Best Collaboration Brew
Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.
On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.
Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.
Best Overall Beer
Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.
Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.
Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.
Best UK Brewery
I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.
Best Overseas Brewery
Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.
Best New Brewery Opening 2013
Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.
Pub/Bar of the Year
Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.
Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.
Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.
Beer Festival of the Year
If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.
I’m not joking.
I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.
You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.
It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.
Never again etc.
Supermarket of the Year
Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.
Independent Retailer of the Year
I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.
Online Retailer of the Year
Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.
Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.
Best Beer Blog or Website
I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.
Best Beer App
Untappd – if only for the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.
Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:
Last night I saw Garrett Oliver in The Hanging Bat, wearing a banging hat #truestory
— Zak Avery (@ZakAvery) July 12, 2013
Best Brewery Website/Social media
@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.
BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word
After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.
Here’s to next year.