Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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Joint winners:

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:

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.

Book review: Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge

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Craft Beer World

Mark Dredge

Dog ‘n’ Bone

pp 208 (hardcover)

Craft Beer World may be billed as ‘a guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man’, but it isn’t just a ‘beers to drink before you die’ book. Well, it is, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s also part introduction to beer, part style-guide, part editorial on what ‘craft beer’ is, and part food and beer guide.

The most refreshing aspect of the book is its pragmatic approach to beer styles and definitions. Instead of irritably correcting us on our misinformed opinion of what exactly porters, milds or IPAs are, Mark Dredge acknowledges that entire categories of beer are based on old ideas and misnomers, and that so much of what is being brewed right now is in a league of its own with few established classics because of how new some styles are. He doesn’t make the entire history of brewing easy to absorb in one sitting (no one can), but he does a stand-up job of making it easier to understand.

More impressively, Mark Dredge also makes a gallant effort to nail down his idea of what ‘craft beer’ is to satisfy English speakers across the world and comes out the other side unscathed. Whilst those of us who know Mark from his excellent blog will know that he is English, the book is written in US English to the sake of broad appeal. This is fine, even if some phrases or spellings jar with his clearly British phrasing and tone. This is Craft Beer World, after all, and a lot of countries get their beer mentioned. Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Spain and Chile are mentioned alongside the more traditional brewing countries, but the bulk of beers covered are from the USA, where Mark sees a land of constant innovation and brash, fearless experimentation.

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The real strength of Craft Beer World is in its variety of content. Forgetting the 350 beers for a second, there is still enough material here to form the basis of a solid beer book in its own right. From the guide to what beer is and how it is made, through to the significance of specific ingredients, it’s an extremely useful guide for a beginner. For those of us who are more well-versed in the subject matter, there is more advanced information like identifying off flavours, which is rarely mentioned in most books of this kind.

Of course, the meat of the book is the descriptions of the aforementioned 350 or so beers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are generally accompanied with an image of the bottle or label. Whilst it would have been nice to see more images of the beer itself in the glass, that’s not a task I would wish upon my worst enemy. As Dredge readily admits, he loves great graphic design, and gleefully points out beers that are as important for how good-looking the packaging is as the taste of the liquid inside. There really are some sensational labels, and the book can almost be used a flick-through primer of the current crop of leading beer label artists.

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As ever, Mark knows how to describe beer, not just in conventional tasting vocabulary, but also in a way that draws in laymen and connoisseurs alike. We occasionally get glimpses into fun-filled beer adventures, like him and his friends trying to find the Brooklyn Bridge or simply sampling another incredible round of unusual beers. Some are clearly very treasured, personal memories, and we feel privileged to have them shared with us. There are not as many of these as perhaps I might like, but as infrequent as they are, they do provide a vital context to the enjoyment of the beer being described. It’s an idea that recurs throughout the book: that beer is not just the liquid, but the moment. It’s not so arty-farty as terroir or a sense of time and a place, but something more tangible and personal like a memory (or, better still, a blurry memory) that anyone can understand.

It is also quite apparent that this book could have just as easily been about 350 breweries as 350 beers. When describing any particular beer, Mark can’t help but give us some tips on which other beers from the same brewery we should try, and sometimes this infectious enthusiasm and desire to give you as much information as possible reduces the description of the actual beer to just a line. However, it is this enthusiasm that keeps the book readable, and not just a dry reference tome that you might dip into from time to time. After all, many of us might not read a book like this in the same way we might read a novel. In the case of Craft Beer World, this is exactly what I did. I picked up every day, read about new beers and new breweries and new adventures, and felt like I was travelling along with the author. It’s a testament to Dredge’s skill as a writer, and the book makes it clear that he is a strong and important voice in British beer writing.

Whilst classic beers are acknowledged where necessary, this is a book about the best things in beer right now. The long-term value of this book will be as a time capsule of the best beer being made at the time of writing. This is more than a casual reference or coffee table book. This is a contemporary snapshot of the world’s best craft beer and the excitement that surrounds it, and this is a thing truly worth treasuring.

An interview with Mark Dredge about ‘Craft Beer World’

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Craft Beer World is the long-awaited debut beer book from Mark Dredge, author of the blog Pencil and Spoon and award-winning beer writer. I caught up with Mark at Camden Town Brewery to discuss his book.

So how do you feel now that Craft Beer World has been published?

Excited. I signed the deal to write the book in April 2012, and it’s come out just over twelve months later, so there was a tremendous amount of work.

For months I’ve been thinking ‘Why isn’t it out now? Why isn’t it out?’ because something like this dates almost immediately. Every time I go to a pub and think ‘Oh, this beer’s so good, it should be in the book…’

It’s exciting. There’s some terror as well because it’s so unlike a blog. With my blog, if there’s a spelling mistake, I can go back and tweak it. If there’s something factually incorrect, I can tweak it. But there’s a permanence to a book, something a bit more raw. You can feel the volume of work, something that took over your life. It kind of sucks something out of you and throws it into the pages…

The most exciting thing is opening it now and actually finding beers that I’d forgotten I’d written about. Reading it and being excited by what I’ve written, thinking ‘actually, that’s quite cool.’ I’m really happy with it.

What did you want to achieve when you set out to write the book, and do you feel you’ve achieved it?

I’m a massive beer geek, so I wanted to be excited by every beer in the book, or be interested in every beer in the book. That was the reason for any of them to be in there. What’s their history? Is there a really interesting story that’s related to the beer? Or is it just a really exciting beer that if I saw it in a bar, I’d think ‘I need to drink this beer’. That was what I wanted to achieve, and yeah, I think I have. There’s no beers in there that I think don’t deserve to be.

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Given that there’s quite of a lot of beer books that are ‘X Number of Beers You Should Try…’ – what sets Craft Beer World apart?

The ‘350 beers’ thing was attached to the title afterwards. We never sat down and thought ‘I think we should have 350 beers in this book,’ it was more a case of ‘how many have we written about so far? 350? All right.’

There’s so many books that focus on the classics, and they’re great, but I wanted to write a book about the new beers, the beers that have been inspired by the classics and where they’ve been taken to. Something like a Trippel, for example, is  such a classic, old style. It’s been brewed for 80 years or so in its current incarnation. Brewers can do so many things with that idea, whether it’s an American hopped version, or barrel-aged version, or if it’s got wild yeast in there. There’s this huge potential that you can take a particular type or style of beer as a starting point and then evolve it. I wanted to showcase what you can get from a single beer style, which is why the book is separated into beer styles to show the breadth you can get within a category.

You have taken a very pragmatic approach to styles. Instead of relying on just the traditional ones, you set out the  more esoteric styles like Belgian IPAs and give them just as much attention.

Definitely. There’s other styles in there which veer away from the classics and show other ones that have been inspired by them or are similar to them. Like the wheat beer category, for example, is really a wheat beer family, and it has a huge range of beers within it. Or something like dark lager, that again has a huge range of types that you can find.

In the book you will occasionally describe different places and situations that you attach to your experience of drinking the beer you’re writing about. How important do you think that is to get people interested and excited about beer?

For me, the moment matters more than anything else. I could have had a fridge with all 350 of those beers and sat and drank them at home. Fine, it would have had the experience of tasting the beers, but the context is everything. That context really matters. Whether you’re drinking it in the brewery, or on a beach, or wherever you may be, the actual experience is what really matters. I really want to get that experience in there. In my mind, there’s no other illustrated book like this that has done the first-person approach, and for me that was really important.

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After doing so much travelling, and tasting beers from so many different countries, will your next book project be a straight-out travel book?

I’d like it to be. I’d really like to do a kind of a Pete Brown style, non-fiction, travel, history, future, encompassing all of that. But that one hasn’t quite kicked off yet. I just want to build up more knowledge, more experience and things like that.

If you could go back in time to before you started the project, what advice would you give yourself?

 Don’t agree to contact all the brewers to get all the images yourself! It’s a hellish job, it really is awful. I was so focused on writing, and I’d covered about ten styles at the time and had about 70 breweries to contact. It was a really thankless task. A lot of brewers are brilliant and get back to you straight away with so much information, but other brewers just did not like, and it was just a pain in the arse.

I worked as hard as I could on this book. I learned as much as I could, but there’s always the thing that, as soon as you finish it, you learn something new and think ‘If I’d have known that five weeks ago, or five months ago, then I would have added that to the book’. With a project like this, it’s impossible to know absolutely everything at that one point in time. You can only really use the knowledge you have at that point and hopefully apply it the best way you can.

But I suppose all that new knowledge now feeds into the next book project…

Yeah, exactly. So, hopefully, they will get keep getting better and better.

Craft Beer World, published by Dog’n’Bone, is available to order from Amazon.