Top Ten: Craft Beers of 2011

Wrapping up an outstanding year for the craft beer segment in ten beers is no easy task. Photo: Victory Brewing Co./

PHILADELPHIA, December 31, 2011 — What does it take to be a top ten beer of 2011? From one list to another, no one is necessarily right and, likewise, no one is wrong. Each list can be completely different and as long as each beer’s inclusion can be argued, the list should above all make for good conversation.

To assemble this list that follows, a few considerations were taken into account. First, the U.S. is a big country with over 1,800 breweries. Culling out ten beers from thousands of available brands would be nearly impossible. Therefore, beers available with some ease within the mid-Atlantic region were considered. This would rule out beers not distributed to the region (or, at least, most of the states within) and limited-release “geek” beers that tend to sell out within minutes or hours on the day of release. New beers received some justly-deserved special attention, but this would not exclude older beers being distributed to the region for the first time.

Grab a beer, sit back, and feel free to suggest some of your own favorite beers of 2011.

10. Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, New York ~ This bottle-conditioned beer has been around for a couple of years but continues to make waves with its food-friendly flavors like lemon citrus, lemongrass, pepper spice, and floral notes. As beer dinner popularity grows, so too goes that of this refreshing beer that pairs well with everything from cheese to seafood to salads.

9. Sprecher Black Bavarian, Wisconsin ~ The Black Bavarian has been produced for quite some time on its home turf, but is only new to certain mid-Atlantic markets within the last few years. It is a best-in-class beer within the category of German-style Schwarzbier and, as a full-flavored but not excessively full-bodied 6% ABV beer, one of which you can have more than one.

8. Stone Vertical Epic 11-11-11, California ~ This is the first of two beers on this year-end list with a pepper theme. Peppers, particularly those with a bit of heat, have played occasionally through the years in beers with varying degrees of success. This beer from southern California is the penultimate in the series that dates back to 02-02-02 and showcases a pleasing blend of spice from cinnamon, hops, and green chili peppers. The release of the 12-12-12 should bring plenty of vertical tasting parties amongst the beer geeks that have managed to hold on to at least one bottle from each year’s release. How well they will have held up will be another matter for discussion.

7. Tröegs Scratch Series, Pennsylvania ~ Entering 2012 with a shiny new and much larger brewery, Tröegs’ beers, like the wildly-popular Troegenator and Mad Elf, are about to become more accessible than ever throughout the Northeast. Throughout the last few years, the brothers Tröegs have been releasing their version of basement tapes, beer recipes for which the recipes have roots in their previous homebrewing and trial commercial brewing days. The series has proved so popular that the brewery’s fans have routinely flocked to the brewery and traded online for new versions that are released as their schedule permits — which, with a new brewery, may become even more frequent. If you’re new to the game, don’t bother trying to catch up; just pick up with #56, a Single Hop Simcoe, which has just been released from the new Hershey-based brewery. Or, keep your eyes open for the Perpetual IPA, a fabulous beer that perhaps warrants its own spot in this top ten list.

6. Dogfish Head Music Series, Delaware ~ Speaking of beer series, perhaps none was more anticipated, talked about, and enjoyed in 2011 than those from Dogfish Head’s Music Series. Hellhound On My Ale (a 10% ABV hoppy beer inspired by bluesman Robert Johnson) and Faithfull Ale (a 7% black currant fruit beer inspired by Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary) were follow-ups to the 2010 release of Bitches Brew (a strong imperial stout with honey and gesho root inspired by the legendary Miles Davis and groundbreaking album, Bitches Brew) and have been eagerly pursued by beer enthusiasts. The “off-centered” brewery from Delaware certainly knows how to weave stories around and through its beers. From the brand name inspiration to the recipe formulation to the song (for Bitches Brew, the beer that is) to the label artwork, these beers give enthusiasts a lot to think and drink about.

5. Left Hand Fade to Black, Colorado ~ This list’s two beers that incorporate chili peppers could represent the best usage of hot peppers in beer in quite some time. Left Hand’s contribution, a pepper porter, delivers a bit more noticeable heat than does Stone’s. But, it’s the deft balance of alcohol, pepper heat, rich chocolate malt flavor, and hop spice that makes this a clear winner in 2011. Find it while you still can as the Fade to Black recipe changes annually.

4. Allagash Coolship beers, Maine ~ There’s a list-crasher, a rule-breaker, on every list is there not? The beers from the coolship program at Portland’s Allagash brewery are not really available in the mid-Atlantic region and, when they are available at the brewery, quickly disappear. For the uninitiated, the beers in this coolship program (you will want to click through the link above for more information about the program) are quite the unusual beers from a “regular” beer drinker’s perspective. But, the realm of beer geeks that have a rabid love for sour beers were hot on the trail of Allagash’s spontaneously-fermented beers in the second half of 2011. Allagash installed a traditional Belgian-style fermentation room and coolship behind their brewery on the edge of downtown Portland a few years back. They have recently ramped up production, which includes barrel-aging, of what has become known as its Coolship line of beers. These beers exhibit a wide variety of aromas and flavors, ranging from sour to barnyard funky to tart to fruity, and help beer drinkers think about beer differently than ever before.

3. 21st Amendment Bitter American, California ~ The lowest alcohol by volume beer on this list was not always so. Bitter American has been poured from this Bay Area brewery’s taps at 3.6% ABV. But, now it is packaged at 4.4% in cans and showing up around the country as one of the best all-around “session beers” available. Expect refreshment in this noticeably, but not offputting, bitter beer and expect it on store shelves within the month. Do right by your beer-loving taste buds and be sure to seek out this beer. For as delicious and warming as its higher alcohol and more boisterous winter cousin beers can be, the Bitter American should provide a welcome contrast.

2. Lagunitas Sucks, California ~ To prove that the time is never too late to gain entry to a year-end top ten list, Lagunitas snuck in with this “replacement” beer for its winter annual release, Brown Shugga. Due to complications beginning with new brewery equipment destroyed at sea en route from Europe, this northern California brewery devised a beer that could be brewed and available to consumers (and in necessary amounts) faster than the more time-consuming Brown Shugga. Consumers snapped up this beer quickly when word spread of its trademarked West Coast-style notes of bursting hop flavor and aroma. A second batch is cleverly being labeled as “Holiday Leftovers”. Obviously, the beer did not suck.

1. Victory Summer Love, Pennsylvania ~ Summer Love was not a new beer in 2011, but it certainly received a much wider distribution throughout the region in its second summer of brewing. Originally conceived with The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation as a summertime offering in 2010, the suburban Philadelphia brewery has nailed the balance in this 5.2% ABV beer between a clean maltiness, flowery hoppiness, and lemony refreshment. Summertime in a glass is one way that this stellar beer as been described on more than occasion. The greedy in us all wants this beer year-round, but the patience in us will have us eagerly awaiting its return in the summer of 2012.

There you have it. Ten beers with which some of you will agree, some will have you scratching heads, and others will flat out have you defiantly wondering what I was thinking. It’s big beer world out there; what got your attention this past year? Make a case for why you would drink a case of it.


Click through here if you missed the Top 10 Craft Beer Themes of 2011.

Click through here if you missed the Top 10 Craft Brewers of 2011

—Read more of Bryan’s work at After Hours in the Communities at The Washington Times

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Bryan Kolesar

Bryan Kolesar has been tracking down great beer for over twenty years. From the most hard-to-find delicately balanced low alcohol beer to the big monsters weighing in at over 10% ABV, he has yet to find a style that does not have a story to tell and a taste to share. Though, when pushed, Kolesar has historically staked a claim to the Saison style as one of the most versatile and his favorite.

In 2005, Bryan co-founded The Brew Lounge blog/website as a canvas to illustrate the best of the craft brewing industry and to document his own travels within it. Though he has lived in Philadelphia and is currently headquartered in the city's western suburbs, Kolesar shares a wealth of information and images that he collects from his travels around the world and some of the best beers that he has tasted along the way.

In 2010, Kolesar came aboard the Communities section of The Washington Times to contribute stories from across the craft brewing industry as it continues more than ever its explosive growth amongst increasingly more of the mainstream alcohol-consuming public. 

While the beer - its tastes, aromas, and incredible pairing opportunities with food - is often the beginning of a story, he often finds it more interesting to dive into the stories behind the people, places, and events associated with the final product. 

Locally around Philadelphia, he has been named a Beer Writer of the Year finalist multiple times, hosted beer/running events during each annual Philly Beer Week, served as a Philly Beer Geek judge, paneled local beers for submission into the Great American Beer Festival competition, judged beer and food competitions, been featured in local publications chronicling the beer scene, and been named the "Best Beer Guy" of 2008. 

In addition to his beer-y pursuits, Kolesar works a professional career in the business world by day and dabbles in distance running, cooking, homebrewing, gardening, photography, and is a staunch advocate for animal rescue/adoption. He lives with his wife, Patty, of fifteen years and has been a long time, mostly suffering, supporter of local Philadelphia sports.

Contact Bryan Kolesar


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