best beer moments of 2014

This was created in conjunction with the Four Firkins blog

Beer is as diverse as those who drink it. From sweet and rich Baltic porters to puckering and funky aged sours, the range of flavor that is achieved within this storied beverage is wider than any other drink in the world. Thanks to creativity, skill, precision, and finesse on the part of the brewer, along with microbiology and patience, no two beers are identical.

SalazarThis article began by asking the question, “What was the best beer of 2014?” But it quickly morphed into something deeper. Reading, hearing, and discussing responses from these inspiring experts didn’t just create another best of list to be flipped through and retweeted, it has painted a picture of the female drinker.

History is incomplete if it is not told by everyone, and 2014 was a historic year for craft brewing. Asking women what their favorite beer moments of the last year were unearths the heart of this growing sector of discerning drinkers.

It may seem misguided to ask those who taste dozens of newly released beers in one year about favorites, but don’t think of this as a shopping list. Listen to what is valuable to these women. A community of drinkers who enjoy beverages that are appealing rather than polarizing. Craftsmanship and artistry: the idea of enjoying the handmade and from-scratch. Pure, raw enjoyment layered with nostalgia. Drawing lost styles back into the fold. And looking forward to the future of brewing.

Christine Celis, Founder, Gypsy Collaborations //. Austin, TX

Christine Celis has brewing in her blood, but you shouldn’t only think of her as the daughter of a brewing legend. Her latest project, Gypsy Collaborations, emphasizes brewing as a community endeavor. The majority of her passion lies in Belgian beer, so her response comes as no surprise.

“The beer I really enjoyed was the Wild and Funky from BOM Brewery. He [Bert Van Hecke, owner] is the only one in the world that bakes his malts with salts or coriander or whatever he can think off.” Christine appreciates this well-developed sour because it never approaches vinegar. “It has a great nose and gives you that great puckering sour I like.”

“Wild and Funky Ale has three mixed fermentations which piqued my curiosity!” Beyond their house-made malts, BOM also uses lactobacillus and brettanomyces, cultivated on site. Porter, champagne and white wine yeast come together to create the wild element.

“But then, he uses the Poiret Apple and Pear syrup which has been around since I was a child!  My parents used to eat this on sandwiches or crepes. This syrup gives it a specific apple sourness after fermentation.”

Johnson - TwitterGinger Johnson, Founder, Women Enjoying Beer //. Talent, OR

The idea of playing favorites doesn’t sit well with Ginger Johnson. “I prefer to talk about and promote the idea of go-to’s. Favorites indicate a finality I find unappealing and limiting. Go-to’s indicate flavors and goodies you go back to over and over again.”

She is guided by four principles:

  1. “1. The one in front of me. The beer in front of me (whenever, wherever) is the one I will partake of therefore making it a great choice.
  2. The next one. If I’m in the mood for beer, then bring on the next one – wherever and whatever that one may be.
  3. The one fresh on tap. Whatever brewery, as long as the tap lines are kept clean and the beer has been properly cared for since it left the cellar at the brewery.
  4. The one you’re buying me. Hospitality is always appreciated and no place for snobbery (really – there’s no room anywhere for snobbery in any scenario).”

For Ginger, beer is all about fellowship, and she avoids taking it too seriously.

“It’s simple, delicious, and humble. It’s complex, multifaceted and tasty. Above all, it’s beer, people. No more, no less. Just beer…Enjoy it for what it is, how it brings people together, and put the rest of the crap out to pasture. Life’s too short to not enjoy it. Drink what you like. I’m buying the next one.”

Brew by NumbersMelissa Cole, Author, Let Me Tell You About Beer //. London

The United Kingdom has become more knowledgeable about beer thanks to Melissa Cole. Winner of Imbibe Magazine’s Educator of the Year, beer evangelism is her passion. Melissa continues to be surprised that women are often overlooked within the craft beer world. She works to change this through education.

“The beer that really blew me away last year was Brew By Numbers 01|08 Wai-iti and Lemon Saison. From the nose to the finish it is one of the freshest, most enjoyable beers I’ve ever drunk. A symphony of tinkly lemon notes, coming from both the hops and the lemon zest, with an underlying treble note of sweet wheat and passion fruit, it is one of those beers that I could drink all day.”

Among the passions of London’s Brew By Numbers is bringing bygone styles into the foreground. The parallel idea of inviting women, history’s brewers, back to the business of beer with a discussion like this, is hard to ignore.

Lauren Salazar, Wood Cellar manager; Kim Jordan, CEO and co-founder; Jenn Vervier, Director of Sustainability; New Belgium Brewing //. Fort Collins, CO

Jenn Vervier and I connected via phone last week about the topic of favorite beers. She was initially stumped. It is a difficult question. After all, who mentally catalogues beers by release date? “Once I found out what you were writing about, I knew that I had to ask the two best beer women at New Belgium!”

abraxasLauren Salazar, New Belgium’s Wood Cellar Manager, had no trouble picking her favorite beer. Although it has been around longer than just 2014, it celebrated increased distribution and intriguing variations in the last year and a half. She was so brilliantly enthusiastic about it, that I overlooked the timing (and exclamation points, capitalized words, plus one invented noun).

“My favorite beer? Too easy. Well, unless I start really thinking about Belgian Gueuzes and Krieks, but I’ll stick to my FAVORITE US Craft Beer- that’s easy- ABRAXAS! Abraxas by Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis is my ultimate beerlove. Unbelievable- really everything I love in a beer (again, a non-sour)- it’s a Mole-spiced Imperial Stout with ancho chili peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon- heavenly!!”

Kim Jordan attempts to recreate an experience rather than finding the next great beer. To her, classic beers with old friends is the key. “A big part of what I love about a beer is the context: who I’m with, where we are, what we’re eating, what we’re listening to. For me it might be Duvel Green from their brewery. Or Pliny with Vinnie and Natalie [Cilurzo].”

the rare barrelAshley Routson, author, The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer  //. Berkely, CA

Avid writer, blogger, and Bison Brewing staffer Ashley Routson has been a major player in the beer industry for years. As such, she has earned the nickname The Beer Wench, and her writing has appeared on and on the Whole Foods Market blog.

“The last thing a beer writer wants to admit to is bias. But, let’s not kid ourselves. I’m just as human as the rest of the beer enthusiasts in the world.” Her bias is one many drinkers and brewers can relate to – loving a beer in part because of the people behind it.

“My favorite beer of 2014 has to be anything and everything from my good friends (and neighbors) The Rare Barrel. They are not just one of the most amazing breweries in the world––they are amazing people. Extraordinary beer plus extraordinary people equals an extraordinary experience––and I’ve experienced nothing less than extraordinary at The Rare Barrel. If I had to play favorites, which I hate doing, I’d have to go with Apropos of Nothing––a golden sour beer aged in oak barrels with elderberries and lavender. It literally tastes like unicorns and rainbows.”

ABV talks to T PaganAllyson Rolph, Brewmaster at Thirsty Pagan //. Superior, WI

Allyson, as it turns out, is quite democratic. When I posed the best beer question she polled her small brewpub staff. “Two of them each pointed at a different beer from the Schell’s Noble Star series,” she laughs, “At the same time.”

The series, from August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota, debuted in the summer of 2013 and brought three more selections to market last year. These beers are an extreme departure from the historic beers that August Schell has been delivering to seasoned German drinkers for over 150 years. The birth of the series can be credited to the current owner, Ted Marti, and son, brewer Jace Marti. Over the span of years and with great precision, old, defunct cypress tanks were painstakingly refurbished to become healthy, living vessels appropriate for ageing Berliner Weisse and its variants.

I met Allyson and her partner Sara Lee over a pint and I asked her to nail down her favorite. She cited the Black Forest Cherry, an obsolete style called Marzen Weisse with 52,000 pounds of sour cherries added during aging. The incredible fruit character and pungent sourness are simply excellent. “Overall I love what Jace [Marti] is doing, and I can’t wait for the Starkeller Peach to come out.”Noble Star

Tara Alcure, Sales, Green Flash Brewing; Membership Committee Co-Chair, Pink Boots Society //. Minneapolis, MN

Not many people can say that they grew up learning the ins and outs of the three-tier system firsthand. Tara Alcure was raised by a father whose company would go on to become part of the largest craft distributor in Minnesota, just as she was developing her own love of beer. After her transition from local distribution to sales at the hop-crazed universe that is Green Flash Brewing, you might expect her response to drip with bitterness. Not so.

“This was a difficult question for me to answer – it’s hard to pick just one. But I really enjoyed Schell’s Dawn Of Aurora.” Admittedly a Berliner weisse lover, Tara enjoys the fruitiness of this beer. “The hints of peach, pineapple, and lemon made this beer really enjoyable. It finished off with a perfect tart finish that was not overly dry.” It doesn’t hint at its 7.5% alcohol content, according to her, and was surprisingly refreshing.

Dawn of Aurora is the fifth sour introduced in the Schell’s Noble Star Collection. It debuted at Madison’s Great Taste of the Midwest this summer, but was then called Champagner Weisse (a term frowned upon by the TTB). Since it hit shelves, many critics have dubbed it their best yet. “I look forward to more of the Noble Star Collection.”

10 toeLillian Chatham, writer, Lily Sue’s Bites and Brews //. Denver, CO

“Spending four months of the year backpacking around Europe provided my best beer of 2014 as an international beer: A long day wandering around a foreign city, trying to speak the language, not very well might I add, had me craving a beer! In search of a craft beer bar, I found myself lost in yet another small side street in Barcelona. Ready to give up but with one last look around me, I found the bar! After tasting some various beers on tap, courtesy of the wonderful bartender, I was craving something a little more. I wanted a bold and hoppy beer and 10 Toe Discount was exactly that. A 7.2% ABV IPA collaboration from Siren and ToØl was perfect for my current state!”

Lillian Chatham lives in Denver and her world is positively steeped in beer. Her passion for hops led her to this amarillo-hopped IPA aged on cedar, even in an unlikely place.

Caroline Wallace, writer and co-founder, Bitch Beer //. Austin, TX

hops and grain barrelBitch Beer has a clear and articulate voice which resonates from Austin, Texas. Contributor Caroline Wallace places a great deal of value in a beer that appeals to drinkers throughout the seasons, transcending the south’s extreme heat and occasional chill. Nominating Hops & Grain brewing should come as no surprise as the brewery has the amazing ability to make fast fans.

“While there were many fantastic new beers released in 2014, none occupied as much real estate in my fridge as Hops & Grain PorterCulture. It’s a refreshing Baltic porter that’s easy drinking enough to enjoy in the sweltering Texas summers, but still hits the spot during the colder months of the year. Plus, you can’t beat that regal purple can.”

Mary Bauer, Head Brewer, Lagunitas Brewing //. Chicago, IL

This year Lagunitas Brewing out of Petaluma, California opened a second brewery in Chicago. The expansion has greatly increased brewing capacity and distribution, and has also granted many new brewing opportunities. One of those positions was filled in April when Mary Bauer became head brewer.

“One beer immediately came to mind,” she explains. “It was brewed in Petaluma – a wet hop beer, limited release called Born Yesterday. Even though I didn’t brew it, I was really proud of this beer.” She goes on to speak about the components – Amarillo, Mosaic, and Equinox wet hops – as though describing a memorable meal.

born yesterdayLagunitas made enough to package and ship, but not beyond an immediate distribution area. “It was made within days of the hops being harvested and was out [for purchase] within 24 hours, hence the name.” Her pride for the production efficiency speaks to her precision as a brewer.

“It has a wonderful tangerine-grapefruit aroma with pine, and a crisp finish plus malty sweetness.” Next October, the Chicago area will be treated to Born Yesterday, if harvests go as planned.

sitting in coach: spoon and stable [soapbox sunday]

You may have heard of a new little joint called Spoon and Stable. It is located on the north side of the warehouse area of downtown. Lots of people have been talking about it, to say the very least.

In case you have been in the Maldives since August, let me briefly fill you in. Spoon and Stable is the brain child of renowned chef Gavin Kaysen who returns to Minnesota via New York and has recently rubbed the elbows of the likes of Daniel Boulud. Now him you’ve heard of.

Spoon Stable whiskey sourNeedless to say, the hype has been endless, with people claiming you have to wait a year and a half for reservations and that the food will make you wonder how the blossoming chef could possibly have left the culinary mecca that is Manhattan. The prodigal son aspect of Kaysen’s story is grossly inflated, but nevertheless, the fairytale seems to be sweeping the minds of major critics and home cooks alike.

You know what I really like about Gavin Kaysen? He put all these rumors definitively to rest, ripping critics to shreds in interview after interview by saying that the hype doesn’t mean a reservation is unattainable. In fact, in many Q & A’s, Kaysen has come off as pointedly irritated that the restaurant has gained a “don’t even bother” reputation (One review by the Star Tribune is actually titled “Get in line for Spoon and Stable”). Instead of reveling in this coveted unbalance of supply and demand, Kaysen welcomes last minute dinner plans and walk-in customers.

“You know, the bar is open every night for walk-ins, there’s 30 seats in the bar. We still have availability – everybody in the press has written that we’re sold out, sold out, sold out. We’re not.” - Kaysen to Kare 11

That sentiment was reassuring when I had to find a table for four to mark my dad’s 69th birthday. I had been seriously anticipating my first meal at this restaurant, in part because I have experienced Daniel Boulud first-hand. Spoon and Stable was on the wish list of everyone involved in the celebratory dinner, so I made a phone call, with that quote ringing in my ears. I was reassured that although reservations were full, walk-ins are always possible and that a portion of the space is left open as first-come, first-served dining. My parents seemed open to winging it, even if it meant sitting at the bar, and that is exactly what we happily did.

Upon entering, seven hosts, mostly female, greeted us in a detached manner as it became evident that they were only concerned with who else would be walking in behind us mere mortals. They looked through us. I resolved to continue decidedly with a positive attitude and zero expectations.

Drinks were a strong point – each of us praised our cocktails which were prepared with dazzling professionalism, and were certainly a treat for the eyes. My whiskey sour (pictured above) was creamy and the alcohol well-balanced, however the spicing was too much, giving it the impression of an over-spiced winter beverage rather than a unique twist on a classic. The sazerac was just as balanced, with the absinthe holding it together nicely. The bar itself was classy but altogether unimpressive: a tamely stocked bar containing nothing particularly unique or interesting. And for $13, far better cocktails exist, even in lowly Minneapolis.

Spoon and Stable has taken pride in the fact that they serve their entire dinner menu in the bar area. All this in addition to a sizable bar-specific menu means that being seated at the bar actually affords more choices, not less.

Spoon and Stable meatOff of the bar menu we ordered the biscuits and meat platter ($15) as well as duck meatloaf sliders ($12). My parents opted for dinner menu items only and started with the roasted baby beets ($9).

First courses were a highlight, although the artichoke giardinera was noticeably missing from the charcuterie plate. What was present, however, was very good. Pickled mustard seed coated in reduced concord grape was an enjoyable caviar trompe l’oeil and was perfectly executed to boot. The wide selection of meat was throughly explained by the server who delivered it. The salami and the duck braunschweiger worked excellently with the accoutrements.

When the cavatelli with sweet breads, romanesco, hazelnuts, and sage arrived ($20), it was a monochromatic disappointment. Not being one to favor form over function, however, I dug right in. What began as a bit of a let down quickly revealed many inexcusable flaws. First, there were four remnants of romanesco – the ingredient we were frankly most excited about – each about the size of a pea. Not only would more have added color and texture, it would have broken up the density of the starch-laden pasta. The heaviness could be blamed on the whole wheat, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair, as plenty of successful whole wheat pastas exist.

spoon and stable pasta

The balance of the sauce was appealing, although the sage was beat out by heavy cream and parmesan which generally lacked direction. What few sweetbreads that were present were unequivocally overcooked. I found myself chewing and chewing, all the while becoming more surprised.

artic char spoon stableOn the spectacular end of things was my dad’s arctic char, and thank goodness he got the good stuff, as it was his big day. Elements of chorizo, fennel, saffron, and potatoes appropriately harmonized and kept the buttery fish center stage. According to him, it was one of the best plates of the past year, with the fish being perfectly cooked and the dish keenly balanced.

The pot roast (hold the optional foie gras) had no serious flaws, but the composition of the dish left us befuddled. Onions and a small amount of mushrooms were the only additions to the brick of meat plus broth, poured tableside. It surely did not fulfill more than the protein food group, and while it was tasty, the overall dish was not a cohesive concept and did not earn its $27 price tag.

Also off the bar menu was another success, duck meatloaf sliders on brioche. Again, the appealing ingredients to balance the richness of the sandwiches – tamarind and celery – were all but lost. That being said, the duck was an excellent texture and the buttery bread hearty enough to stand up to the meatloaf.


Desert is a must-do in our family and we decided on two between our group of four. The birthday boy took the lemon curd mousse ($10) and liked it. The lemon was intense and the plate was beautifully constructed. It was not overly sweet, but it also was not a very generous portion. My date (a chef) ordered the chocolate and coconut ($10) partially because of the pastry chef’s reputation and also because the bartender supported our choice in saying, “that one is my favorite”.

We sat at the bar in a state I will call quiet consternation. I eventually said, “I really wanted to like this place.” My counterpart was still fuming over the sweetbreads. The manager dropped by but only looked at or talked to my parents who were pleased, for the most part, with their food. I thought about the glowing reviews, including some by people I know personally. What went awry?



The “aha” moment came when staff dropped our deserts and flitted away. We were sitting in coach. Surely no one in the posh dining room would be left without any explanation of ingredients or meal construction, devoid of any personal connection to the service. Serving a full dining menu in the bar requires dedicated staff with adequate time and training. Our experience of the zone-defense method with fresh faces darting about, often holding the wrong plates and seldom offering any exposition, was not adequate for a menu style and caliber of food which demand additional information.

My hypothesis was confirmed in part when I turned to ask our server what the chocolate and coconut plate before us consisted of. He was gone. A deconstructed ho-ho cut at and angle sat beside three shiny lumps of brown, a pile of white powder, and what smelled like coconut ice cream. I wanted to eat it, badly, but I wanted to know what I was consuming.

Elements were very good, like a caramel ganache and the mystery powder. The cakes, although appearing rich in chocolate character, were surprisingly bland.

Sitting in coach at one of the hottest restaurants in town doesn’t warrant lesser service; our check wasn’t any lower than that of those in the dining room. Not holding a reservation and taking a gamble on dinner should hold more weight. After all, it doesn’t just mean we are poor planners, it also means we waited outside at restaurant open, bright-eyed and shivering with cold and anticipation.

Spoon and Stable makes the choice to serve their entire menu at the bar, but restaurants have bar menus for a reason. Of our four dishes, the ones from the full dining menu were actually the weakest, but the major downfall of this entire experience is that almost no one, besides our bartender whose attention was necessarily divided, served us, in the wholesome sense of the word. No one smiled at us. No one took notice that we were celebrating a birthday until after we had ordered a desert, despite a gift atop the bar.

Far from being written off as new-restaurant hype, the reaction to Spoon and Stable demonstrates some of the most polarizing attitudes in recent memory. And I find myself on the unexpected side of the fence.

buzz and buzz head to head, part two

This is the second match up in the coffee beer taste-off. First see part one: Southern Tier vs. Tyranena.

How coffee is added to beer greatly influences flavor. Some types of dark malt possess coffee flavors, depending on their degree of roast. Roasting malt for beer is actually very similar to roasting coffee beans, and the resulting flavors are described as toasty, caramelized, or even burnt. But most beers that are labeled as coffee brews have actual coffee in the final product, making me consider how the beverages become integrated.Rogue Bent Paddle coffee

Most coffee beers have some form of cold press coffee added to the beer in the latter stages of brewing. But some use actual beans in the mash, while others use a combination of various techniques.

Consider the following methods. John Holl’s account of Carton Brewing uncovered their use of very strong coffee, specifically a ratio of a half-gallon of twice-brewed coffee to 20 gallons of beer. Minnesota’s own Surly brewing essentially makes cold press using beer, adding the beans to the bright tanks. In the Sisyphus taproom, the coffee is actually added to the black ale at the time of service – doesn’t get fresher than that!

Most brewers, however, steep the beans in cold water for up to two days and add that liquid to the beer.

No matter the technique, it is only natural that the two ubiquitous beverages have become entwined. As Holl points out, “Beer and coffee are each aroma-driven, and each is a regular part of many people’s daily lives.”

taste coffee BP RogueThe Comparison

This bracket features a giant brewery with the force of a rolling boulder for most drinkers: Oregon’s Rogue Brewing, standing up against the little (but rapidly growing) guy: Duluth’s Bent Paddle.

The two beers both boast the use of coffee, but only the Bent Paddle Cold Press Black indicates the method. Varying accounts of the use of actual coffee in the beer cause me to question whether Rogue uses any beans in the process. Kiln coffee malts are used, according to the website.

Mocha Porter has a strong chocolate and mild coffee aroma along with burnt sugar notes. The taste is quite roasty and robust and the beer is full and broad on the tongue. Spot-on carbonation and pleasant malt complexity. I enjoy the morph from a sweet beginning to a medium-dry finish with moderate astringency. However, the coffee component is almost entirely absent.

On the other hand, the coffee in the cold press black cannot be ignored. Pouring the beer into a sampling glass resulted in expletives of joy. This beer has a thicker, creamier head that is khaki in color. A strong cafe latte aroma dominates. head to head coffee 2The mouthfeel is silky and far superior to the Rogue. Supreme body and intense coffee which plays off the roasted malt make this one the best of the bunch so far. A nearly puckering finish almost forces another sip. Incredible.

Bent Paddle takes this round! Tune in for the next round, and let me know what coffee beers impress you the most!

the monterey peninsula, pt 2

I saved some of my California trip to write during the frigid Minnesota months. Nostaligia works wonders. I actually shedded a layer right now just reading my coaster scribble notes.Alvarado st building

You may recall my charming visit to Peter B’s in Monterey this fall, in which I stole the rental car while the real adults weren’t looking and found myself at an unexpected reward.

I pulled he same trick the following night in order to make my way to Alvarado Street Brewing. Rather than tucked away on the edge of downtown, Alvarado is located on a busy street and casts a completely different vibe.

I approached the patio in the late evening and peered inside at very shiny, new fermentation tanks as part of what looked to be a 30 bbl system. A little reading led me to believe that head brewer J.C. Hill is in close collaboration with the kitchen staff; the menu focuses on pairings and a variety of styles.barrels Alvarado Street

Inside is very sleek with a pleasant casual elegance. There are barrels again away on the mezzanine while both tables and the bar hum with drinkers.

But who wants to be inside on vacation? I am happy to say that the patio was wide open and it was the place to be! Continue reading

Why You Should Care About South Dakota’s Beer


Excellent points about our neighbors to the west who are gradually carving out a beer niche on the plains. Very good read, and let’s cheer them on!

Originally posted on This Is Why I'm Drunk:

South Dakota beer state

Editor’s note:here’s a primer about why we’re exploring this topic.

With a combined “weighted rank” of 3.529 (out of 5) for it’s top-10 beers according to Beer Advocate users, South Dakota placed 50th out of 51 states and D.C. in my recent analysis of ratings from the website. To help prove that isn’t indicative of all that’s offered within the Mount Rushmore State, I’ve enlisted the help of Landon Swanson, head brewer at Custer’s Bitter Esters Brewhouse and president of the state’s craft brewers guild.

Before we get into a brief Q&A with Landon, let’s recap some of the vitals of South Dakota as found through my Beer Advocate series:

Top 10 Beers (as of Nov 2014)

Beer Name Brewery Style ABV WR
Pile O Dirt Crow Peak Porter 6 3.7
Smoke Jumper Firehouse Dry Stout 4 3.62
11th Hour Crow Peak IPA 6.5 3.52
Red Firehouse Red Ale 4.1

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