When was the last time you has a British beer? Or a German or a Czech? Have Belgian brews eluded you?
With few exceptions you’ll be lucky to find one or two imports on tap at a good beer bar, likely Heineken or St. Pauli, or if your luck is good, a high-octane Belgian, or a Bavarian hefeweizen. British beers have become harder to find—at least on tap (Bass, the once ubiquitous English import is now brewed in Syracuse, N.Y.) And what of Czech beers? Even the once widely available Pilsner Urquell, now a product of the SAB Miller group, is often MIA.
It seems that imported beers have lost appeal as beer aficionados have gravitated to the more diverse, more extreme brews being produced by American craft brewers.
What a shame! Beer drinkers today are missing out on some of craft’s finest examples. In fact, in the earliest days of the craft beer movement— the early 1990s— beer aficionados turned to the great beers of Europe to quench both their palates and thirst for beer knowledge.
To be sure, this is not an indictment of the purveyors of beer of America. They are focused on satisfying the broader market of beer drinkers, intoxicated by the heady brews crafted by small brewers closer to home. No, this explains why I’ve chosen to highlight my favorite imports from 2013 and expose more drinkers to these fine beers.
British beers dominate my list, largely because I made a point of sampling a number of them in conjunction with the 2012 Olympics in London. A handful of Belgians and one German brew — unique one— also made the list. That’s not to say I didn’t try other imports. I’ve sampled numerous Belgians; some Italians; some cross-border brews, among them Mikkeller, and a few Belgo-American collaborations. Many of the Belgians I imbibed seemed pale imitations of the classics that American microbrewers today want to emulate. And the German brews seem to have been relegated to the restaurants serving wursts and sauerbraten. To be sure bottled versions of many imports are available, but outside of beer specialists you’ll have trouble finding them.
Now, in alphabetical order, my top 10, actually 11, list:
Harviestoun Brewery Bitter & Twisted. Scotland. English-style blonde ale. 4.2% abv. Scotch brews generally are characterized by their low use of hops. Not this orange-hued beer, which explodes in the nasal passages with a big, citrus hoppiness. But there’s a crisp, mouthful of fruity malt to balance all that bitterness. It finishes with lip-smacking pleasure.
Boon Kriek. Belgium. Brouwerij Boon. Lambic with cherries. 4% abv. With its almost mahogany hue, funky aroma and tart cherry flavors, this low alcohol brew surpasses many other krieks, both Belgian and domestic, which so often are reminiscent of cough syrup or cherry candies.
Chimay Blanche (Cinq Cents) Draft. Bières de Chimay (Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont). Belgium. Tripel. 8% abv. Had this on tap on a hot summer day. Deep golden color, albeit hazy, with a dense white head and beautiful yeasty and fruity notes. Despite its relatively high alcohol, the beautifully balanced brew refreshed with its crisp, dry finish. A classic example of the style.
Freigeist Brettokolong. Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle. Germany. Kölsch. 4.8% abv. A good example of innovation in German brewing from a decade-old micro. This is a limited release, draft version of an unfiltered kölsch fermented with brettanomyces. Its called Ottekolong in bottle.Hazy gold hue with a funky nose that incorporates notes of lemon juice, hay and tart apples. On the palate, fruity and dry with a hint of spice. Quite refreshing.
Fuller’s ESB. Fuller, Smith & Turner. England. Extra special bitter. 5.9% abv. In the early days of the craft movement, this was the stellar example a an English strong bitter and was widely available. It remains a classic, though hard to find on draft. Golden/copper hue, firm head, malty/biscuity nose with a crisp palate that is punctuated with notes of fruit and caramel all in perfect balance.
Manchester Star Ale. JW Lees & Co. England. Porter. 7.3% abv. A strong, hoppy porter based on an 1884 recipe revived in 2002 that’s reminiscent of an Oloroso sherry. Dark brown and opaque with a cocoa-hued head and a great lace, this brew had a huge malty nose and on the plate notes of molasses, chocolate and raisins with hints of alcohol and a bittersweet finish.
Rodenbach Classic. Palm Breweries. Belgium. Flanders Red Ale. 5.2% abv. A blend of largely young ale with aged product. First had this when the brewery was family owned, it remains a classic example of the Flanders Red style now under the ownership of Palm (1998). Despite Palm’s decision to discontinue production of the Rodenbach Cuvee Alexandre, a more flavorful version aged in oak with cherries, the original Rodenbach remains true with its red-brown color, complex sweet and sour fruity (think vinegar) and mild oak notes. Quite drinkable.
Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout. Samuel Smith Brewery (Tadcaster). England. Oatmeal stout. 5% abv. I’ve been a fan of this brew for almost two decades. It’s still quite enjoyable today. Ebony brown in color with aromas of roasted grain, chocolate and raisins with an oily chocolaty palate and an outstanding bittersweet finish.
Samuel Smith Old Brewery Pale Ale. Samuel Smith Brewer (Tadcaster). English pale ale. 5% abv. Let’s hear it for longevity. This copper-hued brew is an enjoyable classic brew with its firm tan head, malty nose and a smooth mouthful of malt, fruit and toffee balanced with a touch of resin.
Worthington’s White Shield. Molson Coors. England. English IPA, 5.6% abv. This bottle-conditioned English brewing heirloom, oddly enough, is from Coors’ UK operation. Deep copper hued with a dense off-white head, it melds sweet toffee notes and bitter hops.
Zymacore Thornbridge Raven Black IPA. Thornbridge Brewery. England. 6.6% abv. A British microbrew imported in limited quantities by B United International, which then aged the beer in its U.S. warehouse in barrels formerly used for both wine and whisky. An incredibly complex brew with it has a deep, black body and a thin beige head. The aroma is super sweet with notes of whiskey, wood, dark fruit and chocolate. Flavors are intense: dark sweet chocolate with only the barest hints of resin but also oak, bourbon, and a hint of sweet wine.