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My top imported brews of 2012

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:

Bitter twisted 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 tapChimay 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.

Fullers ESBFuller’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.

RodenbachRodenbach 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.

whiteshield_pageWorthington’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.




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Champion English beers add some ‘flavour’ to Olympics viewing

I’ve been catching the Olympics games from my home, not London, but I’ve added a bit of across-the-pond flavor as I sipped some British brews each night as I watched Michael Phelps and Gabby Davis go for the gold.

Inspired by my beer-writing colleague John Holl, who wrote about British brewers recently in his Beer Briefing blog, I stocked up with a number of classic English ales for the games.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed these traditional brews with their biscuity malt, fruity esters, gentle bitterness and, on occasion chocolaty notes. Indeed, when the craft brewing scene in America was emerging almost a generation ago, many of us cut our teeth, so to speak, on the likes of Young’s, Samuel Smith, Fuller’s and Bass.  Alas, Bass is now produced in a Budweiser brewery near Syracuse, NY, and is a shadow of its former self.  And while there’s been consolidation over the years in the British brewing industry that has resulted in brewery closures and labels changing hands, there are still many fine beers being exported to the colonies.

In my search for Olympic brews, I had hoped to snag some British beer champions. Each year, the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer group advocating for traditional ales, selects a Champion Beer if Britain at its annual Great British Beer Festival.  (This year, the festival gets underway on Aug. 13-17.) The beers judged champions usually are strictly draft – or is it drought – beers.  But some do get bottled.

I had hoped to find an old favorite, Coniston Blue Bird Bitter, the 1998 champion, which I first had on draft at New York’s Gingerman, and later in bottle. Unfortunately, it appears to have vanished from these shores.

Triple XB (XXXB), a classic English bitter from a Lincolnshire brewery that’s been around since 1874. It’s is a hazy amber brew with aromas of malt, hop resins and wine and a palate bursting with notes of biscuits, yeast and dried fruit leading up to a spectacular earthy, malty finish.

One of my biggest surprises was a realization of how much I missed Fuller’s ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, a genuine classic with its golden/copper hue, firm head, malty/biscuity nose with its crisp palate punctuate with notes of fruit and caramel all in perfect balance.  The beer took top GBBF honors in 1978, 1981 and 1985.

I also was able to find a bottle of Summer Lightning, a 2001 silver-medal winner, from the relatively young Hopback Brewery of Salisbury, England (founded 1986). This golden ale, almost reminiscent of a pilsner, albeit a tad hazy, offers a hoppy aroma and palate, which also exhibits sweet malt. It finishes crisp and dry. Not a typical English ale.

Robinson’s Old Tom, at 8.5% abv, is what’s known as an English Strong Ale. Named by CAMRA as Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain three times, it has a deep copper in color with a dense tan head. This Manchester brewed beer has a rich sweet nose followed by a mouthful of silky malt with flavors of fruit, chocolate and treacle and a pleasant dry finish.

Some of the beers I sampled, though not festival champs, were absolutely terrific.

The copper-hued Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale was 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.

Also quote good was a deep-russet colored Theakston’s Old Peculier, with caramel and fruit in the nose and treacle, dried fruit and winey notes in the palace.  Soft, round its finished nicely dry.

Burton Bridge Brewing’s Empire India Pale Ale also proved to be a winner.  This hazy amber beer, from a brewery established in 1982 in what was then the home of Bass, Marston and Boddington’s, among others, has a dense rocky head, grassy hops and malt on the nose. On the palate, there are notes of caramel and raisins. It’s nicely bittered for a lip-smacking finish.

JW Lee’s Manchester Star Ale, a strong hoppy porter based on an 1884 recipe revived in 2002, reminded me a bit of Oloroso sherry. Dark brown and opaque with a cocoa-hued head and great lace this brew had a huge malty nose and on the plate notes of molasses, chocolate and raisins on the palate. There were hints of alcohol, no surprise for a 7.3% abv brew and a bittersweet finish.

Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, another favorite years ago, remains just as enjoyable today. Ebony brown with aromas of roasted grain, chocolate and raises and oily chocolaty palate that culminated in an outstanding bittersweet finish.

Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, from a brewery that started in 1533, provided a taste of another style, milk stout. Opaque and with a tan rocky head it offers a nose of roasty chocolate nose and rich chocolate espresso character on a silky palate.  Young’s original Ram Brewery was shuttered in 2007 for development of its valuable property and its brewing operations were combined with those of Charles Wells.

There are many more English beers that remain untried and the Olympics still have almost a week left.  So there’s time for more. Hope you’ll raise a mug to Old England. Cheers!

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