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The top 15 beers that I drank in 2014

By Alan J. Wax

It was a very good year.

Over the past dozen months I’ve sampled and rated hundreds of beers. To be sure there were a few duds—beers I couldn’t swallow, but most of them were very good. Quite a few, in fact, were terrific, but more than a handful of brews really stood out.

Since taste is a very personal thing, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choices. Readers may not enjoy the specialties that I do—Belgians, Belgian-inspired beers and sours were prominent on my list of top-rated beers. For the record I am not a fan of big, in-your-face hoppy beers, so if you’re hoping to see some on this list, you’re out of luck. Some of these beers here are regarded as world classics and I was pleased to renew acquaintances; others were new to the market and I was pleased to have discovered them.

Here, alphabetically are the top 15 beers that I drank in 2014; all rated five stars out of five (to see the runners up, and others, visit my Untapped.com profile:

Chimay Spéciale Cent Cinquante by Abbaye Notre Dame de Scoumont of Belgium, Released in limited quantities in 2012 to mark the Trappist brewery’s 150th anniversary this Abbey tripel is hazy gold with a dense foamy white head and a spicy nose. It’s full bodied and lively with notes of black pepper, licorice and malty sweetness.

hell gateHell Gate Golden by Blind Bat Brewery, Centerport, NY. A Belgian-style unfiltered tripel. Murky deep gold in color and rich in body with notes of cardamom spice and bubble gum.

Hottenroth by The Breuery, San Diego, Calif. In the style of a Berliner Weisser, this refreshing brew is hazy gold with a short head and sour apple nose. It’s lactic. Lemony, light and delicious.

Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel by Belgium’s Brasserie d’Achouffe. A Belgian IPA that’s golden hued with a rocky white hear and nose that is at one fruity, floral and resiny, Beautifully balance flavors with sweet malt, Belgian yeast character and grain notes,

Jonge Kriek (Ghost Bottle) by Brooklyn Brewery. Cherries dominate this oak-aged, Brett-tinged brew which used Brooklyn Local 2 as its base.

Life and Limb Batch 2 by Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, Calif. A deep brown American strong ale with a nose that redolent of malt and spice.  Rich and velvety mouth feel with notes of spices, chocolate and dried fruits. 

kwakPauwel Kwak by Belgium’s Brouwerij Bosteels. Belgian Strong ale, brown in hue and complex with notes of honey, caramel, brown candy sugar and a hint of anise.

Rodenbach Caractère Rouge by Belgian’s Brouwerij Rodenbach. A Flanders red ale brewed with macerated fresh cherries, raspberries and cranberries. A brassy red hue with a nose of oak and berries. On the mouth, there’s a delicious complex blend of sour fruit flavors

Saison Dupont by Belgium’s Brasserie Dupont. A golden hued brew with a huge head and spicy nose. It’s extra dry, citrusy and bready with a lip-smacking finish.

Logo-SaisonSaison by Brasserie St-Feuillien of Belgium. A classis example of the style with a golden color and notes of yeast, pepper and malt.

Surette Provision Saison by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Denver, Colo. This deep hazy golden brew has a prominent brettanomyces nose, extraordinary lip-smacking tartness with hints of oak toast and a dry finish.

St. Bretta (Spring) by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Denver, Colo. A hazy orange colored brew with a huge citrus nose precede the lip-smacking tart, orange, apple, spice and, of course, metallic brettanomyces notes. It’s a great palate cleanser.

St. Bretta (Winter) 2014 Batch 5 by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Denver, Colo.  I had this winter delight on a summer night. Almost ebony it didn’t have much of a head, but lots of fizz and a winey nose. Deliciously sour, citrusy and dry.

collab-woot-bttle22Drew Curtis/Wil Wheaton/Greg Koch Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout by Stone Brewing Co., San Diego, Calif. Dark brown in color with nose that that redolent of: alcohol, nuts, and roast notes. On the palate: it’s rich, syrupy with notes of dried fruit. The finish reminds you of this imperial stout’s 13 percent ABV.

Westmalle Trappist Tripel by Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle, of Belgium. This golden hued brew has a white rocky head. The nose offers notes of grain, yeast and anise. Its mouth feel is velvety with a soft malt palate that echoes the nose.

That’s my list. What’s on yours?  Tell everyone in the comments section.


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My top 10 U.S. craft brews of 2012

Hundreds of beers have slipped through my lips during preceding 12 months, so it’s not easy picking out favorites, but out curiosity forced myself to revisit my tasting notes to see what I imbibed.

I found quite a few American craft brews with substantial appeal, despite a personal passion for British and Belgian imports. The beers on my list represent a broad cross section of styles and U.S. geography.

For the most part, distribution limited my choices to beers available in New York. Nevertheless, such Internet suppliers as Beerjobber.com and LetsPour.com, have made it easier to locate brews from far-flung U.S.

These beers, presented in alphabetical order, stood out in my tasting notes:

stoutlabelwebDuck Rabbit Craft Brewery Milk Stout. Farmville, NC. Sweet Stout. 5.7% abv. This is quickly becoming one of my perennial favorites with its enormous cocoa hued, rocky head, deep brown, opaque body and rich, sweet toasty malt notes. It’s soft as silk on the palate.

Founders Brewing Co. Linch Pin White. Grand Rapids, MI. American IPA, 7% abv. A collaboration with Green Flash Brewing Co. of San Diego, CA,  this golden, cloudy, brew has a dense rocky white head, citrus on the nose and spices and fruit on the palate with a finish that can only be described as tingly.

irishdeathfullIron Horse Brewing Quilter’s Irish Death. Ellensburgh, WA. American Strong Ale, 7.8% abv. Dark and dangerous with an alcoholic strength is deceptive. Incredibly smooth mouth feel. Malty sweet, with notes of bready yeast, roasted chocolate, raisins and dates, coffee, cola, molasses and a mild alcohol tinge.   Untappd lists this as an American Strong Ale, but this is a brew that isn’t easily categorized.

Ithaca Beer Co. Excelsior! Fourteen. Ithaca, NY. Imperial Black IPA. 8.1% abv. Balance is the key to this brew, which offers sweet malt notes and a nice dry finish.

Kelso of Brooklyn Brett IPA. Greenpoint Beer Works. Brooklyn, NY. Belgian IPA. NA abv. I’m a sucker for sour beers and was quite taken by this tart, funky and fruity brew which emulates the Belgian-style. Hazy, orange-hued and oh-so-delicious.

rpab-logo (1)Rocky Point Artisan Brewers Hefeweizen. Rocky Point, NY. Hefeweizen, 4.8%. Absolutely delicious. Blind-tasted it would fool a Bavarian with its classic banana, bubble gum and spice flavors.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2012.  Chico, CA. American IPA. 6.8% abv. A beautifully balanced copper-colored blend of juicy malt and tangy hops preceded by the brewery’s trademark citrus nose.  One sip demands another and one glass must be followed by another.

Stone Brewing Co. Bottleworks 13th Anniversary Ale. San Diego, CA. American strong ale, 13% abv.   A tribute by Bottleworks, a Seattle craft beer store, to the number 13, marking its 13 years in business with 13 malts, 13 hops, and 13% abv.  Thick and delicious. Malty sweet with notes of dried fruit and licorice. A big thank you to Stone’s Dennis Flynn for the pour.

rudeman137x167Wandering Star Brewery Rude Man.  Pittsfield, MA. English-style Barleywine, 10.6%. A smooth, deceptively dangerous-to-drink strong brew.  Fruity with a pronounced malty sweetness, this brew lacks the  overwhelming hoppiness typically found in American craft barley wines.  I gave this five stars.

Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA. Portland, OR. 6.5 % abv. One of my favorites in the emerging black IPA or Cascadian dark style.  Round, smooth and balanced with a resiny, fruity nose, notes of toast and caramel, it has a long. dry finish.

Next: My top 10 import favorites


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Unusual beers, but little fizz at cask fest

Three samples and program from cask beer fest at Alewife Queens

A hot summer afternoon, apparently, is not a good time to do an indoor cask ale festival, judging by the sparse attendance at the recent Get Real Presents Cask Ale Festival at Alewife Queens.

I estimated some 50 beer lovers stopped into the Long Island City bar on July 14, where some 30 cask ales were available.  You could say it was the price of admission, originally $90 for a VIP ticket that offered an extra hour of drinking.  But those tickets had been marked down to $36 on Groupon just days before the event. Perhaps, the evening sessions were better attended.

Amanda Jones pours a sample.

On a day with the mercury hovering in the 90’s, cold beer would’ve been more appropriate than cellar temperature cask ale. Some beers may have been even warmer. Perhaps, then, it was the lure of the beach or other cooler spots.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cask beer and welcomed the opportunity to sample numerous examples without having to elbow my way through a crowd.

Anyone who’s been to Britain and imbibed the creamy, flavorful real ales, however, might have found something amiss. It seems to me American brewers haven’t learned that you can’t serve every beer you produce on cask.

For the unitiated, cask ale or cask-conditioned beer is  a decription for beer that has been unfiltered, unpasteurized and conditioned in a cask, from whic it is then served without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure.  It’s also called real ale.

It was a shame that only one beer from Britain, the  home of cask ale, was available to sample.  That beer, Kipling, was a citrusy, American-style IPA from England’s Thornbridge Brewery. One advertised beer that hooked my attendance, JW Lees Harvest Ale aged in Calvados cask, regrettably was not being poured. No explanation was offered, though a wooden firkin of the brew had beens seen on the bar’s floor.

To be sure, many of the ales  gathered by co-owner Patrick Donagher  were quite good. A few, though, were barely palatable.

Many of the offerings were extraordinarily sessionable beers. Among them: Black Racer, a black IPA from Bear Republic; the juicy Phin & Matt’s Extraordinary Ale from Southern Tier and Fluffer IPA from Kuhnhenn Brewing. A double-dry-hopped version of Stone Ruination IPA, came across as oddly sweet. Amazing what the lack of CO2 can do.

Imperial stouts and porters, aged in barrels, or with unusual flavorings also were available.  Noteworthy was Perennial Artisan Ales’ Imperial Coconut Milk Stout and the whiskyish Mendocino Imperial Stout, which was aged in Buffalo Trace barrels.

Keg of Flying Dog Raging Bitch is tapped on the sidewalk.

A couple of beers that I was previously unfamiliar truly took me by surprise. One, Breckenridge Agave Wheat, nearly set my mouth aflame with its jalapeno flavors. Another, chile-flavored brew, Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch, a Belgian-style IPA with mangos and Habanero peppers, however grew on me after my initial taste of capsaicin. River Horse’s Hop-A-Lot-Amus, an imperial IPA dry hopped with grapefruit zest, was less than pleasurable.

Another brew from Flying Dog, Atlantic Lager, should never have been among these brews. It was cloudy and watery. Lager beers, I believe, require carbonation to give them life.

For $36 for four hours of sampling , I think I got my money’s worth. I hope those who paid more felt the same way.



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Beer impresario Patrick Donagher brings his talents to Alewife Queens

Alewife Queens sits midblock at 5-14 51st St. Long Island City

Open since last October, Alewife Queens was the third bar created by the partnership of Michael Bewley, Daniel Lanigan and Bryan Palombo and their first in New York City.  The others are Alewife Baltimore in Maryland and Lord Hobo in Cambridge, Mass.  The bars founders hoped to capitalize on a residential and commercial boom in the neighborhood. New residential towers rise on the waterfront close by. Also nearby are Citibank, JetBlue, Rolex, the New York City Department of Health, and the brand-new CUNY School of Law.

Despite all this, business at Alewife Queens “started out real slow,” said Lanigan at a recent open house for beer bloggers and members of the trade. “Nobody cared.”

New York City, Lanigan said, has many great beer bars, including Rattle ‘n Hum and Gingerman. “We want to be part of that family,” he added, noting that Alewife Queens is but one subway stop from Manhattan and three from Times Square.

With that in mind, he asked for assistance from Patrick Donagher, the New York City beer impresario who formerly managed Rattle ‘n Hum in Manhattan and runs Get Real Presents.

Daniel Lanihsn, left, and Patrick Donagher welcome guests at recent Alewife Queens open housreresents, a beer and food event firm.

Donagher is intent on putting Alewife Queens on beer lovers’ maps. Already, there is much ado.  Recently, the bar-cum-gastro pub hosted a group of beer bloggers and brewery reps at an open house and beer dinner. The next evening a half dozen Belgian brewers shared their sour beers and coming up on July 13 is a cask ale festival.

The beer impresario’s credentials lend credibility to the effort at Alewife Queens. In the 10 years he’s lived in New York, Donagher has done plenty. After moving from Donegal, Ireland, the third-generation bar owner quickly adapted to the new bar scene and its different challenges. He first co-opened and was managing partner of Cherry Tree, a bar in Brooklyn that quickly became known for its craft beers. Then, with his brother, Joe, and another partner, Eamon Donnely, opened Rattle N Hum. Rattle N Hum quickly became one of New York City’s most popular craft beer bars. He spent three years there before moving on in December to his own projects, among them Get Real Presents, which will create events focused on craft beer and local food.

At Alewife Queens, Donagher has a good head start. There are 28 beers on tap and a hundred more by the bottle, aimed mostly at aficionados. There’s am ambitious kitchen, a cavernous 2-level interior space with an outdoor patio in the rear.

I can vouch for the beers and the tasty eats. I enjoyed these brews at the recent open house:

Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. Summer Ale, which was perfect with the outside thermometer reading 98 degrees. A good starter for a long evening of brews, this Golden, pilsner like brew has notes of sweet malt and a pleasant dry finish.

21st Amendment Brewery’s Bitter American, a very sessionable, russet=hued brew with notes of malt and grapefruit on the nose and palate.

Stone Brewing Imperial Russian Stout (2011), poured from a bottle and shared by Dennis Flynn, Stone’s New York rep. A winner, despite its alcoholic bite. It offers up a big malty nose and flavors of raisins’, chocolate, and licorice.

Bottlework’s 13th Anniversary Ale, brewed by Stone. Also shared by Flynn from a bottle. Wow! Thick and delicious, malty sweet with notes of dried fruit and licorice.

Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus with a delightful sour berry nose, strawberry palate and the beautiful sour funkiness that defines this Belgian brewer’s beers.

Bink Blonde by Brouwerij Kerkom, another Belgian, this time an amazing pale ale with notes of malt, herbs, spices, fruit and licorice and a lovely dry finish.

Given these sudsy delights, I’ve no doubt, I’ll return to Alewife Queens.  Will you visit?



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On the waterfront: Beer finds at the Williamsburg beer fest

Beer on the Williamsburg wateront

More than a thousand beer aficionados and, for sure, a few novices, thronged to the event at the foot of N. 11th Street, the Brooklyn Waterfront Beer Festival, on June 16, where the wares of 86 breweries were available for sampling.

The organizer, the Hand Crafted Tasting Co., a unit of concert promoter Mad Dog Presents, relied on craft beer industry stalwart Jim Pickett to curate beers for the two-session event.

Fesltival’s beer curator Jim Pickett

Pickett, who among other things now markets artisan non-alcoholic beverages at his own company, Gotham Artisanal, has been around craft beer for more than two decades, having started as New York State brand manager for Brooklyn Brewery. He later marketed Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Boddingtosn and Bass Ales before jumping into the spirits business. In 2007, he joined Pipeline Brands, a marketer of beer, wine and spirits.

He says he requested that participating brewers present beers appropriate to the summer season and those with limited release.

For the most part, I’d say Pickett did an admirable job.

Tasting at the afternoon session that I attended, however, proved to be somewhat haphazard as there was no printed guide to the beers, just a grouping by distributors. This turned a visitor into a beer explorer. And explore I did.

Still, there was plenty of pleasure to be had in the beers available — both to the masses in the main areas of the fest and for those willing to splurge $125 to sample harder-to-find brews in an indoor connoisseur’s lounge far from the crowds. The latter were brews “not on everyone’s radar,” said Pickett, “We were looking for things that you generally do not see anywhere.”

Sommelier Roz Donagher oversaw the festival’s connoisseur’s lounge

Indeed, in the connoisseur’s lounge a crew led by sommelier Roz Donagher (the wife of beer-bar impresario Patrick Donagher) poured a range of extraordinary brews.

I particularly enjoyed the refreshing Corsendonk Apple White Beer, a bottled conditioned Belgian wit with a touch of apple juice added.  It reminded me of a wit I’d enjoyed years ago with a slice of apply pie. It’s a combination that lingered in my memory and this spicy brew rekindled it.

Onto more fruit. This time the flavors of dried raisins, figs and caramelized sugar, which dominated the palate of Southampton Publick House Abbot 12, a 10.5% abv Belgian-style quadruple–not exactly the kind of beer to start the day with, but what the heck.

There also was the vanilla-accented, malty Innis & Gunn Independence Day, a Scottish ale aged in American whiskey barrels, and the tart, funky and fruity, but oh-so-delicious Kelso Brett IPA. From Uinita Brewing in Utah, there was a rich and chewy, citrus accented Duhbe (doo-bee) and from Wandering Star Craft Brewery there was Bert’s Disqualified Stout with an unmistakable alcoholic bite. Also very good were the whiskeyish Founders Brewing Curmudgeon, and the rich Stone Brewing’s Double Bastard

The main event, too, had plenty of new, exciting brews to sample.

Wit beers were plentiful. Besides the Corsendonk, those that impressed were White Aphro from Kelso of Brooklyn spiced with ginger and lavender. Meanwhile Blue Moon, which so many love to hate because of its Coors parentage, presented its floral Farmhouse Red Ale, a cross between a red ale and a saison-a new year-round release, and Vintage Blonde ale, which is made with Chardonnay grape juice and offered notes of apple on the nose and palate.

And there were pils, helles, hefeweizens and saisons galore.  Among the saisons I enjoyed Unibroue’s Blonde de Chambly with its notes of lemongrass; the spicy, dry Radius from Brooklyn Brewery and the crisp, fruity Open Saison from Ben’s Beers, a small upstate New York brewer.

And while I’m a huge big fan of fruit beers, lambics excepted, I took great pleasure in Tommyknocker’s Tundrabeary Ale, a refreshing light brew with a huge fresh berry character.

Bruton Momus, an abbey dubbel style beer from Birrificio Bruton of Lucca, Italy, with intense sweet malty notes and a hint of coriander, was also a winner. Another Bruton offering, Lilith, was an Italian take on American pale ale with notes of resin and citrus.

All told, a pleasant afternoon spent with mostly extraordinary beers.

Robert Howell, one of the organizers, told me that one of the reasons for undertaking the event was “to put New York City on the map of craft beer festival destinations.” With a few tweaks, I believe, he and his partners could be well be on their way.

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