The Beer of the Year
Going back to 2006, I have had a little tradition here called the Satori Award* honoring the best new Oregon beer of the year. Ninkasi's Believer won that year, and the list is something of a survey course of the last decade plus in American beer.** I stopped the series for a couple years when I got overwhelmed by the flood of new beers, but have lately picked it up again. True, I tasted only a fraction of the new beers this year; my impressions are limited by my sample size. Yet the beers I was impressed with are not without value; they tell us something about where we were in 2017 and, perhaps, where we are headed.
Beyond the Homeland
The Satori was conceived as an Oregon award back when I was writing almost exclusively about Oregon beer. Now I travel more and taste beer from around the country and sometimes even further. In my rambles in 2017, here's a bit of what impressed me.
- I can't recommend Mexico highly enough. I visited Ensenada for their annual beer fest in March and was steeped in one of the most enthusiastic, youthful, and joyful beer scenes in the world. As a whole, the beer has not reached American levels, but some of the best breweries are doing great work. My sense-memory recalls beers I had from Agua Mala, Loba, Colima, Norte, 7 Mares, and Urbana. Read more about Mexican beer here and here if you missed it.
- I spent a week in Boston, and was impressed with many of the breweries not named Trillium or Tree House. There's a lot going on in Massachusetts beyond IPA and beyond those two breweries. I was especially impressed with Bog Iron, Jack's Abbey, Night Shift, and Wormtown. Harpoon, the big brewery everyone forgets, is quietly doing great work. I also popped up to Maine for a minute and stopped in at Bissell Brothers which is indeed all that.
- I made trips to Connecticut and Washington DC and toured Two Roads and Port City, two more breweries doing excellent work on the East Coast. Jonathan Reeves at Port City has made his reputation on sessionable beers like the brewery's flagship Wit, but he gave me an experimental IPA they did on their tiny system and it was one of the best IPAs of the year. Beyond its beer, Two Roads has one of the coolest breweries I've seen in America and should be a must-see for anyone traveling remotely close.
- Finally, Patrick and I just got back from Seattle, where we were pleased to try a lot of great beer. Reuben's and Fremont are near the top of my favorites list, but when I survey my memory, Cloudburst's Would You Rather keeps coming to mind. As in, where can I find one right now?
These year-end posts are clarifying in one respect: looking back allows you to see which beers really made an impression. I enjoyed scores of beer last year, many of which, in the moment, might have been contenders for my beer of the year. The passage of time winnows, however (particularly when you have an aging, leaky brain), and what remains are those truly special beers.
I've singled out five beers below that really impressed me, but I'd like to mention a couple others before we get into them. Chuck Porter, formerly with Logsdon, debuted his new Little Beast brewery this year, but the volumes have been low enough that I didn't run across it often. When I did, I was hugely impressed. Unlike Logsdon beers, where the Brett is heavy and aggressive, Little Beast's wild ales are delicate and balanced. Flat Tail continues to do great work without attracting the attention it should. Similarly, Base Camp has quietly stepped up their game, and their recent barrel aged celebration demonstrated their new range. And while none of their beers appear on this list, the work pFriem, Block 15, and Upright did this year were up to their usual lofty standards.
All right, on to my annual Satori finalists.
- Breakside What Rough Beast. This is easily Oregon's beer of the year in terms of impact and buzz. (A panel at the New School agreed.) Ostensibly a New England IPA, it was actually something more. Breakside took the hazy concept and fused it with a classic Northwest IPA. It's hazy and hugely aromatic (an effect that grows and grows as the beer warms), but has a noticeable bitterness. For breweries trying to figure out how to put a stable example this style into a bottle or can that can survive more than five minutes in the wild, Rough Beast may offer a path forward. I haven't tried one 90 days old, but it's shelf-stable enough to impress every time I picked one up from the grocery store. More from my Sherpa rec here.
- Fort George 3-Way. A close second in terms of buzz was the annual collaboration from Fort George. This year they partnered with Great Notion and Reuben's to make their version of a NE IPA. Again, it had a slightly stiffer dose of bitterness than you find in New England, where pure, sweet juiciness is the goal. Indeed, by the time Patrick and I got to Seattle, where Reuben's and Cloudburst had bitterer versions of NE IPA, I began to see a pattern. There is emerging a NW NE IPA (maybe "NW Hazy IPA" is better), with more bitterness, less focus on mouthfeel and murk, but plenty of juice and haze. But here's one very weird thing about this year's 3-Way: it was better from the can. I had it on tap at the brewery and again in perhaps three pubs in Portland. I also drank cans throughout the summer. Inevitably, the canned product was juicier, livelier, more vivid. I have no way of accounting for this.
- Wayfinder Party Time Pils. Wayfinder and Level Beer were two very impressive debuts. In both cases I had my pick of their "best." For Wayfinder, I called out Mindsturm Hefeweizen as a Sherpa selection, and it's excellent. So is their Hidden Hand, a tmavé (!), both of which I drank a lot. But it was Party Time I kept coming back to. Oregon now has a stable of absolutely spectacular (and largely under-the-radar) pilsners, and in order to impress a brewery has to do more than throw together a Weyermann-and-Saaz (or Tettnanger) lager. I haven't yet asked brewer Kevin Davey the approach to Party Time, but the hopping is sparkly and unusual and really tasty.
- Level Get to the Chopper. Another Sherpa selection was this Vienna lager from Level Beer, and again, I had a couple other choices there. Like Wayfinder, Level is focused on beers made for drinking, with a special nod to lagers and English-style ales. As I said in my Sherpa recommendation, the mere fact a Vienna lager could so impress is a giant feat. Based on the two brewers' earlier work, I only expect Level's offerings to get better. Level, like Wayfinder, is one to watch.
- Deschutes Cultivateur. This isn't actually the first year Deschutes released Cultivateur, their "provision saison," but you had to visit one of their two brewpubs in 2014 to buy a bottle. (And I entirely missed the release.) I tried this first over the summer on draft at the brewery and then took home a couple bottles. Over Christmas, I sampled on of those to see what six months would do to what I considered a perfectly-balanced wild ale. Fortunately, nothing much: it was still a spectacular beer, and in fact exceeded the standard from my memory. Very, very few American wild ales have ever achieved both the balance and complexity of Cultivateur. Deschutes isn't known for these kinds of beers, which makes it all the more unexpected. The brewers went for a palate of restrained acidity that allowed the estery, saisony character underneath the Brettanomyces to express itself. My full, flowery-language review is here.
So among these, which is my beer of the year? Which takes home the coveted Satori? Despite the enormous buzz about What Rough Beast and my own personal affection for it, the Satori goes to Deschutes Cultivateur. Of all the beers in 2017, it left an image in my mind that will last years. We toss around the word "world class" pretty casually in beer, and we really have no benchmark for such a thing. If I were to begin to fashion a working definition, I'd include Cultivateur as an example. It was an astonishing beer. Kudos, Deschutes; 29 years and you're still doing amazing work.
* In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award honors the beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer.
** Past winners: Full Sail Lupulin (fresh hop) in 2008, Cascade Apricot (2009), Upright 4 (2010), Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2011), Fort George 1811 (2011), Occidental Kellerbier (2012), No award 2014-2015, Culmination Euphoric Brett IPA (2015), and pFriem Sour IPA (2016).