Best Beer of the Year (Satori 2018)
Each of the past eleven Decembers, I have highlighted the best beer debuting that year in Oregon. I called it the Satori Award, riffing on the name “Beervana.” (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 similar flash of insight into the nature of beer.)
Now, of course, the best I can do is honor the best beer I tasted, acknowledging that in the thousands I missed there might well have been one that would have delighted me even more. No single human may claim to have mastery over the field of new beers anymore.
Since reading about beers you haven’t tried is tedious work, I’ll sprint through this post and give you what you care about—the upshot. First I’d like to mention the candidates:
Upright Pathways saison. Originally released in 2017, it took me until this year to find it. Exquisite complexity and balanced (read more here). I have encountered the only other wild saison in its class, when I found one in Bellingham at Structures Brewing (Isolation).
Stormbreaker Hazy ... So Hot right Now. A weird name and a beer I had no particular hopes for—yet it was one of the two or three best hazies I’ve ever had, and at a delightful 5.6%. Review here. I’ll throw in a mention for Tree House’s Baby Bright, the one truly stellar beer I had from this overrated brewery.
Reach Break Astoria Wild-Flavel. Wild yeast cultivated from the iconic Flavel House museum produced a remarkably balanced, sweetish to whi wild ale. Their smoked oyster stout was also in the mix. Review here. And while we’re on wild ales, Block 15’s annual Corvallis almost-lambic (made like they are in Brussels) Turbulent Consequences with Cassis was as good as always.
Fort George City of Dreams. I was at the brewery to try the new 3-Way, which was fine , when I discovered this gem. It also has one of the best can designs out there.
West Coast Grocery’s Peck Chillzner. The saddest, least-inspired name this year belied an exceptional 4.5% Czech-hopped German pilsner. Review here.
Level Cool Kids Drink Pale Ale . I have long been waiting for the modern pale ale to emerge from Sierra Nevada’s shadow and demonstrate how intense hops and rounded, soft sessionabilty could play nice together. Here it is. Review here.
pFriem Japanese Lager. I have long felt that Japanese lagers are an overlooked triumph in brewing, far, far better than standard international mass market lagers to which they are inevitably compared. pFriem did what they do best, breaking a style down into all its constituent elements and reconstructing a flawless example—with just enough Hood River flair to distinguish it from the source of inspiration.
The Satori Goes To...
The beer that lives most in my imagination, the “best” beer I drank in 2018, was Pathways Saison. It was a revelation in the way so many ostensibly intense elements could be composed to create a soft, sessionable beer of crazy depth and complexity. It was 8% and drank like five, and the wild elements were as delicately and beautifully groomed as a prize bonsai tree.
But honestly, I can’t award the best debut beer to one that’s been around 20 months. I therefore am left waffling between two others—pFriem’s lager and Level’s pale, beers that are as simple and unfussy (if nevertheless wonderfully well-composed) as Pathways is complex. But at the end of the day, I think the choice is obvious. The humble pale ale needs to come back closer to the center of our attention, reworked in such a way that the original (American) example can be used as a spiritual ancestor, not a straightjacket, and all the lessons of the past five years can be harnessed for a new American pale. Level did exactly that, in a beer I hope becomes an example of the way forward for other brewers. Your Satori for 2018 is Level’s Cool Kids Drink Pale Ale. That title is a bit of pale ale advocacy, and I agree. Cool kids do drink pales, especially ones like this.