Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beer of the Year 2010

The time has come for Beer at 6512's second annual Beer of the Year award. It's the only laurel we award around here, so it's kind of a big deal (ahem).

Durango's four breweries stretched themselves in 2010, brewing Belgian and German styles, fresh takes on long-established styles, beers without any style, beers aged in barrels and other innovations.

Beers eligible for Beer of the Year must have been new or substantially changed beers brewed in Durango for commercial release during 2010.

Old favorites are not eligible - there is no point in debating Pinstripe Red Ale vs. Steam Engine Lager, for example. Nor are beers from outside Durango.

The criteria: taste first and foremost, with uniqueness, complexity, availability, price, packaging and market impact all considered. The usual caveats: This is a subjective decision that you are free to argue with in the comments below. And while I believe I tried every bottled release, a few tap-only beers surely slipped by me.

So without further ado, the winner is:

Beer of the Year 2010
Ska Dementia

Barrel aging beers is a dangerous game, especially in whisky barrels. If the barrel imparts too much whisky flavor, it overwhelms the beer and you're left with a nearly undrinkable pint.

Improving on previous barrel-aging projects, Ska Brewing Co.'s head brewer Thomas Larsen put some Euphoria Pale Ale in bourbon barrels for about five months.

Euphoria, a winter seasonal, is stronger, darker and hoppier than a typical pale ale.

Larsen also dry-hopped his creation with Simcoes, a high alpha acid hop popular for use in IPAs.

Dementia was double-dipped in red and blue wax and sold in 22-ounce bottles. It debuted in August at Ska's 15th anniversary party, where Larsen tapped the ceremonial keg.

At the time, I wrote, "On first taste, you get a deep sense of something old and wonderful, like a musty barn. A suggestion of oak comes across, with perhaps a hint of vanilla. The rough edges in Euphoria have been lovingly sanded off, and Dementia is well-rounded, complex and balanced, with a slightly sweet and vinous aftertaste."

What makes this beer so impressive was the subtle interplay between the Simcoes and whisky taste. The barrel flavors and hops, which could have clashed, worked extremely well. It tasted unlike anything else on the market.

For this impressive variation on an existing beer, Larsen and Ska win Beer at 6512's Beer of the Year award.

Honorable mentions

Many beers could have won this award. The best of the rest, in alphabetical order, are:

Carver's Smoked Baltic Porter. Smoked beers also carry risk. Too much smoke can dominate the taste, as with the much-praised Alaskan Smoked Porter, a beloved beer that reminds me of how a fireplace must taste.

Carver's exercised restraint in using smoked German malt at 15 percent of the grist in this Baltic porter, a style that was new to Durango. This was a deeply satisfying release whose heft (7 percent ABV, 45 IBUs) helped brace us against the cold.

For its restraint, and for bringing the style to Durango and executing it well, Carver's deserves an honorable mention. (Initial review here).

Durango Brewing 20th Anniversary Ale. Coming off consecutive gold-medal wins at the Great American Beer Festival, Durango Brewing decided to brew a Belgian-style ale for their 20th anniversary. It was a great idea to brew a complex Belgian-style ale, but it could have benefited from some hard decisions.

It uses a Belgian souring yeast, but adds wheat malt, coriander and orange peel that obscures the yeast's qualities. It combined the characteristics of a saison, a golden and a wit. As I wrote in my initial review, the ale "seems like a beer trying to do too much, as if given the opportunity to brew a Belgian beer, the brewers couldn’t resist trying to brew three styles in one."

Give DBC some credit for innovation, and having the guts to try these finicky yeasts. It was an interesting experiment that tasted fine, but could have used some restraint.

Ska Brewing Oak-Aged Orange Cream Stout. Long ago, in the depths of January 2010, Ska put out the 14th beer in its Local Series. It was creamy and dark, with more than a suggestion of orange.

A twist on Ska's Steel Toe Milk Stout, this ale was aged for three to four months in oak barrels with sweet orange peel.

The idea came to Larsen after he came down with a head cold and was looking for ice cream. He ended up with one that mixed orange flavor and chocolate chunks.

What resulted from this inspiration was a wonderful dessert beer, an inviting stout with layers of flavor that was fun to drink.

One of the measures of a beer's greatness is how much you miss it when its gone. I miss this one a lot. (Initial review here).

Steamworks Elephant Rider Imperial IPA. It isn't easy to make an imperial IPA of brutish strength (9.5 percent ABV, 123 IBUs!) that goes down easy. But this hop bomb was impressively drinkable.

Using Centennial and Simcoe hops and Cascades for dry hopping, brewer Ken Martin brought a ton of hop flavor while somehow keeping it in balance.

I helped name the beer through a contest on Facebook, but the flavor stands on its own.

In a year when Steamworks began to regain its footing after retrenching from Bayfield, this was an impressive effort that should please the most ardent hop-head. And, I believe, it's still on tap.


  1. Ska's Oak-Aged Orange Cream Stout was fantastic. I wish I would have drank more it when it was around.

    Is Dementia still available on liquor store shelves or at Ska? I'll be in town for Snowdown and would love to try it. If it's not but somebody out there has saved a few bottles and would like to trade let me know when I should bring out from San Diego.

  2. Jeff- I saw them once here in Denver and bought all they had...along w the last 3 at the brewery over Labor Day, so these are goin to be hard to find. Since the beer scene is pretty weak in SD I am sure you would have nothing to trade! Not sure if we are heading down for snowdown or not.

    Chris & Misy in Denver

  3. I had two Dementias and, needless to say, they're both gone now.

  4. Did it get bonus points for the name? I think it's cool that we bloggers have beers of the year. Someone should cobble them all together so we could have a "bloggers recommendations" from around the country. On the off chance, you know, that I ever make it to Colorado.