December 9, 2009

Mug Shots: Year of the good beer

Another jar is almost empty, and my final columns of 2009 will be devoted to the nearly concluded year in beer in metropolitan Louisville. But before commencing, kindly permit this disclaimer:

 

Hear ye, hear ye. I have tried mightily to chart the local implications of the craft beer revolution during the past year, but looking back on what I’ve written, it’s been little more than nibbling around the edges.

 

That’s because there have been so many wonderful beer-related developments to consider, and providentially, not a single one had to do with the advent of Bud Light Wheat.

Significantly, even the omissions in coverage make me giddy, seeing as they help illustrate our good fortune overall. Simply stated, it’s been perhaps the most exciting beer year yet in Louisville Metro, with American craft beer and quality craft imports available locally in more places than we’ve ever seen.

Not so long ago, a beer enthusiast in these parts could safely mark his or her calendar with a dozen yearly go-to events, festivals and tastings. In 2009, there were numerous occasions when I had to choose between one or two of three (or more) beer happenings, not in the same month but on the same day, each of them successful, drawing their own loyal crowds, and straining the capabilities of City Scoot.

Taking a larger national perspective, 2009 saw the establishment of the 1,500th working brewery in America. It’s safe to assume that each of these facilities is brewing five different beers, totaling at least 7,500 tasting possibilities from Craft Beer Nation USA alone, organized into dozens of styles and sub-styles, with another few thousand American brand choices more likely than not, and thousands more beers coming here from outside our boundaries.

Similarly, Louisville Metro’s five breweries probably account for at least 50 different beers, including seasonals and one-offs brewed during the course of a year. In 2009, I stopped taking notes on Bluegrass Brewing Company (two sites), Browning’s and Cumberland Brews (my own New Albanian Brewing Company is a given) because there were so many choices, they all were good, and the task of compilation was detracting from my enjoyment of styles ranging from Helles to Milk Stout to Yerba Mate Pale.

In my mind, each of Louisville’s five local breweries is local “brewery of the year” for 2009. So it also went for the theoretical possibility of tasting thousands of the other beers from America and the world that continue appearing on Louisville store shelves and in keg boxes behind the city’s bars.

With these fermented bounties of the worldwide craft beer revolution zipping past our faculties of perception, can there be an intelligible strategy for selecting favorite beers of the year?

Unscientific strikes me as the best mode, and so my question is this: Which brewing companies linger in my memory and on my palate?

At least one seemingly obvious choice does not make my list. It is noteworthy that in 2009, New Belgium Brewing Company opened distribution in Indiana and Kentucky, but sorry, in spite of it being a model brewing entity in so many ways, Fat Tire “amber” mania alone simply is not enough to merit its maker’s inclusion.

Consequently, there are different reasons why certain American craft brewers present in the Louisville market caught my attention this year, including Left Hand (Colorado), Clipper City (Maryland) and Southern Tier (New York), and for different reasons. Both Left Hand and Clipper City have been around for a while, and both have seriously upped the ante recently with their higher-gravity beers.

Likewise, at the younger Southern Tier, when the brewery’s original line of flagships failed to ignite, but an exuberant IPA unexpectedly took off, management adapted. With my business traveling like ground, that’s a useful lesson to absorb: Go high or stay home.

As for “craft-brewed” imports, products from Struise (Belgium), Mikkeller (Denmark) and BrewDog (Scotland) are both stellar and procurable as never before. And in a development once unimaginable, the three have frequently brewed with each other on special “collaboration” beers, perhaps testifying in some slight way to the efficacy of the European Union’s approach, at least when it comes to brewing.

Next time: From growlers to Sergio’s, an expanding cornucopia of good beer here.

 

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.