As an Alehead, one of the most common questions you receive is, “What’s your favorite beer?” There’s no real valid answer for that. I crave different beers at different times of day, at different times of year, with different meals and with different people. It’s an ever-changing, ever-evolving answer. But what if you could expand that response? What if you were just asked to list the best beers you’ve ever had? Does having no restrictions make it easier?*
*Answer: Fuck no.
Of course not. I could no more list the best beers I’ve ever had than the best meals or the best nights of sleep (though I can assure you that none of those nights have been since I had children). Maybe I have a few, no-question, “best” beers in mind, but I’ve had thousands of different beers in my life and have forgotten so many of them (a particular hazard when you’re talking about alcoholic beverages). It depends on what mood you were in when you had the beer. Who you were with. Where you were. Hell, even how thirsty you were at the time could seriously influence your enjoyment of a beer.
As I pondered that thought, I began to form an interesting question in my head…one that I’d like to pose to the rest of the Aleheads and to Alehead Nation. I’d like you to list the best beers you’ve ever had…but rather than basing that list on the objective “quality” of the beer, base it on the overall drinking experience. In other words, what are the most memorable beers you’ve ever consumed? Maybe it was a Dubbel with your best friend on your birthday? Or an IPA you split with your spouse on your wedding day? Or a stout you cracked open right after your child was born? Presumably the responses will be (mostly) objectively great beers…but the overall experience with the beer will be far more important than the beer itself.
I’m fascinated by this question because, while I love hearing about great beers, I love great beer stories even more. And this question should bring out some good ones. For my own response, I came up with 11…most of which were critical beers on my personal Alehead journey. If you’ve seen Inside Out (a solid Pixar joint), then you know that certain memories can set you on clear paths in your life. The original plan was to make a Top Ten list (of course), but I had such a hard time cutting any single one of them that I decided to just list all 11. If you’re willing to share your own stories, feel free to pick whatever number makes sense to you. It doesn’t matter…we just want to hear your stories!
BROTHER BARLEY’S “BEST” BEERS
11. Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter: I’ve told this story many times before, but this is the beer that birthed an Alehead. When I was young, one of my best friends had an older brother who was more than willing to buy beer for us underaged little rapscallions. At the time, I thought little of beer. I had a sip of my Dad’s Molson or Haffenreffer from time to time and couldn’t understand the fascination adults had with beer. That changed in a whipcrack moment with the Stovepipe Porter. It was the first true “craft” beer I had ever tried. It was dark, sweet, smoky…and it was delicious (still is!). A true beer geek was created right then and there and it probably explains my predilection for dark beers to this day.
10. Sam Adams Golden Pilsner: Gramps McHops was crucial in my evolution as an Alehead. He was never a big drinker himself…just the occasional brew during jam sessions with his band. But he knew that I had developed a taste for the fermented arts so he decided to turn my hobby into a father/son bonding experience. When I was a teen, we’d take a trip to the local package store and Dad would let me pick out a sixpack for the weekend. Now obviously this isn’t “ideal” parenting, but Dad was honest about what it meant to have a teenage son. He knew I was going to drink and he would prefer that I drank a couple of decent beers with friends in my basement rather than driving out to the woods somewhere with a bottle of cheap vodka. It was safer (we weren’t driving), less likely to lead to illness (harder to overdo it with craft beer than hard liquor), and it gave us a little time together during that brief period of life when kids all but hate to be seen with their folks. It was fun, and we’d often split the first bottle to see which ones we liked and which we didn’t. The Golden Pilsner, hardly a world-beater, was the first six-pack Dad ever bought for me. It was never terribly popular and the Boston Beer Company doesn’t even brew it anymore, but damned if it wasn’t delicious to a teenaged Brother Barley.
9. Guinness: Many of the beers on this list were consumed in the company of Doc. He’s been my longest-running beer buddy and we share the same penchant for trying anything and everything we can get our hands on. After our Freshman years at our respective colleges, Doc and I (and a third, erstwhile friend), trekked to Ireland with the express purpose of drinking a Guinness straight from the source at St. James Gate. Doc wasn’t even much of a beer fan at the time…he was just excited to travel overseas. We got to Dublin, wandered over to the Guinness Hop Store, took the tour, then ventured downstairs to the bar. We each ordered a pint of the black stuff and, obviously, it was the best Guinness we ever had. I rarely drink the stuff anymore…there are too many superior stouts out there…but that one was magical. And I’m fairly certain that was Doc’s version of my Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter. He’s never been the same since.
8. Funkwerks Green Tea Saison: Speaking of trips with Doc…our first “true” Aleheads Beer Summit was to Colorado about three years ago (myself, Doc and the Cap’n). Our crew had been to Philly two years prior, but that was more of a glorified pub-crawl than anything else (though it was epic fun). That trip to Colorado was truly about the beer. We hit up dozens of breweries in Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Boulder and Denver and got flight after flight of every beer they had. Despite crushing over 100 different beers on that jaunt, one managed to stand out above all others. If a beer is THAT memorable in the midst of so many others, it’s got to make the list. It was the Green Tea Saison from Funkwerks. Funkwerks is a tiny little outfit that took over Fort Collins Brewery’s original space. They specialize in saisons and farmhouse ales and during our trip there, they had brewed a handful of “tea-infused” beers. The Green Tea was the standout and the earthy flavor of the tea cut through the funk and sweetness of the saison. A great beer from a great trip.
7. Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour: My wife’s sister lives in San Francisco so we make trips out there whenever possible. It’s one of the great American cities and has a brilliant local beer scene. During one of our first trips to visit, we stumbled into the Monk’s Kettle…a wonderful little taproom in the Mission with a focus on Belgian beers. There, I had my first gruit and my first sour beer. The gruit (some Scottish offering) didn’t do it for me, but the sour…that was a different story. The Monk’s Cafe forever changed my opinion of what beer could be. Brewed by the Brouwerij Van Steenberge in Belgium specifically for the Monk’s Cafe (a wonderful bar) in Philadelphia, it’s a perfect example of an acidic yet sweet Flemish Red. I’ve absolutely loved sour beers since that moment and I now seek them out everywhere. I had worshiped at the altar of Belgian beers for years before then thanks to the unparalleled awesomeness of the Trappists, but the Monk’s just reminded me how good those Flemish bastards are at brewing.
6. Thorn Street Santos Coffee Stout (Nitro): Another trip with Doc…this was last year in San Diego. Even for us, it was an over-the-top trip. We hit up a new brewery essentially every hour we were awake. It almost seemed like work towards the end of the trip, but we refused to stop brewery-hopping. You never know when you’ll get the chance to fly cross-country with your buddy to drink for three days so we made the most of it. There were an endless parade of indecently delicious beers in San Diego (seriously…it’s SUCH a great beer town), but for whatever reason the nitro version of the Santos Coffee Stout from Thorn Street just floored me. Now, I’m a sucker for coffee stouts AND nitro beers, so it was in my wheelhouse, but even for a style I’m already prone to love, this was a cut above. When I think back to that trip and all of those beers we had, the Santos is the first thing that comes to mind. So it makes the list.
5. Deschutes Obsidian Stout: The weirdest year of my life was the year I graduated from college. I moved to a ramshackle house in Boston with Slouch, Piels and a non-Alehead buddy who is still one of my best friends, got a job at a university, and drank a lot. It was a strangely “dark” time for all of us. 9/11 occurred right after we moved which colored everything. None of us really had a sense of where we were going career-wise and we were all broke. Despite that, we had some fun that year wallowing in our misery and drinking entirely too much beer. Towards the end of the year, I decided to take some time off work and drive cross-country with Beerford to spend the holidays with his family in Oregon. He had been spending Thanksgivings at my house over the years since it was too far for him to trek to Oregon for a couple of days and he had always offered to reciprocate for Christmas since my family didn’t celebrate. Since it was one of those “fuck it” years, I said just that and hopped in the car with him for a road trip. We drank plenty during our stops in Chicago, Seattle, Portland and his home in Coos Bay, but one beer stood out above all the others. For whatever reason, we hit up The Mill Casino in North Bend, Oregon. Since I was broke and have never been a gambler, I hit up the bar instead of the craps table and ordered the first Deschutes beer I’ve ever had…the Obsidian Stout. It was one of those beers where you pull the glass away from your mouth and stare at it for a second in disbelief. A dark beer for a dark period in my life…and man was it good. A couple of months later, the Patriots won their first Superbowl and I met my wife. I’ve been on a roll ever since.
4. Hunahpu Imperial Stout: Speaking of dark beers, shortly after Aleheads got up and running, I met a few Birmingham-area beer geeks who liked our site. They’re still friends today and I’ll grab a brew with them from time to time (less so of late because, you know, kids). One of the first times I met them was during a Stout Tasting event we held after-hours at the famed Birmingham watering hole, the J. Clyde. We cracked open some legendary brews that night…including two versions of Three Floyd’s notorious Dark Lord, Deschutes The Abyss and Founders KBS. I loved everything I drank, but the beer that blew me away was Cigar City’s Hunahpu Imperial Stout. One of the first “chili-pepper” spiced stouts I’d ever had, it was a huge surprise. All I knew of Cigar City at that point was the world-class Jai Alai IPA, but after drinking the Hunahpu, I was a Cigar City acolyte. I’m a sucker for big Imperial Stouts (as are most Aleheads), but that one was truly special.
3. Cascade Kriek: While Beerford and I spent some time in Portland on our cross-country trip, I foolishly didn’t take full advantage of the beer scene then. I remedied that during a conference to PDX a few years ago with the family. One evening, the Missus gave me the green light to meet up with Beerford and the Cap’n to pillage the breweries of Portland. We hit up Hair of the Dog, Hopworks, Deschutes, etc., but the runaway winner was the new-to-me Cascade Brewery. Makers of some of the finest sour beers in the world, my flight at Cascade was jaw-droppingly good. The best (to me, anyway) was their flagship Kriek. A cherry sour so outrageously tasty that I’ve gladly paid $27 a bottle for it at package stores. To this day, I’ve been trying to convince Wifey McHops to move to Oregon with me so I can live near Cascade.
2. Russian River Pliny the Elder: The saddest moment for all of us since starting Aleheads was the passing of our beloved friend and contributor, Magnus Skullsplitter. Less than a year after founding the site, he left us and left a gaping hole in our lives. But just before his passing, a mutual friend had a wedding in Santa Rosa, CA attended by a number of other Aleheads. If the name of that town sounds familiar, it’s because the legendary Russian River Brewery is located there. Creators of Pliny the Elder, one of the most famous beers on Earth, Russian River is a powerhouse in the craft beer world. The night before the wedding, our crew crowded into a table in the back corner of the Russian River taproom and Magnus and I cracked into some Plinys. While I didn’t know it at the time, it would be the last beer I drank with my friend. A few months later, he was gone…and I’ve thought back to that beer many, many times since.
1. Orval: The summer before my Senior year of college, I went to continental Europe for the first time. I spent time in France, Germany and the Netherlands, but the moment that is seared into my brain forever was the day I spent in Bruges. On a tiny road called Kemelstraat sits a mythical beer bar called ‘t Brugs Beertje (Bruges Little Bear). Considered by many to be one of the finest beer bars on Earth, ‘t Brugs Beertje is the perfect setting for quaffing one of the hundreds of world-class Belgian brews they have on tap or in bottles. I knew little of the place other than a brief recommendation in a guide I had read, but I had the time of my life tearing through their beer list and trying everything the bartender recommended. The most memorable for me was the first beer I had there (as is often the case). It was an Orval…at the time my favorite beer (a much easier question to answer back then). Drinking a cool glass of Orval, outside, on a warm, summer Bruges day, at the finest beer bar in Belgium…yeah, that was memorable.
So there’s my list. I hope you enjoyed reading it and I’m eager to hear yours. Add them in the comments below or e-mail them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll compile them into a follow-up post.