At the end of last semester, I had big plans for the first Beer 101 of this year. I would kick it off with tales of brewery tours or drinking adventures I took over break. But as my break began to disappear, I realized the only two guarantees were that I would be traveling and drinking a good deal, a situation well-suited to being able to try new beers. Never without pen and paper, I chronicled each beer I drank and have compiled my list of the 10 best. None of these beers were purchased in Maine, and therefore I am unable to provide price or location, although I am sure many of the finalists are available at Uncle Tom's.
1. Harpoon 100 Barrel Series Weizenbock
Unfortunately, the best beer I drank this break is most likely the hardest to get. This weizenbock is the 21st addition to Harpoon's 100 Barrel Series, a showcase of special recipes developed by Harpoon brewmasters in which 100 barrels of each beer are produced. Available on tap only at the company's Boston and Vermont breweries, and in a limited quantity of bottles, the unique and special beers of the series are definitely worth a trip to either of the breweries for a pint or a 64-oz. growler to go.
Brewed with half wheat malt and half dark German barley, this exceptional beer combines the light and flavorful characteristics of a wheat beer with the body and complexity of a darker German ale, producing a beer that is both unique and complex. Pouring a dark brown, the beer opens up with a wheaty, caramelized malt that fades slowly into a smooth, slightly spicy, and alcoholic finish that exhibits the beer's 7.8 percent alcohol content, although not in an unpleasant way.
2. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
As the middle sibling in Dogfish Head's 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPA (India Pale Ale) family, this beer carries an overall rating of 99 on ratebeer.com, as well as Esquire Magazine's designation as the "best IPA in America." With a great deal of hop aroma, the 90 Minute opens with a massive malt followed by a citrusy, piny burst of intense hop character. This beer risks being too bitter or hoppy for the masses, but it stands head and shoulders above the extensive field of microbrew IPAs currently available.
3. Young's Double Chocolate Stout
Pouring pitch black with a dense white head, this stout's nose is malty and roasty. A powerful, but not overly sweet, dark chocolate flavor comes out strong, accompanying a balanced and creamy malt and staying through until the roasty, dry finish. Overall, this beer is more reminiscent of a dry stout than a typically sweet chocolate stout. The addition of a perfect amount of dark chocolate adds an interesting and unique element to a very drinkable beer with milkshake-like smoothness.
4. Otter Creek Raspberry Brown Winter Ale
Typically, winter ales rely on spices and darker malts to add distinctiveness, but Vermont's Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury has taken an atypical approach with its use of raspberry. Although initially skeptical of the viability of raspberry in a winter ale, I was awed by this beer's unique and effective use of the fruit. The balanced and natural raspberry comes through immediately in the beer's aroma and carries through the dark malt opening, moving into a rich and roasty finish. Dark yet refreshing, this beer distances itself from many other winter ales with its interesting and effective use of berry.
5. Wolaver's Organic Oatmeal Stout
Also brewed by The Otter Creek Brewery, Wolaver's represents a smaller but equally impressive addition of organic beers to the Otter Creek family. While I tend to find many oatmeal stouts overly malty and sweet, this beer exhibited little malt character in the nose, with an oatmealy, bready character and hints of coffee. The addition of oatmeal adds a creamy body to the beer, which opens with a fairly dry malt and a roasty, coffee-like finish. With its coffee and oatmeal flavors and low carbonation, this beer is almost more suited to breakfast than a night of drinking (not that this is necessarily a problem).
6. Yuengling Original Black and Tan
I found myself immediately wishing that Yuengling, definitely the overall best value of the group, were available in Maine. To make the black and tan, Yuengling mixes a dark porter with a lighter ale, resulting in a beer with a roasty malt and a light, smooth body. An incredibly refreshing and drinkable beer that continues to impress with some darker undertones, this might be the best beer for the price I have ever had.
7. Harpoon Brown Session Ale
The concept of a "session beer" comes from the drinking "sessions" granted to British factory workers during their breaks. Such beers are usually of moderate to low alcohol content and are smooth and drinkable, perfectly suited for anyone who wants to have a few pints on a break from work without becoming too drunk. The Harpoon Brown does just this, offering a refreshing yet almost stout-like smooth brown ale with just enough malt and hop character to set it apart from other British brown ales such as Newcastle. Truly a drinkable beer suited for both a night out and a between-class break.
8. Thomas Hooker Brewery IPA
Brewed in the beautiful city of Hartford, Conn. and named after the city's founder, the Hooker IPA is another great example of an American style IPA. Although not as hoppy or balanced as the 90 Minute, the Hooker excels by having an uncharacteristically dark body for an India Pale, pouring a dark amber red. A sharp, fairly big malt shows more of a caramel character than expected, and the hops come on immediately to balance the malt, carrying through to a bitter and pleasant finish.
9. Fischer Alsace Amber
Brewed in one of France's premier wine-producing regions, this medium-light-bodied and colored ale exhibits a dry and almost wine-like character in both the nose and the initial malt. Overall, although not a typical amber ale, this beer is both light and crisp and is perfectly suited for anyone in the mood for a lighter but unique beer.
10. Key West Sunset Ale
With a yearly average temperature of 79 degrees, Key West is not a place suited to big, heavy beers. In crafting their Sunset Ale, the Florida Beer Company has achieved a beer that is light enough for the climate yet still holds a nice malt followed by the use of light hop. This beer would most likely be a success if sold around New England as a summer ale.