It's time once again to raise a glass and celebrate the best local beers of the past year. It was an especially great year for new brews; there were so many introduced. It makes me think that our local breweries have reached critical mass in number and are coming of age in quality. Here are a few of my top "beery" good memories.
Most surprising and memorable find of the year
Chocolate Imperial Porter from Tyranena Brewing Company
A full-bodied porter made with cocoa nibs. Tyranena owner and brewer Rob Larson starts with an Imperial Oatmeal Porter called The Devil Made Me Do It and adds the nibs to create a beer with lots of chocolate flavor and body.
Biggest beer with flavor, not just high alcohol
Barbara Imperial Doppelbock from Capital Brewery
Named after brewmaster Kirby Nelson's wife, Barbara, this is a rich malty brew with its own personality that was introduced by Capital last winter. Nelson makes this intensely dark beer with candi sugar, which increases the strength of the beer to 8.9 % ABV without adding body.
Local hopheads' delight
Ballistic from Ale Asylum
An American version of the bitter India Pale Ale style, Ballistic was introduced this past year by the east-side brewery as a seasonal sold in six-packs. Its citrusy hoppiness comes from hefty additions of only Amarillo hops. You may find more bitter beers, but few have the complex flavor interaction of a big malty background that allows such a single variety of hops to have its day in the flavor profile. Look for Ballistic to reappear on store shelves just after the first of the new year.
Well worth the drive
Milk Stout from Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Company
Wisconsin Dells isn't that far to go for a good beer. Brewmaster Jamie Martin used about 100 pounds of lactose in a 15-barrel batch to create this creamy medium-bodied stout. It's a memorable brew with lots of chocolate malt flavor and a smooth light-roasted finish.
Best of the seasonal brews
Winter: Winter Warmer from Rush River Brewing Company
This brewery in River Falls offers a full-bodied Scotch ale with lots of alcoholic warmth from 6.7% ABV. Assertive caramel maltiness and deep bronze color take the chill out of a snowy day. It has been available at select Madison taps over the past month, such as at the Old Fashioned.
Spring: Scurvy from Tyranena Brewing Company
One could say that Tyranena has a bitter reputation for making hoppy brews like Stone Teepee Pale Ale and Bitter Woman IPA. In May, brewmaster Rob Larson released Scurvy in six-packs as a seasonal beer. It is an IPA made with orange peel that comes on strong in the aroma and flavor.
Summer: Prairie Moon Farmhouse Belgian Style Ale from Lake Louie Brewing
Nothing like a little wit in summer. This Belgian witbier is light, yeasty and fruity with hints of orange and coriander in its flavor. It's simply a great summer thirst quencher after a hot day of yard work.
Fall: Altbier from the Great Dane-Downtown
This was one of the best session beers offered in 2009. Solid flavor, but not so heavy or strong that you couldn't enjoy more than one at a "session." Medium bodied, bubbly, malty with a light dryness -- this Alt was a great beer for meals or just relaxing after work.
One That Just Didn't Work for Me
Old English Porter from New Glarus Brewing
Not a bad beer, but this just wasn't my thing. There are certainly many who would disagree with me, though. Sour-malty (as opposed to fruity sour) is a beer flavor I struggle to enjoy. Dan Carey made this as a reflection of what early porters "may have" been like in the 1700s. Its recipe includes floor-malted English malts, a touch of smoked malt and a souring fermentation process to give it wine-like acidity. I certainly appreciate Old World Porter for its stylistic artistry -- but the sourness was too much for my modern-porter-influenced palate, which looks for somewhat sweeter renditions of the style with a solid caramel and chocolate malt flavor. If this is traditional, I'm happy the style has evolved.
Best beer to finish a meal/nightcap
Peruvian Morning from Central Waters Brewing
This is a big, assertive, yet smooth Imperial Stout made with cold-pressed coffee from Emy J's of Stevens Point. It ferments for nearly six months in bourbon barrels from Kentucky's Buffalo Trace Distillery. The 2010 version should already be in the barrels and "perking" away for next spring's release.
A reliable favorite that didn't disappoint in 2009
Tripel Nova from Ale Asylum
This beer is a constant favorite of mine. It has been a seasonal from brewmaster Dean Coffey, but only available at the brewery in pints or for take home in half-gallon growlers. All that changed in August. That's when Coffey made Belgian beer fans around Madison very happy by releasing Tripel Nova in bottles for the first time. This sweet nectar of a beer is big at 10% ABV, despite now being found in four-packs of not-so-large 12-ounce bottles.
Best new beer venue of 2009
The Madison Mallards Duck Blind at Warner Park
It's not a completely new venue for Mallards fans, but the Duck Blind got a makeover for the 2009 season. Mallards games, win or lose, were a big hit with more than two-dozen beers to choose from, a 20% expansion in the reserved beer garden seating, and a one-price ticket for all-you-can-eat-and-drink. General manager Vern Stenman says when the weather is warm, it's not uncommon for baseball fans at Warner Park to tap more than 100 kegs in a game. That's a lot of beer for a park of its size. BTW: The Mallards finished the season with a 38-29 (w-l) record.
Best Beer for ringing in 2010
Wisconsin Cran-bic from New Glarus Brewing
Anoter new brew this year, Wisconsin Cran-bic is a distinctive, crisp, bubbly beer that rests on a bed of cranberries before it's transferred to oak tanks for additional fermentation. The berries provide assertive aroma and a brilliant reddish amber color. Pour this beer into a champagne glass or wine flute and toast the New Year.
Best beer of 2009: Honorable mention
Bohemian Lager from New Glarus Brewing
Brewmaster Dan Carey lets lose periodically with his Unplugged series of beers. Technically, he brewed Bohemian Lager in 2008, but the beer made its way to local shelves through much of 2009, holding up to aging very well for being a lager. It's actually still available at the brewery. This is a pilsner the way the style originated, with body, brilliant golden color, and a rich flavor complexity from interactions between the malt and hops. Carey makes this beer with Czech Moravian malt and Saaz hops, then ferments itin unlined oak tanks. New Glarus Bohemian Lager is currently ranked among the top five in the style on RateBeer.
Best beer of 2009
Eisphyre from Capital Brewery
You know it's a great beer when you just want to sit back and sip. Eisphyre certainly brings that out in the beer drinker with a warmth from 10% ABV along with a rich malty flavor. It's perfect for contemplating the events and brews of the past year. The first and only time Capital brewmaster Kirby Nelson made this beer before this fall's release was in 2006 to commemorate the brewery's 20th anniversary. Nelson isn't committing to making this a regular beer; however, he is planning a special rendition for the holidays next year, because he held back some of it and filled a few bourbon barrels that are hidden away. Now that's something to look forward to in 2010!