By MICHAEL WALSH
First thing: our reader poll experiment didn’t work out like I had hoped it would. Perhaps e-mail submissions aren’t the way to go – I don’t know. I did receive a few best of 2012 lists, and have a list of my own, which will be published later on in this post.
More importantly: what a great year for the Connecticut craft beer scene. Not only did new breweries like Back East Brewing, Relic Brewing, Half Full and Two Roads pop up across the state, but beer fans were also privileged enough to be introduced to beer from Sixpoint, Green Flash, Founders, Goose Island and other great American craft breweries that made their distribution debut in Connecticut in 2012. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be able to pick up some Sixpoint Resin, Founders Breakfast Stout or Green Flash West Coast IPA earlier this year.
While Connecticut becoming a more interesting market to breweries across the country is great and all, what matters most is the way new breweries – like Back East and Relic Brewing – took Connecticut beer fans by storm and impressed with a variety of beers. Even the New York Times got in on the action back in September, proving that Connecticut’s beer scene, long-driven by New England Brewing Co’s standout beers, is a force to be reckoned with in New England.
I think I can speak for most of us when I say that Connecticut’s beer MVP for 2012 might just be Mark Sigman, who out of a very little space on Whiting Street in Plainville has come up with interesting, complex and daring experimental creations that have fans flocking to his place every Friday and Saturday for free samples and the opportunity to fill growlers with beer that might not be available the next week or ever again.
By deciding to experiment instead of sticking to one or two styles of beer, which might make his distribution wider, Sigman has made the taste buds of those wanting to try new, exciting and very fresh beer happy with staples like the Fortnight IPA and his more experimental varieties like Hymn To Ganesh, a Belgian-style ale with a subtle hint of cardamom to change things up. This week Relic will have about five styles of beer, including The Falconess, which Sigman describes as an “American Strong Ale with orange blossom honey and lots of Nelson Sauvin hops.”
The beer that Relic bottles can only be found at a handful stores in the state right now (Harvest Wines in West Hartford, Liquor Depot in New Britain and Simsbury, the CT Beverage Mart near Westfarms Mall and Southington Wine and Spirits) and on draft at three bars/restaurants (Eli Cannons in Middletown, J. Timothy’s in Plainville and Max Burger in West Hartford) and should you ever see it in stock at one of those stores or on tap at one of those bars, make your purchase as soon as possible because the beer isn’t bound to last long – especially a cask-conditioned version Sigman might drop off at Eli Cannon’s from time to time.
Bigger operations like Two Roads out of Stratford and Back East out of Bloomfield have done their job at giving us more local selections of quality beers. Two Roads’ Road to Ruin Double IPA is receiving excellent reviews as one of the state’s best new beers and Back East (along with veteran operations like City Steam, Thomas Hooker and Cavalry Brewing) went on to win a few medals at the Great International Beer Fest in November proving their ability to compete with the rest of the region.
There’s no end to the number of signs that the Connecticut beer scene is on the rise. From new craft beer festivals to an increased number of beer tastings and tap takeover (Plan B in Glastonbury dominated that scene for me in 2012), there’s an insane amount of encouraging amount of activity in Connecticut saying that it can only get better in 2013.
And now, some lists. I asked readers to submit a top five new release list (to keep things simple, we went by Untappd created on date or first Beer Advocate review date – there’s always a chance a beer or two could have come from 2011 as a smaller batch, but these two websites give us a great indication as to when they became available for public consumption) and a top five regular release list. I only received three, but the variety in breweries and varieties proves Connecticut has a lot more options than in previous years.
I of course didn’t get to try everything I wanted to. NEBCO’s Ghost Pigeon Porter and Fuzzy Baby Ducks and Relic’s Transatlantic Belgian IPA to name a couple. I also don’t get to Willibrew often enough to include any of their always tremendous beers in my lists. But I’ve done my best to sum up 2012 in a concise list. The three reader/contributor lists are at the bottom of the page. Thanks to those guys for their effort in helping me out!
The ConnBeer.com Best of 2012 in CT Beer List:
1. New England Brewing’s Premeditated Murder Barleywine
Not lately have I been this in love with a barleywine. This is one dangerously smooth, drinkable fresh barleywine with enough dark fruit flavor to go around. The 11% alcohol is there, but it’s welcoming and not overbearing. It’s so good I’ve had to buy the bottles a few times. It’d be Premeditated Murder to plan on drinking a couple of these in one night.
2. Relic Brewing’s Queen Anne’s Revenge
Yeah, Relic could have just brewed a typical porter like most new breweries might. Yeah right! Hard to put any simple description next to its name, this unique porter brings out subtle hops in an otherwise dark, roasted and strong beer I love so very much. I was able to have it on draft at Eli Cannon’s and I can still say that I’ve never had anything else like it this year. Queen Anne’s Revenge challenges your perception of a porter.
3. City Steam Brewery’s Lunatic
It took all year for City Steam, a favorite place of mine, to make my top five list in 2012. For me, 2012 hasn’t been a banner year for the place that truly got me to fall in love with craft beer. Between the brewmaster breaking his leg and a focus on expanding their bottle releases there hasn’t been many NEW inspiring beers to speak of – just the standby classics we already love like Careless Love, Innocence, Black Silk Stout and so on. But when Lunatic hit taps in late November I knew I had to try it. The beer is a hard one to describe. I’ve seen the words barleywine, strong ale, hoppy, double IPA, imperial [fill in the blank] and more describe this mammoth and complex beer brewed by assistant brewmaster Andrew. Whatever it is, it’s delicious and inviting to your taste buds. It’ll warm you on these cold months.
4. Thomas Hooker’s Chocolate Truffle Stout
One of my most anticipated releases of 2012 was this Connecticut love story between Thomas Hooker and Munson’s Chocolate. As a big fan of my beers being on the dark side, I made their love story into a love triangle by becoming enamored with this one early in the year. There’s a certain balance in a chocolate stout that is often hard to meet. While I absolutely love the divine sweetness of a Southern Tier Choklat, there’s something to say about the authenticity of Hooker’s chocolate flavoring. Less of a Hershey chocolate taste and more of a bold and bitter flavor from the Munson’s chocolate used, Thomas Hooker brewed a beer so popular with its Chocolate Truffle Stout that they brewed another batch a few months ago. It certainly lived longer than the originally-intended limited run. And for that, I am grateful. This is real chocolate in your glass.
5. New England Brewing’s Coriolis
When you see what my favorite regularly released Connecticut beer is, you’ll understand this one’s placement even more. The hop geniuses at NEBCO made another masterpiece with Coriolis, a double IPA for the ages. Loaded with earthy and dank hops and balanced by some sweet fruit nectar, Coriolis is just a perfect example of what NEBCO can do with its hops. I can’t say it better than these rave Beer Advocate reviews can, so check those out instead.
Honorable mentions: Two Road’s Road to Ruin, Back East’s Imperial Stout, Willimantic Brewing’s Ce Qui Est Hoppening and Hopsolutely EPA, City Steam’s Dexter Gordon, Tullycross’ Siberian Imperial Stout and everything I tasted from Relic Brewing.
1. New England Brewing’s Gandhi-Bot
This is the one. This might be Connecticut’s best beer. I know from experience now: NEVER PASS UP A FOUR BACK (or two) if you’re fortunate enough to see this in a store. It goes faster than any other Connecticut beer I’ve seen go. If you’re lucky to live close to the brewery, you probably have better access to it and other NEBCO masterpieces than I do in Hartford, but fortunately this bad boy shows up often enough to keep me happy. I’m not going to bother describing the amazing flavors this one contains, I can’t do the dancing and robotic Gandhi-Bot justice. Just know it’s one of the best DIPA’s in the country, not just the state.
2. City Steam’s Careless Love
My enjoyment of City Steam cannot go ignored. The Hartford brewery has done a great job at keeping a few of its key beers in its rotation over the last few years. While it isn’t the one I keep clamoring for (*coughDRINKINGNUNcough*) the Careless Love is still one of the better beers City Steam almost always has on tap. It comes and goes, changes in subtle ways every time they brew it, and almost always matures nicely when going through its oak-age process. I’ll always remember how it tasted as a small batch at the 2011 mug club party compared to how it tasted three or four weeks later. The difference was incredible. And for that, the Careless Love – a strong and malty rendition of a farmhouse ale – remains one of the tastiest treats City Steam offers. And now I’m just remember how long it’s been since I’ve filled up my 23 ounce mug with it.
3. New England Brewing’s 668 Neighbor of the Beast
There’s no way this smooth-drinking but hard-hitting Belgian strong ale can’t make this list. It’s easier to get your hands on than Gandhi-Bot, but deserves almost just as much love as that masterpiece. This hazy treat comes in at 9 percent ABV but it sure doesn’t taste like it. The Belgian yeast and flavors all but cover any hint of alcohol as a smooth-drinking but certainly complex concoction is all that awaits you with the 668 Neighbor of the Beast.
4. Olde Burnside’s Father Christmas Highland Ale
It took me until Dec. 31 to finally drink this beer. Finding it waiting for me on tap at Plan B in Glastonbury was a welcoming site. I’m not sure why I’ve always passed this up when I see it sitting on shelves at stores. This take on a wee heavy from Olde Burnside, who make some of the best Scottish interpretations in the state, has lots of sweet flavors and masks its alcohol well, which is something that often detracts from the style for me personally. I’d have to say that its warming abilities and flavors makes it perfect for the holiday season like its Father Christmas name suggests.
5. City Steam’s Black Silk Stout
I simply cannot round out a list without the Black Silk Stout, a beer that quickly became a go-to and standby old reliable for me at City Steam. I’d always choose it over a Blonde on Blonde, Naughty Nurse or even the mighty fine Innocence when nothing else on the tap list catches my eye. It’s a well-balanced and super drinkable stout that fits well into session territory. You can easily go through a few pints of these. I can just as easily go through a 23 ounce-filled mug of it. It works in all seasons and the summer style they brew of this stout is a nice change of pace in the hotter months – though I prefer the bold original oatmeal stout variety – with the roasted chocolate tones that help it own the name Black Silk Stout.
And now, three reader-submitted lists!
1. Relic Brewing’s Queen Annes Revenge
2. Thomas Hooker’s Chocolate Truffle Stout
3. New England Brewing’s Ghost Pigeon Porter
4. Relic Brewing’s Transatlantic Belgian IPA
5. Relic Brewing’s Shipwright IPA
1. New England Brewing’s Gandhi-Bot
2. Thomas Hooker’s Liberator Dopplebock
3. New England Brewing’s Imperial Stout Trooper
4. Cavalry Brewing’s Big Wally Porter
5. Thomas Hooker’s Hop Meadow IPA
1. New England Brewing’s Coriolis
2. Two Roads’ Road to Ruin Double IPA
3. New England’s Galaxy Pale Ale (Upon further review, it might actually be 2011, but we’ll let it slide by.)
4. Beaver Brewing’s Big Red IPA
5. Two Roads’ White IPA
1. New England Brewing’s Gandhi Bot
2. New England Brewing’s 668 Neighbor of the Beast
3. New England Brewing’s Sea Hag
4. City Steam’s Naughty Nurse
5. New England Brewing’s Elm City Lager
1. New England Brewing’s Coriolis
2. Relic Brewing’s Queen Anne’s Revenge
3. New England Brewing’s Fuzzy Baby Ducks
4. Relic Brewing’s Fortnight
5. Relic Brewing’s The Falconess
And there you have it folks. A very tiny sample, but as you can see, many of us fell in love with Relic Brewing and continued to stay in love with New England Brewing. Fortunately, with craft beer, you’re allowed more than one love.
Here’s to an even better 2013!