It was an amazing year for beer here in the state of California. I truly believe that it is impossible to give a nod to all the incredible beers, breweries, brewers, and bars here…with that said, I want to personally thank every one who played a role in making California beer so awesome in 2014.
In the spirit of the new year, here are my picks for the the best that California had to offer up in 2014:
Best California Beer
(something released in 2014 not an older beer, must have been reasonably available)
“Easy Jack” – Firestone Walker Brewing Company – Paso Robles, California
Out of all of the session IPAs that I have experienced, “Easy Jack” from Firestone Walker Brewing Company probably does some of the most interesting things with hops. Leave it to the hop chemist (yes, he is actually a hop chemist), Matt Brynildson, to deliver on this beer. The combination of Bavarian Mandarina, Hallertau Melon, and New Zeland and American Mosaic hops is simply stunning. The malt profile is crackery and light and crisp, with a touch of rolled oats for a sense of body and creaminess in a low, 4.5% ABV beer. This beer is not only an easy pick for the Best California Beer of the year, but it also epitomizes my pick for the best beer trend: sessionable beers that are complex and full of flavor. This beer is awesome.
Honorable Mention: Mosaic Session Ale – Karl Strauss Brewing Company – San Diego, California
A surprise hit from this San Diego iconoclast, the “Mosaic Session Ale” from Karl Strauss Brewing Company drove home a definitive point: Mosaic hops are incredibly aromatic and flavorful, complex enough to fill out a beer in a single-hop application. It’s not surprising that this beer won a Bronze Medal in the Session Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014, and thankfully, this beer will be back in 2015. Look out for this one.
Best non-California Beer
(same rules as above)
“Snapshot” – New Belgium Brewing Company – Fort Collins, Colorado
This wheat beer unexpectedly surpassed expectations, coming from the brewery that is most-well known for a relatively uninspiring beer (at least to some beer drinkers), i.e., “Fat Tire.” Instead, “Snapshot” delivers everything that you would want from a 5.0% ABV wheat beer. A sweet malty bread note, moves toward a crisp and tart lactic sour finish. In keeping with my favorite beer trend, this beer is clean, low ABV, refreshing, and crushable. Yet, the complexity and brilliance of this tartly sour beer translates to something that you would want to drink a lot of. Simply a great beer from New Belgium Brewing Company, and my pick for the Best non-California Beer of the year.
Best newly Bottled or Canned California Beer
“Jezebel” – Cellarmaker Brewing Company – San Francisco, California
My favorite beer to see a bottle this year in California was also the first-ever bottle release from what is quickly becoming one of my favorite breweries, Cellarmaker Brewing Company from San Francisco, California. “Jezebel” is quintessentially a Brett Drei Saison, a clean Saison with a touch of rye, fermented with the Saison Dupont yeast strain as well as with Brett Drei. The funky yeast strain kicks off huge tropical funk notes, with a pineapple tartness that is delightful and refreshing. If there are still some bottles out there, it would be interesting to see how the bottle has treated the Best newly Bottled California Beer over time. Awesome to see Cellarmaker beer in a bottle.
Best California IPA
Sculpin – Ballast Point Brewing Company – San Diego, California
This question is borderline unfair, there are way too many awesome California IPAs out there. But because I can only choose one, I guess that I would have to call 2014 the year of “Sculpin.” This beer from Ballast Point Brewing Company has not only propelled the brewery into the national spotlight, but it might be quickly becoming synonymous with the New-School / West Coast-style India Pale Ale. A bright, citrusy, hop bomb, where the focus is absolutely geared toward the hops and not the malt. This is my choice for the Best California IPA in 2014. Look for the Sculpin trend to continue in 2015 with the Grapefruit and Habanero versions becoming more prevalent and available.
Honorable Mention – All of the Rest
Some awesome California IPAs that stood out in my mind this year include: “Maui Waui” – Altamont Beer Works; “Nelson” – Alpine Beer Company; “Citraholic” – Beachwood Brewing & BBQ; “Mo’ Galaxy” – Cellarmaker Brewing Company; “Just Outstanding” – Kern River Brewing Company; “I Love It” – Noble Ale Works; “Blind Pig” – Russian River Brewing Company; “Simpleton” – Sante Adairius Brewing Company
Most Underrated California Brewery
Faction Brewing Company – Alameda, California
Faction Brewing Company, and perhaps the Faction Pale Ale in particularly, seem to get overlooked time and time again by folks when they are reading through the beer menu. Every single beer that I had from Rodger Davis and Claudia Pamparana and Faction this year was clean and well-brewed, not-overly complicated, delicious, and easy to drink. On top of awesome hoppy beers, these guys brew an amazing porter (“Puddy Porter,” a GABF Bronze Medal Winner) and a beer called “Anomaly” that is exactly that: a golden colored milk stout brewed with Anise, Chocolate, and Coffee. Give Faction some love as the Most Underrated California Brewery.
Best New California Brewery
Bagby Beer Company – Oceanside, California
At long last, the fall of 2014 saw an end to a world where Jeff Bagby—the former head of brewing operations at Pizza Port Carlsbad—was not brewing beer. Enter Bagby Beer Company, a brewpub destination in Oceanside, California, located just North of San Diego. Jeff and the crew at Bagby Beer came out of the gate swinging with some fantastic beers: “Asphalt Jungle,” an Irish Stout, won a Bronze at the GABF. “Dork Squad,” their IPA is fantastic. And the beer “Upside Down Frown,” not only makes you smile, but it is a downright tasty American Brown Ale. With killer food and great service at the brewpub, it’s easy to name Bagby Beer Company as the Best New California Brewery. Thanks in large part to Jeff and Dande Bagby, and their personality that embodies Bagby Beer Company, this spot is super fresh and awesome.
Across the board, Firestone Walker might be one of the best breweries in the world, and certainly in California. Hoppy beers? Check. Malty, smooth beers? Check. Barrel-Aged stouts? Check. Sour beers? They’ve got the Barrelworks program, checkmate. This does not even include their Anniversary release, a beer that is sought after each year, demanding a premier price point that is worth it all. Yes, Firestone Walker is one hell of a brewery. Now, they are even brewing Pliny the Elder for Russian River Brewing Company, a beer that has been repeatedly voted as the Best Commercial Beer in America. Hats off to everyone at Firestone Walker as being the Best California Brewery and on another incredible year of brewing beer in California.
Best California Brewpub
Alpine Beer Company – Alpine, California
Drink Alpine Beer or Go To Bed. This brewpub destination in the idyllic town of Alpine, California has everything that you want in a brewpub. First and foremost, amazing beer. Their general lineup is fantastic, but the pub only beers are always worth the drive. I am talking about beers like Bad Boy, Keene Idea, Exponential Hoppiness…awesome, awesome IPAs. Then, pair these beers up with an outstanding barbeque menu, and you have (hands down) the Best California Brewpub. As far as food, get the Dry-rubbed chicken wings. These delicious wings are smoked to perfection and then finished in the fryer for a kiss of crispy goodness. The dry rub delivers all the heat and spice to go right along with that hoppy beer in your glass. Alpine Beer Company is your no-frills, beer and food establishment.
Honorable Mention: Beachwood Brewing & BBQ – Long Beach, California
Julian Shrago and the crew at Beachwood Brewing & BBQ would likely run away with this one if they were located closer to San Diego and if I got the chance to drink Beachwood beer more often. As everyone know, thanks to the GABF recognition now for two years running, Julian makes awesome beer. Add awesome BBQ into the equation, and you have got an amazing California brewpub.
Best California Brewer
Evan Price – Noble Ale Works – Anaheim, California
From an Assistant Brewer’s position at BJ’s Brewhouse, to brewing at Hangar 24 Craft Brewery, then at TAPS Fish House & Brewery, Evan is perhaps just hitting his stride at Noble Ale Works. He has been simply crushing it in 2014 with beers like “Naughty Sauce,” “Unintelligibility,” “Tongue Tickles,” and his “____ Showers” series (a rotating single-hop double IPA). Simcoe Showers. Nelson Showers. Citra Showers. Mosaic Showers. Rakau Showers. This list goes on and on. The sheer variety and the consistent quality of Evan’s beers make him my pick for the Best California Brewer in 2014. Plus, Evan is simply an awesome dude with an incredibly positive perspective on beer. Great stuff.
Best California Taphouse/Beer Bar
Toronado SD – San Diego, California
Located right in the heart of San Diego on 30th Street, a thoroughfare that has been proclaimed as The Nation’s Best Beer Boulevard by Men’s Journal, the Toronado is everything you could ask for in a beer bar. Over 50 different taps of incredible draft beers, with a local focus, fresh and delicious. A bottled beer list that usually includes some of the most sought after beers in the world. Great bartenders who are not only extremely knowledgeable about the beer, who are friendly and helpful, but who are also generally badass beer people. A recent expansion into the building next door nearly doubled the size of the joint, making Toronado SD the Best California Beer Bar this year.
Honorable Mention – Hog’s Apothecary – Oakland, California
In the East Bay of San Francisco, in what is quickly becoming one of the best beer destinations in California, you will find Hog’s Apothecary. The no-nonsense approach to beer is what makes this spot great. The Beer Director, Sayre Piotrkowski, is one of the most kick-ass beer dudes around, and he curates a beer list that has some of the heaviest hitters in California these days – most awesome, is his brewery-direct focus. Sayre works directly with self-distributing California breweries to bring the most fresh and delicious beers to the table. This direct working relationship with breweries is something that more beer bars need to develop.
Best New Trend
The Rise of the “Session” Beer
The best beers are the ones you can drink a lot of. Low ABV plays a part in that, but the beer still needs to be a beer worth drinking. Luckily these days, breweries are making complex, flavorful, delicious, fulfilling beers that are also low in alcohol. “Easy Jack” from Firestone Walker, the “Mosaic Session Ale” from Karl Strauss, and “Snapshot” from New Belgium are just three examples already named. Say what you will about the “session” moniker, if it is a low ABV beer that can deliver everything you are hoping for…well, that calls for another glass.
Worst New Trend
Attention to Gimmicks, Not to Beer
Flashy ingredients and gimmicky processes do not do much as far as advancing the bottom line for beer. Innovation in brewing should not equate to filling a Randall with the weirdest ingredient you can think of, just for the sake of it. Focus more on beer quality, across the board. Give me beer flavored beer.