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Truly Special Beers

Posted: October 22, 2013

By Thomas Sulinski

If questioned, parents will undoubtedly answer that all of their children are special. Similar to many parents, brewers will answer with the same conviction when asked of their beer. Each year we devote an entire session to what we call “specialty beers”. This session is devoted to beers without a style guideline, without a blueprint – beers of a unique design, if you will. Commonly demanding more of a brewer’s time, labor and creativity, many of these beers are extraordinary, and regardless of a brewer’s conviction, can only be described as something truly special.

This category is unique to the World Beer Championships in that we’re offered a view of not just the heights of a brewer’s talents and creativity, but also a preview of many upcoming trends. For example, just a couple of years ago beers such as black and white IPA were reviewed as part of this category. For many styles, this session of the World Beer Championships is where they make their debut. Although long debuted, barrel-aged beers continue to be some of the more unique beers being brewed today. No beer has come to define this category nearly as much as Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. The 2012 vintage (96 points) carries on the legacy of this beer, and continues to be a benchmark for beers in this category. Although the bourbon barrel continues to be the most popular, brewers have pushed this category far beyond bourbon barrel aged stouts, experimenting by aging any style from pilsner to Belgian-style quad in any barrel they can get their hands on. Michigan’s Grand Rapids Brewing Company is quickly carving a niche for itself in this category by doing just that. The Mound Maker (94 points) is a Belgian-style strong ale aged in Angostura barrels. Not only is this beer a limited release, but also this beer is part of a limited release series of barrel-aged beers featuring the same base beer aged in a different barrel. Doesn’t that make this beer just a bit more special?

In addition to barrel aged beers, specialty malts and yeasts can make a beer unique. Smoked malts and wild yeasts can drastically alter any beers flavor profile, adding another dimension and layer of complexity for a brewer. Steeped in centuries of brewing history, styles such as rauchbier and lambic continue to be some of the more revered and sought after beers for consumers, while being benchmarks for brewers. Both styles exhibit a flavor profile that may not be for everyone, yet both have a very clear and devoted following. Personally selected by Vanberg & DeWulf’s co-founder Don Feinberg, 2013 vintage lambics bottled and blended under the Lambickx label were clear standouts of this year’s session. 2013 Lambickx De Troch (98 points), 2013 Lambickx Private Domaine (93 points) and 2013 Lambickx Kriek Private Domaine (93 points) all show the beauty and complexity of lambic, and should be sought out by devotees of the style before these limited, and never to be replicated beers disappear.

While many may be familiar with Kriek and even Framboise, the world of fruit lambics has grown in step with demand and popularity of the style. Belgian’s Lindemans Pomme Lambic (95 points) was the top awarded fruit lambic this year. An apple lambic, this beer would be is very versatile at the table as a dessert beer, and would be a perfect pair with vanilla ice cream, apple pie or even bread pudding. American brewers are joining in as well with brewing fruit lambic outside of the typically Kriek and Framboise. Other top honors were awarded to Michigan’s Hopcat Brewery’s Blambic (93 points), a blueberry lambic, and Indiana’s Upland Brewing’s Kiwi Lambic (89 points). In addition to fruit lambic, we also review fruit beer as part of this session. Taking top honors this year in this category was August Schell Brewing Co.’s Schell Shocked Radler (93 points). A take on a traditional German radler, this beer is a grapefruit radler, and is a great example of this resurgent style. Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.’s Raspberry Ale (91 points) and Buckman Botanical Brewery’s Apple Beer (90 points) also both pleasantly surprised us, and are both mature examples of the category proving that fruit beers can be balanced and not cloying.

Similar to fruit beers, what differentiates smoked beer from other styles is the addition of a specialty ingredient. At one point in time, all beer could have been categorized as smoked beer. Brewers would kiln their green malt over open fires leaving all brewers’ malt with the lingering aromas and flavors of the open fire. Kilning malt this way has long fallen from fashion with the advent of more controlled, neutral and cost effective methods. Although long fallen from fashion, this method of malt kilning has survived most notably through the style of rauchbier. Rauchbier is essentially a märzen-style lager brewed using beechwood smoked malt. Fort Collins Brewery’s Out of Ashes Rauchbier (94 points) was a clear standout this year, capturing the flavors and aromas in a stateside example of this classic style. We were also reminded from this session that smoked malt beer isn’t solely limited to the rauchbier style. In addition to rauchbier, brewers are using smoked malts to brew a wide array of ale and lager styles. Smoked beers taking top honors this year included Caldera Brewing Company’s Rauch Ür Bock (96 points), The Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams Cinder Bock (93 points) and Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling’s Small Batch Series No. 5 (91 points).

Are some beers more special than others? A brewer will undoubtedly explain that all beers are special in their own way, and rightfully so. All beer is special, but sometimes a brewer is able to create something unique, brew something with a little more of a twinkle or shine, something special. Plenty of specialty beers appear in the pages that follow, and we hope you find something not just great, but indeed special. Cheers!

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