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2012 Specialty Beers
The Oz of Beers

Posted: October 24, 2012

By Tom Sulinski

You don’t need to be caught in a tornado to be brought to a new place where the landscape is suddenly unfamiliar and strange – it’s already in your backyard, my friend. No Dorothy, no Tin-Man and certainly no Wicked Witch necessary, this strange place is in a bottle. While the familiar saying of “There’s no place like home” is often true, don’t go clicking your heals just yet. Far removed from the Reinheitsgebot, “specialty beers” begin with the familiar hops, water, malt, and yeast recipe and then quickly add everything in the cupboard to the kettle. Coffee, herbs, spices ‘a’ plenty blended with non-traditional aging techniques and sometimes a wild yeast only begin to define these beers. Grab your favorite glass because we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore.

Ranging from sickly sweet to delightfully dry, fruit has been a longtime favorite of many brewers. Not for novice brewers, finding balance and true fruit representation in these beers can be surprisingly difficult. Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Co. set the benchmark rather high for fruit beers in this year’s review with their Raspberry Tart (98 points) and Wisconsin Belgian Red (98 points). Also representing the Midwest, Illinois’ Flossmoor Station Brewing Co.’s Provisional Saison (91 points) and Ohio’s Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.’s Raspberry Ale (90 points) were clear favorites of our panelists and deserve to be sought out. Not a fan of red fruit? Then be sure to seek out Samuel Smith’s Organic Apricot Ale (94 points) – packed with real apricot flavor and aromas, you’ll have to pinch yourself just to know the experience is real. Flavored beers don’t begin and end with fruit though, oh no my friend.

Herb and spice flavored beers are as old as beer itself. Ancient styles such as Sahti and Gose are making a comeback, a small comeback, but a comeback nonetheless. To our judge’s delight, Boston Beer Company has resurrected these two ancient styles, brewing Samuel Adams Verloren Gose (89 points) and Norse Legend Sahti (88 points). Herb and spice beers are not always recreations of the past though, many modern brewers are brewing herb and spice flavored beers of their own creation and recipe. Rogue’s Chipotle Ale (91 points) was a great example of an approachable spice beer that’s well-balanced herbal, pepper flavor makes this beer a sure repeat buy. Michigan’s Hopcat Brewery was also a very pleasant surprise with their Super Sage (87 points). Brewed with fresh sage and honey, this beer is an imperial pale ale that packs a punch, and would be a welcome accompaniment at Thanksgiving dinner. Beers don’t have to be flavored to be special though, sometimes it’s not what’s added that makes a beer special, it’s what’s not.

Gluten-free beers have made a lot of progress in a short amount of time. The simple fact that gluten’s naturally found in most malt has limited those suffering from celiac disease from indulging in one of life’s little pleasures, but not anymore. Gluten-free beers are more approachable than ever before, and taste more like beer than ever too. Ranging from ales to lagers, some of our favorites this round were Damm’s Estrella Damm Daura Lager (94 points), The Vermont Pub and Brewery’s Gluten Free IPA (91 points), New Planet Beer Company’s Tread Lightly Ale (90 points), and Brasserie de Brunehaut Blond Gluten Free Ale (89 points). The cider-tether has been cut, you may enjoy drinking beer again. Malt isn’t the only core ingredient that with a few tweaks can make a beer special. Don’t forget the world of flavor wild yeast can offer.

Wild and sour ales are growing as a category. Scores of brewers are trying their hand at these very ambitious beers and with much found success. Brewed around the world, some of these beers are brewed in homage to the Belgian masterpieces in the Lambic style, while others march triumphantly to the beat of their own drum as American wile ales, equally magnificent in either light. Our favorite Belgian brewed sours were Brouwerij Lindemans’ Framboise Lambic (98 points) and Peche Lambic (93 points), while our favorite stateside sours included Texas’ North by Northwest Barton Kriek (95 points), Destihl Saint Dekkera Reserve Framboise (94 points) and Missouri’s Morgan Street Brewery’s Lactovision Lager (92 points).

In the pages that follow the yellow brick road continues, and the surprises around the corner most certainly contain more than just hops, water, malt and yeast put together in the ordinary method. Something special lies ahead, so grab your glass, because we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore. Cheers!

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