2010 has been quite the year in that greatest of man’s accomplishments: beer.  Microbrew in the USA has gone through a number of trends and currently its focus seems to be on the limited release.  In a way this is the model of wine, with yearly vintages, one-offs and seasonal offerings all priced accordingly.  These are normally sold in 22oz bottles, though there are those that come in larger, or smaller, vessels. The most impressive of the limited releases this year (at least that I tried – in no way is this post even remotely meant to be comprehensive) was from Sierra Nevada who celebrate their 30th Anniversary this year.

Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary stout

Sierra Nevada's Fritz and Ken's Stout

Sierra Nevada Organic Estate Ale

Fritz and Ken’s Stout, the first of the four 30th Anniversary beers from Sierra Nevada, was hands down my favorite new beer I’ve had this year. A collaboration between Fritz Maytag (of Anchor Fame) and Sierra’s Brewmaster this is one of the best stouts I’ve had in ages.  Kind of like a kicked up Anchor Porter, with this almost sweet stout beginning (like say Deschutes Obsidian) but then this chalky, bitter finish. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that.  The second of the four releases was Charlie, Fred and Ken’s Bock the first two being instrumental homebrewers, part of the early days of craft brewing in America. While I’m not a big fan of bock I’ve tried a fair number and wasn’t really into this one at all finding it pretty boring and not worth the premium of a limited edition beer. Jack and Ken’s Black Barleywine was the next release andwas pretty good, though I’ve had far more interesting barleywines for sure. The ‘black’ bit though is interesting, basically it had more malt than a normal b’wine so had more body and an almost smokey aspect. Worth trying IMO.  The last of the anniversary beers, Our Brewers Reserve, Grand Cru, was the second best of the four and another truly great beer, a blend of their Bigfoot Barleywine and Celebration Ale aged in Oak with a bit of their fantastic Pale Ale added for measure.  A toast to thirty years of Sierra Nevada and here’s to thirty more!

The Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary was celebrated at Brouwers (my favorite beer drinking establishment in the Seattle area) on a Monday in November with all four of these beers on tap. Of course they ended up having numerous other beers so I ended up only having the Stout and the Grand Cru. These were both if anything even better on tap – it really brought out the chalky porterness of the stout and the layers of complexity found in the Grand Cru.  Of the speciality beers they had I ended up trying their Organic Estate Ale which was served cask conditioned.  This was another limited edition they had put out this year and I’d liked this a lot in bottles; I think that Sierra Nevada is doing great stuff with their hoppier beers – they’re not gonzo hopped but are nicely bitter and well balanced. This beer on tap retained the features of the bottle but was almost creamy, really unlike anything I’ve had from a cask.

New Belgian Eric's Ale

New Belgian's Eric's Ale

My second favorite new beer from this year is Eric’s Ale from New Belgium. Sour beers are a relatively recent obsession and thanks to New Belgian’s copious amount of limited releases both in bottle and draft only plus Brouwers annual Sour Beer festival I’ve been able to try quite a few. I think this is the best tart sour beer I’ve had in a bottle and is well worth trying if you are curious about the style. I’ve had it on tap two or three different places this year as well, so its clearly around in that format which is of course the way to go. Brouwers has a great relationship with New Belgian and I’ve been able to try many of their sour experiments that were one offs or ones that may someday make it to bottle. They are also well acquitanted with the trend in the limited, or special releases and I have tried many of them, especially from the Lips of Faith series. Many of these special release, whether on draft or in bottle from this year were excellent. The Transatlantique Kriek, a hybrid sour cherry lambic initially brewed in Belgium and  then finished in Colorado is particularly worth trying as is their La Folie Sour Brown which is less tart than Eric’s Ale but sour and rich.  A series always worth checking out.

Deschutes Hop in the Dark

Deschutes Breweries Hop in the Dark

Deschutes Jubel 2010

Deschutes is among my very favorite breweries and have really led the way in the limited edition beers. Their Abyss and Dissident from last year were my favorite beers that year which I’m happy to say have also returned for this year. While not quite as exciting as those beers were this year they put out several quite interesting releases. Hop in the Dark,  I actually had tried on tap the Deschutes Brewery in Portland which made it to bottle this year. Its kind of a cross between a porter and an IPA, but not quite as malty as your average porter and not gonzo hopped. I guess officially its an overhopped “dark ale”, which of course they are claiming is a new style; a “Cascade dark ale”.  This “Cascade” style seems to mean a non IPA style with nearer to IPA level of hops.

More interesting was their Jubel 2010, which as a beer that’s released once a decade is a true rarity. The story goes that they a keg of their always fantastic Jubelale was stolen and then abandoned out in the snow overnight. Upon recovery they tried the beer out and discovered that it had basically undergone the “ice beer” process concentrating the beer and kicking up both the alcohol content and the complexity. So they try to replicate the process every decade as a celebration of the brewery. It has a sort of barelywine aspect but not quite the pedigree of a well made b’wine and frankly I’d say I prefer the standard Jubelale which is strong, and interesting yet quite quaffable.  Still very worth trying and definitely an interesting tipple.

The Reserve Series (AbyssDissident, Mirror Mirror and Black Butte XXn) as I stated earlier are among my favorite (sadly the double aged Mirror Mirror and the Bourbon barrel aged Black Buttle XXn doesn’t do much for me, which is more the pity as the source beers (Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter) are among the best in their class) and Deschutes ships the bottles with a Best After date and seal the caps in wax to preserve them for aging. I’ve got a bottle in my fridge of Abyss from 2009 which is now past its best after date and I’m highly looking forward to trying out. Just waiting for 2011 to begin to crack that wax. The Dissident, after a couple of year haitus has just made it to shelves again and I highly recommend seeking it out.

Anchor Our Very Special Ale 2010

Anchor Brewing's Christmas Ale

Winter beers are a tradition of most micro-breweries and are among my favorite beers of the year.  These are usually stronger beers, a “winter warmer” as it were and the brewers really pull out the stops. Many breweries whose normal beers don’t do much for me make my favorite winter beers. But Anchor Brewing, who are to my mind the best micro-brewery in America have made for decades now the most interesting winter beer: Our Very Special Ale.  Its uses a different tree as an ingredient each year and yes some years are better then others but it’s always something to look forward to. This year’s was creamy, a bit sweet but very drinkable and a fine addition to this amazing tradition.  Times probably about up for finding this one, but grab it if you can.

Brouwers Cafe during the Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary celebration

There was of course tons more beers that I tried this year, especially draft only that I’m not including in this post.  I had lots of great things at Brouwers especially this year, trying beers from their Hardliver Barleywine, Big Wood, Sour Beer and Sierra Nevada festivals among many other trips there. No other thing makes me wish I lived in Fremont more, though I’d be a lot poorer and a lot drunker.  Visit them if you ever are in the area, I know I’ll be there as often as I can.Equally worth the mention is Bottleworks, the beer store that owns and operates Brouwers.  There is no better source for hard to find, limited edition and imported beers. Many of the tipples I tried this year were source from that great store.

While incomplete that’s at least some of the highlights from my year in beer. A good year overall with many interesting and new experiences. The limited edition beer trend is hard on the wallet but is quite rewarding.  Now time to pop a top as we start drinking into 2011.

The last few weekends have been completely filled with the SIMF and it was with some relief that I had nothing going on this weekend.  But it turned out that on Saturday the Seattle based Elysian Brewing Company was having a Winter Beer festival that included Anchor Christmas Ale. Anchor brews a different beer every winter as their Christmas seasonal and I’ve drinking it since 1992. This winter due to some change in distribution in the Pacific NW only a fraction of the normal amount was delivered here which promptly disappeared.  So for the first time in 16 years I hadn’t been able try it. Thus an option to sample it, even better on tap (which is a rare occurrence outside of California),  was not to be missed. Having gone to Elysian’s various beer festivals in the past I knew it’d be better to show up early so I made to their Capitol Hill brew house by 1pm for lunch.

It is the use of the essence of different trees each year that makes Anchor Christmas unique and always interesting. Obviously some years are better then others and this one seemed maybe middle of the pack.  As it warmed though it revealed more character with definite notes of pitch and a nice almost chalky body.  I followed this with a sampler of six 3 oz shots of Elysian’s own Bifrost that had gone through various secondary conditioning from Oak Casts to old bourbon barrels. These were all interesting if not spetacular with the one aged in used French Oak barrels probably being my favorite. I followed this with a second Anchor which went down even better.  I followed this with a trip to Dissonant Plane to pick up some CDs they’d been holding for me: Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Drip Music and the Source: Music of the Avant Garde set. Due to the lingering effects of all those beers in the afternoon all I ended up having the energy to do upon arriving home was doing some internetting followed by watching bad movies on TV.

Sunday I awoke feeling fine, with nothing planned and no interest to even leave the house. After a leisurely morning online with a pot of coffee I spent the afternoon in various music related activities.  I first put on the Source set and listened to a number of the tracks that I’d wanted to hear in CD quality.  I was of course familiar with the material from the UbuWeb downloads but this set is made up of high quality transcriptions of a mint set of the records (the original source tapes long lost apparently).  The pieces that had always been my favorites, Larry Austin’s Accidents, David Behrman’s Wave Train, Alvin Currin’s Magic Carpet, Robert Ashley’s Wolfman all sounded great and the record transcriptions added an additional layer of faint record sound that captures some of the experience of listen to the original LPs. The booklet inside includes a short bio on all of the composers as well a description of the piece which is usually from the original Source article.  Source was an amazing magazine (definitely check out the Wikipedia Source article if you are unfamiliar with it) and it is great to have this resource out there.  Apparently Douglas Kahn is writing a book with Larry Austin (co-editor of Source) to be released on the Univeristy of California Press described as “sourced” from the magazine. I have to say for those of us who were unable to get copies of the magazine this is something to look forward to.

For the last few years I have increasingly come to enjoy the electronic and tape works from the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. The Obscure Tape Music of Japan label (and it’s various sub-lables) has been unearthing a number of interesting compositions of his the most recent of which is Drip Music which includes a manga by Yoji Kuri. The piece was written and performed in 1974 and the tape sat in some drawer since then until this release. I gave this piece several listens throughout the day (and again today as I write this) and it is yet another piece where Ichiyanagi works with primitive electronics, in this case a ring modulator yet avoids a lot of the stereotyped sounds that have become so cliched from this period.  He is processing piano and pushes it to the edge of feeding back on numerous occasions evoking Tudor playing Cage’s Variations II or Austin’s Accidents at times.  One other occasions it flirts with the cheesy Dalek inflicted archetypal ring modulator sound seriously flirting with cheese but never going all the way.  An intriguing, griping, fascinating piece.  Still though if you are new to Ichiyanagi get Obscure Tape Music of Japan vol.5 “¢ Music for Tinguely first, that contains my favorite things I’ve heard from him to date.

The rest of the afternoon and into the evening I spent with John Tilbury, reading another hundred pages or so of his incredible Cardew biography whilst listening to his new recording of Morton Feldman‘s Triadic Memories. I got this album a earlier in the weekend and have probably listened to it three times through by this point. I’d put on disc one while reading in bed and then disc two as I’d drift off to sleep. i was very impressed with this performance, in which Tilbury really lingers over the gentle chords and repeated patterns of one of my favorite Feldman pieces. I’d listen to Tilbury’s early recording of this piece in his fantastic All-Piano set so many times that I’d come to anticipate the spacing between chords and figures at various points in the piece.  But listening to this on Sunday, played on the stereo in my living room that it really opened up. Parts where the half-depressed sustain pedal would create this faint background wash that the unhurried chords would float over were revealed as were the tiniest sounds of barely pressed keys and even of the pedal. I wasn’t blasting it either, keeping the volume to about what a grand piano ten feet from me would sound like.  A really well done recording and an incredible performance. The Howard Skempton piece that follows is a really nice piece but it came across as too loud after the long, sedate gentle Triadic Memories. Apparently at this concert it was played first and that I think would have been preferred in this instance as well. This recording is must get, doubtless to be one of the very best things put out this year.  As far as I know ErstDist is the one place to get it in the US right now.

One of Andy Goldsworthys Snowballs in Summer

One of Andy Goldsworthy's Snowballs in Summer

After all of this listening it was now evening and I paused to make dinner (tacos, mmmm). After that I spent the evening with some single-malt and watching the Rivers and Tides Special Collectors Edition.  I began with the the new short documentary on the bonus disc which was about Andy Goldsworthy’s Snowballs In Summer. I liked this documentary but it is more in the vein with the short films included on the Rivers and Tides disc and not as fine a film as Rivers and Tides itself.  It spends a lot of time on the workmen unloading the snowballs, which did bring a lot of thoughts to my mind about how so many “large” sculptural works depend so much on others, but I wished that it had covered the whole lifespan of the snowballs. He filled each of them with different objects (pine cones, hair, elderberries, sticks and so on) and as they melted these became revealed. But the doc only went to them being about half way melted. I’d like to have see the whole day covered and maybe a time lapse on one of them. Also watching the people interact with them and interviews with random people was interesting. Several people who weren’t out looking for them were really taken by them and there were several comments from people how they liked the art being out of the galleries and “not elitist”. Other interviewees were on a hunt for them and saw them all. Some of the more interesting footage was in the morning and the various people heading to work and such would walk by and then a hand would shoot out to verify that this was a big ball of snow. But they’d always just keep on walking. Anyway a nice piece but not really cause to replace an existing copy of the film. It does come in a very nice slip case with the discs in little hardbound book that contains, along with the two discs, about a dozen pages of photos mostly of Andy working with the film crew in the frame. The other thing on the bonus disc is an ~45′ interview with the filmmaker which had several interesting parts to it and by the time it was over I felt compelled to rewatch the original film which was as great as ever.  A nice way to cap what had been a relaxing and engaging rainy day.