True, 85 percent of beer sold in America is standard, light lager, but sales were down more than 1 percent in 2005 and no doubt will be down again this year.
Bay Area residents are increasingly aware that beer can be great and they're eager to try something different.
They're fairly sophisticated; they know what is swill and what isn't. They don't tend to trust the major brewers because they've been burned before.
A big television ad campaign will advertise a new and different beer, perhaps with a different buzzword, like ice beer oops that was the'80s. Well, how about "fuller flavor," that one's in vogue just now, so the consumer tries a sample. Surprise, tastes just like the one that came before. The difference is hard to find, because often the only thing different is the ad campaign.
I love some of those ads. I thought the "man to man" commercials from SABMiller were funny. (My wife thinks they're stupid.) But do they make me want to drink Miller? Hell no.
Based on my phone calls and e-mail, here are the top five beers I wrote about this year:
- Old Stock Ale 2005+, North Coast Brewing, Ft. Bragg. I was shocked at the response to this one: People are still e-mailing me, 11 months after I wrote about it. True, it's a stunning beer, 11.4 percent alcohol by volume.
The aroma is intense and stony, with notes of ripe fruit, perhaps figs, and vanilla. Taste is exquisite, silky malt with a teasing sweetness in the background and a gentle bitterness of the English hops and hints of brandy. The 2006, aged for a year, is reaching stores now. About $11 for four, 12-ounce bottles.
-Firestone Walker "10" +, Firestone Walker Brewing, Paso Robles. "10" commemorates the brewery's 10th anniversary and is easily the most ambitious commercial beer made this year.
It's a blend of 10 batches of strong beers of various kinds, most fermented and aged in a variety of wooden barrels which had been used in Kentucky to make Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, Old Fitzgerald Wheat Whiskey, Heaven Hill Bourbon and Heaven Hill Brandy.
The brewers also used new oak barrels, the wood toasted to their specifications. In all, the project involved beer in 80 barrels. A 22-ounce bottle is about $10 if you can find it.
-Fuller's Vintage Ale, Fuller, Smith & Turner, London, England. Again a Bay Area hit, poured with a big, rocky head, a wonderful malty nose and a hint of alcohol. This is a big beer: 8.5 percent alcohol by volume; brilliant, copper color. The taste was fairly dry with a hint of sweet malt Maris Otter malt and a bit of wood and fruit and earth from the English Fuggles hops and the distinctive Fuller's yeast.
-Duvel, Duvel Moortgat, Breendonkorp, Belgium. It means "devil" in Flemis and it's indeed a devil of a beer. With a deceptive golden color, it's a quite strong 8.5 percent ABV. Taste is crisp, with a bit of orange or citrus tang fading into a spicy follow with a lingering taste of malt. A 25-ounce bottle is about $8.
-Racer 5 India Pale Ale , Bear Republic, Healdsburg, Cloverdale. My, does this beer and this brewer have fans. The calls flooded in. Fortunately, it's widely available in bottles in the Bay Area. This is a beer done right. Racer 5 has a substantial malty taste, a hefty blend of two-row barley and specialty malts that does more than balance the hops and add another dimension to this very fine beer. If you like hops, go for Racer 5; if you prefer malts, reach for a Racer 5. A 22-ounce bottle is about $4.
-Can't find these beers or want the full Beer of the Week column about one of them, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 915-1180. Ask for the column or our 2006 Retail Beer Store List or both. Salud.
Beer ratings are based on a star system. world classic; outstanding; excellent; good; average.
Staff writer William Brand publishes What's On Tap, a consumer craft beer and hard cider newsletter. He can be reached at (510) 915-1180. Fax: (510) 841-6023. E-mail: email@example.com.