Joe Sixpack: Looking back on 2012's year of beers

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Flying Fish’s Exit 16 Double IPA is one of the year’s best beers, says Joe Sixpack. “Poured into a glass, it bursts with a fruit salad of tropical aroma: mangoand papaya.”

AS ONE OF THE ragged survivors of the Mayan apocalypse, I now look back at the wasteland and remember the lost ones - those now-empty bottles, cans and pints that rocked my world in 2012.

There were plenty of old favorites, of course - standbys like Victory Prima Pils, Weyerbacher Merry Monks and cask-conditioned Yards ESA that are among my perennial go-tos. Here are the new discoveries.

Nothing I tasted in 2012 was more of a revelation than Flying Fish Exit 16.

Yes, I know, this unusual double India pale ale actually made its debut in 2010. But two things made it new for 2012: It's now packaged in widely distributed six-packs instead of more costly, harder-to-find 750 ml bottles, and it's being brewed in Flying Fish's new, larger brewhouse in Somerdale, N.J.

Before you even get it into your mouth, you can tell that Exit 16 is no one-dimensional hop bomb. Poured into a glass, it bursts with a fruit salad of tropical aroma: mango and papaya. There's no fruit in the beer, of course; that's just the floral Chinook and Citra hops added during fermentation.

The other thing you notice is its decidedly light color and body. Under sunlight, you could mistake it for a Budweiser. That's a product of pilsner malt and, like Bud, a share of rice.

The revelation? While DIPAs are notorious as bitter, tonsil-scraping challenges for all but the most devoted hopheads, Exit 16 is a beer for the masses. When I served it this fall at a large dinner I hosted at a local synagogue, it was a unanimous crowd-pleaser among attendees whose palates ranged from sophisticated to Michelob Ultra.

Bubbling with complexity, it's nonetheless an easy-drinking thirst-quencher whose addition of wild- and brown rice lightens the body of an otherwise strong (8 percent alcohol) ale.

I'm loving Exit 16, but I'm also of the opinion that, with the new facility, all Flying Fish brands deserve a fresh look. Its brews (notably Grand Cru Winter Reserve) now carry a cleaner profile, with the kind of finish that makes you want to take another pull from the bottle.

What else did I like?

_ New stuff in cans: Brewer's Art Resurrection, a Belgian-style dubbel that you'd expect to find in a preciously corked 750 ml bottle, emerged as a go-to accompaniment for back yard barbecues once it showed up in cans. Meanwhile, Sly Fox Odyssey proves that you can find plenty of hops flavor in aluminum. Both brands, by the way, are canned at Sly Fox's new Pottstown plant.

_ New local brewpubs: A couple of weeks before the fabled Westvleteren 12 Trappist ale made its U.S. debut this month, Tired Hands (Ardmore, Montgomery County) tapped its own quirky version of a strong Belgian ale, called Westy13, made atypically with saison yeast. A bit up the road in Ambler, Forest & Main crafted Saison Solaire, a peppery farmhouse ale that perfectly complements the pub's awesome bacon popcorn. No tentative first steps for these newcomers - these are well-rounded beers from young pros.

_ Newcomers to Philly: Boulevard from Kansas City and DuClaw from Maryland have been around for ages, but now they're edging toward the city with some large fellas. The former calls its Sixth Glass, at 10.5 percent alcohol, a quadrupel; the latter says that its Repent (a heart-pounding 14.6 percent alcohol) is, well, a pent. Both are worthy of a long, snowy afternoon next to the fireplace.

_ Still more newbies: There are easily 50 new beers hitting local shelves every month, so it's impossible for any one man to keep up. That's why I never got a taste of some of the latest beer-geek darlings, including Founders Bolt Cutter, Cigar City Cucumber Saison, Bell's Barrel Aged Batch 9000, Deschutes Black Butte XXIV, most of Hill Farmstead's bottles and everything from Florida's Funky Buddha.

But I did get my share, including:

He'Brew Hop Manna: With six varieties of hops, it's a well-rounded India pale ale.

Ruination Tenth Anniversary: Stone took its classic West Coast imperial IPA and turned the volume to 11.

Dupont/Iron Hill Spéciale Belge: I'm a bit of a homer on this one because the bready pale ale was brewed for Philly Beer Week '12.

Pretty Things Once Upon a Time X Ale, November 22nd, 1838: An exceptionally smooth, nicely hopped golden ale from a recipe at England's long-defunct Barclay Perkins brewery.

Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout: A luscious, malty, full-bodied chocolate kiss of a beer that you can make out with all night long.

Cascade Sang Noir: The blended, cherry-flavored, barrel-aged Flanders-style red ale is yet another outstanding sour ale from this small Oregon brewery.

So, what was my favorite? Wait till next week when I reveal Joe Sixpack's 2012 Beer of the Year.

 


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. More at joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.