13 December 2021

BOTB BOTY 2021

"Another year over, a new one just begun...."

Well, once again we're on the cusp of another Winterval / Solstice / Yule / Christmas (delete as appropriate) so it's at this time of year that people habitually reflect on the past 12 months and look forward to the next dozen or so arbitrary divisions of our annual journey around the sun.
2021 was, by any measure, a better year than 2020. Vaccines flowed in veins and pints, once more, flowed through pumps; albeit they had to wait a few months to get going as our knowledge of the Greek alphabet kept growing. Remember, this will all be pub quiz fodder one day.

For myself, I took advantage of the enforced closure to have a very guilt-free 111 days off the booze between January and Opening Day in Wales (April 26th); during which time my own journey through the world of No/Lo continued. My Dryanuary was a Tryanuary like anyone else's. It just went on a bit longer than normal, and coincided with the rediscovery of my size L t-shirts. 

That did however mean my Christmas stash remained substantially intact throughout the spring, and I eventually consumed some very festive fayre during the dog days of June. By this time I had also aqcuired a bike and began exploring the canals and pathways around my home city a bit more; especially those that led to pubs which had been quiet and closed when I'd walked past during lockdown but were now QR-code-bedecked havens once again.

I also made a bit more of an effort to explore some venues in the city centre itself which I had usually walked past rather than in to. The relative quiet of Thursday nights leant themselves to pints of Tenby Harbwr in the Cellar Door, Sam Smiths in the Murenger or, delightfully, Felinfoel in the Carpenters.

Then in October came the magic news that Sweden was once more open to UK travellers. In the words of Peter Kay, we booked it, packed it and fecked right off as soon as we could. After 700+ days, I was reunited with my family and reunited with Falcon. There was also time for some bonfire beerage as well as a gleefully gallivant around Gothenburg.

And now, as we face a slightly uncertain but no less optimistic future in this prolonged, painful chapter of our lives, it comes to all of us to look back and forward at the same time. Christmas truly is Schrodinger's Season.

So, apart from the above, what were my specific beery highlights of the year?  Here are my top 10 beers of the year (with six honourable mentions) as well as my top 3 venues of the year.

(NB - the beers below were not necessarily new or launched in 2021, but ones that I tried for the first time in 2021, i.e. that were *new to me*. This is also why Guinness 0.0, the rerelease of which was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated events of the year, is not included as I first tried that in October 2020.)


First it's the
Honourable Mentions 


Watney's Party Seven
a retro brand which could have been played for novelty value but which actually turned out to be a pretty decent, smooth bitter and did much to change my opinion on the virtues and merits of home-consumption kegs.

Madri
a very pleasant macro premium lager from Molson Coors which slotted in nicely in the gap vacated by Guinness HopHouse 13

ABC - Jerry's

was one of many beers to capitalise on the 2021 trend of throwing orange at, in or on anything; an was one of the few beers in recent times to get orange as an adjunct right.

Skinner's - Chapel Rock
One of several IPAs which helped change my mind further about IPAs in general; this crowdfunding reward was perfect for St Piran's Day

Northern Monk - Seabrook's Cheese & Onion Lager
This supposedly novelty beer had an unforgettable, unique umami quality to it though I hated myself for liking it. Unfortunately, given some of the stories that emerged this summer, it's likely to be one of the last NM beers I enjoy for a while.

Wild Beer - Oak Aged Millionaire was a genuine example of how you can genuinely iterate on an already well-established, well-loved beer without resorting to amping it up to insane ABV levels.


Now on to the
Top 10 Proper


10
Lost & Grounded
Starsky
A late but strong entry. I finally stole away across the Channel last weekend to try out the L&G taproom; ostensibly to get a pint of draught "Autumn Protagonist" and of course to get Keller Pils direct from the keller. But the most noteworthy half of the day in the vast metal hutch was their new oatmeal stout, Starsky, which was everything an oatmeal stout should be - smooth, subtle and silky.
 
9
Big Drop
Woodcutter

If you're going to do a Dryanuary or a Stoptober, Big Drop have to be part of your stash. The Woodcutter was perfect for October; warming and fulfilling. AF Beer as it should be.

 

8
Lost & Grounded
All The Cool Cats

There is no shortage of excellent lagers from craft brewers around nowadays, and All The Cool Cats is no exception. So what made this one stand out from the field. The artwork, the label, the name. Generally, folk would have you believe what is inside the can is more important than what is on the outside. But I like cats just as much as I like beer, so this was definitely one for me.


 

7
Utopian
Dark Lager

Having long been a fan of dark lagers, from Budvar Reserve to Schlenkerla Märzen, picking up a few of these excellent Exeter examples was a no brainer. Some may want a Dark IPA comeback; I want more dark lagers like this. There's definitely one of these in the Christmas stash for this year.



6
Hive Mind
Big Smoke Welsh Honey Smoked Porter
Wye Valley Meadery's products were one of the highlights of Lockdown 2020, and in 2021 my local bottle shop began stocking this beautiful London Porter-inspired 7% drop. Light and gentle despite its strength, it helped numb some of the pain of Wales' ultimately unsuccessful Euro 2020 campaign.

 


5
Budvar
Nealko
We are lucky enough in Newport to have a venue - The Pod - which serves fresh draught Budvar (at a very reasonable price too.) That same venue is on one of my cycling routes and, when I began practicing Sober Sunday over the summer, ensured it remained a pitstop by offering a NA version of the legendary Czech lager which is every bit as flavourful and enjoyable as the real thing; so much so that I got a crate of 24 delivered for Stoptober.


4
Vault City
DDH Lemonade
Scottish sourmeisters Vault City established a reputation in 2021 for what seemed like infinitely interesting and intriguing interpretations of their chosen style. Not only was this lemonade the highlight of the bunch, they also forced bemused barfolk up and down the land to google what a "cloudberry" was.
3
Tooth & Claw
Wolf Pilsner

Cameron's little brewery on the side - Tooth & Claw - have provided some amazing beers over the years - the Nordic Ale and the Chocolate and Orange from winter 2019 being particular highlights. But, as mentioned above, when you come across a great lager, you sit up and take notice just that little bit more. This is definitely one of those, so much so that it is now a permanent fixture at the Head of Steam in Cardiff, fighting tooth and nail with Brooklyn, Sagres and San Miguel.

2
Weird Dad
Mine's A Dark

Something truly amazing happened in Newport this autumn. Three new venues opened. THREE! Firstly the Alexandra, a new pub serving Rhymney Ales, which were a favourite of my late grandfather, took over a closed bank on the high street. A new pool and sports bar opened a stones throw from the much missed Riley's. And to top it all off, Newport gained a third brewery, Weird Dad, with its very own tap room, the Filling Station, named after the nearby Shell garage. They debuted with a strong line up of IPAs and darks, the best of which was their "Mine's A Dark" mild, a beer which I unashamedly described as "orgasmic" when I first tried it. They've since done a canning run and two examples from the first batch went straight into my Christmas stash

 

1
Neon Raptor / Vault City
Dinosaur Tea Party
Well, who'd have thunk it. An IPA with a bonkers adjunct was my beer of the year. Is this really the same Bring On The Beer who decried IPAs as boring and repetitive and iterative not too long ago? Who has frequently joined in with the gentle mocking of overly hopped, overly hazy, overly murky "joosy" beers?

Well yes. This may be cheating slightly as Dinosaur Tea Party is actually two beers with one name. I was fortunate enough to sample the different variants in the one day on a recent trip to Cardiff. Firstly the keg version - the lemon ice tea sour - at Bub's which came in at just over 4%, before cracking open a can of the 6.8% turbo charged DIPA version up at Pop N Hops

Objectively the best beer of the year? Maybe not. But I'm not an objective beer wanker. Was it the most memorable? Did it make the biggest impression? Have I ensured I've got one ready for Christmas Day? Oh yes. Yes indeedy.



 

 

Which neatly brings me to my
Venue of the year


In third is Pop N Hops. By opening up the shop for sit- and drink-in, I was able to put a face and a voice to the legend that is Trev who, along with Nicky Vig, kept me sane during Lockdowns 1, 2 and 3. A short busride away from the hustle and bustle of Cardiff, Trev's selection of tins and tunes offers an insanely civilised way to while away an afternoon. Importantly he also offers a hugely diverse selection of no/lo which made a visit during StopTober a necessity.

In second is The Bell in Caerleon - a recently reopened vintage pub with beautiful original decor, a sheltered beer garden and some superbly kept cask ale that is, handily, a decent bike ride away from home. The beer and bacon festival which rounded off the summer during Cask Ale Week was especially memorable and I look forward to pedalling over there more often come the spring.

And my winner is Bub's. Outside of the bigger English cities, you won't find a bar like this anywhere. A huge and varied selection of beer and cider, street- and popup food, and staff who are engaging, knowledgable, friendly, accommodating and patient with even the wankiest of beer wankers. It breaks my heart that, at the time of writing, it will soon close. Having weathered the pandemic, it has fallen foul of that other insidious virus infecting society; the landlord. I am trying my damndest to spend as much time as is possible there before that horrible day comes. I hope that something, somewhere can be found for this story to continue but if it is to end, it will have been one of the best things to happen to Cardiff's - and Wales' beer scene ever.


So that's it. Another 365 days have passed on this ongoing beer journey. What lies ahead in 2022? Maybe more honesty, openness and kindness in the industry? Maybe less douchebaggery and more delightfulness? Who knows. After all this time, can beer still be interesting and exciting? Maybe. 

As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beerholder.

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