And just like that the year was over and it was time to hand out the Golden Pint Awards for 2015. This is the seventh year that bloggers have been invited by Andy Mogg (and formerly Mark Dredge) to nominate the best of the year's beers, and beer-related artefacts and activities: if you're interested in what I've had to say in previous years, you can find them here for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Andy has expanded out several of the categories this year, and mercifully dropped a couple I never had much of an opinion on, though sitting up here on the first paragraph it remains to be seen whether the re-jig will make things easier or harder.
But before getting stuck in, the customary beer. There's a tenuous connection to the awards as I bought it from the winner of the Best Supermarket category, though longer ago than I realised because it was several weeks out of date when I pulled it from the fridge. Karmaliten Kloster Dunkel is a dark lager from eastern Bavaria, about half way between Munich and České Budějovice, so right in the heart of lager country. It's a pure mahogany brown colour and exudes noble hops on the aroma. Their acidic greenness doesn't go very well with the accompanying dark caramel smell so I was worried it may be a bit gastric on tasting. Thankfully it's not. Crunchy, chocolatey bourbon biscuit is at the centre: sweet, but cleaned up beautifully by lagering so it doesn't linger on the palate. It's also balanced by them hops, adding a healthy burst of celery, still fresh and moist even if the beer is older than it ought to be. The carbonation is little more than a light sparkle and the body is chewy enough to be satisfying drinking without getting difficult. It's a lot easier going than many a Bavarian dunkel I've had, though no less complex for that. Good, accessible quality, which is just what a supermarket beer should offer. And so to business.
It's always a roll of the dice when an Irish beer shows up on cask, but I'd no such qualms when it came to Lacada's IPA. It was beautifully kept at the Belfast Beer Festival: clean and clear and bursting with sherbet citrus. Honourable mentions go to a similar offering from the very opposite end of the island -- West Cork Brewery's Sherkin Lass -- as well as to Trouble's Centennial SMASH. All three were encountered at festivals. Wouldn't it be nice if pubs got the hang of keeping and serving cask beer reliably too?
Best Irish Keg Beer: Little Fawn
I've taken the decision to award this one to a beer I enjoyed pouring down my neck in quantity this year: it's as good a criterion for greatness as any other. As such, this comes down to a three-way battle between Galway Bay's Heathen sour ale, Rascal's Rain Czech pils and White Hag Little Fawn session IPA. And the fresh hops carry the day. Though I wasn't bowled over when I first had it bottled, the keg version is an absolutely perfect juicy explosion. And at 4.2% ABV you can just keep setting them up and knocking them back.
Best Irish Bottled Beer: Black Lightning
I can't help but feel I'm being a little unfair in this category. There are loads of fantastic Irish beers available in bottle but because I mostly drank them on draught I don't get to include them in the running here. One that I did come back to was 9 White Deer's black IPA, and while it wasn't as amazing as the ultra-fresh keg version at the Franciscan Well Easter Festival, it's still very good indeed.
Best Irish Canned Beer: Kinsale Pale Ale
A handful of Irish micros have cans available now. I have been very remiss so far in not getting hold of the recently-released Rascal's ones. But instead I've enjoyed the casual hoppy goodness of Black's Kinsale Pale Ale, with a bonus thumbs-up for the sub-€2.50 price tag.
Best Overseas Draught: Magma Triple Spiked Brett
Fresh hops and brett: together at last, said nobody ever. But this one pulls it off beautifully. Belgian maestros Troubadour fit the different elements together so well that you don't even notice how wrong it all is. If there were an award for best brand extension, this would also get it.
Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Spontanbasil
It was on my must-drink list for quite a while and it didn't disappoint when I finally got hold of it. I've had a couple of basil beers this year and they were all extremely tasty, but this Lindemans-Mikkeller collaboration takes the prize.
Best Overseas Canned Beer: Bibble
A string of lacklustre beers on a stifling hot summer's day in London was completely offset by a cold tinny of this beaut, swigged on the way along Gray's Inn Road. Shouts-out also to Beavertown Holy Cowbell and Rooster's Fort Smith. The Brits have got this one in the can! *cheesy wink*.
Best Collaboration Brew: Radical Brew
Perhaps I'm taking a bit of a liberty here by not awarding this to a collaboration between breweries. Radical Brew was released by Cork-based gypsy brewer RadikAle with input from Waterford distillery Blackwater. The use of gin botanicals in a big rye ale was inspired and clearly both sides knew exactly what they were doing when they brought their respective halves of the combination to the brew kettle. A close second was Crann, the magnificent bière de garde that Inishmacsaint and Poker Tree put together together.
Best Overall Beer: Spontanbasil
Quite a variety of types of beer to choose from among those eight finalists, but it the Belgian basil extravaganza is the one I'd trade a case of the others for. Maybe.
Breweries that eschew the mystical Celtic claptrap that plagues so much Irish beer branding always get a thumbs up from me. I love the cartoonish energy of Oughterard start-up Wild Bat.
Best Pump Clip: Vincent Van Coff
The name was chosen in a public competition and I think the artist excelled himself in graphically interpreting Mountain Man's final choice of moniker for their coffee and vanilla festival special. Subtle? Tasteful? That's not the Mountain Man way. Definitely fun, though.
Best Bottle Label: Torc Smoked German Ale
The polar opposite of the other two graphic design winners, Torc's branding is all clean and understated elegance. The charcoal grey of the Smoked German Ale is my favourite of their range.
Best Irish Brewery: Rascal's
What do we want? Good beer, produced locally, sanely priced with a spritely turnover of new ones and the occasional stand-out stunner. When do we want it? Continuously. With a solid core range, a fascinating World Hops Series and magnificent festival specials including that superb Chardonnay Saison, west Dublin's Rascal's really delivered in 2015. And through no fault of their own, Trouble has to settle for second place again, despite bringing back Graffiti and turning out a highly enjoyable SMASH series, both of which deserve very honourable mentions.
Best Overseas Brewery: Brewski
These Swedes are my standout from Borefts this year and are ones to watch. Berliner weisse with lime, elderflower and basil is just what the world needs right now. Shut up, it does.
Best New Brewery Opening 2015: YellowBelly
I wish I could keep closer track of what the brewery under Simon Lambert & Sons in Wexford Town is pumping up to the bar counter on a regular basis, but I've enjoyed what I've had. Declan and the crew seem to have hit that sweet spot between playful experimentation and knowing exactly the things you have to do to design and brew really good beer.
Pub/Bar of the Year: 57 The Headline
Yes, again. Several great meet-the-brewer nights secured The Headline's place on my list for the third year running, not least the time we had Carlow Brewing and Starr Hill in for a chat. But even when there's no event on, the turnover and range of beers is fantastic. And there's food and seats and windows and all the other secondary things too.
The Beer Market
As with last year we have Galway Bay duking it out with Bodytonic for the best new Dublin pub. This year I'm giving the prize to the Galwegians, though I've certainly enjoyed my visits to Bodytonic's Square Ball. Though The Beer Market's initial plan to be an international-grade rare-beer heaven hasn't quiite worked out, I've enjoyed several of my favourites from 2015 there and the Dublin beer scene is definitely richer for its presence.
Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
In 2015 I returned to a few festivals I've been away from for a while: Cask & Winter Ales, GBBF, Belfast Beer Festival, and I also attended my first Polish beer festival, but still nothing tops the kid-in-a-sweetshop thrill of De Molen's annual gig in September. Its days as a well-kept secret are pretty much over and the crowds were definitely bigger this year, but it seems perfectly able to handle it and still give the drinkers plenty of comfort. Good beer you don't have to queue for, and somewhere to sit while you drink it, were always available.
This was the year that quality beer became one of the fronts on which the Irish supermarkets fight their never-ending war with each other. The drinking public has done rather well out of it, and a special commendation goes to Dunnes and Rye River for the extremely good value of the Grafters beers. But SuperValu has also been commissioning exclusives, and getting in a superb selection of Irish and international beers. It's rare that I spot a beer in the supermarket that I haven't already been able to get from an independent off licence, but that's happened about twice in SuperValu this year. Someone in the company's offices somewhere has the word BEER written large on a whiteboard, with a circle around it, and arrows pointing to it.
Independent Retailer of the Year: Redmond's
As usual I've been mostly shopping in DrinkStore, and it meets almost all of my beery take-home needs. But there have been odd occasions when I've been looking for something rare or particularly special and that's where Redmond's bails me out. Not the cheapest off licence in Dublin, but among the most browseable. I passed twenty years as a customer a few months ago. How terrifying is that?
Best Beer Book or Magazine: Around Brussels in 80 Beers by Joe Stange
A complimentary copy of the second edition arrived just before I went to Brussels in October, so I declare this publication fully field-tested and operational.
Best Beer Blog or Website: Our Tasty Travels
I love a grand project, me, and Our Tasty Travels's "New Beer Every Day Beer Diary Challenge" has kept me enthralled since it began in January. I'd say Brett will be very glad to sign off instalment number 365 tomorrow -- a hearty well done to him for keeping it running. The other grand project I enjoyed was Oliver Gray's attempt to publish a serial novel, December, 1919, over the course of the year. Unfortunately it ran aground in May but I'm looking forward to its return. I need to know what happens with Jack and his brewery just as prohibition bites in Philadelphia.
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: @BroadfordBrewer
Without a doubt the runaway champion of this category, David has more Johnsons than he knows what to do with. But it's fully deserving so this year I add my voice to the chorus.
Best Brewery Website/Social media: Eight Degrees
The Eight Degrees website always has the information I need when I go looking: what are the new beers out, what are they made from and what are the vital statistics? It's an essential service when a brewery produces as much new beer as this one does.
And that's your lot. Time to start forming some impressions of beer in 2016 now.
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