The 10 Best Beers I've Ever Had
The CriteriaI like most beers, but I wanted to make sure this list wasn't just a top ten of beers that I like to drink. Rather, it's a list of ten specific times when I drank specific beers. I do think your surroundings have a big impact on how much you enjoy eating or drinking something, so I've taken that in to account when compiling my thoughts. For example, I've enjoyed many bottles of Schlenkerla's Rauchbier at home and with friends but none of them have been quite as good as the first time I tried it in Bamberg at Schlenkerla's biergarten. That's really the only criteria I used, other than the taste of the beer of course. This is ultimately a list of my favorite beers so that is the deciding factor in my ranking process... Sure it was a lot more fun to drink in Iceland but the craft beers in Kansas tasted a little better.
10. Viking GyllturGrindavík, Iceland: I'm starting out this list with what I can only describe as the most uninspired beer from the most awe inspiring place I've ever been. In the spring of 2008 I took a trip to Iceland, a country not exactly famous for it's brewing history. In fact, Iceland only repealed it's prohibition in 1989, so I wasn't expecting much from it's beer. Honestly, I wasn't intending to even try the beer but I did eventually get around it. I like to say I'll try anything at least once and this is one occasion when I was glad I did. A series of 'why not?' decisions culminated in a trip to the Grindavík lava fields where I swam in a crater full of warm neon blue water just south of the arctic circle. But back to the Viking beer... it has a cool name at least. One would assume that Vikings would make decent beer, and one would be a little disappointed.
The Viking Gylltur didn't make my list because it was of any epiphany I had while drinking it. The beer is kinda, bland. Think of an Icelandic Budweiser, and that's pretty much what you get when you taste a Viking. I'll cut the Icelanders some slack because of the whole prohibition thing though. Making good beer takes time, and necessity is the mother of invention so maybe bland beer will kick off a craft beer craze. So if the beer wasn't anything that special, why is it on my list? Well, this is a case of style over substance when the setting certainly outweighs the taste of the beer. Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate the beer, it wasn't bad - in fact, it was just what I needed after a week of not drinking, which was a no frills Pilsner with a simple taste.
My trip to Iceland was spent sober, I did all of the touristy things like climb up to the top of the church, take a ride out to the waterfall and geyser, and walk around at dusk... at midnight. On my final day in Iceland, before my flight in the evening, I decided why not stop by the Blue Lagoon, I'd seen a few pictures and it seemed pretty cool but I wasn't sure I was going to fit it in to my trip. After all, swimming outdoors in Iceland doesn't sound all that appealing at first. In the end I did stop by the Blue Lagoon for what amounted to a two hour long dip in the middle of a lava field. And when I mean in the middle of a lava field, I mean in the MIDDLE of a lava field. The roadway out to this place was a thin, slightly elevated ribbon of asphalt through a deceptively flat black landscape. There was no vegetation on the pitch black lava so you could see all of the jagged edges out near the road. After a half an hour or so off of the main road from Reykjavik to the airport we started seeing pools of light blue water pop up along the side of the road. Eventually we were able to see the Blue Lagoon, which is a collection of the three largest pools of water and a small visitor's center and spa building. The complex had that almost stereotypically Scandinavian minimalistic look to it, with lots of glass, steel and and soft blue accents. It was all very bizarre, here is this futuristic spa in the middle of a lava field in the North Atlantic and I'm paying money to strip down and swim around in a pool of hot water... on a rainy day, with the temperature barely above freezing.
So there I was, just chillin' out in a geothermal pool in Iceland. It was a very enjoyable experience, much more fun (and bizarre) than I had ever imagined. After I'd had my fill of the water I made my way to bar to have a drink and upload a few pictures from my laptop. That's where I had my first sip of the Viking Gylltur. It didn't knock my socks off, in fact it was pretty relaxing... uncomplicated... and just what I needed. Would I have ordered a fancier beer if it were available? Probably, but I don't know if my experience would have been any better. Would I order the Viking again, given the chance? Probably not. I'm glad I had the Viking when and where I did, I'll always remember it fondly for the unique experience I had with it.
9. Leinenkugel Sunset WheatOverland Park, Kansas: Pint Night was a tradition going back to early summer 2008. Basically, every Tuesday the bar near work would have a happy hour special on pints of anything on tap for two bucks. Pint Night became a great excuse to hang out with folks from the office after hours and have a couple beers at the local Fox and Hound. The beer selection wasn't anything too remarkable but they did have a few beers I hadn't tried before, like the Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat.
My first impression of the Sunset Wheat was that it had a fantastic flavor, very strong and fruity. These aren't characteristics I usually look for in a beer but when I unexpectedly find them it can be a nice distraction from the norm. This was one of those times. The summer seasonal on tap around this time was Blue Moon's Honey Moon, which is a decent beer but nothing to write home about. I tend to order seasonals often because they are rarely a disappointment. But after a couple weeks of drinking the Honey Moon I was ready for something a different.
The Sunset Wheat looks pretty much like how the name would imply. It's a golden yellow wheat beer with a subtle orange tint. The taste of the Sunset Wheat is similar at first to a Belgian Witbier but with loads more orange and coriander. This was a great summertime beer, it's refreshing and sweet. Whenever I have a Sunset Wheat I remember back to the Pint Night get togethers we used to have at the Fox and Hound. I don't have a story from Pint Night to tell, there isn't a specific event that happened which is stuck in my memory but I do have fond memories of our weekly get togethers after work.
8. Free State Ad Astra AleLawrence, Kansas: Free State is probably my favorite place to go when I'm in Lawrence, Kansas. Being home to the University of Kansas, Lawrence has plenty of dive bars and trashy hang outs but thankfully Free State remains a pretty cool place. Free State is a brew pub that has a pretty good selection of beers. I can't say it's terribly diverse but they're all quality beers. The one downside of Free State is that most of their beers have some sort of Kansas themed name, like Wheat State Golden, Prairie Stout or the Ad Astra Ale. For Missourians, like myself, it's difficult to order and enjoy anything too closely associated with Kansas, so in order for something from Kansas to make a Missourian's top ten it must be pretty good.
The first time I ever stopped at Free State was with a couple of friends early on the evening of a concert just down the street. We were going to grad a bite to eat a couple beers before the show started but the place was just too busy that night. Rather than leave empty handed we did hang out by the bar and had a couple pints before walking down to the Granada. My first thoughts of Free State were that it wasn't anything special, they had good beer but the place was too crowded. A few months later I returned earlier in the day with some other friends and we were able to get a table. It happened to be a Monday which meant that some of the pints were only $1.75, so we were encouraged to try them all. We all got a round of pints and split some onion rings, which by the way, were the best onion rings I've ever had. I'm not sure what Free State does to their onion rings but they are excellent.
As we worked our way down the beer list I was finding that each beer was better than the last. I really enjoyed the Wheat State Golden. It's a cloudy wheat beer, simple but delicious. Eventually I got down to the Ad Astra Ale. The Ad Astra is an amber lager, quite red and hoppy. I should point out that I absolutely hate IPAs and Pales because the hops are just too much for me. I like hops but they should be a compliment to the beer NOT the only flavor. Anyway, the Ad Astra was what made the whole evening. It had a great spicy dry hop flavor that went perfectly with onion rings and a Reuben sandwich. The only thing that could have made it better would be fried pickles.
There wasn't a whole lot more to the Free State experience that got me hooked. It's good food and excellent beer in a place I wouldn't really expect it. I try to go back to Free State often and try to find a pairing that works better than amber ale and onion rings but sometimes you just can't mess with perfection.
7. Rothaus TannenzäpfleFreiburg im Breisgau: In the summer of 2006 I stayed with a friend at his parent's home near Freiburg in Germany. Breisgau is a region in southwestern Germany near the French and Swiss borders, not a part of the world known for great beers but rather for their wines. I was expecting to drink more wine than beer on this trip but the friend I was staying with, Bastian, was definitely more of a beer drinker.
My first day in Freiburg was spent with Bastian and his Mother, which may not sounds like much fun, but we had a good time. We arrived downtown at about ten in the morning and joined a local tour guide from the city office. The group that gathered for the tour was pretty small, there was a Canadian couple, two German couples and then Bastian, his mother and I. I enjoy small tour groups like these, where you can move leisurely through town and easily hear the guide. Freiburg is a great city to visit, it's not dauntingly large either with a population around two hundred thousand packed into a relatively small urban area. The streets of central Freiburg still have the old medieval open sewer system ducts running along the side of the road. There is clean water flowing through them now and children play in the ducts or people walk barefoot through them. Our brief tour took us through the old town, past the market and to the gates of city center. The tour ended at about lunch time and we headed to an indoor market that was popular for it's international fare. I remember having a plate of Indian food and a small side of pasta.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around Freiburg, taking pictures and so forth. Just before leaving town to head back for dinner we ran into a protest near one of the university buildings in the city center. There were large numbers of police compared to the protesters who were banging on drums and shouting into a bullhorn. Bastian walked up to one of the portlier officers and asked what the students were protesting. The officer just chuckled and said "Alles und nichts" or "everything and nothing" which seemed to explain why the police all looked a little annoyed to be there on a Saturday so the pampered university kids don't get out of control.
Bastian and I eventually made it back to his parent's place for dinner. The menu that night was pretty simple: grilled chicken, sausages, salad and bread. Bastian's dad prepared all of the meats on the the grill and served me up a nice drumstick and a coiled sausage. Beer was the preferred drink of choice and this is when I had my first Tannenzäpfle. Rothaus' Tannenzäpfle is a pilsner style beer, nothing fancy yet still a quality beer. Bastian's dad was a pretty good grill master but the high light of the meal for me was the homemade Tzatziki spread over this pieces of fresh bread. The tzatziki had little bits of diced cucumber that went great with the crisp beer. Dinner was eaten at a large table on the back patio overlooking the garden, it was a great setting.
After dinner we remained outside and swapped stories. Bastian's parents had returned from their first trip to the United States earlier that spring, they had came to visit Bastian while he was studying in Missouri and they were eager to break out the photo album. It was a lot of fun sitting there with a German family, in Germany, talking about their experiences in the U.S. and my year in Germany. There were more than a few Tannenzäpfles consumed that evening.
6. Pabst Blue RibbonOmaha, Nebraska: About eight months after the Tannenzäpfle night in Freiburg, Bastian and I were back in the states. I was teaching at an elementary school and he was finishing up a second degree in finance. This is the story of our road trip to Omaha. I'd learned that one of my favorite bands, Murder by Death, was making a stop in Omaha and decided that it'd be a lot of fun to see them again. Bastian and I had actually seen Murder by Death once before in Kansas about two years earlier when he was working on his first degree.
This time around we'd be heading to Omaha and the Sokol Underground. The Sokol Underground is a small venue under an auditorium near downtown Omaha. The Sokol isn't a very classy joint so when you get there and ask for a beer, you'd options will be pretty limited. Which is what brings me to the sixth beer on my list, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
PBR is one of those macro brews that everyone loves to hate, unless you're a hipster-emo-kid in which case you think everyone thinks you're cool for drinking PBR... so you drink PBR. Pabst isn't that bad... it isn't my favorite beer but it's usually my go-to when at a dive bar. Bastian however hadn't had a PBR before. So why would this make it all the way up to the sixth spot on my list? Just like the Viking Gylltur, it's more about the experience and less about the beer itself. Taken on taste value alone, PBR wouldn't be on this list.
We had arrived a little early for the concert and decided to have a few PBRs while we waited. I knew what I was getting myself in to and the PBR did(n't?) disappoint. It was cold, ice cold... Bastian couldn't drink more than a sip or two until it warmed up. I explained that the temperature is how Americans mask flavor of cheap beers, it's just too cold to taste anything. This is simply blasphemy to a German. Perhaps my enjoyment came more from Bastian's displeasure, chock it up to schadenfreude.
After the beer rose a few degrees Bastian was able to down about half of it before realizing exactly what it was that he was drinking. As he explained, Pabst, in German is slang for vomit - which seems pretty fitting... I'd had my fill of watching Bastian suffer through a can of PBR when the bands finally started. The rest of the evening was great. I always enjoy watching Murder by Death, they put on a great live show and what could be better than sharing that with friends over a beer or two, even if it's just PBR.
5. Schlenkerla RauchbierBamberg, Oberfranken: Before I moved to Bamberg in 2006 I'd heard a few stories about the local beer specialty called Rauchbier. Rauchbier literally means 'smoke beer' which doesn't sound all that appealing. The first thing that came to mind was the flavor of that nasty liquid smoke stuff you can put on meats you're too lazy to grill/smoke/etc. The term Rauchbier comes from the process of drying the barley over a flame which gives the beer a smokey flavor. I'd heard that the flavor was really less smokey and more like bacon... Which does sound all too appealing to me.
It wasn't long after I came to Bamberg that I was offered my first taste of the Rauchbier. Actually, it was the first night I was in town. A couple of friends that I met earlier in the day at the university registration event asked if I wanted to join them for a few drinks and meet some of the other international students. It sounded like fun so I went with them down to the Sandstraße, a narrow street lined with bars near downtown. We stopped at a few trendy bars before ending up at a sports bar where some of the French students were hanging out. It was here that I met one of the German students from Munich, Max. After a few beers I mentioned in passing that I'd heard about this crazy smoked beer and looked forward to trying it. "Well, I've been drinking it all night," said Max, "and you're invited to try a drink." So I figured, why not and took a sip. It was, different... different than I'd expected and different than anything I'd had before. All I really remember is that strong smoke flavor, not quite like liquid smoke but not much like bacon either.
It wasn't until about a month later that I got a proper pint of Rauchbier all to myself. The university organized a pub crawl type evening where the international students were invited to take a guided drinking tour through central Bamberg. No one had to ask me twice, it sounded like a lot of fun. The first stop of the evening was at Schlenkerla, one of the city's two Rauchbier brewers. The Schlenkerla building is a dark, medieval looking pub space with an really nice inner courtyard with an open ceiling and lots of plants. On the way in I saw a sign that said they welcomed folks to bring their own snacks and food in on Sundays, which sounded really awesome. The entire place seemed like such a throwback to traditional brew houses, then I realized it was more likely that instead of modeling everything off of a brewery that was around in the 1600s, this was an actual brewery from the 1600s that really never changed. Bonus points were definitely awarded for the sense of authenticity and great atmosphere.
But back to the beer. On tap at Schlenkerla, the Rauchbier had much more of that bacon flavor I'd heard about. The beer was much less smokey, perhaps this was the difference in being fresher at the source but this beer was much more enjoyable. The Rauchbier style isn't my favorite, but it was distinctive and I can see why it's one of the signatures of Bamberg. Being in that old brew house in Bamberg, drinking Schlenkerla's signature beer, was something I'll never forget.
4. St. Georgenbräu WeissbierButtenheim, Bayern: I'd never heard of St. Georgenbräu before the day I stopped in Buttenheim. I was on my way back from Nürnberg and decided to stop over in Buttenheim to get a look at the Levi Strauss house. When we got to Buttenheim, we were greeted with quite a bit of traffic, apparently there was a religious procession doing down the street in front of the Levi Strauss house and it wasn't possible to sneak by. I didn't have any real desire to stop by the house to see old scraps of denim, but it was one of those things where you're in the area so you might as well make the attempt... Cutting out losses we decided to find a place to get a drink in Buttenheim and we found a small place on a hill just outside of town.
The biergarten we stopped at was operated by St. Georgenbräu, which is a local brewery in Buttenheim. The local of this place was amazing. Perched on the side of a hill just outside of Buttenheim, the biergarten had a commanding view of the town and the rest of valley. The garten area reminded me a bit of a boy scout summer camp set up. The tables were long picnic style wooden planks and there were counters covered in part by vines and shrubs. This was nothing fancy, it was all outdoors and worn by being exposed to the elements year-round, but after spending a little time there I realized how relaxing it was to be overlooking the town below, with a nice breeze coming through the shade trees. This was the perfect setting in which to enjoy a beer or two.
The choices were pretty limited because this was a St. Georgenbräu exclusive biergarten. The usual beers were available: Pilsner, Keller, Wiezen, etc. One beer I'd never heard of at the time was a Radler. A German friend described it to me as half beer, half Sprite, which doesn't sound like a good idea for a beverage. I decided I'd order a Radler first and save the others for later in case I needed something to wash this Radler down with. Honestly, the Radler wasn't bad, it was more like a Shandy but made with a dark beer. Not something I'd want to drink a lot of, but it was light and refreshing. After the Radler I returned by stein and ordered a Weissbier.
The St. Georgenbräu Weiss was excellent. It is a pale wheat beer with a sour orange flavor that I love about a good Hefeweizen. The best part about the St. Georgenbräu biergarten was that it was open air and the beers warmed up nicely. Not that German's drink their beer very cold, but I do like how the dynamics change with the temperature. Buttenheim's local Weissbier was great in combination with a fantastic setting and perfect weather. This was one of those unique moments when everything seemed to work out perfectly, even if I didn't get to see the Levi Straus museum after all... Oh well, maybe next time.
3. Yaletown Wild Belgian BruinVancouver, British Columbia: I spent a day in Vancouver in November 2008 with a friend and we had lunch at the Yaletown Brewing Co. I didn't have high expectations of Yaletown, I'd really never heard of it before. We'd decided to go to Yaletown only after finding a menu online the day before arriving. The food seemed simple enough and the prices seemed right given the generous exchange rate. What started as just lunch eventually turned in to a 3+ hour event. We started off with a flight of beers which was really enjoyable. One of the first beers I tried from our flight was the Hefeweizen, not just a wheat beer but a Hefeweizen. Yaletown's Hefeweizen was great, it had the citrus and sour taste that I really like. Within a sip or two of sampling the Hefeweizen I quickly ordered a full pint. It was great.
For lunch I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with steak fries which was paired with their brown ale. This pairing was pretty good, the brown ale wasn't too heavy and went well with the pulled pork and awesome cole slaw. After the brown ale and Hefeweizen I worked my way through the rest of the flight that we'd ordered earlier. Only after all the food was gone and I'd finished my other beers did I first try the seasonal sample glass. This was the Belgian Wild Bruin. It was a perfect dessert beer. The Wild Bruin had a hint of cherry without being over bearing. We were wrapping up our stay at Yaletown when I really got in to the Wild Bruin, so what would have been an hour at a brew pub turned into a great lunch with some really excellent beers. We decided to hang around and order a couple of the Belgian Wild Bruins and hang out. The was free Wi-Fi so we were able to look around for what our next stop would be. We plotted a course to a wineshop that carried on local British Columbia wines and then stopped at a coffee shop. The highlight of Vancouver for me was definitely the Wild Bruin after lunch at Yaletown Brewing. I've had a few Lambics and Krieks since then but nothing seems to stack up quite as well.
2. Schlafly No. 15St. Louis, Missouri: December 2008 was Jingle Beer season for my friends and I. Our goal was to consume 24 different Christmas beers in the 24 days leading up to Christmas. I won't spoil the epic Jingle Beer saga for you, but I will say that our trip to Schlafly in Saint Louis was, at least in part, for the purpose of crossing the Schlafly Christmas Ale off of our list. Saint Louis is a decent four hour drive east of Kansas City so it wasn't too far to drive for what amounted to my second favorite beer of all time.
Schlafly is a small brewery in St. Louis that only bottles a handful of different styles for distribution in the Midwest. I'd had a couple of Schlafly's beers before stopping by the brewery, most notably was the Pumpkin spice beer I had before Halloween. What really surprised me about the brewery was the size, it was tiny. There were only a handful of tanks and, as far as I could tell, one bottling line. The tour of Schlafly's brewery took about fifteen minutes, partly because there wasn't much to see and we were the only two people there at the time. This also meant that we had the tasting room all to ourselves. The tasting room was larger than I'd expected and there were five or six styles of beer on tap. The usual suspects were there, the IPA, the ESB and so on, but what I was most curious about was the No. 15. Our guide said that this was a special beer that Schlafly brewed for it's 15th anniversary. He also said that it was so popular that that it has become one of their mainstays. I'd tried everything else on the list so I figured I'd give the No. 15 a go.
I've already compiled my thoughts on the No. 15 so I won't go in to great detail but this was definitely love at first sip. The No. 15 looks like an amber or a darker wheat beer. It's almost red in color but not as clear as an amber. The taste of the No. 15 is where the surprise comes. It's like a cross between a Belgian Witt and a Hefeweizen with a little hint on berries. It's not as tart as it might sound, it is actually quite smooth. Tasting glasses aren't very large so once the tour was over I was eager to get my hands on a full pint of No. 15.
Attached to the brewery at Schlafly is their restaurant called the Bottleworks. I wasn't sure what to expect from the menu but I was hoping it'd hold up to the quality of the beer. To fulfill our Jingle Beer obligations, our first beers were Christmas Ales which came in bulb shaped glasses. As far as Christmas beers go, it was at the top of my list, nicely malted and warm. With the Christmas Ales we got an order of the Pale Ale bread which was amazing. This was super dense, like corn bread, and it had a salty and almost dry taste to it. My entrée was a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw (sound familiar?) and a pint of the No. 15. Needless to say, the No. 15 went brilliantly with the barbecue sandwich and Pale Ale bread. The sweet and tangy barbecue and mild but tart No. 15 complimented each other nicely. I've had a few No. 15 bottles since the trip to Schlafly but they just weren't quite the same as having it at the brewery. Freshness is a big factor but being able to enjoy it with a friend just steps from the brew kettle is was made it all the more special for me.
1. Augustiner MaximatorMünchen, Deutschland: On my first night in Germany back in 2006 I decided to walk over to the Augustiner Bierhalle in central Munich. The place I was staying was literally just across the street from the bierhalle which made for an easy commute. When I said it was my first night in Munich I should also point out that it was my first NIGHT in about 36 hours. I'd slept a couple hours at the hostel before venturing out for food, but I was still pretty exhausted and running on an empty tank. It didn't take much deliberation to decide on the bierhalle, in fact very little thought was put in to it, thankfully they served food there because it hadn't crossed my mind that this might just be a bar. What also hadn't quite hit me just yet was that I was in Bavaria and things were going to be done a little differently.
When I stepped through the door of the Augustiner Bierhalle I noticed that all of the tables were taken, and they were BIG long tables. This was a place where you might sit amongst three or four other parties at the same table. I happened to arrive just after a group of Bulgarians and we were seated together at one of the less crowded tables. My German was still pretty rough and the waitress spoke no English at all so I turned to the skinniest of the Bulgarians and asked "So, um, was schmekt gut hier?" (what tastes good here?) to which her replied with a Russian accent "Everything." The waitress had brought an English version of the menu by which I was looking at and decided on the 'Pork's Knuckle' as it sounded like like the closest thing to food on the menu... as most of the items had literally translated names that didn't look too appealing. I also ordered a beer but not in a manner specific enough for the waitress who asked what kind and pointed up to the blackboard near the door. In my haste not to look too much like an amateur I named off the first thing I could. At the top of the list was the seasonal Starkbier named Maximator.
I didn't have any idea what I'd gotten myself into. Keep in mind that I hadn't eaten since the about halfway though the flight, which landed in Frankfurt about twelve hours earlier. The beers showed up in short order, as they tend to do in Germany, and that's when a set my eyes on the Maximator. It was a tall metric pint of thick dark goodness with a cool oatmeal aroma. I took my first drink of Maximator and thought, "Wow, so this is what German beer tastes like." It was strong, probably the strongest beer I'd had up to that point. Starkbier, which I didn't realize at the time, literally means strong beer and is about eight or nine percent alcohol. Not the kind of beer you want to start your even off with if you haven't eaten all day... after taking a four hour train ride... after taking a fourteen hour flight... Maybe it was the atmosphere or the realization that I'd made it to Germany and I could finally get out of travel mode at relax, but that was the best beer I'd ever had. It was everything I thought German beer should be: strong, dark and warm. I definitely had a full buzz on by the time the food showed up.
As it turned out, pork knuckle isn't half bad. I've had it a few times since then, it's better known as Schweinshaxe or Eisbein and it's basically a ham hock. Think of a turkey leg... only pork. It was delicious. The schweinshaxe had crispy skin on the outside and it laid in a bed of sauerkraut and came with two huge softball sized dumplings. I thoroughly enjoyed this meal, enough so that I even returned the next evening to have a plate of bratwursts and kraut and a couple more Maximators.
About three and a half months later I returned to Munich and went to a smaller Augustiner Bierstuberl near Marienplatz and decided to get another Schweinshaxe. The experience wasn't quite the same this time around. By now it was summer and the Easter seasonal starkbiers like Maximator weren't being served. Schweinshaxe and dark beer is really more of a heavy winter food. I enjoyed returning to Augustiner for another round of beers and pork products but that first night in Munich will always be my fondest memory of my 2006 trip as the time when I realized I'd made it to Germany and the real fun can begin.