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Beer in 2020: Finale

This final missive of a three part series, to culminate a year like no other, wouldn’t have been written to end any of the past 8 years I’ve been covering beer. There’s never been so much that’s happened during the course of 9 months, all covering a perceived timeframe that felt like years.

We’ve hunkered down to avoid the virus and stayed indoors to avoid 10+ days of wildfire smoke. Some have taken to the streets to march for justice, while others operating their businesses as fervently as possible to stay alive, and (I can only hope) all of us have learned something about ourselves and those around us in the process. I’ll gladly acknowledge my own evolution: for better or for worse, my perspective of reality, as well as that of beer, has changed.

With an aft looking eye, we watch as 2020 mercifully sinking from view as the sun into the ocean, here are a few more themes I’ve pondered this year, all appropriately F Words. And if you missed the earlier posts in the series, here’s the first on Trends and the second on Adaptation.

Fests & Flights: Pub Culture Pauses

The last festival I attended: SheBrew 2020

With the temporary shutdown of traditional pub culture, something that’s long made Portland tick, came the realization of all that’s now gone: beer festivals, tap-takeovers, meet-the-brewer events, beer releases, sampling tastes before buying, beer flights, etc. I’m sure there’s more, but no matter how you slice it, a lot has changed.

As both a local beer writer and in working for a small beer distributor, my social reality evaporated. All of the aforementioned gatherings disappeared and yes, the Zoom Fest or Take Home Beer Fests understandably became a thing, though I’ve never been a fan of video conferencing. As things have opened up a bit and I’ve reconnected with friends here and there in small, distanced gatherings, I’ve found enough to sustain.

In many ways this year’s felt like a Great Reset; a needed cleaning of the slate, as well as a collective time of reflection, recalibration, and maybe even rebirth. As much as I miss the way things were – 8 oz pours, 4-5 sample flights, cozy gatherings, and large festivals with more options than we can drink, I honestly needed a break from it all.

In addition to the overwhelming loss of life we’ve seen this year, we’ve also lost far too many small businesses, many of whom will never come back. Once we’ve overcome this virus, I’m certain we’ll return to most of those social rituals we once reveled in. And while we may lose a few annual beer festivals in this town, I’m sure a whittling down of the 50+ we have each year might be overdue.

Freshness: Draft vs Cans

TopWire Hop Project at Crosby Hop Farm

Until March, I’d basically become a draft-only person. Over the previous year, I’d grown accustomed to only having the latest releases on draft, often in 4-10 ounce tastes, so as not to overwhelm my bandwidth. Many of my evenings were spent bopping around town, attending anywhere from 2-5 of the aforementioned gatherings, then returning home with maybe a bottle or a can or two of packaged beer.

Today, the 16 ounce can is everywhere, the 12 oz can is rebounding, the 750 ml bottle continues it’s slow decline, and draft is limited. As our pandemic reality progressed, I found myself consuming most all my beer from package and realizing how much I missed freshly poured draft beer. With the “on again, off again” nature of on-site consumption, for me at least, the stark contrast between package and draft became more obvious, especially during Fresh Hop season.

It’s long been known that highly hopped beers, such as the ever popular Hazy and West Coast IPAs, have a limited shelf stability and need steady refrigeration. That lifespan is even more limited when it comes to Fresh Hop beers (often IPAs) and historically made in small batches for limited draft consumption (especially fests), plus some packaging by larger breweries. That clearly changed this year with more Fresh Hop beers available in cans than ever before and draft more limited than ever.

This years crop of Fresh Hopped beers were, by all the accounts, the best we’ve ever seen. Our brewers have gotten quite good at the techniques required to make this one-off PNW specialty and I share in the sentiment that this year’s was an impressive crop of FH beer releases. Though the ones I enjoyed most, by far and especially in comparison to the packaged versions of the same beer, were always on draft.

No matter what the style, how well it’s been brewed, or how exacting it’s been packaged, beer that’s put into bottles or cans doesn’t taste the same to me as when it’s been racked off directly into a keg. I attribute it to the movement of beer into the machinery by which to fill it, the brief exposure to air before being sealed, carbonation, and the smaller containers. I’m not a scientist, so please tell me I’m wrong on this, but in my mind these are the primary reasons why there’s no substitute for drinking freshly poured pints from a keg.

That and being able to enjoy those pints in close quarters with friends, in a COVID-free environment, make me miss casual sessions of pints on draft. Soon enough…

Favorites: My Year in Beer

Sunken Luminaries by Brujos Brewing – a 3.5% German Leichtbier

In looking back at what beers I enjoyed most this year, a few things jumped out at me. Most notably, my tastes have changed. Instead of seeking out a lot of stronger, smaller pours at the taproom, I was more often enjoying the slower pace of consuming 16 ounce, lower ABV beers. And while Lagers and Pilsners jumped up in number, there were still plenty of big beers on the list.

Here’s a breakdown of my top rated beers for 2020 – those I rated 4.5 or higher on untappd’s 5 point scale. This year I “checked in” to 641 beers (in 2019 it was 1466 & in 2018 it was 1707?!) and likely tasted around 750 this year. Of those, the top rated list includes 85 beers, with more classic styles and lighter fare than in years past. Here’s a quick rundown of interesting things I pulled from my top beers data:

  • Top Rated Beers (5.0 ratings of 2020)
  • Most Checked-In Breweries (Top 85 Beers)
    • Ruse Brewing (11)
    • Structures Brewing (6)
    • Wayfinder Beer (6)
    • Brujos Brewing (4)
    • Cloudburst Brewing (4)
    • pFriem Family Brewers (4)
  • Most Checked-In Styles (Top 85 Beers)
    • Farmhouse Ale (11)
    • Lager (American, Export, Helles, Japanese, Light, Smoked Helles) (9)
    • New England-style IPA (7)
    • Fresh Hop (multiple styles) (6)
    • Stout (Imperial + Russian Imperial) (6)
    • Wild Ale (6)
    • IPA – American (West Coast + Hybrid) (5)
    • Pale Ale (5)
    • Pilsner (5)
    • Sour (5)

The things that stood out as I continued to parse the data: my biases are certainly clear (local breweries & Day One brands), I’ve been less likely to pursue the latest trends, there are a few I would’ve rated higher or lower in retrospect as my perspective changed over the year, I’m human and prone to err.

To wrap this whole series up, it’s safe to say we’ve all had to find ways to keep ourselves occupied this year and I appreciate you taking the time to indulge in this wee blog – my own free time indulgence. There’s no doubt the pandemic has been difficult for us all, though it seems these external realties that’ve forced their way into our lives have, in turn, forced us to internally examine our own reality, hopefully inciting us to reimagine what our collective reality should be going forward. As an industry, I believe we’ve become stronger and better able to take action as the times warrant. There’s still much to be done and I expect even more changes in 2021.

I wish you all the best as we enter the new year, with nothing but good health and delicious distractions to fill your coming days. Thanks for joining me this year!

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