Jay Nelson’s Top 5 beers of 2020? Drink these

An email arrived the other day. In it was a question: “… are you also into a top 5?” I assumed for beer. Yeesh, well, frankly, no thanks. However, the email was from the esteemed editor of this journal, so perhaps playing along was a superior response.

2020 was a weird year. Perhaps you’ve heard. For the craft beer business, it seemed a year to catch its breath. There were far fewer new breweries. Taprooms were closed for many months and will close again. Luckily, canning is possible for most breweries and off-sales have meant the closed taps have not resulted in choked cash flow. But, the brewers rose to the challenge and released a number of new beers to keep their fans happy. If there is one thing we absolutely know, craft beer fans demand new beers.

Now, on to the list. Having never written one, the first challenge was how to frame the choices. Should it be only beers released in 2020? Only Calgary beers? Only craft beers? Eventually, the theme that emerged was simple: what are the five local beers that I enjoyed the most in 2020? Without further ado, and in no order:

O.T. 5 Hundie: IPAs are the staple and cash cow of craft brewing and they had another strong year. While big, hazy beers ruled the day and some very bitter West Coast IPAs elbowed their way back on the shelves, this modest beer is demure in comparison, but always a treat. It is ridiculously easy to drink (in fact, a fave for introducing to those who claim to despise hoppy beers), fruity and has a lovely mouthfeel from that which delivers the haze. Runner ups: Cabin Pink Popper (an IPA with peppers and fruit? Yes, please!); any of the Establishment Sky Rockets (who can remember which is which since they are all good?); and Annex Ales Project Force Majeure (a nearly perfect beer if you want something more complex).

Ol’ Beautiful Pegasus American Pale Ale: One of my first forays into craft beer was the West Coast pale ale. The classic is Sierra Nevada with a delightful mix of citrus and pine. Ol’ Beautiful have rendered their own local classic, which is my kryptonite in terms of knowing when to stop. Perfectly hopped with Cascade, Amarillo, and Simcoe, this is nicely balanced, hits the right flavour notes and delicious. Runner ups: Last Best Show Pony (the beer that I modeled my home brewing hobby upon); and Cabin Retrospectrum (quite similar to Pegasus in the right ways and equally delicious).

Fahr Oktober : Ahh, Oktoberfest with its many variations on German styles. This year’s Oktober was a lovely beer hiding the extra point of ABV well and benefiting from the additional maltiness required to get there. This beer was perfectly balanced, very clean, and disappeared at breakneck speed (from my can and the shelves). Runner ups: Other local Festbiers are rarely available, none that I drank in 2020, although both Inner City and Annex Ales have brewed excellent examples in the past.

Inner City Troll’s Toll Bridge Bock: The final three choices will betray my loyalty to the brewers of a certain country. As with most Inner City beers, the flavours in their Bock are crystal clear. While it shows as a very dark beer, it drinks more lightly with little, if any, roasty flavours. Inner City has a great feel for German beers and, hopefully, will keep them coming. Runner ups: It’s not really a Bock, but Paddy’s Black Lager is my favourite of their offerings and surely pairs with some smoky BBQ.

Establishment Mellow Gold: Initially released as a Kellerbier from a cask at Establishment’s first-year anniversary party, Mellow Gold was soon available as a proper Munich helles in the taproom and cans. In 2020, this beer claimed a large part of my wallet, and my heart, as possibly the best Alberta lager ever (highly subjective, but I’ll fight you — just not very well or very long and you will have to drive me to the hospital). I hope it becomes a core beer for Establishment soon. It deserves to be. Runner ups: Zero Issue Cryostasis (that can design!! The beer is good, too); and Fahr Pils (quickly becoming my go to in our local watering holes).

(Ed’s note and full disclosure: His “esteemed” editor — we’ll assume he forgot to click on the sarcasm font — is related to one of the partners at Inner City, but provided no direction or input into this article. Other than adding a “u” to every word he continues to spell in its American form.)