The best beers I’ve ever had

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If I made a top 10 list of my “best beers,” it would probably contain five or so picks that are permanently on the list, along with others moving in and out depending on time of the year, availability, my mood and my style focus at the time.

The “quality” of a beer as far as best taste is subjective and could be discussed for thousands of words. My goal today is to capture the “feeling” of a great beer in an unforgettable moment. So on to the feelings:

My best and happiest memory of enjoying a beer was at 10:10 p.m. Oct. 15, 1998, in San Francisco. I had just returned to our flat with my sister-in-law, Lisa, after a 36-hour stretch of time that included two trips to the hospital (— the first being a false alarm). I had just witnessed the birth of my daughter, Daisy. We left my wife, Laura, at the hospital with our newborn to sleep — the nurse kicked us out. On our way home, we ordered a pepperoni pizza from our favorite spot, North Beach Pizza. We were famished. I grabbed a couple of Sierra Nevada pale ales, and we sat down in our breakfast nook to eat with a view of the Bay Bridge out the window.

As we sipped and ate, of course, I knew at the time it was a monumental moment.

As I write this, I remember every detail clearly, sharing the emotions of the day with Lisa, who had come from Minnesota to help. I was completely freaked out that I was a parent, but happier than any day of my life. Munching on the pizza, that beer tasted better than any beer I can ever remember drinking, anytime then or now. It felt like the reason beer was brewed in the first place: for me to toast my new daughter.

Most people who know me are probably sick of me talking about Sierra Nevada pale, but with this story and the feelings it transports, it’s no surprise I have a connection that will always be enduring and lifelong.

My second greatest beer memory comes from the great state of Alaska. During the summer of 1987, I worked on a fishing boat out of Dillingham. Summer in Alaska is pretty much light 24/7. The sun rises around 4 a.m. and doesn’t set until around midnight. It was arduous, dangerous work on the boats. We worked 20 hour days with four-hour sleep breaks.

On this night, I was ending a long shift on the deck. At the shift handoff, my friend and fellow deckhand, Mark, said “I have a couple of beers from a new brewery here called Alaskan Amber, want one?”

Since I seldom refuse a free beer no matter how tired I might be, I thanked him and accepted. We leaned on the stern rail and drank our beer. I didn’t know this then, but that beer was a very ambitious new brew, based on a classic German style called “alt beer.”

This is a malty, slightly sweet and fruity beer balanced with a perfect warm and inviting finish. I did not yet know this of course, but I will always remember telling Mark “This is the best beer I have ever tasted!” What beer wouldn’t be the best ever after a 20-hour shift?

I still drink that often, and I always think of that moment in time when I do. I often think about Mark who died tragically two weeks later, swept overboard during a brutal storm.

My third best-beer-ever story takes place in 2008. I was on my way to Oktoberfest in Munich, the planet’s best-beer-ever festival.

I landed in Amsterdam for a quick layover before boarding the train to Germany. I’d been to Amsterdam many times and had heard on many occasions from friends and the locals about a brewery housed in an old windmill somewhere in town. Enter: Brouwerij ‘t IJ. (Pronounced Brewery I.)

I called them and introduced myself as an American brewer from Minnesota. Hopeful, I inquired if they’d be willing to show me around. I was welcomed to stop up the next day at 10 a.m. When I got there, I was introduced to everyone and asked if I wanted to sit in on a brew. Did I mention this brewery was in a hundreds-of-years-old windmill? Of course, I did!

It was a sublime brewing experience that changed and enriched me as a brewer. When we finished the brew, I was invited to try their fresh Plzen. The beer was Brouwerij ‘t IJ’s nod to famous lagers from Czechoslovakia.

It was an ale brewed cold and gold, a true hybrid brew. It was so good, I was awestruck. The beer, right out of the server, inspired a long-term friendship with their brewer and staff. The inspiration extended to my return to Duluth, where I brewed a beer called Amsterdam Ale which we served at Fitger’s Brewhouse during my time there.

I am thirsty and homesick for Europe so much as I reminisce about this.

Happy best-beer-ever to all of you. Share your own “best beer I’ve ever had” experiences, and send me an email. I’d love to hear about them.