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Champion beers: worth the splurge

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Even in tough times, good beer is an affordable luxury. I'll never be able to pay for—or justify—drinking the world's finest wines or spirits every day, but even the most expensive six-pack of specialty brew is a bargain when beer is viewed as a fine beverage.

That's why, when lists of award-winning beers are announced, I recommend that anyone with any money at all to spend on alcohol splurge on a selection of the best. In what other realm of life can you regularly treat yourself to the very finest there is?

A collection of the finest was showcased at the biennial World Beer Cup, presented last month in San Diego by the Colorado-based Brewers Association. There, at the largest of the international beer competitions, 211 judges undertook the herculean task of evaluating 3,921 entries from 54 countries. This year's event evaluated beers in 95 categories, naming gold, silver and bronze in each. Now these nearly 300 beers have World Beer Cup bragging rights for the next two years.

Granted, both the entries and prizes were dominated by American breweries, with the Western states appearing to lead the way, but plenty of prizewinners are available on our local shelves. Here's a selection.

North Carolina winners

Hats off to three Tar Heel breweries that took prizes in this challenging competition. Olde Hickory Brewery excelled in big, bad stouts, taking a bronze medal for their imperial stout, a potent black ale originally brewed for export from England to the Russian Imperial Court. Also winning a bronze was The Event Horizon, an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels for layers of vanilla and oak flavor. It won't be available again until winter, but it'll taste better then.

If you want to try the other two North Carolina winners, you'll need to travel to brewpubs, no hardship when the pubs are located at attractive summer destinations. Front Street Brewery in Wilmington won a gold for FSB Spring Brew, a beer in the earthy, spicy farmhouse tradition from Belgium and France. The brewer promises another batch early this summer.

Drive on to Kill Devil Hills if you want a sample of our fourth medal winner, Vitis Reductus Weisse from Outer Banks Brewing Station. This is a chance to taste a Berliner weisse, a puckeringly sour and refreshing style rarely made in the U.S.

Familiar styles

Fans of German styles have a range of great choices available. The Michael Plank Brewery in Laaber, Germany, is not a well-known name, yet the company consistently wins honors. It was named Best Small Brewery overall following gold medals for its hefeweizen, a style that has gained a following in the U.S. as a summer quencher; and for Heller Weizenbock, a pale (hell), strong beer (bock) brewed with wheat (weizen).

Honors for other styles from that part of the world, however, were taken by Maryland, Russia and Italy—Mein Gott! If you want to taste the malty, amber style known as Vienna, Clipper City brews a great example with Heavy Seas Märzen Vienna Lager. One of the top South German-style hefeweizens comes from St. Petersburg: Baltika N°8 Wheat, from the Baltika Breweries. And the silver medal kellerbier (fresh, effervescent lager as it would taste straight from the cask) is VIÆMILIA (Via Emilia), from one of the newest of Italy's emerging craft beer community, Birrificio del Ducato.

A chance to explore

A list of certified award-winning beers offers the opportunity to explore styles that you've been curious about but have never tried. Select one of these more esoteric styles, and if you don't like it, pour it out with a clear conscience (remember, beer is an affordable luxury).

Styles with the tag "imperial" doff their caps to the early imperial stouts mentioned before, but the imperial moniker now indicates any recognized beer style brewed bigger and hoppier—a popular experiment with mixed results. What happens when a brewer takes a red ale, which is a mild, session-strength, sweetish beer, and bumps up the alcohol and bitterness? Balance is a challenge, but the most successful attempt is the gold-medal G'Knight Imperial Red Ale from Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado. And, a further anachronism, it's packaged in a can.

The category known as American-Belgo Ale drives some Belgian brewers bonkers, but it exists to acknowledge that in Belgian-style brewing—as in traditional English and German styles before—American brewers have gone their own way with a European template. Le Freak, from San Diego's Green Flash Brewing Co., takes the herbal spiciness we associate with Belgian yeast and marries it with the high bitterness of an American IPA.

The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Calif., routinely merges Belgian and American traditions, and their beers, when available, fly off local shelves. This year, Carnevale, Lost Abbey's interpretation of a saison farmhouse ale, garnered a gold. If you see it, buy it. If you don't like it, give it to me.

One category of Belgian beer still belongs solidly with Belgian brewers, resisting American efforts to butt in. The archaic lambic style of wild-fermented beer, technically speaking, can be brewed only in the environs of Brussels, and brewer and blender Frank Boon remains a master. His Oude Geuze Boon, a blend of aged lambics known as geuze (also spelt gueuze), is a test of the palate. If you don't enjoy this challenging beverage—which is described with terms such as "barnyard" and "leathery"—at least you've tried the best example there is.

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