The year Miller saw the light
Two thousand eleven will go down as the year that Miller Brewing finally repented.
Here is a company whose top seller, Miller Lite, forever stands with McDonald's and "American Idol" as the archetypes of dumbed-down American culture, whose pursuit of the lowest common denominator brought us an utterly vile beverage with no redeeming quality other than its ability to pass through the human anatomy undetected.
Yes, Miller Lite remains the company's top seller. But you wonder for how long.
For, in 2011, the company not only aborted its hugely unpopular spinoff, MGD 64 Lemonade — a sign, perhaps, that the days of large breweries cynically foisting yellow by-products on an unsuspecting public are numbered.
It also committed itself to an outstanding, black-as-ink stout that is the flavor- and moral-opposite of light beer.
Which is the reason I've chosen Leinenkugel's Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout as Joe Sixpack's Beer of the Year.
Leinenkugel of Chippewa Falls, Wis., is a wholly owned subsidiary of Miller (which itself is a unit of London-based SABMiller, the world's second-largest brewer), so it's tempting to write the unit off as just another corporate cog. But Miller deserves credit for letting Leinenkugel thrive under the leadership of the same family that founded the brewery in 1867.
Explaining his freedom to develop such an un-Miller beer, president Jake Leinenkugel said, "We don't take orders well from the parent company."
Leinenkugel sees his company's focus as "gateway craft beers" — mainly pale or amber lagers that "light or premium drinkers can reach for and say, 'This is good. I can drink a couple of these.'"
But if you're going to call yourself a craft beer brewer these days, you've got to show some chops. Leinenkugel said his own brewmasters approached him and demanded heftier, stronger beers: "They said they'd like to do them because we can do it as well as anybody else."
So in 2007, the company dipped its toe with a scarcely distributed limited edition named after the Big Eddy Springs that is the source of its water. Buoyed by decent sales, it went all-in in 2011, widening its distribution and announcing the addition of three more strong styles to its lineup: a Double India Pale Ale, a Baltic Porter and a Scotch Ale.
But it is this Russian Imperial Stout that grabbed my attention.
RIS, as beer freaks call it, is the sine qua non craft style these days, dominating American "best of" lists. Top-rated Three Floyds Dark Lord, Deschutes The Abyss and Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout — they're all RIS's.
Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout can stand alongside any of those heralded labels without embarrassing itself.
Brewed with 11 different malts, it fills the mouth with a roasted espresso-like flavor, then ambles off with a long-lasting chocolate finish. It'll be a bit challenging for those accustomed to light lagers, but give it a chance to warm up in a large snifter and you'll find yourself slowly collapsing into the pleasing warmth of your La-Z-Boy. I'm drinking one as I write this, and I'm astonished how fast — even at 9.5 percent alcohol by volume — it's disappearing from my glass.
Some readers will cringe at my selection, partly because Leinenkugel is technically part of the Big Beer Axis of Evil. Indeed, MillerCoors's new Tenth and Blake specialty division has raised fears of a price-cutting incursion on the little guys' vulnerable wholesale flank.
I'll leave that worry for another day.
For now, I'm calling Leinenkugel's Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout my Beer of the Year, and I'm counting 2011 as the year Miller finally saw the light.
Or, rather, the dark.