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DRAFT’s top 25 beers of the year

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From classic favorites to rule-bending experimentations, this year was an inspired one for beer. We sipped, quaffed and guzzled our way through bottles, barrels and kegs to pare down the best of the best from 2010.

Angel’s Share Grand Cru
The Lost Abbey
Wood-Aged Beer
Angel’s Share is one of the most sought-after beers around, but it got even more exclusive this year when co-founder Tomme Arthur opened up his entire barrel library to create a blend of vintages past. He carefully choreographed barrel-aged Angel’s Share from 2010, 2009, 2007 and 2006—the brew’s debut year—for a palate-coating sensation of flavors: Mature licorice, plum, molasses and chocolate layer above roasted bitterness for a deliciously syrupy swallow that finishes remarkably dry.

Ranger India Pale Ale
New Belgium Brewing Co.
American IPA
You may know this brewery best for its ubiquitous malt-driven beer, Fat Tire, but this year New Belgium released another brew that quickly became a crowd pleaser. Ranger India Pale Ale’s an übercitrusy, Cascades-packed drink that tastes like grapefruit in a glass. Bright, juicy hops and drying bitterness make this an exceptional example of the style, and its approachability and mass appeal make it worthy of the widespread praise it received. It’s undoubtedly one of the year’s must-haves.

Duvel
Duvel Moortgat
Belgian Golden Strong Ale
Delicate yet demanding of your respect, this classic 100-point brew defines the Belgian golden strong style: Peppery spice punctuates pear, orange and floral hop scents, while on the tongue, ripe pear and peppery yeast tango before sweet honey balances a prickly hop finish. It’s a classic, and with each passing year remains a shining example of how an evolving beer world still holds flawless tradition close to its heart.

Yorkshire Stingo
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Old Ale
The only beer this year to receive a perfect, 100-point score from our panel, Yorkshire Stingo nails the BJCP’s guidelines for old ales at every step, and goes the extra mile by delivering complex malty surprises with each trip back to the glass. Every sip’s memorable as rich caramel and sherry flavors play alongside deep, woody oak notes and molasses threads. The complexity is masterful and might be the best thing to happen to your snifter all year.

Pursuit of Hoppiness
Grand Teton Brewing Co.
American Red Ale
A bold, bright mouthful of hops, Pursuit of Hoppiness is one of the standout brews leading the burgeoning American red ale movement, and this year it transitioned from limited-release status to year-round availability. Sticky caramel flavors balance brawny bitterness while piney, citrusy hops deliver on the beer’s name. Displaying a stunning balance between hops and malt, this beer’s new distribution earns it a regular place in any discerning beer fridge.

Saboteur
Odell Brewing Co.
Specialty Beer
Odell’s Single Serve Series is full of perennial favorites, but this year’s addition of Saboteur set a new benchmark for the brewery. The brewers age a traditional English brown ale in American oak barrels once used to house the brewery’s refined, cork-and-cage Woodcut series, then inject rowdy Brettanomyces yeast for a secondary fermentation. The result is a sophisticated blend of toasty brown ale notes, tart Brett, vanilla and rich, dark cherries. A subtle pineapple note beneath the funk tips this beer into the realm of excellence.

Monk’s Blood
21st Amendment Brewery
Belgian Dark Strong Ale
A collaborative effort that took a year to complete, Monk’s Blood is the brainchild of 21st Amendment owners Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia, chef and DRAFT contributor Sean Paxton, and the team at Belgium’s De Struise Brouwers. This brew packs in a laundry list of ingredients—dried mission figs, caramelized sugar syrup and American hops, to name a few—for a sugary-sweet profile that’s spiked with spicy cinnamon, dark fruits, vanilla and oaky
tannins and wraps up with a fun, sour finish. There’s simply nothing else like it.

Hop in the Dark
Deschutes Brewery
Black IPA
This year saw a tidal wave of bottled black IPAs, but none caught our attention like Hop in the Dark, a Cascadian dark ale. It may not be credited as the first of its kind, but after 22 attempts to perfect the recipe, it tops the list. Cascade, Citra and Centennial hops offer citrusy, piney hop flavors over a bed of lightly roasted, coffee-infused malts. It’s a blend of two worlds and a standard for those exploring this new style.

Tripel
Westmalle
Belgian Tripel
As DRAFT’s first-ever 100-point review, we just can’t help returning to this beer time and again. Westmalle embodies the tripel style with a thoughtful balance of sweet, fresh pear, lemon zest and a dash of peppery spice. Its flirtatious effervescence sweeps the mouth clean, while lingering lemony hops leave the mouth pining for more. Quaffable yet world-class, this beer displays a quiet elegance achieved over a few hundred years of monastic dedication, and for that, the beer’s a timeless favorite.

Happy Ending Imperial Stout
Sweetwater Brewing Co.
Russian Imperial Stout
Big beer continues to bubble up from the South, and this 9%-ABV, ink-black brew from ATL is the one worth noting. Lurking beneath a robust blanket of roast, chocolate and coffee, plums and raisins sink into the taste buds while a bright flash of citrus hops introduce a wave of bitterness that cleans the luscious, heavy flavors from the tongue. It’s bold, complex and unsung in the world of hyped-up stouts.

Emperial IPA
Stone Brewing Co.
Imperial IPA
To celebrate its 14th anniversary, Stone shocked palates not by brewing an imperial IPA, but by brewing an English-style imperial IPA. The brewery that paved the way for brash, West Coast flavors traveled to England to concoct a recipe that spotlights Target, East Kent Goldings and Boadicea hops for a spicy, earthy and Stone-worthy bitter brew that changes the game for amped-up IPAs. Black IPAs may be the trend, but Stone’s out-of-the-box thinking makes this brew a benchmark for the style.

Avatar Jasmine IPA
Elysian Brewing Co.
Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer
Elysian’s specialty IPA accentuates its floral hop bouquet with a wealth of jasmine, creating an aroma that’s paradise in a glass. The beer’s base IPA recipe is already top-notch, but the addition of floral, peppery jasmine is what floored us. Easily the most elegant example of an herbed IPA, this beer remains one of the industry’s best examples of how to tweak a standard style with an unusual ingredient.

Batch 9,000 Ale
Bell’s Brewery
Specialty Beer
Easily the most challenging beer we poured into a glass this year, Batch 9,000 is one of the maltiest brews on the market. We’ve tried more robust beers than we can count, but this strong ale not only takes us deep into its rich, sugary sweet flavors with every sip, it also piques our enthusiasm the entire time. Caramel and molasses flood the mouth before further discovery unlocks dark cherry, roasted chocolate and sharp orange rind—a rich tidal wave that blissfully disorients the senses and leaves sugar-coated lips in its wake.

Sorachi Ace
The Brooklyn Brewery
Saison
Fruity, spicy and refreshing are the pillars of a solid saison, and Brooklyn took that to heart when it constructed the brightest saison we’ve ever had. Using rare Sorachi Ace hops, this effervescent sunshine beer beams juicy lemon over a delicate bed of coriander, white pepper and light, biscuity malts. This beer not only showcases how vibrant a saison can be, it spotlights the little-known Japanese hop that packs a lemony punch; we won’t be surprised when it starts to spread throughout the brewing community.

Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Specialty Beer
Now that barrel aging’s common practice, we thought we’d seen the full potential of the flavor expansion for imperial stouts. Dogfish Head steered the style in a new direction with the release of this Miles Davis-inspired concoction, a recipe that’s three parts stout blended with honey beer and a dose of gesho root (a hoplike plant popular in Ethiopia). Bending the perception of a dark beer, Bitches Brew begins with familiar mochalike roast flavors before dry honey ushers in orange fruitiness and herbal notes, taking the experience to another level.

30th Anniversary Jack & Ken’s Ale
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
American Barleywine
One of the biggest stories this year was the release of Sierra Nevada’s collaborative 30th Anniversary line, and the beers certainly matched the hype. The third in the series blew us away as beer legends Jack McAuliffe, one of craft brewing’s pioneers, and Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman paired up to push barleywine into completely new territory. This “black” barleywine packs roasty, chocolaty-caramel richness in the mouth while pools of fresh plum and shots of heavy grapefruit-pine hops stimulate the senses. It’s so good it’s knee-bending, and with a 2010 GABF gold medal in the strong beer category, it’s clear these two old industry dogs can still out-brew the competition.

“Johnny” Dortmunder Lager
Upstream Brewing Co.
Dortmunder Export
Upstream Brewing’s graced this list before with its beautiful Grand Cru, but this year we were wowed by the brewery’s accessible, perfectly balanced Dortmunder Lager. This ultraclean brew balances subtly sweet bready flavors with crisp malts, while assertive hop bitterness flexes just enough muscle to accentuate the finish. For a style that reserves no room for flaws—and one where commercial examples are few and far between—this spot-on re-creation of a classic working man’s beer is the perfect drink after a long day at the office.

312 Urban Wheat Ale
Goose Island Beer Co.
American Wheat
This year was undeniably huge for Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat Ale: The brewery’s long-time, best-selling beer made international headlines twice, first during a conference between President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and again when the President used this beer to pay off his World Cup beer wager to Cameron. While that may have increased its sales 18 percent, we’ve been fans all along; it’s the top-scoring American wheat we’ve judged to date. The beer’s wheat-citrus twang and refreshing effervescence makes it a constant in our fridge, and its 2010 GABF gold medal backs up the media hype.

Rubio Fumando
Freetail Brewing Co.
Smoked Beer
Sometimes just a little tweak transforms a classic style into a profile entirely new, and in the case of Rubio Fumando, the results can be extraordinary. Using 20 percent German Rauchmalz along with Pils and Vienna malts, the recipe starts like a classic rauchbier. Throw in Warrior hops and trade out German yeast for the brewery’s house Belgian strain, and you’ve got something jaw-dropping. Smooth campfire smoke carries over a solid malt base while fruity yeast notes brighten the deep flavors.

Guava Grove Ale
Cigar City Brewing
Fruit Beer
We adore classic, refreshing saisons, but this delicious tropical version flips the style upside-down. Cigar City straddles Belgium and Florida with this effervescent saison fermented on local flavor: guava. The brew’s tart yeast profile plays against the fruit, creating a candylike sweetness that is as delicious as it is fun. Part Old World, part tropical vacation, this brew raises the bar for the fruit beer style.

Key Lime Pie
Short’s Brewing Co.
Specialty Beer
Embodying the spirit of Willy Wonka, founder Joe Short’s experimental beers are liquid imagination, and Key Lime Pie might just be Short’s Everlasting Gobstopper. Made with fresh limes, milk sugar, graham cracker and marshmallow fluff, this beer bends all the rules. Creamy marshmallow flavors are perked up by tart lime as graham cracker notes create a perfect foundation with the beer’s golden ale base. “Unique” gets thrown around often in beer, but this brew is its definition, garnering a gold medal in the experimental category at the 2010 GABF.

From the Wood
Marble Brewing Co.
Barrel-Aged Belgian Specialty Ale
To take an already complex Belgian dark ale, age it in bourbon casks and spike it with Brettanomyces is gutsy; the result has just as much opportunity for
brilliance as it does for disaster. From the Wood lands squarely on the side of the former: Figs and plum immerse the tongue before simultaneous waves of spicy bourbon and funky Brett wash back. Instead of battling for attention, the bourbon’s vanilla notes meld
seamlessly into the flavor, achieving a stunning level of sophistication.

Nectar of the Hops
Redstone Meadery
Dry-Hopped Mead
Redstone’s David Myers has a history of blending his mead with beer, but Nectar of the Hops, which is dry-hopped with 22 pounds of pellets, is certainly the gateway mead for hop-heads. Based on the meadery’s Nectar, an 8%-ABV, slightly sweet sparkling gem, this version unleashes a hefty dose of bitterness and a dank, wonderfully hoppy aroma. Sweet, refreshingly dry and accented by beer’s rock-star ingredient, consider this a diplomat of the industry, uniting two sets of drinkers in one common space.

Velvet Merlin
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
Blended Oatmeal Stout
Released this year to much fanfare and anticipation, Velvet Merlin’s a recipe Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s been perfecting since his homebrewing days. Although the brewery’s known for its pale ales, this dark stout simply hits it out of the park: Irresistibly smooth, Merlin washes back easily, coating the tongue with bold coffee and chocolate notes, while hops add a balance, bitterness and earthiness. And with a little bourbon barrel-aged Velvet Merlin blended in for good measure, this beer is oatmeal stout at its finest.

Kiwanda Cream Ale
Pelican Pub & Brewery
Cream Ale
This brew is an exemplar of its style, a refreshing everyday beer and one we can’t keep stocked in our beer fridge. Kiwanda Cream Ale wins our hearts—and this year’s gold medal for golden/blonde ales at the GABF—by proving subtlety is just as inspiring as shock and awe. Lightly toasted grains segue into balanced bitterness, and its bright citrusy finish never disappoints. Representing a classic, American-designed style, this cream ale keeps our country’s brewing history alive one sip at a time. •

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