In 2009, when we first published our annual list of the year’s best beers, it was clearly a simpler time. Witbiers, Russian imperial stouts and newfangled American IPAs peppered the list. Fast-forward to 2014, and the landscape would seem downright alien to anyone who missed out on the last half-decade. This year’s list is all about brewing imagination, from Trinity’s Easy Swinger, a wine-barrel-aged Brettanomyces session IPA to Funky Buddha’s Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, inspired by breakfast at a roadside greasy spoon. We found 25 packaged beers, all new (or newly available) since last winter, which prove that creativity in all aspects of brewing, from process to ingredients, is the hallmark of today’s most excellent beers.
Not all innovation comes from discovering the next best thing: Some brewers are scouring the past to introduce new ideas to drinkers with exceptional results. New Glarus took a page from traditional lambic brewers, creating some of the best spontaneously fermented beers in the country by harnessing wild yeast and bacteria. August Schell traveled back to the 1900s to bring us a stunning recreation of a bygone Berliner weisse/Märzen marriage. It may be “old,” but it’s new to craft beer today.
It was with that adventurous spirit we sipped through another year of new releases. Out of the thousands of beers we sampled since compiling last year’s list, these were the most audacious, elegant and superb pours that forced us to pause, smile and think, “2009 was a long, long time ago…”
Carhartt Woodsman // New Holland // wood-aged beer
Collaboration beers aren’t the rare birds they once were, with brewers putting their heads together with musicians, chefs and, of course, other brewers to make beer magic. But never has a collab beer so eloquently captured the spirit of its partners like Carhartt Woodsman, a 4.4%-ABV oak-aged pale ale; wood aging reiterates New Holland’s expertise in that field, while the beer’s goes-with-everything, sessionable status hearkens Carhartt’s working-man ethos. That, and it’s just a spectacular beer: Michigan-grown Cascade hops flood the sip with pithy citrus that starts fruity and turns floral near the finish, where the oak shows up to finish it off with woodiness that reads fresh from the sawmill.
Oud Bruin // New Glarus // oud bruin
This inaugural release from New Glarus’ new Wild Fruit Cave promised to be the first of many equally jaw-dropping beers to come from the facility dedicated to spontaneously fermented and fruit-spiked beers. Brewed in the oud bruin (or Flanders brown) tradition, it’s a masterful example of the age-old Belgian style. A delicate balance of sweet brown sugar and cherries hang with slightly funky tartness, while toasted malt, oak and leather notes add rich complexity to each deep sip. As wild beers continue to trend experimental, this is a rich reminder of the beauty of tradition.
Home, Sour Home // The Rare Barrel // wood-aged beer
More brewers are trying to turn plates into pints, but no food-inspired beer captures culinary imagination like this comforting, summery peach-cobbler-themed golden sour. Considering the recipe’s complexity—which includes a laundry list of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, peaches, spices and barrel-aging—the deliciously simple result is a testament to the masterful brewing and blending from this year-old brewery: Pastry malts carry juicy, slightly tart cinnamon-peach filling along a swallow that tastes just like dessert.
Saison du Blé Batch 2 // Side Project // wood-aged beer
The practice of gypsy brewing continues to grow, but Cory King’s gypsy brewery is quite unlike any we’ve heard of: By day, he’s the head brewer at Perennial Artisan Ales, and on nights and weekends, he brews at that same facility for his own line, Side Project, dedicated to barrel-aged beer. Saison Du Blé is one of his newest releases, a beautifully easy 6.0%-ABV wheat saison with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, aged in chardonnay barrels. On the tongue, this beer’s both completely approachable and terrifically complex, with a quick crescendo of flavor that pulls off the tongue with ease. It starts with firm, tart barnyard notes before a spool of beautiful vinous and citrus unravels, including chardonnaylike pear, orange marmalade and pink grapefruit; soft wheat keeps the flavor round while sharp acidity balances the sweetness. The swallow stealthily fades, leaving only a moment of citrus behind.
The Kimmie, The Yink and the Holy Gose // Anderson Valley // gose
The German-style gose was one of 2014’s breakout trends, with versions spanning from traditional interpretations (i.e., a subtly tart wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt) to new riffs colored with hibiscus and blueberries. But Anderson Valley’s contribution is simplicity at its best, and perfectly showcases the star attributes of the sessionable style: Shimmering lemon in the front, a clean tart bite in the back, and an oh-so-subtle lingering brininess in the finish. At just 4.2% ABV, it’s the most enjoyable easy-drinker we tasted.
Gin Botanical // Seattle Cider // specialty cider
This was cider’s biggest year yet, with artisanal outfits cropping up everywhere Johnny Appleseed traversed and the nation’s biggest brewers launching large-scale versions of their own. But the cider-house sister to Seattle’s Two Beers Brewing debuted 2014’s finest, a drink that somehow squeezes a bevy of beer trends (herbal infusions, cocktail inspiration, distillery partnerships) into a single bottle of cider. Crafted with spent gin botanicals from Batch 206 Distillery, Gin Botanical pours like a G&T and tastes like one, too. Lemony mist and clean, crisp cucumber tumble through effervescence while juniper holds its ground; a breath of apple in the ends reminds you it’s still cider, after all.
Xocoveza Mocha Stout // Stone, Cervezeria Insurgente & Chris Banker // spice/herb beer
The winner of Stone’s homebrewing competition, San Diegan Chris Banker’s imaginative recipe—an incredible stout made with cocoa, coffee, dried peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg—was collaboratively brewed by Stone and Cervezeria Insurgente. It’s a creamy, complex, beautifully orchestrated dessert beer: Cinnamon-flecked coffee starts the beer on the right note, with cocoa and vanilla sweetening the silky sip. Pepper spice steps in where the cinnamon ends, eventually joining espresso roast for a long, dry finish.
Lunch // Maine Beer Co. // IPA
This year’s IPAs were all about juicy hop flavor, minus hops’ tongue-battering bitterness: Lunch is, simply, a stellar example of today’s IPA. Named for a whale that calls the Maine coast home, this beer’s become a sought-after whale in its own right, and for good reason: The incredibly creamy mouthfeel carries a beautiful cushion of caramel malt flavor (minus malt heft); flavorful hops pop off the tongue with even turns of fresh pine, sweet pineapple, citrusy apricot and grapefruit rind. Cleansing bitterness whispers through the sip to dry the mouth, but doesn’t stay long, making this delicious 7.0%-ABV brew so remarkably easy to drink.
Feral One // Firestone-Walker // American wild ale
There’s complex, and then there’s Feral One, 2014’s most multifaceted wild ale. Hatched at the brewery’s new Barrelworks facility, this limited release was brewed with souring Lactobacillus and two strains of Brettanomyces, and aged in American and French oak barrels. What emerged is a brew boasting layers of hay and barnyard that anchor surprising strawberry, tangerine and subtle white-wine fruitiness—and validation that the California brewery excels at everything.
Tropic King Peach Whiskey Aged // Funkwerks // wood-aged beer
Funkwerks was way ahead of the curve when it released Tropic King in 2011, a stunning imperial saison brewed with tropical (and now trendy) Rakau hops. But this year, it let the 96-point beer nap in peach whiskey barrels, creating the most impressive, creative hop/barrel pairing of 2014. The result is transcendent: The hop’s papaya, guava and orange blend perfectly with hints of floral, vanilla-tinged oak and touches of peach for a spritzy, fruity swallow that tastes nothing like ubiquitous whiskey-aged beers; it’s a dead-ringer for a fruity white wine.
Southern Cape Sparkling Ale // Summit // Australian sparkling ale
Not only is the beer the bubbliest, fruitiest un-fruit beer released this year, it’s also an introduction to the extremely rare Southern Passion hop from South Africa, which paints each zippy swallow with deliciously exotic berries, lime, peaches and pineapple. The little-known beer style from Down Under is rare, but Southern Cape’s delicate execution will likely inspire brewers to try it out.
Daliesque 2011 // Oceanside Ale Works // lambic
Brewed in 2011 but held until this year, this lambic proves good things come to those who wait. While the sour beer movement rides on teeth-etching sourness and beer engineering that’s a far cry from the Belgian set-it-and-forget-it mentality, Daliesque owes its success to simplicity, counting only on Johannesburg Riesling barrels for wood and melon notes that dart through wheaty, lactic creaminess and haylike funk. Buttery, barnyardy and barely bubbly, the 6.2%-ABV aged oeuvre epitomizes Belgium’s most notable brewing tradition of all: patience.
Lulu // Double Mountain // spice beer
Hibiscus flowers had a moment this year, bringing exotic floral loveliness to a range of new brews. For brewmaster Kyle Larsen, the flower also added a pink hue to the rosebud-and-pink-peppercorn saison he brewed to celebrate his daughter’s birth. Bottled for the first time earlier this year, Lulu is one of the most delicate examples of the hibiscus beer craze, and proof that a saison is the perfect vehicle for the flowers: Soft botanicals and fruity peach lace a wash of rustic dried hay; a warming peppercorn bite caps off each beautiful sip of this celebratory beer.
Tinder // Uinta // rauchbier
Uinta’s first Crooked Line series release of the year accomplished something improbable: An approachable smoked beer you could drink every day. Inspired by a trip to Germany, the team returned home and whipped up this glowy, orange-hued take on the classic Bamberg style, traditionally brewed with beechwood-smoked malts. But where most rauchbiers skew bacony, Tinder evenly balances an amazingly smooth woody fireplace smoke with bready sweetness for a seductive sip that doesn’t induce palate fatigue.
Salted Caramel Stout // Breakside // specialty beer
This coveted dessert beer—a collaboration between Breakside and Portland’s beloved Salt & Straw ice cream shop—was bottled for the first time in 2014. A dash of sea salt and a dose of the creamery’s house-made caramel went into the beer, blending with the rich base stout for a knee-buckling sweet-and-salty sip that hints at salted brittle, but with a lovely charred marshmallow finish. If you missed out, grab a scoop of Salt & Straw’s Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons for a taste of what to expect when the beer releases again next year.
Aurora // Night Shift // specialty beer
IPAs brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops are all over the shelves, but with Aurora, Night Shift showed the versatility of the trendy, exotic New Zealand variety by using it to dry-hop a wild ale. A blend of the hop’s herbal eucalyptus, juicy lemon and vinous white grape notes and the ale’s saisonlike rustic spice, grains and slight funk created a symphony of harmonious flavors; a perfect orchestration that hits all the right notes. Drink it now, or age the 8%-ABV beer to see how beautifully it develops with time.
Wheat is the New Hops // Mikkeller & Grassroots // wood-aged beer
Two of the industry’s most forward-thinking companies, Mikkeller and Grassroots Brewing (an offshoot of Hill Farmstead), teamed up two years ago to produce the lovely Wheat is the New Hops saison, but the most recent collab, a barrel-aged version, takes the classic style to elegant new heights. The bouncy, spritzy chardonnay-aged farmhouse ale races across the tongue with bright lemon, rustic hay and fresh grassy notes, while a fruity chard flavor laces the sip with an engaging, light-hearted vinous character. If you ever wondered what the style-defining Saison DuPont would taste like aged in wine barrels, just open a bottle of this impressive release.
Evolver IPA // The Wild Beer Co. // specialty beer
Before its bottles arrived on American shores earlier this year, Britain’s The Wild Beer Co. had garnered quite a buzz across the pond, with features on the BBC and in national papers The Independent and The Guardian. Evolver IPA, a 100-percent Brettanomyces IPA crafted by a Brit and an American ex-pat in England’s bucolic Somerset County, shows the duo can go toe-to-toe with the brightest U.S. brewers. An aroma of sunny lemon, dank pine and barnyard greets the nose; bready malts and dried hay float a blend of lemon, jasmine and pine across the tongue while barnyard notes lend balance to each sip. A beautifully complex hoppy, wild ale from England? Believe it.
North Country Brunette // August Schell // Berliner weisse
While most breweries are reimagining Berliners with fruit infusions, Schell’s tapped the history books for inspiration and resurrected the Märzen weisse, a long-forgotten Berliner weisse/Märzen mash-up that predates World War II. The delicate ale-lager hybrid was a labor of love, including a Brettanomyces fermentation and an aging period inside the brewery’s 1936 cypress wood lagering tanks. The effort is evident in the finished 5.4%-ABV beer: Tight, toasty malts balance clean lemony sourness for a creamy, tart sip unlike anything around.
Carry On Citrus Ale // Golden Road // fruit beer
No marriage of fruit and hops this year was as deliciously fun as Carry On, brewed with SoCal oranges. An invigorating spritzy, bitter mouthfeel tickles the taste buds as juicy orange and lemon dance across the tongue; the result tastes like a mimosa-session IPA hybrid. Brewed exclusively for 18 large and regional airports across the country, we can’t think of a more refreshing beer to sip before you board.
Serenity // Wicked Weed // American wild ale
Wicked Weed catapulted into the country’s beer conversation in January when it bottled its first beer, Serenity, transforming the brewery from Asheville newbie to national star. The beer is literal perfection: It’s DRAFT’s first-ever 100-point wild ale. Its effervescent carbonation propels an intricately woven profile of distinct lemon, gooseberry, peach and autumnal hay, complemented by a slightly funky bite. Quite simply, it’s the new standard of the emerging American wild ale category.
Easy Swinger // Trinity // specialty beer
In July, Trinity rolled out a series of style-bending hoppy beers: Red Swingline (a hoppy sour ale, and one of our Top 25 Beers of 2013), and five new Red Swingline riffs. Easy Swinger was the showstopper, a testament to how many trends a single beer can encompass in a low, 4.1%-ABV package. Officially a wine-barrel-aged Brettanomyces session IPA brewed with tangerine zest (but without the original beer’s Lactobacillus), the beer was far from a gimmick: A masterful pairing of tropical Brett flavors and tangerine connects with fruity chard notes; barnyard and wood underscores the bright, bubbly sip. It’s proof a beer need not be big to be complex.
Belô Ipê Brazilian Quadrupel // Cervejaria Wäls // Belgian specialty ale
Early this year, Brazilian brewery Wäls did the unthinkable: It medaled twice in the World Beer Cup’s Belgian categories, beating out actual Belgian brewers. One of those beers was Belô Ipê, a quad aged with cachaça-soaked wood chips, now exported to America and soon available at Wäls’ new San Diego satellite. With an unnoticeable 11% ABV, it’s by far the easiest-drinking booze bomb to hit shelves: An ultrasmooth swallow carries luscious raisins, sturdy toasted malts, black pepper, and a hint of spicy cachaça, creating a subtle Brazilian spin on the Old World style.
Trappist Ale // Spencer Brewery // patersbier
The first beer out of Massachusetts’ St. Joseph’s Abbey—its Spencer Brewery is the first Trappist brewery in the United States, and only the 10th worldwide—came in the form of a Belgian-style patersbier. A lower-ABV ale (6.5% ABV) akin to a Belgian blonde traditionally brewed exclusively for monks, the style is rarely available to the public, making this year-round release a very special treat. Apparently, the monks save the best for themselves: This beer’s subtle banana, clove and mint mark a wash of soft, bready malts for a quaffable but elegant swallow.
Maple Bacon Coffee Porter // Funky Buddha // specialty beer
The calling card of this culinary-minded Florida brewery, Maple Bacon Coffee Porter encompasses everything that’s wonderful about waking up for a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast—plus beer. Bottled for the first time in January, this beer begins with strong roasted coffee flavor before sweet maple-syrup-drizzled pancake rolls through the center of the sip. Smoky bacon rounds it out for all you could want on your tongue in the morning, evenly expressed and wrapped in the liquid silk of one of the smoothest porters we’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.