IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, WE’VE WITNESSED AN EXPLOSION of new beer styles. Where sours were once obscure, today American wild ales and their fruited variants are the darlings of craft beer. Where session IPAs initially had us scratching our heads (How are they different from pale ales? Are they supposed to be less alcoholic or less bitter than IPAs, or both?), they’ve now distinguished themselves as one of the most popular beer styles on shelves.
But 2016 was different: Unlike in years during which we celebrated wholly new styles, this time around we relished in a deepening and broadening of the types of beer we’ve celebrated in the past. We found a 14%-ABV barrel-aged blend from Deschutes and Hair of the Dog that was gorgeously layered but surprisingly easy to drink, and a balanced Czech Pilsner from Live Oak Brewing that was wonderfully complex. We saw IPAs that took on new forms—but were still IPAs at heart—with cloudy, juicy and fruited versions landing among our favorites. And while brewers are still playing with fun, unusual and exciting ingredients in beer, this year we enjoyed the thoughtful flavor construction of their food-infused brews.
This was the year that the thrill of finding something novel was replaced by the delight of experiencing something expertly crafted. These 25 beers, all new or newly packaged in the last 12 months, are a testament to where beer is today—and, we can only hope, where beer will continue to go.
Highland Park Brewery
Los Angeles, California
Juicy, turbid IPAs were the talk of beer nerds nationwide this year, but this bright golden ale reminded us that a more-familiar style of IPA can still wow us. Prominent wet garlic and grungy onion fumes combine in the beer’s aroma with chopped basil and tropical fruits to give the impression of mango-cilantro salsa; the sip dries out those fruit juices and replaces them with honeybread malts before a caramelized onion finish. With fresh-to-death hop flavor and a squeaky clean finish, Hello LA is a showcase of hop prowess.
Vanilla Bean Stout
Avery Brewing Co.
Bourbon Barrel-aged Vanilla Stout
If you think that an 11%-ABV bourbon barrel-aged stout could never be an everyday beer, this extraordinarily drinkable version may give you pause. Expertly masked alcohol and beautifully integrated flavors made it one of our favorite barrel-aged beers all year. The sip excels at layering milk chocolate,caramelized marshmallow, decadent vanilla and toasted coconut flavors with just a whisper of whiskey for a well-paced,not-overwhelming, everyday indulgence.
Careful With That Passion Fruit, Eugene
Long Beach, California
Passion Fruit Lambic
The first of the lambic-inspired fruit beers from Beachwood’s dedicated blending project is a triumph: Its juicy, tropical fruit character sings in both aroma and flavor but doesn’t smother the base wild ale’s masterful balance. Earthy dryness of oak and straw temper the sip’s heady passion fruit, peach and lemon flavors, and perfect levels of carbonation and tartness refresh the tongue without scraping it. The swallow leaves elegant Champagne-like white grape and oak on the tongue.
Peach Rye Dreamland
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Rye Whiskey Barrel-aged Golden Sour with Peaches
Tart, fruited wild ales continued their meteoric rise this year, but few boasteds uch graceful and balanced barrel character as this one-off variation on Black Project’sDreamland sour. Peaches (84 pounds’ worth)lend their juicy ripeness while a wet A.D.Laws Secale Rye Whiskey barrel contributes custardy vanilla and a warm coconut flavor.Soft acidity deftly slices through, tempering pastry-crust malt richness reminiscent of spiced peach pie a la mode.
OVB Orange Cream Pop IPA
Bolero Snort Brewery
Ridgefield Park, New Jersey
IPA with Orange Zest, Lactose and Vanilla Beans
Fruit-flavored IPAs have become so popular that even the big boys jumped on board, but this year, small brewers tweaked the style further by fusing fruits and hops with the flavors of our favorite foods. New Jersey-basedBolero Snort nailed what we’ve taken to calling the culinary IPA: OVB (short for Orange Vanilla Bullsicle—you can see why they abbreviated it) has vivid melted creamsicle qualities that augment—but don’t overpower—grassy, citrusy hops. Best yet: It’s still an IPA at heart.
Bottle Logic Brewing
Imperial Stout with Ancho Chiles, Cinnamon,Cocoa Nibs and Lactose Aged in Tequila and Bourbon Barrels
We saw our fair share of Mexican chocolate stouts this year, but none exhibited the depth—and, more impressively, the restraint—of Leche Borracho, AKA DrunkMilk. The ingredient additions are combined so deftly that you could spend an entire afternoon trying to separate the graham crackerlike malts from the cinnamon, the chiles from the chocolate, the vanilla from the oak and whiskey. Even its tequila character is perfectly incorporated, having been dialed in through feedback received at special sneak-peek tastings before the bottle release in May.
Bull & Bush Brewery
Whiskey Barrel-aged English Barleywine
Brewed for more than a decade, Royal Oil finally entered bottles last winter, and earned an impressive 99-point score from our judging panel. It’s the perfect sharing beer,not only because its 13% ABV encourages small sips, but because it drinks elegant and celebratory. At least 18 months of barrel-aging lends sherry and maple syrup richness to the sip before transforming into marshmallow,graham cracker and toast. The alcohol is well-hidden, just warming the chest.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Mixed-grain Imperial Stout Aged inBourbon Barrels
Cycle owner and head brewer Doug Dozark released one new barrel-aged beer on each weekday of Tampa Bay Beer Week 2016; he affectionately refers to Tuesday as “garbage stout” because it’s made with a combination of the brewery’s leftover malts and grains.The nimble transitions between plum,maple, vanilla, blackberry, espresso and charred toast flavors would be difficult to achieve in a beer with those ingredients added; that Dozark pulled them out of just grain and wood is a testament to his barrel-aging expertise.
Deschutes Brewery/Hair of the Dog Brewing
Bend, Oregon/Portland, Oregon
Barrel-aged American Strong Ale
Deschutes and Hair of the Dog released a second version of this complex, collaborative beer, blending Deschutes’ pinot noir barrel-aged Abyss and pinot noir barrel-agedThe Stoic with Hair of the Dog’s oak- and rye barrel-aged Fred and cognac barrel-agedDoggie Claws. The exemplary blend paints deeply jammy pinot noir over a raisin- and toffee-rich baseline, all while boasting a ridiculously well-hidden 14.3% ABV. It’s an incredibly layered but easily sipped barrel-aged beer, with nary a bourbon barrel in the mix.
Grimm Artisanal Ales
Brooklyn, New York
Lumen exemplifies everything we adore about the still-emerging Northeast-styleIPA, from its pale, murky luminescence to its head rush of an aroma, which beams peppermint, oregano, passion fruit,tangerine, garlic powder and fresh-cut grass into your face like a spotlight. The flavor is more mellow, leading with reduced mango merging into wheat grass, acorns and tangerine sorbet, while doughy croissants provide surprising malt support. A down-soft body cradles the tongue before very gentle bitterness fades to black.
Private Stock Ale
AleSmith Brewing Co.
San Diego, California
Private Stock is the rebranded, revamped edition of AleSmith Olde Ale, first produced in 2005 and released just once every five years. Under its new moniker, the beer will now be sent out annually. We like that plan, because this ale is simply fantastic: Caramel-drizzled bread crusts, dark cherries, maple syrup and spiced rum cake mingle in the aroma while rich malty notes of caramel, toffee, currants and rum raisin rule the flavor. It’s sweet, but not viscous or sticky, and the potent 11% ABV—only noticeable as gentle chest warmth—balances the sugars on the back end.
Gin Barrel Nocturn Chrysalis
Jester King Brewery
Gin Barrel-aged Wild Ale with Blackberries
There has been a slow rise in gin barrel-aged beers in the last few years, but few have captured the clear spirit’s character so deftly. Distinct beer, gin and barrel characteristics are clearly defined and elegantly displayed in this 7.5% wild ale, while the thoughtful sweetness of blackberry takes it to another level. From rose-pink bubbles that breathe a bouquet of minty juniper and lilies to a winelike flavor combining splinters of oak with earthy berries, custard and spruce, this isn’t a chrysalis; it’s a butterfly.
Kent Falls Brewing Co.
Kent Falls, Connecticut
Grisette with Toasted Hay
Kent Falls is a brewery uniquely positioned to lead the American farmhouse beer movement. It’s located on a working farm in Connecticut, and beers like this grisette (a historical French style similar to a saison) marry rustic tradition with an unforgettable twist—in this case, the addition of toasted hay. Refined and delicate, it opens with mild lemon tones before the hay’s sweet, toasty flavors deepen the sip. It’s a subtle combination, but unforgettable.
Live Oak Brewing Co.
The full-flavored lager renaissance continued this year, but few were as enjoyable as this new-to-cans Czech pilsner. “There’s nowhere to hide flaws in a pilsner” is oft-repeated for a reason, and Live Oak’s substantially bodied but still effortlessly drinkable pils isn’t hiding anything: Slightly elevated hopping drapes earthy and spicy tones over wet pine needles and bark, while crackery, just-shy-of-sweet malts hold the baseline. A 4.7% ABV keeps it sessionable while a creamy mouthfeel makes it satisfying.
Maui Brewing Co.
India Pale Lager
The hybrid IPL style combines the best of an IPA’s hop aroma and flavor with a lager’s clean, snappy finish. This limited-release brew sticks the landing on both fronts, making it an easier-drinking version of the fruity-tropical hopped beers that captivated us this year. The aroma is as multifaceted as a great IPA, with tropical mango and pineapple bobbing alongside scallion notes in the nose. On the sip, saltine-cracker malt flavor hangs in equal balance with big orange blossom hops before both dovetail into a quick, precise finish.
Vlezenbeek, Belgium/Copenhage, Denmark
Savory and herbal sour beers like this basil lambic, a collaboration between Danish gypsy brewer Mikkeller and Belgian lambic brewery Lindemans, became an intriguing subset of the sour beer world this year. Whole basil leaves added to a batch of 1- to 2-year-old lambic aged in oak create the beer’s greenish tint and, more importantly, intensely aromatic and lushly flavored layers of basil, cardamom and rosemary. This stunning bottle is Thai food’s dream beer.
Peak Organic Brewery
Dry-hopped Pale Ale
New hop on the block Azacca joins its pals Simcoe, Amarillo and Citra in this masterfully dry-hopped pale ale. It’s no wonder Azacca is seemingly everywhere lately: It lends huge citrus and melon-mango fruit aromas, an increasingly dominant profile in IPAs and pale ales. The glowing, sunflower-hued pour layers multifaceted hops over cushioning but unobtrusive pastry malts to create one of the most captivating pale ales we drank this year. The Juice’s transition from citrus and underripe tropical fruitiness to sweet onion funk is dynamic but not muddled.
Most Important Beverage of the Day
Solemn Oath Brewery
Coffee Milk Stout with Orange Peel
We saw coffee beers taken to new heights this year, with a number of compelling roaster-brewer collaborations and carefully considered beans. This new collab between Naperville, Illinois-based Solemn Oath and Chicago coffee roaster Intelligentsia topped them all. Blueberrylike Ljulu Lipati coffee beans from Zambia dance in step with zesty orange peel in both aroma and flavor, neither dominating the other. Coffee contributes more to the sip than just roast, lacing grapefruit and espresso through the stout’s deep cocoa and silky lactose. A typical coffee stout it is not.
Side Project Brewing
St. Louis, Missouri
Oak-aged Wild Ale with Nectarines
Aged two years in French oak foeders before it spends additional time on Missouri nectarines, Smooth is about as perfect as a stone fruit sour gets. Its intense aroma is like a pile of peach slices splashed with white vinegar, but give it a swirl and the oak emerges with notes of vanilla, almond and lemon custard. Fruit flavors brighten the wood nicely and combine to give the impression of velvety peaches and cream, while eggy custard and just a hint of haylike funk shift into extreme lemon-juice acidity at the swallow.
Off Color Brewing/Wiseacre Brewing/
3 Floyds Brewing
Chicago, Illinois/Memphis, Tennessee/Munster, Indiana
American Pale Ale with Alfalfa Hay and Alfalfa Honey
It’s a true feat when a brewer adds ingredients to a beer that are so elegantly integrated, you may not even guess that they’re there. This straightforward, cohesive pale ale has a lovely verdant, floral hop profile, but seek the nuances and you’ll find scratchy hay in the aroma as well as earthy honey and lavender depth on the tongue. The additions quietly enhance the sip, but don’t overcomplicate an already shining base beer.
Hop Butcher for the World/DryHop Brewers
Both Chicago, Illinois
Pistachio Milk Stout
Dessert-driven stouts are always fun (and often overly sweet), but this collaboration between Chicago’s Hop Butcher for the World (formerly South Loop Brewing Co.) and DryHop Brewers managed not to be a novelty; instead, it was as drinkable as it was delicious. Natural pistachio ice cream and milk chocolate engage the nose, while more bitter malts turn that chocolate dark on the tongue. A midpalate surge of milky sweetness is met with pistachio butter in the finish, making every sip of the soft, medium-bodied brew a true treat.
Mead Aged with Cinnamon, Coffee Beans, Cocoa Nibs and Chiles
If there’s any mead that exemplifies the creativity driving the category’s explosive growth, this is it. Based on Safeword, Superstition’s bourbon barrel-aged mead made with Belgian candi sugar, Amante extracts all the best aspects of its ingredient additions and delivers them in a surprisingly airy, graceful package. Oily espresso beans and chocolate mousse lead the sip into swirling cinnamon and chocolate-covered raspberries, while roasted chiles add a soft earthiness that balances the whole affair.
Saison Chene Rustique
Toolbox Brewing Co.
American Wild Ale
Many brewers of sour ales enjoy the unpredictable nature of spontaneous fermentation. Not Toolbox head brewer Ehren Schmidt. This multigrain saison ages four months in oak foeders with meticulously selected and portioned yeast and bacteria to achieve the desired flavor profile: namely, sunny lemon peel morphing into pineapple juice and diving into a pool of kiwi, with sharp earthy wheat and Juicy Fruit notes cushioning powerful tartness. It’s the most cohesive, well-constructed wild ale we tasted this year.
Imperial Stout with Smoked Malt Aged in Bourbon, Maple Syrup and Honey Barrels
This beer proves that time can be one of a brewer's most important ingredients. Three years ago, Voodoo head brewer Curt Rachocki filled some used bourbon barrels with Pennsylvania honey and maple syrup, then let them sit for more than a year. Then he brewed an imperial stout accented with applewood- and hickory-smoked Munich malt and aged it in said barrels for 18 months. The result is this 14%-ABV brew with a crazy-rich flavor that blends coffee, maple syrup, sausages, blueberries, cigarette smoke and bourbon—all well worth the wait.
Angel of Darkness
Wicked Weed Brewing
Asheville, North Carolina
Sherry Barrel-aged Wild Ale with Boysenberries, Raspberries, Blackberries and Cherries
Sherry cask-aging makes this beer next level, with drying oak and rich wine accents expertly illustrating how barrels can be used not for a liquor-driven assault, but for nuance. The expressive ingredients are equally impressive: Bright berry and fruit additions are proclaimed loudly but clearly, as blackberry jelly, cherry pits, blueberry skins and boysenberry tang linger long after each almond- and vanilla-drizzled sip.