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The top 25 beers of the year: 2013

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With 2013 fading in the rearview mirror, I’m ready to confess: These were the most unpredictable 12 months of beer in recent memory. This year challenged me to rethink styles I’d taken for granted, and Google new ingredients I’d never seen before. Craft lagers like the perfectly doughy Anchor California Lager and vividly hopped Wolverine State Gulo Gulo India Pale Lager brought the oft-dismissed style back into relevance. Sour ales got even wilder: I learned about East Asian citrus while sipping New Belgium Yuzu Berliner Weisse, and Swedish culinary history while drinking Jester King Viking Metal, a tart Gotlandsdricka-style farmhouse ale brewed with more ingredients than I have space to mention. I sipped kombucha ale from Unity Vibration, but first had to learn about a SCOBY. Then, I opened Sixpoint 3Beans, but not before I read about ancient Romano beans.

But nothing surprised me as much as the IPA’s newfound flexibility. For anyone who thought the industry darling had reached its full potential, this year proved otherwise. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA wowed with smooth, juicy tropical fruit notes, despite not an ounce of real fruit in the kettle. Odell Tree Shaker, made with peach purée, raised the bar for pairing fruit and hops. And then there were the oddballs: Trinity Red Swingline, a sour IPA; Stone Dayman, a coffee IPA; and Dogfish Sixty-One, an IPA brewed with grape must. For every flawless traditional style, there was a mind-blowingly weird beer counterpoint. That was the theme that rang loudest this year, and these are the best beers of 2013. –Christopher Staten

Jester King Brewery // Viking Metal // specialty beer

This brash take on a Swedish farmhouse ale’s brewed with three smoked malts, juniper berries, sweet gale and wild yeast captured in Texas Hill Country—and then aged in gin barrels. Tart lemon-lime balances blue cheese funk, while dense wood, campfire and juniper notes accentuate the earthy, spicy farmhouse ale base for a masterful example of organized complexity.

Bale Breaker Brewing Co. // Field 41 Pale Ale // American Pale Ale

With the spotlight fixed on IPAs, American pales are often overlooked, but Field 41—from a brewery literally nestled in a hop field—is no wallflower. Threads of tangerine, passionfruit, grapefruit and pine leap across the tongue; a flawless sweet, grainy malt spine and a powerful hop nose amplify each sip. Easily sessionable at 4.5% ABV, this charming beer cements itself as one of our favorite hoppy beers of the year.

August Schell Brewing Co. // Star of the North // Berliner weisse

Star of the North was the most refreshing beer we opened all year; it’s also the most approachable Berliner weisse we’ve tasted in a long time—a feat considering the style’s inclusion of often manic, aggressive bacteria and yeast. Bright lemon zest illuminates each swallow, while funky, lactic tartness adds the perfect pucker. Propelled by invigoratingly prickly carbonation and clocking in at just 3.5% ABV, it’s a beer we could drink all day long.

Brasseurs Sans Gluten // Glutenberg Red // specialty beer

No brewery’s mastered specialty fermentables quite like Canadian Brasseurs Sans Gluten. Case in point: its creamy Red, new to the States this year. The gluten-free grain bill morphs from dried wheat flavor to hazelnut to toasted peanut shell, and each sip’s dotted by delicate orange hops and lightly sweet stone fruits, tuning focus to the beer’s remarkable flavor rather than the science behind it.

Rough Draft Brewing Co. // Weekday IPA // specialty beer

The session IPA trend continued its ascent this year, and Weekday IPA sets a new standard for how hoppy the style can be. A powerful aroma of peaches, grapefruit, pine and (pleasant!) catbox leads to an unfathomably light, bright sip that pleases the tastes buds with those same hop flavors. It’s equally delicate and striking.

Odell Brewing Co. // Tree Shaker // fruit beer

Fruit beer reached new heights with Odell’s peach-spiked imperial IPA. Lightly sweet, dainty floral peach augments the beer’s brilliant grapefruit and orange hop flavors, creating an aroma and swallow that sing with orchard freshness. Gone are the days when adding produce to beer was an afterthought; Tree Shaker sets a new standard for tailoring hops to fruit.

Anchor Brewing Co. // Anchor California Lager // classic American pilsner

Anchor made us eager students of history when it bottled this riff on an 1876 Boca Brewing recipe—the first lager brewed in California. Wonderfully doughy malts, subtle earthy, citrusy hops (courtesy of the historic Cluster variety) and fruity yeast esters create a dynamic yet delicate flavor tapestry. It’s our new favorite traditional-style lager, and a poignant commentary on what a real, full-flavored American pilsner should be.

Evolution Craft Brewing Co. // Nouveau Rouge // Flanders red ale

A blend of Evolution’s sours united to form this exceptional Flanders red ale that effortlessly joins sprightly tart cherry and young vinous notes with the distinct maturity of wood-aged brew. Easily the most cheerful sour we sipped this year, Nouveau Rouge teases the tongue with tartness and sparkling carbonation, while vinous berry notes and muted barnyard funk color each sip with perfect rusticity.

Unity Vibration // Bourbon Peach American Wild Ale // specialty beer

This whimsical reimagination of an American wild ale blurs the lines between kombucha tea and Belgian lambics. Fermented with a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, including lactobacillus and Brettanomyces) and aged in oak bourbon casks with peaches, the funky, bubbly beer playfully balances sweet, fragrant fruit with vinegary tartness.

Boulevard Brewing Co. // Love Child No. 3 // specialty beer

The third installment in Boulevard’s sour series is a blend of beers, some aged up to six years in oak and a portion aged 11 months with Lactobacillus bacteria. The final product is a remarkable balance of power and grace, and a testament to deft blending. Wild tartness seizes the tongue as flashes of cherry, lemon and horseblanket ignite the flavor before a dry, oaky finish calms the striking sip.

New Belgium Brewing Co. // Yuzu Imperial Berliner Weisse // fruit beer

Fruited Berliner weisses captured brewers’ imaginations this year, but New Belgium captivated our taste buds with this marriage of East Asian citrus and the classic German sour ale. Refreshing and dangerously drinkable at 8% ABV, the beer’s yuzu fruit threads bright, exotic lime and grapefruit tones through a wheaty base; subtle but sharp lactic tartness refocuses each swallow for a snappy, dry finish. Future fruited Berliner weisses will have to rise to Yuzu’s high standard.

Voodoo Brewery// Black Magick Pappy Van Winkle Barrel // wood-aged beer

Voodoo delivered the year’s pinnacle of barrel-aged imperial stouts with Black Magick aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels. Despite its behemoth 13.5% ABV, each sip is elegantly smooth and wonderfully cohesive. The stout’s dried cocoa, roasted malts and fruit-and-nut tones perfectly adopt bourbon spice, soft vanilla and woody oak for a silky sip marked by the rounded maturity of an aged ale.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery // Sixty-One // fruit beer

Dogfish Head has a habit of toying with its core IPAs, but no experiment yielded as much intrigue as Sixty-One. Essentially 60-Minute brewed with Syrah grape must, this new year-round release unites the flagship IPA’s classic grapefruit-and-pine hop notes with the sweet yet woody juice. The colorful IPA bite’s softened by subtle vinous notes, marrying beer and wine for a provocative, easy, table-ready drink.

Beachwood Brewing // Beachwood Six // smoked beer

Our favorite meat-pairing beer came from a brewery that specializes in—what else?— beer and meat. Beachwood’s sixth anniversary beer is a wonderfully peculiar black saison brewed with malts smoked with the same woods the brewery uses for its barbecue. The beer brims with clove, black pepper, hay, roast, hints of jasmine and smooth, dark smoke. It’s bold, balanced and, naturally, the perfect match for a steak.

Sixpoint Brewery // 3Beans // spice/herb/vegetable Beer

The chewiest, richest beer we sipped this year, 3Beans broods over the palate with intense darkness. Brewed with Romano beans (a cousin of the Kidney) for body, coffee beans for a java jolt and cacao beans for dark chocolate sweetness, the Baltic porter’s elevated by espresso roast, bittersweet chocolate and dark fruit for an unrivaled, luscious sip; plus, all that rich flavor conceals a sly 10% ABV.

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. // Velvet Merkin // wood-aged beer

Previously draft-only, this bourbon-barrel-aged oatmeal stout’s gained a cult following. Milky vanilla and espresso lace rich chocolate truffle tones; a flash of fruity, spicy bourbon caps off the finish. Toasted oatmeal deepens the profile and lends a seductively smooth, mousselike mouthfeel.

Almanac Beer Co. // Farmer’s Reserve No. 4 // specialty beer

Almanac found perfection when it paired Cara Cara oranges, Meyer lemons and Buddha’s Hand citrons with a white-wine-barrel-aged wild ale. Juicy lemon and orange inject vivid, shimmering citrus into the beer’s gorgeous tartness, while subtle oak softens the swallow just enough to let the flavors shine.

The Bruery // Batch 1000 Bryeian // specialty beer

The biggest, boldest IPA we sipped this year was Bryeian, a black IPA with rye designed by two Denver homebrewers. Dank piney hops seep through endless layers of malt, from bitter dark roast to chocolate to bread crust. Subtly sharp, earthy caraway spices up the swallow, and perfectly tempered bitterness caps off and cleans up each complex sip.

Deschutes Brewery // Fresh Squeezed IPA // American IPA

This beer’s creamy mouthfeel and intensely vivid, fruity hop flavors redefine what it means for a beer to be “hoppy.” Dripping with tropical mango and pineapple, and beaming with sunny orange and grapefruit, the virtual juice profile of Fresh Squeezed delivers all the hop color without the sharp, bitter bite. This new-school IPA is an exquisite remedy to IBU fatigue, and the vanguard of the style’s refinement.

Stone Brewing Co./Two Brothers Brewing Co./Aleman Brewing Co. // Dayman Coffee IPA // spice/herb/vegetable beer

We never thought coffee would be a sane addition to an imperial IPA until we tasted Dayman. The Two Brothers team was so impressed by a homebrew recipe from the guys behind upcoming Aleman, they teamed with the hopmasters at Stone to brew this beer that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Dayman combines Two Brothers’ house-roasted coffee beans and Stone’s hop mastery: Nutty roasted coffee perfectly contrasts vivid grapefruit and tangerine, accenting dank hop bitterness for a neatly bookended, expertly orchestrated sip.

Trinity Brewing Co. // Red Swingline // specialty beer

This 4.1%-ABV session IPA is everything we love about boundary-pushing beer. Brewed with coriander and tangerine zest; aged in French oak barrels with souring Lacto- bacillus bacteria and funky Brettanomyces yeast; and, finally, dry-hopped, the beer was this year’s wow moment. Grapefruit, tangerine and herbal, dank barnyard flanks playful tartness, while oaky tannins and hoppy bitterness lend an arid finish. It’s odd but amazing.

Wolverine State Brewing Co. // Gulo Gulo India Pale Lager // specialty beer

The sudden rise of the India pale lager—a lager hopped like an IPA—was one of our favorite trends this year, and this superb version floored us. Brewed with five different hops and dry-hopped twice, Gulo Gulo immerses the senses in electrifying honeydew, peach, watermelon and orange before concluding with a classic, refreshing lager snap. This incredible hop profile makes this beer the apex of the burgeoning style and a must-try for IPA devotees.

New Glarus Brewing Co. // Wild Sour Ale // specialty beer

This spontaneously fermented ale was conditioned in oak barrels for a year and a half; the timing was perfect. Wild Sour Ale offers something new to discover in each sip. A tight sour thread runs down the tongue, flanked by juicy plum and blood orange; the next sip delivers dried hay, soft oak, caramel sweetness and deep toasted malts in a perfectly choreographed swallow.

Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project // Hop Savant // specialty beer

Crooked Stave’s impressed us with its 100-percent Brettanomyces yeast beers, but Hop Savant is a high-water mark. Merging two trends—wild yeast and novel hops—this Galaxy-dry-hopped Brett pale ale stuns with shimmering brightness. Fresh orange, lemon and pear entwine with earthy dried grass, hay and barnyard tones, creating a wild but elegant swallow.

Founders Brewing Co. // DOOM // wood-aged beer

This silky bourbon-barrel-aged imperial IPA’s neatly woven tangerine, grapefruit, spicy bourbon, smooth vanilla and wood mark a laudable brewing achievement. A fusion of barrel-aging and IPA imperialization, Doom’s perfect execution elevates both.

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