Every year when we compile this list, we’re reminded that innovation in craft beer moves at an astounding pace. While sours and IPAs continued to trend this year, the hoppy sour hybrid burst on the scene, beautifully blurring the line between the two. Barrel-aging is still an art that produces some of the richest, most complex beers on earth, but this year, we discovered more brewers sourcing barrels beyond bourbon and using them in wonderful ways: Rye whiskey, tequila and gin barrel-aged beers all made this year’s list. The rise of sessionable styles speaks to today’s drinkers’ desire to enjoy more than one, but it’s made a lovely extension from session IPAs to tart and salty goses. And perhaps one of the most exciting trends is a return to simpler styles, like the revival of the grisette and the reinvention of the craft pilsner. As interesting as the beers that arrived in 2015 are the brewers making them: We’ve seen some amazing bottles from brewing stalwarts and up-and-comers alike, all contributing to our wonderful beer culture. Each of the beers on this list was packaged for the first time this year, and each one made an indelible impact on our understanding of beer in 2015. Seek them out, and we think you’ll agree; the beer renaissance is in full swing and if this list is any indication of where things are going, we anticipate 2016 will be another fantastic year.
Rising Tide Brewing Co.
Tequila Barrel Gose
Tart, lightly salted goses continue to be a darling style in craft beer; age one in tequila barrels and keep the ABV at a remarkable 3.7%, and you’ve hit a trio of 2015’s top beer trends. None of that would matter, of course, if this beer wasn’t truly gorgeous: The tequila barrel’s earthy, agave character zips in at the finish to punctuate the tart, lightly lemony sip. Unlike other tequila barrel-aged beers we’ve tasted, the spirit doesn’t contribute any alcohol prickle here, allowing the delicate gose’s wispy salinity to bubble in the center of the sip like a breeze of ocean air.
Smuttynose Brewing Co.
We saw a marked uptick in brewers recreating historic styles in 2015; Hayseed’s take on the Belgian-French grisette this past spring was among the very best. White peppercorn spice threads through sunny lemon notes in a light but surprisingly smooth sip, thanks to flaked oat additions. At a mere 3.8% ABV, it’s a sophisticated take on the summer lawnmower beer, with a bit of European flair.
Perennial Artisan Ales
Fruited goses were ubiquitous this year, but this one, brewed with orange peel, lemon peel and key lime juice, stands out for its incredible balancing act: Big, bright lime and juicy orange notes perfectly counter the style’s signature salinity in a remarkably soft mouthfeel; it’s delicious (and probably the best margarita lovers’ beer out there). It’s also inimitably refreshing and hugely flavorful, with a lightweight 4.2% ABV.
pFriem Family Brewers
pFriem began bottling its Oregon-brewed pilsner (along with its Belgian-inspired and barrel-aged beers) this April, which is fantastic news for drinkers in search of a balanced, perfectly executed classic lager. Craft brewers this year continued to mine the vast lager spectrum for inspiration; this superb, 2015 GABF silver medalist has all the spicy, floral German hop flavor that characterizes the style supported by complex bready malts that seamlessly segue to an elegant, dry finish.
Wild Specialty Beer
Fonta Flora’s rural North Carolina location inspires its focus on locally grown and foraged ingredients. Carolina custard, aka paw paw fruit, is a rarity that grows wild in the nearby Appalachian Mountains and, in this beer, lends tropical, melon flavors that meld beautifully with the white wine barrel-aged character. A second fermentation with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus provides a complex underlying sourness. Many breweries talk about creating beers with a sense of place; few take it to such a successful end.
Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saison
Moody Tongue Brewing Co.
Brewers continue to push the complexity and finesse of food-driven beers, and lauded chef-turned-brewer Jared Rouben leads the charge. He turns his culinary brain toward his beers’ ingredients, which include this Emperor’s lemon tea blend that adds perfumey citrus aromas to a perfectly bubbly, expressive saison. On the sip, tea leaves layer lavender, dandelion and wildflower sweetness as well as a welcome herbal bitterness on the finish. Beautiful on its own, this beer also begs for a space at the dinner table.
Coronado Brewing Co.
A fantastic encapsulation of the trend toward brewing with Mexican-inspired ingredients, this formerly draft-only farmhouse ale brewed with agave nectar, jalapeños and piloncillo cane sugar hit shelves in May. The jalapeños don’t blister the tongue with heat; instead, they add a bright green pepper freshness that tag teams smartly with the saison’s white peppercorn and soft lemon flavors. So many chili pepper beers are exercises in how much heat can fit in a pint glass; it’s refreshing to taste one that spotlights the ingredient’s flavor.
Transient Artisan Ales
Maple Vanilla Coffee Imperial Stout
Breakfast stouts harness the power of a.m. ingredients; in this case, maple syrup, vanilla and coffee shine in a complex imperial stout. Even in a crowded sea of top-rated releases, this small-batch brew rises above the rest for its smooth progression of intense flavors: the aroma already teases strong espresso, vanilla and maple notes that echo in the sip. Dark chocolate and espresso awaken taste buds, joined by maple sweetness and roast in the center of the tongue. The 12.7% ABV reads more as a cinnamon spice than boozy warmth; a velvety mouthfeel lets the flavors last and last after the swallow. Good morning, indeed.
Calm Before the Storm
Ballast Point Brewing Co.
Coffee Vanilla Cream Ale
When fans pleaded for a warm-weather version of Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea coffee and vanilla imperial porter, the brewery answered with the July release of this vanilla- and coffee-laced cream ale. Golden in color, it delivers the distinct aroma of coffee with plenty of creamer; on the sip, sticky vanilla bean flavor joins very light coffee roast before moderate carbonation wipes the sweetness away for a clean finish. Of the recent wave of golden coffee beers, this well-constructed example delivers just the right balance of roast, lactic sweetness and strong supporting beer character.
Drake’s Brewing Co.
Imperial Coffee Stout
We’ve heard the words “hop shortage” bandied about a bit: After reviewing his 2014 hop contracts, brewmaster John Gillooly wisely opted to make the rotating Jolly Rodger winter seasonal a style that wasn’t quite as reliant on them. Like many breweries that have recently turned to local roasters for a jolt of espresso, he teamed up with Blue Bottle roasters to infuse his imperial stout with a special blend of Kenyon Kangunu coffee. The resulting 99-point brew is simply gorgeous, showcasing the power of the bean with dramatic, silky layers of coffee and cream, but also holding its own as an impeccable imperial stout with rich chocolate and cherry liqueur that ends in ashy roast.
Heritage Coffee Brown
Alaskan Brewing Co.
English-style Brown Ale with Coffee
Alaskan teamed up with Juneau’s Heritage Coffee and took a completely novel approach to crafting this coffee beer: They actually roasted some of the pale malt alongside the coffee beans. The brewers then continually added Brazilian coffee throughout the brewing process, and the result is unlike any other coffee beer we’ve tasted: It has an unbelievably expressive, roasted coffee flavor supported by the brown ale’s sweet caramel and nutty tones; it’s flavor-forward, but not weighed down, making it delightful even when it’s not as frigid as Alaska.
The Rare Barrel
Wild Specialty Beer
The Rare Barrel is barely 2 years old, but the Bay Area brewery developed a devoted following for its deftly crafted sour ales, even snatching both the silver and bronze medals at GABF this year in the category. While the fruited sour was a buzzy trend in 2015, this one, aged in oak with blackberries and black currants, brought something else to the table: lovely dark malt character. It sips like toasted pumpernickel bread smothered with bright blackberry jam, with some earthy, seedlike flavor weaving throughout. The malts give the sip some weight, helping to support the aggressively snappy, sour bite.
Wild Specialty Beer
This year, The Bruery launched Bruery Terreux, a dedicated space for farmhouse and wild ale projects. While all of its releases were worth hunting down, this one (originally a Bruery recipe, re-released through Bruery Terreux) was particularly breathtaking. Translating to “without a paddle,” Sans Pagaie’s a spin on a kriek (get it?) that redefines the sugary cherry bombs the style’s too often pegged for. Sure, it pours rhubarb pink, but the super funky aroma, with a little stem and musty wood notes, handily quashes any notion that it’s going to be overly saccharine. On the tongue, the cherry’s loud and bright, with some earthy, tannic skin and the deep sourness you’d expect. But what’s really stunning is the supporting buttery, custardlike notes that make it truly sumptuous, providing both structure to the sip and a perfect counterpoint to the tartness.
The Broken Truck
de Garde Brewing
Wild Specialty Beer
Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher chose to post up in Tillamook, Oregon, after deciding that the wild things in the air were perfect for beer; they were absolutely correct, as no beer we tasted this year had quite the sense of place as this gueuze-style blend. It is the most visceral translation of being outside on a farm we’ve ever smelled or tasted, complete with fresh, wet hay and barnyard aromas. The sip is definitively rustic, with barnyard and earthiness blooming in the mouth; lemony tartness and wild funk run throughout with acidity tugging at the side, leading to a dry, tannic finish. With just one sip, it’s easy to picture exactly where it came from.
Great Divide Brewery
Wild Specialty Beer
A beautiful counterpoint to the cheek-puckering, funky-as-socks wild ales out there, this 21st anniversary sour from a venerable brewery casts a vote for subtlety and drinkability—truly a feat of brewing. Yes, there’s light hay and barnyard funk on the nose, but on the tongue, a light white wine character, lemon custard sweetness and bright carbonation wrap up with a clean finish. Graham cracker malts balance a tart snap, making this a perfectly drinkable sour for newbies and vets alike. More wild ales in this vein, please.
Avery Brewing Co.
Dry-hopped Wild Ale
Hoppy wild ales are happening now, and will certainly continue to trend in 2016; this version, released in conjunction with Avery’s 22nd anniversary, displays the brewery’s prowess with both dry hopping and the Brett strain it extracted from Drie Fonteinen bottles (with the brewery’s permission). The nose alone tells the story, with turns of hay, grass, funk and citrusy orange; on the tongue, it’s simply difficult to tell where the Brett fruitiness ends and the citrusy hops begin, but suffice it to say, the sweet peach and grape flavors round out beautifully with grass, soft tartness and funk. It’s wonderfully complex but easy to drink, and a testament to this brewery’s staying power.
Tree House Brewing Co.
This IPA has turned heads since it was first released in 2012; fandom runs rampant, as it has maintained a perfect 100-point score on both beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com. Hailing from a small farm brewery in Massachusetts, Julius finally made it into cans this year for everyone to enjoy (hint: search the trading boards!). Bright, tropical mango bursts in the nose, while on the tongue, that same mango sweetness meets orange peel and fresh-cut grass; the creamy body fills the mouth, while smooth bitterness dries out the finish and grows with each sip.
Maine Beer Co.
Session beer (and debate over the definition of session beer) ran rampant this year, but here’s what we know for sure: The session IPA can be just as wonderfully flavorful as its high-octane cousin, and Beer II is proof. The flavorful turns of juicy grapefruit, fresh pine, grass, sweet tangerine and fennel are stunningly complex: just a touch of bready malt holds it together before a quick whip of bitterness pulls it to a pleasant conclusion.
Portland Brewing Co.
American Pale Ale
SMaSH brewing (using a single malt and a single hop variety) simplifies the brewing process from an ingredient perspective, but to make a resulting beer that isn’t a one-flavor wonder is no small feat. This year, Portland Brewing released its summer seasonal pale ale, brewed with just Vienna malts and Simcoe hops. The result was really quite smashing: It earned 96 points, our highest score for an American pale ale this year. The malt’s toffee and bread provide a creamy body underneath beautifully lush hops, with leafy, piney, minty and tealike flavors evoking a damp forest; it was clean and complex, a true testament to skillful brewing with a simple recipe.
This year-round release from Breakside earned an impressive 98 points for its wonderfully intricate and vibrant hop profile. Green onion, pine and woody hops meld with bright, juicy orange in a delectable swallow; smooth bitterness steadies the beer to a clean finish. At just 4.7% ABV, it’s built for having more than one, but with such intense flavor, it’s just as worthwhile to savor each sip.
Learn the word braggot. We guarantee this mead-beer hybrid will become a more common style in the next few years as both honey beer and mead grow in popularity. Harpoon’s version, released in March as part of its 100 Barrel Series, was the winner of the brewery’s employee homebrew competition and is an excellent example of how to harness the best of both hopped-up beer and honey. Blending a double IPA and wildflower honey, the braggot offers up floral honey notes that sync with the hops’ orange blossom aromas; on the sip, juicy orange hop flavor adds an earthy balance to the moderately sweet honey.
Prairie Artisan Ales
Tequila Barrel Imperial Stout
This tequila barrel-aged beer masterfully showcases the potent spirit with the unlikely marriage of an imperial stout’s coffee, chocolate and caramel flavors and the tequila’s vegetal agave. It works beautifully: On the nose, cedarlike and agave notes are in full force, with just a little bit of chocolate lingering in the background; it transitions on the tongue with vibrant, floral tequila up front that seamlessly dovetails into dark chocolate, vanilla, coffee and roast. It’s absolutely decadent, and emphatically furthers the case for tequila barrel-aged beers.
Rye Like an Eagle
Beachwood BBQ & Brewing
Rye Whiskey Barrel Imperial Brown
Beachwood released this whiskey barrel-aged imperial brown ale in early spring; it’s the first time the venerable brewery (winner of GABF’s Large Brewpub of the Year award in 2014) aged a beer in American rye whiskey barrels, and the result was absolutely perfection, earning an impressive 99-point score. It’s an incredibly well-constructed, mature beer that requires revisiting several times to experience new flavors emerging with each sip: luscious chocolate, vanilla and dark fruit, like plum and raisin, flow alongside toasted pecan, peanut shell and marshmallow notes that surface throughout. It’s warm and boozy, but so very easy to drink, and a truly stellar example of wood-aging.
Gin Barrel Aged Joon
MadTree Brewing Co.
Gin Barrel Kolsch with Spices
The crossover between craft beer and artisan cocktails was a fun microtrend this year, and MadTree’s beer spin on a cocktail was among the best we tasted. The Cincinnati brewery’s kölsch, Lift, is already a beautiful beer; aged in gin barrels and with the addition of juniper berries and ginger, it becomes an aromatic, herbal beer version of a gin and tonic. Ginger is restrained, adding just a hint of tongue-tickling spice that allows the botanical, minty flavors to shine. The barrel adds a woody dimension, while the juniper berries (gin’s primary flavoring) add a fresh, floral component. It’s the rare barrel-aged beer that tastes refreshing.
Whiskey Barrel Imperial Porter
Black Butte Porter is one of the most iconic American craft beers, winning its first GABF medal back in 1995. This 2015 riff on it represents the innovative thinking that put Deschutes on the map in the first place. The brewery teamed up with Bendistillery to make a malt whiskey using Black Butte Porter, then aged an imperial version of Black Butte in those same casks. The result? Delicious (to the power of 3). Smooth, rich milk chocolate, caramel and vanilla flow across the tongue with just a little whiskey bite and roast in the finish; at 12.5% ABV, it’s dangerously drinkable.