As 2017 draws to a close, we can say this: there is a lot of good beer out there. More than ever before, in fact, which makes narrowing down a list such as this all the more challenging. Fortunately for us, we had help from our colleagues at All About Beer Magazine. Between our two publications, we’ve sampled thousands of beers this year. Looking back on the new or newly-packaged beers of the year, we found these 25 to stand out as the most interesting, innovative and well-executed of the field.
These brewers are adept at drawing bold and diverse flavors from hops, and nowhere is that more evident than in these beers.
Queens, New York
Every year, a few new attempts at triple IPA trickle out into the world. They’re often overly boozy, overly bitter, or both. Not so with Stellar Wind; New England IPA influence keeps the bitterness—and the body—pillow-soft, while the heat of the 10% ABV is about three notches below what you’d expect. Aromas of honeydew, fuzzy peach, mown grass, warm orange blossom honey and sweet glazed pastries continue the New England IPA connection, and all of those notes appear on the tongue before the swallow, which brings forward soothing vanilla, wheat and creamsicles that linger through the warming alcohol of the finish. It’s a beer that should pummel the palate, but instead settles soft as a feather.
NW DIPA Citra BBC Simcoe
Cloudwater Brew Co.
Manchester, United Kingdom
To assume that “New England-style IPA” is bound by geography would be a mistake; the cloudy, heavily hopped substyle may have originated in the Northeastern U.S., but it’s now worldwide. For our money, few American breweries are doing New England-style IPAs better than Cloudwater, and this double IPA may just be the U.K.-based brewery’s peak achievement. A tornado of hop flavor swirls across the tongue with each sip: honeydew, pineapple, wet grass, the lightest hint of blue cheese. It leans grassy up front, with bursts of tangerine Julius and mango purée midpalate; bold, pithy bitterness arrives toward the back and is much larger than usual for the style, though it’s not unwelcome.
Hop Butcher for the World
American Pale Ale
With brewers intent on tweaking and enhancing IPA over the past few years, it feels like the stalwart pale ale has been a bit neglected. But with Grid, Hop Butcher showed that the classic American style still has the power to blow your world apart. Citra and Mosaic hops infuse the beer with a mighty aroma that melds dank weed and fresh-cut grass, then injects them with caramelized onion, grapefruit zest and a smooth mango note. Sips are similarly prone to fluctuation. One visit to the glass might yield funky onion notes; another will reveal tangy tangerine giving way to fruity pineapple and peach. Grassy flavors float always above the palate while tangy grapefruit pith tickles the sides of the tongue, and the finish, just a little sweet, is like herb-dusted crackers. We find ourselves incredulous that this much flavor (and this beautiful a texture; it’s soft as goosedown) could be packed inside a pale ale, but each swallow affirms it. It’s easily the best example of the style we tried this year.
Burial Beer Co./Interboro Spirits & Ales
Asheville, North Carolina / Brooklyn, New York
In June, we conducted a huge blind-tasting of IPAs. Out of a whopping 386 hoppy ales sent to us from every corner of the country, Stay G-O-L-D reigned supreme. How fitting that our top finisher had the word “gold” right in its name, and that it was a collaboration not just between brewers, but brewers and musicians—the rap group Run the Jewels helped brew the beer and named it after a track on their newest album. But the music/beer connection isn’t why Stay G-O-L-D earned our top spot; its flavor is. The beer is as juicy as squeezed mandarin oranges, mango and peach, with soft bread and a layer of vanilla giving the impression of an Orange Julius. Deeper sips reveal marmalade-glazed pastry crust, pine needles and even a little pineapple; hopping with Citra and Mosaic, plus a double dry-hop dose of Mosaic lupulin powder (a big trend this year), resulted in kaleidoscopic hop character. The beer’s obviously bitter, but the actual bite of the hops is so clean and smooth you hardly notice. And that’s the thing: Of all the beers we tried, Stay G-O-L-D kept everything—the hop flavor, the bitterness, the malt support, the body, the booze—balanced and in its proper place. And if the tasting revealed anything to us, it’s that such perfect equilibrium is rare. You don’t strike gold often, but when you do, you hold on tight.
The fog continued to roll in on IPA this year, with more hazy, New England-influenced versions of the hop-forward style than ever before. This double IPA brewed with Citra, Mosaic, Idaho 7 and Ekuanot hops, however, blew away all others like a 50-megaton warhead. Onions, wheat grass and tangerine burst above the murky liquid, with bits of pineapple rind, smooth peach and dried vanilla detectable amid the fallout. Sips draw out tangy citrus and pine needles; the swallow is mostly dry and grassy, with sliced wheat bread and soft onion skin hovering above the finish. Soft and juicelike, the body is so packed with hop flavor you can feel it; prickly capsaicin-style heat tingles the tongue like nuclear radiation. Each can should come with a biohazard warning and its own hazmat suit.
SØLE Artisan Ales
The Mosaic hop has been around for a bit, finding use first as an aroma hop among brewers of traditional IPAs and pale ales and now lending its juicy, fruit-forward flavors to those crafted in the New England style. While it often finds itself playing a complementary role to trendy hops like Citra or Simcoe, it’s fully capable of stealing the spotlight, as it does in this single-hop offering from SØLE Artisan Ales. The beer is a case study in Mosaic, brimming over with juicy orange, tart citrus and fresh grapefruit. Beers like this are the reason hop farmers continue to devote more acreage to the Mosaic hop. Let’s just hope they can keep pace with the brewers.
Allagash Brewing Co.
Brewers found new and intriguing ways to weave hops and funky yeast strains together this year, but none did it better than Allagash. Hopped with Amarillo, Bravo, Cascade, Centennial, Citra and Galaxy, Brett IPA beckons the tongue with warm flavors of sweet pineapple, meringue, orange blossom and lychee followed by the slightest hint of barnyard funkiness. Crispy straw and baguette crust abut hints of melon and grass from the hops; the finish is mostly dry and just a little peppery, with moderate, easygoing bitterness. Available for the first time this year in 12-ounce bottles, it’s a beer with outstanding complexity and finesse. Plus, a portion of the beer’s proceeds benefit the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland. Victories all around.
Brewers continue to experiment with India pale ales, bringing novel ingredients and a fresh perspective to create something altogether fresh and new.
Home From Home
Reuben’s Brews/Siren Craft Brew
Seattle, Washington/Berkshire, U.K.
Third-wave coffee beans offer brewers as vast a flavor rainbow as hops do; when the two combine, the results can be much greater than the sum of the parts. Such is the case with this New England-style coffee IPA, a seamless weaving of fruity Kenyan beans from Kuma Coffee with a trio of Galaxy, Mosaic and Motueka hops. Malted oats and lactose sugar create a rounded mouthfeel along which hops, coffee and malt flavors ebb and flow. Sweet croissantlike malts transition easily to an iced-coffee-with-cream richness; then earthy coffee and light grapefruit skin notes provide a refreshing perk-up before the swallow closes with a mocha exhale. While every technical brewing choice is deliberate here, the resulting beer only requires you enjoy every juicy-java sip.
Modern Times Beer
Double IPA Brewed w/ South African Hops
Who a year ago would have thought South African hops would generate so much discussion in 2017? In May, Greg Crum, owner of ZA Hops, accused Anheuser-Busch InBev of commandeering South African hops that were to be distributed to small brewers in North America. A-B InBev, in turn, blamed low yields and stated that the vast majority of this year’s crop would go into Castle Lager and Castle Lite. Regardless, A-B InBev now owns South Africa’s SAB Hop Farms, which it acquired after merging with SABMiller. That means the large brewer now has access to varieties that were just recently finding favor in the United States, such as Southern Star, Southern Passion and African Queen. Those last two, along with experimental hop XJA2/436, are well implemented here by Modern Times. From this trio of hops, Modern Times evokes flavors of mango, sweet grapefruit, lemon and lime, along with pleasant herbal notes of fresh-mown grass. Will brewers like Modern Times will be able to acquire South African hop varieties in 2018? Let’s hope so.
One is restrained, the other rebellious–yet both were among the very best porters we sampled this year.
Every year, beer gets weirder. Experimental styles, funky ingredients, untested techniques: All of which result in an ever-expanding universe of ales and lagers that, while exciting, can also be exhausting. Sometimes you just need a simple, brewed-exactly-to-style porter—and that’s where Ecliptic head brewer John Harris comes in. As one of the founding brewers at Deschutes Brewery, Harris was also responsible for Black Butte Porter, a model of the style which remains one of the best-selling porters in the country. Capella—which has been a draft mainstay since Ecliptic opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2013, but finally made its way into bottles this year—is based on an entirely different recipe, Harris says, but was designed with a similar “creatively traditional” approach. Minor tweaks (Munich malt for a boost in toasty, biscuity character; de-husked chocolate malt for reduced astringency and a softer roasted profile) give personality to the beer whose cocoa, roasted peanut, burnt sugar and cracked black pepper flavors, bone-dry finish, and lingering notes of licorice and burnt toast are as true-to-style as anything we’ve tasted this year.
All of the Lights
Abnormal Beer Co./J. Wakefield Brewing
San Diego, California/Miami, Florida
Imperial Porter w/ Lactose, Coffee & Hazelnuts Released: November 2016
So-called “pastry stouts”—imperial stouts with flavors reminiscent of cake, donuts and other desserts—were huge with beer geeks this year, and few breweries do the substyle better than the two that collaborated on this imperial milk porter, which was recirculated through toasted Ghanaian cacao nibs and hazelnuts for four days, and Brazilian coffee for one. The power of teamwork is apparent in the aroma, as rich toasted hazelnut is almost inseparable from mocha-forward coffee beans. Additional notes are equally decadent: caramel sauce, creamy peanut butter, milk chocolate squares, an almost bourbony vanilla character. Coffee is a bit more prominent on the tongue; toasty hazelnut again leads the way, but the beans quickly surge and overtake them with flavors of crumbled cocoa, blackberries and even cracked pepper. The swallow is sweet and smooth, leaning heavily on chocolate syrup and sweet graham crackers, with another crunch of hazelnut just before the soft, sweet finish. The alcohol content is hidden well, as the beer drinks several notches below its nearly 11% ABV—perfect if you’re saving some for dessert.
These diverse beers have one thing in common–they all show how time in a barrel can deliver a transcendent drinking experience.
WeldWerks Brewing Co.
Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Vanilla Beans, Toasted Coconut & Cacao Nibs
Even before it won gold at Great American Beer Festival, Medianoche was the talked-about, must-try pour of the festival. Its Reserve iteration turns up the dial with additions of vanilla, coconut and cacao, because when the goal is total extravagance, why not add even more layers of flavor? The onyx pour bursts with aromas of brownie batter, wet whiskey barrel and lightly toasted coconut flakes. On the tongue, the spices combine to create the sensation of a liquid Mounds bar sliding across the palate. Rich malts elicit a sweet cherry note midsip, and a prickle of bourbon at the close helps clean up the velvety swallow. This beer earns the “epic indulgence” merit badge handily.
Three Matt’s Barrel-Aged Reserve Blend (AKA M3 Barrel Magic)
Fremont Brewing Co.
Blended Barrel-Aged Beer
As they have for at least the past decade, barrel-aged beers once again proved immensely popular with drinkers in 2017. But there was something new this year: nuance. Many of the beers tried that had spent time in oak were not bourbon-soaked, but bourbon-kissed, and Three Matt’s was the paragon. In crafting this beer for a dinner held at the Seattle location of renowned beer bar Toronado, the three Matts—Toronado owner Matt Bonney, Fremont founder/owner Matt Lincecum and Fremont head brewer Matt Lincoln—fused four Fremont beers: Rusty Nail (a bourbon-aged imperial stout), B-Bomb (a bourbon-aged winter ale), Bing Cherry Stout (a stout made with cherries) and Brew 2000 (a barleywine aged in Westland Peated whiskey barrels). You might think that beers as characterful as these would bump elbows in such close proximity, but you’d be mistaken; these Matt fellas layered the blend perfectly. The aroma offers plenty to pick apart: tangy-sweet luxardo cherries, plums, nougat, graham cracker crumbles, shaved coconut and dark chocolate, with just a hint steak char and soy sauce below. The front of the sip is loaded with caramel, toffee and whispers of marshmallow fluff, while smooth, heavy-toast oak emerges midpalate, accented by sweet brown sugar and whiskey. A sweet, fruity finish has sticky cherries and chocolate truffles glomming onto every inch of the tongue before a puff of smoked pork hits at the exhale. It even comes with bonus flavors, as chocolate, toast and hints of espresso rise up between sips. The medium body is cotton-soft, the 13.7% ABV is incredibly well-hidden by all the flavor, and the barrels are perfectly integrated—an accent to the complex malt and fruit bill. This is barrel-aging and blending at its finest.
War Horse Brewing Co.
Geneva, New York
Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout
At last count, more than 5,300 breweries were operating in the U.S.—the most at any time in history. The allure of owning a brewery has attracted people from all walks of life, including folks previously involved in the wine business. War Horse is the beer-focused offshoot of Three Brothers Wineries and Estates, and BARIS (it stands for Big Ass Russian Imperial Stout) is its first anniversary ale. It’s also about as thick and filling as bourbon-aged stouts get. Aged in barrels for a year, the beer slathers maple syrup and peanut butter atop cinnamon raisin bread, then chases it all with rich hot cocoa with melted marshmallows. These flavors would seem sweet, but torched malts provide much-needed bitterness at the finish that brings each sip to a balanced close and makes the 14% ABV—which should hit like a claymore—surprisingly mild.
Prairie Artisan Ales
Blended Barrel-Aged Beer
Combine one part Okie (a two-year-old, whiskey-barrel-aged imperial brown ale) and one part Pirate Paradise (a syrup-thick imperial stout aged in rum barrels and spiced with coconut and vanilla) and you get one of our favorite barrel-aged beers of the year. Toasted hazelnut, nougat and graham crackers dance in the front of each sugary sip, while hints of creamy peanut butter sneak in on occasion. Swallows reveal toffee, dark cherry and vanilla as well as finishing bursts of anise and spicy wood. The component beers balance each other so well that there’s hardly a hint of the 12% ABV. If the goal of blending beers is to make something greater the sum of its parts, Okie Paradise is a thunderous success.
High Country Cocktail Series: Sazerac
Haw River Farmhouse Ales
Saxapahaw, North Carolina
Rye-Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Tripel w/ Fennel, Star Anise & Allspice
Cocktail-inspired beers have been slowly gaining momentum, especially as brewers’ ambitious experiments in spirits barrels come to fruition. Rather than merely imitating its namesake tipple, though, this Belgian-style tripel brewed with rye and aged in rye whiskey barrels takes the inspiration and translates it into a beer that’s nuanced, layered, and dangerously drinkable. Belgian yeast notes of white peppercorn and golden raisin dance in between dark cherry and orange zest in the aroma. Orange rind and cherry skin arrive on the palate first, with some whiskey sweetness and light fennel earthiness balancing each other throughout the smooth, round sip. Absinthe-inspired spices don’t overwhelm or distract; they suggest a cocktail without making you think you’re on Bourbon Street.
Between restrained examples of classic styles and new interpretations, there’s never been a better time to drink lagers.
Holy Mountain Brewing Co.
We happily welcomed brewers’ revivified love of lagers this year; a healthy supply of clean, characterful pilsner is never a bad thing. With theirs, Holy Mountain showed respect for the traditional aspects of the style (soft water, pils malt, Saaz hops, lager yeast borrowed from nearby lager mavens Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen) as well as appropriate disdain for others (while classic examples are crystal-clear, Three Fates is unfiltered). The result is a beer both rich and crushable, with a prototypical pils aroma: dry oyster crackers, hints of lightly toasted sourdough bread, and a very soft, buttery sweetness. Hops are secondary but no less expressive, contributing bright green aromas that blend mown grass with fresh-ground black pepper and a hint of bell peppers. A smooth, soft cracker character leads the flavor, starting off fresh and becoming toastier as the beer warms in the mouth. Hops first deliver black pepper and slightly vegetal bitterness, then open with flavors of grass and herbs—parsley and dried oregano—at the swallow. Crisp bitterness clips the perfectly balanced finish, and a slow fade of crackery malts is all that remains. A gulp-and-forget-it lawnmower beer this is not.
Burial Beer Co./Threes Brewing
Asheville, North Carolina/Brooklyn, New York
India Pale Lager
Consider us fully on board with the trend of cloudy, juicy IPAs that have radiated from the Northeast and throughout the country; we think these velvety, low-bitterness brews with humongous hop flavor and aroma are the future of the style, and if the ethos that created them spreads into other types of beer—hoppy lagers, for instance—all the better. Both Ways came to us by way of both Asheville, North Carolina (where Burial’s located) and Brooklyn, New York (home of Threes), but its appearance is pure New England, turbid like pale pineapple juice and capped with a fluffy layer of white. Chives, fresh garlic, lemon juice and saltine crackers meld in the crisp aroma, while the sip adds some peach, pineapple and orange-pulp fruitiness that slides off quickly and shifts toward dried grass. The clean, bready finish lands softly; bitterness is low and smooth. It’s a New England-style India pale lager, and we hope to see more of those ASAP.
Whether due to cultural connections or the fact that some craft beer drinkers are turning away from palate-crushing stouts and IPAs and seeking simple but flavorful brews, “Mexican-style lagers” continue to be a popular style among brewers and consumers. Heyzeus is the best we tried this year, capturing the hallmark aromas of a premium lager—grain husks, dried maize, a strong whiff of sulfur—as well as interesting flavors such as the front-sip’s snap of apple and the hints of pepper and basil that swirl over the bone-dry finish. Previously only available on tap, Heyzeus made the jump to 12-ounce cans in August, making this loco-crisp, loco-clean and loco-crushable beer even more available.
Craft brewers in the U.S. are finally crafting restrained and well-executed lagers, but in Germany this standard is achieved by brewers large and small. As this newly-imported pilsner from Ayinger shows, sometimes it’s tough to beat a brewery that has centuries of practice under its belt. From the aroma, Ayinger’s Bavarian Pilsner hints at honey and fresh bread, joined on the palate by an herbal and lemony hop character. Though all too drinkable, if you can stop for a moment of reflection you’ll find a refined beer, with the spritz and pop found in the best of pilsners and a remarkable depth behind it.
pFriem Family Brewers
Hood River, Oregon
Aspiring Cicerones looking to learn the hallmark flavors of each beer style would do well to just drink their way through pFriem’s entire portfolio; nearly every beer the Hood River, Oregon-based brewery makes is one of the best examples of its particular style in the country. This Vienna Lager is no different: The relaxed toastiness, gentle caramelly sweetness and elegant body that define the beer are all present, as are deeper notes of liquid toast, caramel apples and hints of toffee. A swallow brings out smooth cashew butter and dried, herbal hops balance the semi-sweet finish. Because hardly anyone outside Mexican macro breweries even bothers to attempt the style on a regular basis, good Vienna lagers are rare; they’re even scarce in their Austrian birthplace. Outside of Vienna, Mexico or, well, anywhere, pFriem’s is as perfect an example of the style as you’ll find.
Saisons and farmhouse ales remained a playground for brewers in 2017, with these being some of the year’s most innovative and interesting.
de la Senne Biere de Coupage
Jester King Brewery
Dry-hopped Blended Farmhouse Ale
American brewers are coming closer than ever to the standards for blended farmhouse ales set by revered Belgian breweries. It’s no surprise that one of the best examples comes from Jester King in collaboration with Brussels, Belgium’s de la Senne, who produced this exquisite blend of Jester King SPON (a completely spontaneously fermented beer) and a young farmhouse ale, lightly hopped with Czech Saaz. An aroma of soft lemongrass and clover conjures a pastoral landscape in spring; the sip opens with a sunny yuzulike tartness before quiet Saaz earthiness laps at the tongue on a wave of fine, delicate carbonation. It’s evocative, in the vein of the best blended Belgian lambics.
Gigantic Phuket; It’s Not That Far From Laos
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales/Gigantic Brewing Co.
Dexter, Michigan/Portland, Oregon
Saison w/ Lime Peel & Palm Sugar
This tart saison demonstrates a mastery of ingredients, a weaving of each’s best aspects that enhance rather than overwhelm each other. Jasmine rice and palm sugar in the mash dry out the texture, while lime peel and a trio of Cascade, Chinook and Jarrylo hops float delicately at the periphery of the beer, introducing flavors of honeysuckle, citrus zest and grains of paradise. Each addition feels purposeful, contributing to an irrefutably food-friendly sip that closes slightly tart, dry and bitter, leaving just a whisper of green pear and gewürztraminer flavors behind. “Tropical” was perhaps the beer word of the year, and this beer exemplifies the trend’s elegant, finessed side.
Our 200th Brew
The Ale Apothecary
American Wild Ale
Brewer Paul Arney mines America’s rich apple growing tradition to great effect in this wild ale, co-fermented with cider apple juice from four varieties of heirloom fruit grown on Sauvie Island, Washington. A barrel’s worth of the juice began naturally fermenting with the yeast already present on its skins; Arney then brewed a beer to blend with that juice after both had finished primary fermentation. The combined liquid rested in Domaine Drouhin pinot noir barrels for about 15 months until finally it was ready to bottle. The apples’ influence on the final beer is subtle but characterful, providing a fruity funk that fans of Spanish or French cider will recognize. Rounded by a blanket of flavors include straw, hay and pear, the apples harken to American tradition while the final blended beer blazes a path forward.
In the Pocket
Crux Fermentation Project
American Wild Ale
Beer geek trade forums may favor enamel-ripping acidity, but we’ll still take nuanced funk in our wild ales, please and thanks. No beer we tried in 2017 harnessed Brettanomyces and barrels better than In the Pocket, a blend of young saison fermented with two strains of Brettanomyces and old saison aged 16 months in red wine barrels with saison yeast as well as some Brett of its own. Its complex, inviting aroma melds huge pineapple notes from the Brett with vanilla custard notes from the barrels for something like pineapple meringue, while fresh coconut shavings, strawberry jam and just a whiff of haylike farmhouse funk dance at the fringes; the flavor gives you pineapple on top of fruit-forward pinot noir (think strawberry and cherry) up front, a section of fresh pear midpalate, and a drying dusting of hay at the swallow. Rich custard lingers on the tongue after each sip, and the mild apple cider vinegar acidity is in perfect balance with the fruitlike sweetness. Intricately layered, the beer’s obviously well-aged but not at all musty or stale, and above all it never gets boring; the last sip offers just as much to explore as the first.