I’m uncomfortable with punditry (can’t we make up our own minds?) but, paradoxically, I do crave strong and thoughtful opinions.
Strong and thoughtful are key words there. Tell me what you really think, but also tell me why you think so. By all means, I would like to hear about your 10 favorite pizza places in the world. But also tell me why you chose them. That’s how I decide whether to ignore your opinions or rush out on a quest for pie.
So, as we come to the end of the year and “Best Of” lists make the rounds, I set out to write exactly the sort of list that I like to read.
These are my 10 favorite beers that I drank in the year 2016—a shitty year by most accounts, but after cobbling these highlights I’ve decided it wasn’t so bad. I’m even slightly optimistic for 2017. Can’t get any worse, right?
Hey, I don’t mean this lightly: Beer can help get us through the coming years, in between all that serious stuff I’m sure we’re all doing to make the world a better place.
A couple of things to note: These are my own hedonistic rankings (meaning, judged purely on how much I enjoyed them), and context matters. These are based on how I felt about these beers at those times and in those places. I’d rather not pretend otherwise.
Also: I didn’t edit the list to reflect only what’s available in North America. Sorry! Some you might be able to find; others deserve more attention from importers. All are worth traveling for, or else I wouldn’t mention them.
Finally: Some of these beers are old friends; others are new acquaintances that made a strong impression. If I like it, I tend to seek it out and get to know it better.
1. 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze
“Pines by the salty seaside and musty grapefruit,” my notes say. There were bottles in my cellar, a few enjoyed in scattered cafés around Belgium, a few at the Herman bar in Berlin, and especially a Cuvée Armand & Gaston enjoyed at the new Lambik-o-Droom tasting room in Lot. Another fond memory is the unblended 3 Fonteinen oude lambic tasted at the Antwaerps Bierhuyske; it stocks 300 beers but I had to have a second glass of that one. Still, the flagship Oude Gueuze is the one; I’ve known this beer for many years and in 2016 it was the most consistently enjoyable for me. (Full disclosure: It has sentimental value; my wife and I opened bottles of it in hospitals on the days after our kids were born.) I just wish it were cheaper.
2. Schönramer Pils
It would be nearly impossible to drink every pils in Germany, though surely someone has tried. This is the best one I know, barely edging out the magnificent Keesmann Bamberger Herren Pils. Schönramer’s advantage to my taste is its firmer and more consistent smack of bitterness (45 IBU) backed by an herbal-spicy-juicy hop flavor that sings louder than many German-brewed IPAs and rounded with enough malt sweetness to hold it together. This beer has become increasingly available in Berlin, where I live; my favorite place to drink is Foersters Feine Biere, a neighborhood kneipe with prolific taste in traditional beers. Visiting the eighth-generation, family-run Schönram brewery in southeast Bavaria is on my to-do list for 2017. The brewmaster, Eric Toft, is an American who has embraced traditional Bavarian brewing (and dialect) while perhaps maintaining a New World taste for bold flavor and aroma.
3. Brevnovsky Benedict Svetly Lezak
This one is also known as Klasicka Svetla Dvanactka—the “Classic Pale 12.” Or we can just call it Benedict. Czech pale lagers are undersung in general but I find this one especially addictive for its ample and unusual hop aroma; its minty-nettles bouquet and firm bitterness come from a unique “old vine” variety of Saaz, while its comforting sweet touch is the result of the traditional decoction mash. I first wrote about this beer last year, grateful to fellow writer Evan Rail for making the introduction at Prague’s bright and savvy Pivovarsky Klub where the beer is a mainstay. When I returned to Prague this year I stayed at clean, quiet Hotel Adalbert within the Brevnov Monastery. Why? Just so I could visit the Brevnovsky brewery and finish the evening at the warm, rustic Klasterni Senk pub on the abbey grounds. I bought as many one-liter plastic bottles of Svetly as I could stuff into my luggage.
4. Alaskan Kicker Session IPA
Is the session IPA trend over yet? I hope not. Because behind all of the cynical bandwagon-jumping (picture a salesperson telling brewers what sells like hotcakes), let’s be straight about what session IPA really is: It’s extra hop aroma and flavor packed into a more drinkable frame. I’m good with that, no matter what you call it. And while there are a lot of good ones out there—and many other fine beers I enjoyed in Alaska in August—I can’t remember any of them disappearing more quickly than those dry yet tropical-juicy Kickers. I blazed a path through them while grilling freshly caught halibut at a cabin in Homer, and if I said that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the beer then I’d be lying.
5. Komes Porter Baltycki (and a few others like it)
Tasting every Polish-brewed Baltic porter I could find was a highlight of my beer year. It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but going by the effusiveness of my notes this rich, black beauty might have been it. Made by the Fortuna brewery in Miloslaw, it has an intense nose of roasted nuts, licorice and caramelized figs. At 9% ABV and 22° Plato, it is bittersweet in taste and full of body. It is layer after layer of lush and naughty. But I could say the same for others, including the thick, bitter Imperator Baltycki, brewed for the Pinta firm at Browar na Jurze. Finally, I have to mention Kormoran’s very special Imperium Prunum, matured on smoked plums. The tart fruit and smoke add great complexity, but in the end I think I preferred the more straightforwardly plush malt character of the superb Kormoran Porter Warminski … as well as Fortuna’s Komes.
6. Oud Beersel Oude Kriek
To my taste this has been the most consistent, juicy, fulsome Belgian kriek in recent years, its cork always a pleasure to pop at home or when visiting Belgium for research. Gert Christiaens has grown his blendery confidently, with a no-nonsense approach and carefully applied dabs of commercialism; this is one of the best beers you can find in many Belgian supermarkets. As an oude kriek it stands out with a gorgeous deep ruby color and higher fruit content than most.
7. 3 Fourquets Lupulus Blonde
Achouffe co-founder Pierre Gobron started the 3 Fourquets brewery in 2004; he and sons Julien and Tim have quietly stuck to their knitting since then, more interested in honing a great product than in making a splash with gimmickry. Their flagship strong blonde ale, Lupulus, has grown in stature and in my esteem over the past several years. When found fresh in Belgium it is surprisingly hop-forward, with a serious spicy-herbal bitterness that balances its restrained sweetness, finishing drier than most tripels—an addictive and dangerous package at 8.5%. I don’t know what sort of shape this beer is in after it reaches the States and sits on the shelf, but its proper bottle-conditioning should keep it interesting even as the hoppier edges mellow.
8. Kormoran Warminskie Rewolucje
This was a very pleasant surprise. We picked it up in a Warsaw corner shop for roughly $1, then carried it back to our hotel to taste with a few others. The Polish taphouses were replete with IPAs, naturally, many of them advertising various U.S. or South Pacific hop varieties, but I saw few that showcase Polish hops. This one did, and it surpassed my expectations. This dry-hopped lager gets its earthy bouquet of fresh mint and herbs from Polish-grown Sybilla and Marynka, reminding me clearly of the Brevnovsky Benedict above. (If you like Saaz, imagine an earthier, more rustic version of it—on steroids.) Like a good Czech lager, this one balances its residual sweetness against ample bitterness.
9. 2nd Shift Katy
My favorite “plain old Brett beer” remains unpretentious and affordable in its home market, and I like it that way, so I’d appreciate it if you’d ignore this recommendation and not seek it out. Thank you. Let’s move on.
10. Knoblach Schammelsdorfer Ungespundet Lagerbier
My infatuation with Franconian kellerbier makes it hard to pick a favorite, but this was mine in 2016. It wasn’t love at first sight. When I first visited the village brewery in Schammelsdorf, east of Bamberg, I found it to be harshly bitter; interesting for sure, but too resinous to be especially drinkable. That appears to have been a fluke. Since then it’s been excellent every time I’ve found it, with its refreshingly sharp bitterness rounded by wafery malt sweetness and that mineral character, the Upper Franconian thumbprint. In idle moments I daydream about returning to the brewery as soon as I can manage it … in 2017, let’s say.
Finally, here are several others I really wanted to mention:
Kout na Sumave Tmavy Special, a rich bittersweet dark lager from the Bohemian forest; ReCraft Browar Polish Ale, another one that showcases Polish hop aroma; Senne/Mont Saleve Double Saison, earthy and dangerous at 8% strength, but also Senne’s Zinnebir and Taras Boulba as usual, and especially the latter when blended 50-50 (against the brewer’s wishes) with Bruxellensis; authentic Berliner weisse revivalist Schneeeule Marlene, aromatic from its mixed culture with Brett; Berliner Berg Lager, a sort of Franconian-American hybrid; Mönchsambacher Lagerbier and Witzgall Landbier, two flavorful lagers from from Upper Franconia that are consistently excellent; Orval as always, and also De Ranke XXX Bitter, La Rulles Estivale and Blaugies Saison d’Epeautre; another old-fashioned yet new-wave-hopped lager in Schlossbrauerei Au Hallertauer Kellerbier Mandarina Bavaria; a bottle of fruitcakey strong ale Fullers 1845 enjoyed at home, and a pint of fruity, comforting Gadds No. 5 cask bitter enjoyed at the seaside Tartar Frigate pub in Broadstairs, England; and finally, several excellent glasses of Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale enjoyed in various bars in Philly, but especially in the dive where my mom, sister and I hid from the Craft Brewers Conference crowds; unblended Boon Oude Lambiek on draft at the Les Brasseurs in Brussels; and the lighter draft version of Gueuze Tilquin, whenever and wherever I could find it.