The second part of Ryan’s Most Arbitrary Countdown of the best beers of 2016, covering beers 1-25.
25 | Peach Climacteric | Blended sour fermented on peaches | WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Greeley, CO) – listen
I know in Michigan they have a lot of “Everything Blueberries!” stores, but do they have a peach equivalent in Georgia or elsewhere? Because this beer tastes like you did a shot of bourbon before walking in to sniff and sample sweet and sour peach ring candies, peaches and cream, peach sorbet, peach everything. This beer has a very even sourness, a great soft body, and a little toasted oak in the end.
24 | Green Diamonds | Double IPA | Other Half Brewing (Brooklyn, NY) – listen
This is one that doesn’t hide its alcohol despite having relatively low maltiness. It looks like a candle and smells like orange marmalade. The flavor is a progression of tropical fruits and passion fruit, a distinct grassy bitterness, and a slight booziness on an otherwise clean finish. I love these beers that are doing a lot without using a complicated hop and malt bill – just a few simple ingredients that shine on their own.
23 | Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout 2016 | Barrel aged imperial stout with coffee | Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) – listen
This was my favorite of the Bourbon County lineup this year. The Flecha Roja coffee from Intelligentsia brings out extra fudge and dark chocolate brownie, drizzled in caramel syrup and topped with toasted walnut. It’s the creamiest, smoothest BCBCS in years, with a slightly fruity, bitter coffee roast on the finish.
22 | Barrel-Aged Dark Crusader w/ Coconut | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with coconut added during bottling | Goose Island Clybourn Brewpub (Chicago, IL) – listen
This isn’t fair to include, really. The brewer himself admitted it was a self-created “ghost whale” – a beer so rare it only exists in legend – or does it? Well we definitely drank this one, and it was fantastic. The coconut wasn’t overwhelming despite the cigar-shaped toasted coconut-filled teabag stuffed in the bottle. But it was dessert-like in its flavors of chocolate, bourbon, vanilla, caramel, and hints of cherry and amaretto.
21 | Little Secret | Session IPA | Triptych Brewing (Savoy, IL) – listen
As a boring dad suburbanite, I hardly get to many Chicago breweries, let alone ones from the furthest outreaches of Illinois. But we were lucky to have Triptych come to us this year, as they are somewhat quietly making some of the best beers in the state. The 2016 World Beer Cup Gold medal winner for Session IPA, this beer’s aroma is flowers and marijuana with juicy tangerine, peach, and mango. The flavor is simcoe-forward with tropical fruit, peach, and a significant grassy bitterness. The finish remains light and smooth like a good session should, and it struck me as similar to another favorite of the year – Crushinator from Maplewood.
20 | President’s Club | Barrel-aged lacto and 100% brett sour pale ale aged on peaches and apricots | Trinity Brewing (Colorado Springs, CO) – listen
The descriptor of the beer above is absolutely ridiculous, and it’s almost preciously complex in a way that some anti-craft beer bully could use it to mock us “neckbeards” in the most definitive way yet. Good thing the beer is amazing: a significant pale ale hoppiness, huge peach and apricot flavors, both complex and refreshing. Now give me back my Certified Beer Server pin, you bully!
19 | Who the Funk is Brett Pulver? | Rye Saison | Smylie Brothers Brewing Co. (Evanston, IL)
From my Belgian Fest write-up:
“This rye saison spent about ten months in pinot noir barrels and features an addition of a brettanomyces mixtape from Omega Yeast. Craig needed convincing from the brewers that no fruit was used in the barrels. The pinot character is large on the aroma and flavor, but its tannic dryness in the finish enhances the saison and brett’s fruitiness with each successive sip. We agreed that this was the best beer at the fest – a complete surprise that also remains comfortably low in alcohol.”
18 | Special Sauce Batch #1 | New England-style Double IPA | Mikerphone Brewing (Chicago, IL) – listen
Probably the first legit Chicago-area take on the trendy New England-style to make waves this year, Special Sauce has seen many fresh batch re-brews (with a different featured hop each time) and has garnered a response necessitating “Limit 1 per” signs at local liquor stores that needn’t bother printing up the price tag for the shelf. Batch #1 is a Mosaic feature that looks like Italian dressing in a glass; the beer’s aroma is explosive with sweet and savory tangerine and herbs. In the flavor, it’s tropical fruit, orange juice, and herbal hops, notes of stone fruit and creamsicle from the yeast, sitting atop a pillowy body, all with a bitter grassy finish.
17 | Lunex | American-style gueuze with coffee | Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales (Denver, CO)
From my GABF write-up:
“The Lunex is the GABF highlight Oxcart but with coffee added, and the bright fruity flavors of the coffee transformed this into an even more complex beer, with light roast notes sneaking past the array of stone fruits.” It’s a gueuze with coffee, and I certainly have never had that before. By the end of 2017, I firmly believe that Black Project will be seen in the same league as fellow sour-producing Coloradans Casey and Crooked Stave – James and Sarah Howat are going to be churning out world-class spontaneous wilds for a long time and they deserve all of the accolades that will certainly be coming their way.
16 | Berry Gibb | Barrel aged sour with blueberries and ginger | O’so Brewing (Madison, WI) – listen
The combination of blueberry and ginger here is ingenious – all of the acidic blueberry and dark berry sourness is present long enough to tickle the cheeks, but then the ginger has a mellowing effect that is just lovely. There’s a touch of rosemary and buttery pie crust, but this beer is a total masterstroke all the way through: a single bottle simply isn’t enough.
15 | Rainbow Never Ends | Double IPA + oats, rice flakes, rice syrup, & kölsch yeast | Other Half Brewing (Brooklyn, NY) /Half Acre Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) – listen
The odd combination of adjunct malts and a kölsch yeast produces a creamy heft in the body of this dream collaboration. The aroma is pungent onion herbs on top of mango, grapefruit, and passionfruit. The flavor is huge juicy tropical fruits with dank herbals and next-to-no malt and no residual sweetness whatsoever. You can almost taste the brewers learning from each other!
14 | Melvin IPA | IPA | Melvin Brewing (Jackson Hole, WY)
From my GABF write-up:
“[Melvin Brewing’s] eponymous Melvin IPA is explosive with citrus and tropical fruits, a few sweet malts, and a bitterness that’s more approachable than most IPAs.” Melvin already makes my favorite hoppy beer (2×4), and because of that I’d overlooked this beer previously. It encapsulates each element I love in an IPA with an almost Sierra Nevada-like malty feel, but with much more crisp and juicy fruits. I would commit unspeakable acts to have this in my fridge on a regular basis.
13 | Bubbler | Hefeweizen | New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus, WI) – listen (Patreon exclusive)
Currently listed as “Seasonal” on the New Glarus website, this new-to-2016 beer is just another reason to take a trip to Wisconsin just to fill up your trunk. The summery aroma is vibrant lemon, orange peel, banana, and some light clove phenols. It’s a hefe that drinks like a pils: a thirst-quenching, soft bodied, citrus-featuring clean beer with the slightest noble hop note mixing with a light clove spice on the end.
12 | Crusher | Double IPA | The Alchemist (Stowe, VT ) – listen
“Might be better than Heady Topper..?” he said whilst ducking airborne empty silver cans.
It’s more drinkable than that other beer despite being higher in alcohol. Smelling it brings out perfumy floral notes, potpourri, and a touch of onion. The flavor is full – it’s bitter, grassy, and almost syrupy with its sweet fruit notes. There’s a juiciness to it near the finish that lends to its drinkability.
11 | 3 Years and Brewing | IPA with mango and champagne yeast | Funky Buddha Brewery (Oakland Park, FL) – listen
I know Funky Buddha best for their incredible ability to replicate comfort food and desserts in a non-cloying way, like their French Toast or No Crusts (PB&J Brown). But this mango-enhanced IPA is a powerhouse of flavor in a completely different way. It’s a mango explosion, with some passionfruit, pineapple, and grassy pine notes on the finish. The malt presents an even sweetness, and the yeast keeps things dry and focused on the bitterness. This was one of those where I probably said “Wow” each time I sipped it on the podcast.
10 | Chaos | Chocolate stout | RAM Brewery & Restaurant (Wheeling, IL)
From my GABF write-up:
“The gold medal winner for chocolate beer, this beer was love at first sniff – the aroma is somewhere between entering an artisan chocolate shoppe and snorting straight up Swiss Miss. Either way, the smell hits you a full arm’s length away, and the flavor is thick and chocolatey without cloying or obnoxious sweetness. Oats provide a creaminess, and the ABV is completely hidden under the alluring dessert-like flavor of this absolutely decadent and lust-inspiring beer.”
9 | Paris on the Prairie | Nelson Sauvin-hopped saison with lavender honey | Hop Butcher for the World (Chicago, IL) – listen
One of my favorite beer stories of the year, Hop Butcher has made the most of their one fermenter in a borrowed space. They started the year working to retain fans after a rebranding, and now many of their hoppy beers are lasting mere hours on shelves before being cleared out by rabid hop seekers. Certainly, their trend-embracing New England-style Double IPAs are worth the hype, but my favorite offering from Hop Butcher shows a more delicate mastery of the interplay of carefully chosen ingredients. With an aroma of musty flowers and grape skin, the flavor is a skillful mix of the inherent white wine notes from the Nelson Sauvin, white grape, and apple cider. The bright notes shine, but there’s a deeper sweet complexity, ending with a familiar Belgian yeast: banana and esters, hints of green peppercorn, all on a soft body.
8 | Crushinator | Session IPA | Maplewood Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) – listen
Maybe it seems a bit nepotistic to have so much love for breweries we interviewed this year, and that’s a fair accusation. But the reality is that we reach out to breweries we already love so they can invite us over and fill us with their delicious free beer while chattering with us two idiots for a few hours. This was the beer that made me do a double take; a ZZ Top-style sunglasses-lowerin’ as this Simcoe hot rod cruised across my palate. Its aroma is herbal, almost spearmint-like, with some sweet papaya candy. Its flavor is an approachable, resinous bitter that doesn’t hang around long – and there’s additional flavors of orange juice and passionfruit before the beer finishes nice and dry.
7 | Tiny Bomb | Pilsner | Wiseacre Brewing Co. (Memphis, TN) – listen
Well known to a lot of drinkers, this beer was new to us Chicago dinguses in 2016, and it was easily the best pilsner I had this year – of which I drank a lot. This one has a Czech feel but a bit amplified, with a vibrant fruity and floral aroma, notes of shortbread cookies, lemon, and an almost perfumey, pithy orange. The flavor is crisp, clean, and aqueous – a touch more bitter and less skunky than say a Pilsner Urquell, but the slightly citrusy and floral hops make it unique.
6 | Barrel Aged Mexican Achromatic (BAMA) | Imperial stout with roasted cacao nibs, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla beans aged in bourbon barrels | WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Greeley, CO) – listen
This beer won FoBAB for a lot of people (even if it didn’t win a medal), and it hardly made it out of the first hour of each session because it is an adjunct-lover’s dream. Each added ingredient brings flavor that is so clearly pronounced, with some edge going to the cinnamon. On the aroma, it’s huge spicy cinnamon, creamy chocolate, with a touch of vanilla, and a handful of bourbon caramels. The flavor is chocolate-dipped Snickerdoodle with extra cinnamon, some roasty malt bitterness, and a finish that luxuriates on sweet oaky vanilla and chewy chocolate chocolate brownies. This beer is outstanding and may have unseated Spiteful and Perennial as my favorite mexican-inspired stout. I’ll just need more to decide for sure. (Hey, Neil…)
5 | Eeek! | American wild ale | Miller High Life/Off Color (Chicago, IL) – listen (Patreon exclusive)
You can often see pictures of John Laffler of Off Color Brewing on social media at his own beer events, clutching a clear-glass bottle of Miller High Life. So, when this collaboration was announced, it wasn’t a surprise, despite the easy internet reaction of “OMG a macro brew and a craft brewer?!?” that trickled out following the news. For this beer, Off Color took the same ingredient base as the infamous Champagne of Beers and tossed in their house blend of wild yeasts, and finished it off with a little champagne yeast conditioning in the bottle. The result is almost nothing like High Life: it’s tart and funky, huge flavors of lemon curd and yogurt with an earthy funk. The only hint of High Life is the ease in its finish; after that big, tart acidity hits its peak, the whole thing finishes crisp and dry, creating the instant uncontrollable desire to sip again and again. This is my pick for the beer I’d most like to see in 6-packs (or cubes of 30 cans) in 2017, but it doesn’t seem likely.
4 | Haterade | Fruit Punch Berliner Weisse | J. Wakefield Brewery (Miami, FL)
From my GABF write-up:
“Haterade tastes exactly like fruit punch Gatorade mixed with a melted red popsicle that finishes tart and dry with no residual sweetness whatsoever.” ‘nuff said.
3 | Fresh DIPA V2 | Double IPA | Hubbard’s Cave (Chicago, IL) – listen
How biased is this list? It seems hard to believe that the best hoppy beer I had was from Chicago of all places, and hell, maybe I’m rooting for this project – a small brewery’s answer to the idea Stone pioneered with their “Enjoy By” beers. But what I truly love about this beer (and subsequent batches and versions) is that it doesn’t feel like it’s looking to piggyback on a trend (unless you consider transparent labeling of fresh hoppy beers a trend, which I wish was bigger than the New England Velveeta IPAs trend). It’s much more West Coast to me, but it doesn’t fit that mold perfectly either. It smells like strawberry ice cream served with a heaping side of premium-grade tropical marijuana. There’s a bitterness that’s huge at first but diminishes; a light fruitiness up front that melds into herbal bitterness; some caramel, malty sweetness carries across the middle; and it ends grassy. Jerry Nelson of Une Année is the mastermind behind this “side project” and has said that it will continue to focus on American styles (fresh IPAs and stouts, mostly) while his original brewery will continue with Belgians and sours. Expect to see both flowing freely once the taproom in Niles opens up this year.
2 | Summation | Bourbon barrel aged imperial vanilla coffee stout | 3 Sons Brewing (Dania Beach, FL) – listen
This beer is a total mystery to me. The brewery itself started as a small side project that suddenly dominated the beer nerd forums and trading circuits faster than most similar operations could hope. Most of their output is through where they contract brew (The Brass Tap) or at Florida festivals. Founder Cory Artanis really made this brewery’s name through incredibly successful appearances at Cigar City’s Hunahpu Day, and suddenly beers he released in sub-100 bottle counts were fetching pricetags befitting, say, a laptop or a monthly mortgage payment. Whatever the hell we drank from this generically-labeled bottle was unlike any stout I’ve ever had. Just to reason out the ranking here, my only criticism is that its decadence makes this an ideal dessert beer small pour – anything more might be too much. But this is the fudgiest, cakiest smellin’ beer I’ve ever experienced. It’s German chocolate cake in a glass. It’s slightly-burnt brownie corners tossed in bourbon ice cream. It’s a spoonful of Dutch cocoa powder chased with an irish coffee. It’s a dark chocolate fudgepile drizzled with bourbon caramel. I will sing the song of this beer until my timely demise.
1 | Smells Like Bean Spirit Batch #3 | Breakfast stout with maple syrup and coffee | Mikerphone Brewing (Chicago, IL) – listen
Upon pouring, like the best part of waking up, an aroma instantly fills the room with fresh roasted coffee with a dash of caramel creamer, pure maple syrup, and pancakes cooking on the griddle. Last year, my favorite beer of the year was a breakfast stout from Tree House, and Founders’ classic Breakfast Stout is the beer my wife and I toasted at our wedding four years back. So yeah, there’s a style bias. But I’ve had plenty of so-called breakfast stouts that lean heavily on a single ingredient rather than finding a perfect balance like this beer does. The flavor is fresh-brewed coffee with cream, a small cup of warm syrup that does not add an unnecessary level of sweetness, a full creamy mouthfeel from the start, and a touch of dark chocolate and roasted coffee bitterness on the end. That perfect melding of flavor was somewhat missing from the slightly more aggressive imperial version he’s released several times since then, but it’s still one of the best stouts to hit Chicago in years. With a brand new taproom and facility opening soon, Mike Pallen is going to put Elk Grove Village on the national beer map in 2017.