Ryan recaps the best beer he had, podcast or otherwise, in 2015.
Periodically I’m reminded that people listen to my opinions about beers and sometimes even let them influence their purchasing or trading decisions. This is crazy to me because
A. I barely know what I’m talking about and
B. beer reviews are largely pointless. But I like writing lists. And it wouldn’t be a list without the writer talking about lists at the start. So…let’s move on.
My criteria for the list is based on the following conditions:
- The beer must’ve been released or brewed this year – it doesn’t have to be a new beer to 2015, just has to have gotten a fresh release this year. Most of these were new to me this year, but it wasn’t necessarily a requirement.
- It didn’t have to be a beer we reviewed on the podcast. Those are Craig’s rules, and I refuse to live by them.
- All beers are ranked on overall enjoyment from a totally subjective standpoint. I don’t care about a beer’s rarity or secondary value at all. (That’s Craig’s job.) So that plays no part in my rankings. And the rankings may conflict with individual rankings on our episodes because I’m just sitting here, raking my desktop zen garden, reflecting on beers I had many months ago, and in some cases, in very small quantities. But having tried close-to 500 new-to-me beers this year, there were certain beers that stand out as the best in my basically worthless memory.
- This list is all American breweries not by criteria but because I guess I don’t drink a lot of international beers, or at least ones I found outstanding this year. I’ll make a New Year’s (or Brew Year’s, or New Beer’s, or BREW BEER’S AHHHH!) Resolution for more international beers next year.
We’ve included links to episodes wherein we may have reviewed the beers or interviewed the brewers as a cheap way to get some extra downloads, so click if you want to hear us yammer on about these beers.
1. Tree House Brewing Company (MA) – Good Morning Imperial Coffee Stout, 8.4% ABV
The aroma bursts forward with medium-to-dark roasted coffee with notes of vanilla, dark chocolate, and toffee to meld with a significant maple presence. The taste is stronger with maple syrup on the finish, but the dominant flavor is of a perfectly-prepared cup of coffee paired with a corner piece of an ultra rich brownie. The slight bitterness is more in line with dark chocolate, and the coffee even gave a slight suggestion of sweet black cherry. I’ve tasted these flavors on beers before, so it’s not exactly blazing trails, but Good Morning is the best example of a coffee stout I’ve ever tasted in the way these flavors meld perfectly. It’s one of those beers that should be had as fresh as possible and any barrel-aging would be an unnecessary distraction to an already deeply flavorful and complex stout.
2. J. Wakefield Brewing (FL) – Miami Madness Berliner Weisse, 3.6% ABV
From my GABF write-up:
Smelling like some combination of a fresh-fruit-adorned tropical drink and a cafeteria fruit cup, this tasted like the best goddamn glass of juice I’ve ever had. There’s a light tartness, but the fruits rush in to take center stage: a tart mango, guava, and passionfruit soda. This had no evidence of alcohol on the taste, and I had about seven pours. This was probably my favorite beer of the fest.
3. (tie) Spiteful Brewing (IL) – Barrel-Aged Malevolence Chocolate Caliente/Malevolence Chocolate Caliente Imperial Stout, 10.5% ABV
I hate to do the tie thing here, but I enjoyed both equally this year although I was at one time convinced the non-barrel-aged version was better. In a blind tasting, it was such a far-and-away favorite over titans like Abraxas and Hunahpu’s that it was certainly no contextual fluke. A few fest pours of the barrel-aged version didn’t live up to that initial rich chocolate and spicy cinnamon flavor on the original. But out of the bottle, the barrel-aged version had all of those elements and added a deeper sweet vanilla and caramel flavor from the Buffalo Trace treatment. It’s also so heavy-handed with the cinnamon and pepper that it teeters on the edge of being a little too much, but it’s balanced by a rich complexity of sweet chocolate and vanilla.
4. Melvin Brewing (WY) – 2×4 DIPA, 10% ABV
Two years-running, this is my favorite hoppy beer in the world. And it’ll be coming to portable containers soon! (And on January 15th on www.2x4man.com, they’ll announce 24 nationwide tappings of 2×4 on February 4th, and here’s hoping Chicago makes the list.)
From my GABF write-up:
Most of the members of Melvin resemble members of a criminal fencing ring, and their co-founder Jeremy Tofte actually reached across the table and slapped my pillowy tummy. But I couldn’t stay away because these weirdos make the best double IPA in the world currently. I had about six pours, and my soul is no longer pure. But that’s ok. I would do dangerous things for this beer. This might be the last time I can use the hipster bullshit response, “Well MY favorite brewery is this little Wyoming syndicate that started in a Thai restaurant.” They’ll be a household name soon, that is if you live in a house full of beer dorks.
5. Transient Artisan Ales (IL) – Bark Lord Imperial Stout, 10% ABV
Chris Betts deserved to be mentioned in DRAFT magazine’s best beers of the year for a number of beers, honestly – but the fact that it was Buckley that got the national attention made me very happy. With label art from our friend Matthew LaFleur depicting Betts’ beloved best friend who goes just about everywhere with him (just ask Craig’s roommate Dennis!), it was Betts’ way of showing that he can play the adjunct stout game as well as anyone. The Bark Lord was a very limited release version of Buckley with a healthy dose of cinnamon to help balance the sweetness from the maple syrup and vanilla that always threatened to dominate the coffee in the original. I suppose I’m a sucker for a well-done cinnamon stout and a sucker for Snickerdoodle cookies because oh man I want one right NOW.
6. Trillium Brewing Company (MA) – Fort Point Pale Ale, 6.6% ABV
Nominally a pale ale, this is a complexly flavorful and juicy beer that is large enough on the flavor to pass as a DIPA, but it holds back on the bitterness and booziness to make it one of the most refreshing beers I had all year. There’s a sweet and juicy orange flavor and tropical fruit blend with a very slight grassy presence to provide a modest bitterness. Trillium was a revelation for me this year, as we tasted a saison, a wild ale, a barleywine, and a stout and all were exemplary in flavor and execution.
7. Tree House Brewing Company (MA) – Julius IPA, 6.8% ABV
This trend of East Coast IPAs that are as cloudy as a mimosa and just as juicy is one that I fully support. This beer is all ripe citrus fruits and a creamy mouthfeel that is obviously comparable to a melted Dreamsicle with a hop presence. This was the year of Tree House and Trillium for me; both are putting out hoppy beers that taste new and exciting while showing they can brew other styles to perfection as well. Cheers to you, Massachusetts.
8. Middle Brow Beer Co. (IL) – The Milk-eyed Mender Imperial Stout, 10.3% ABV
This beer has a mouthfeel like dark chocolate gelato or a velvety-smooth yet lightly bitter mousse. The orange peel and pepper add a slightly acrid and spicy note that cuts the chewy chocolate sweetness just enough to round out the whole experience. They also make a mean base for the richest chocolate brownies ever, as Nick from Middle Brow shared with us at one of our events. (Those brownies were #1 on my since-scrapped “Best Brownies of 2015” list.)
9. Pipeworks Brewing Co. (IL ) – Square Grouper DIPA, 9.5% ABV
Pipeworks did a whole lot of variations on this base recipe by adding fruit purees or darkening up the malt bill, but the original honey DIPA with Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic is my favorite periodic release from this prolific brewery. This is one of the best DIPAs in the nation, all fanboy-ism aside. Complexly fruity and bracingly bitter from the get-go, it evolves into this smooth, juicy, and grassy cocktail that only gets bitter on the finish.
10. Perennial Artisan Ales (MO) – Maman (23-Year Evan Williams Blue Label Barrel-Aged) Imperial Stout, 12% ABV
This won FoBAB for me, as it was thick and chocolatey with some sweet toffee, but the barrel and bourbon flavors provided some cedar, sandalwood, brown sugar, and vanilla notes. It was pretty “hot” certainly, but sometimes the beer is strong enough to hold that up and make it work. This one did.
11. 2nd Shift Brewing (MO) – Vanilla Bourbon Barrel-Aged Coffee Liquid Spiritual Delight Imperial Stout, 11.5% ABV
Only one other beer I tasted this year presented so much fresh-brewed coffee aroma and flavor, and this one did it despite additions of vanilla and a bourbon-barrel treatment. Dark chocolate, medium roast coffee, molasses, vanilla, and a hint of maple syrup – this is the Swiss Army stout. When you see “Vanilla Bourbon Barrel-Aged Coffee” in the name, you temper your expectations to be a bit disappointed on at least one of those fronts – but not here. All are present and working in harmony like a Boyz II Men slow jam.
12.Pipeworks Brewing Co. (IL) – Lizard King Pale Ale, 6% ABV
Along with the tag-team of Half Acre’s Vallejo and GoneAway (neé Heyoka, neé Senita), most of my money went into Pipeworks cans during the second half of this year. Lizard King is the standout, as it is full of enough herbal and citrus flavor to make it your one beer for the night, but is also crisp and drinkable enough to encourage finishing the four-pack in one sitting. And if they don’t get more Mosaic hops this year, it could be disappearing from shelves in its current recipe at some point in 2016, so don’t miss it. It’s fantastic.
13. Half Acre Beer Co. (IL) – Vallejo IPA, 6.7% ABV
The can releases a dense cloud of aromas including orange, pine, grapefruit, and chives. The flavor is bitter and herbal, juicy and sweet like syrup from a can of mandarin oranges, then dank bitter hops take over the finish. It’s crazy drinkable despite formidable bitterness and remains simple and well-defined; not a mess of aggressive flavors like so many other hoppy beers.
14. Toppling Goliath (IA) – Mornin’ Delight Imperial Stout, 12% ABV
Like a stout concentrate, this motor oil-thick beer had the impressions of soy sauce, vanilla, chocolate, maple syrup, and only a vague suggestion of coffee. Large maple syrupy sweetness rises in the middle and lingers long past each sip, yet it ends with this dark roast and chocolate bitterness. It’s deeply complex and rich and a perfect indulgence beer to drink slowly.
15. The Rare Barrel (CA) – Forces Unseen (Batch 3) Golden Sour Ale, 5% ABV
As a chronic heartburn sufferer, I appreciate when a sour beer brewer can nail all those flavor notes and tartness without driving the pH all the way down to Painsville (Population: ME). This is one of those perfectly tart beers that only hints at an acidic sour presence, but is mostly this lemonade, bitter grapefruit, and Kix cereal cocktail with a medium body, dry finish, and a perfectly non-prickly carbonation.
16. Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales (CO) – Dreamland (Blueberry) Sour Ale, 5.7% ABV
Though I could’ve picked any of James Howat’s spontaneously fermented beers I sampled at GABF, the blueberry version pours this gorgeous purple-ish red and carries in some red wine tannins along with the sweeter blueberry and cranberry jam flavor.
From my GABF write-up:
James Howat of Black Project told us this great story on our podcast about how he made a mini-coolship in the middle of a blizzard in Iceland and brought back a dangerously active fermenting bottle on the flight home. He’s one of these brewing wunderkinds making sours the painstaking traditional way, and each beer he brought had the complexity of its Belgian ancestors with some room to grow still. He speaks like a professor of sour – but one of those cool professors you’d want to party with. Each day at GABF, the line for Black Project wrapped around and through the neighboring aisle, and each session the kegs kicked a little bit earlier. There will be amazing things to come from this brewery.
17. Casey Brewing & Blending (CO) – Montmorency Cherry Fruit Stand Saison, 5.5% ABV
Like drinking lightly tart cherry juice, it stays subtle and natural-tasting and not Luden’s cough-drop artificial cherry strong. There’s flavor notes of cranberry, cinnamon, and nutmeg in addition to the nice light cherry sweetness. It’s delicate and tastes like a Belgian master sour brewer made this.
18. Lake Effect Brewing (IL) Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, 12.5% ABV
Sweet chocolate and rich brownies, the bourbon is like a caramel and vanilla drizzle on a decadent dessert. Despite that description, the body is medium at best, but it’s better than almost any barrel-aged stout to come out of Chicago this year.
19. New Glarus Brewing (WI) – R&D Wild Barrel (Bramble Berry Bourbon Barrel) American Wild Ale, 7.5% ABV
If New Glarus promises fruit flavor, you better believe you’re gettin’ it. The flavor is blackberry and raspberry jam with a significant sour presence and – oh yeah – some oaky bourbon notes for complexity. It tastes as good as it sounds.
From my GABF write-up:
I can’t have this beer enough. It has this crisp hoppiness that mixes perfectly with a sweet pineapple juice flavor, and a creamy body. But it leaves a resinous bitterness on your tongue, and Sean Lawson was its affable pusher dressed like Vacation Dad.
21. Temperance Beer Co. (IL) – Manhattan Might Meets Right Russian Imperial Stout, 10.9% ABV
Although this made its first appearance at FoBAB 2014, the bottles were released in early 2015. This beer is brimming with chocolate and rye malt, hints of cherry, and just a touch of bitters. It helps that the base stout is a full-bodied roasty and rich stout, but this barrel treatment is unlike any I’ve had.
22. Une Année (IL) – Cent Brett Saison, 8.1% ABV
Brewed with Brett and plums, this saison had a full mouthfeel and a prickly lemon peel finish from the brett. Repeated sips reveal the hints of plum, but the beer is infinitely refreshing without compromising a deep and interesting flavor. Une Année has always been a personal favorite of mine with their focus on Belgian styles, but now they’re evolving into a serious player in the sour and brett beer world with other solid offerings this year like Esquisse, Xellensis, and Le Seul I & II.
23. Societe Brewing Company (CA) – The Apprentice IPA, 7.5% ABV
From my GABF write-up:
I’m not about to say that we need this beer in Chicago. We don’t need it – the options for hoppy beers are already ridiculous. But I need this beer. And it’s okay if I have a long-distance relationship with it for now. I drank this at GABF, and I drank several pours at Hops and Pie. It’s sharply crisp, hugely bitter, and brightly fruity with a lager-like drinkability. It’s about as perfect as an IPA can be.
24. Funky Buddha Brewery (FL) – Morning Wood Imperial Porter, 11.2% ABV
From my GABF write-up:
Initially I thought the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter was just another gimmick for the breakfast adjunct stout crowd, but the beer actually evokes a warm feeling from those familiar flavors. This Morning Wood (really? That’s what we’re going with?) is the barrel-aged version of the aforementioned porter, and it elevates the smoky spices used to imitate bacon and the pure maple syrup flavor. It’s an exquisite sipper that perfectly treads the line of “Too much?”
25. The Rare Barrel (CA) – Home Sour Home Golden Sour Beer, 5.8% ABV
From my GABF write-up:
As if you needed any more evidence that barrel-aged sour beers were the biggest line-builder of the fest, walking past the Rare Barrel queue solidified it. (But also equally powerful was the elevator conversation I was trapped between in the Hyatt one night, wherein a badged gentleman answered an unintelligible question with this sentence: “Yeah, we’re a small sour house.” I still don’t know what that means.) This peach, vanilla, and cinnamon sour tastes like all of those things I just mentioned, but better because of an exquisite mouthfeel and the presence of alcohol. I hope they listen to Operation Ivy while they brew.
26. Hill Farmstead Brewery (VT) – Society and Solitude #1 Double IPA, 8% ABV
I’ve had several entries in the Society and Solitude series, and though this doesn’t beat #5, it beats most hoppy beers in the world. It’s a stunning display of what the Cascade hop can do on its own with only a Vienna malt backbone. The complex flavor is impressive considering this recipe, and there’s a large amount of sharp bitterness at first that finishes easy; there’s sweet floral notes, toasted malt, and bitter grapefruit.
27. Pollyanna Brewing Co. (IL) – Ocular Double IPA, 8.9% ABV
This was like a Square Grouper Light to me – a complexly-hopped DIPA with a suggestion of sweet honey. It’s floral and grassy at times, but the bitterness is never dominant and the ABV is well-hidden. The malt body is very light and crisp but it’s strong enough to carry a lot of flavor from the hops. The honey’s sweetness plays a supporting and not a dominating role, which is appreciated.
28. Tree House Brewing Company (MA) – Alter Ego IPA, 6.8% ABV
It might not be fair to include a variant of an already spectacular beer as this is a version of their Julius IPA dry-hopped with Mosaic and Amarillo. It doesn’t improve the base beer, but it brings out some more interesting flavor notes like blood orange and grassy bitterness while compromising a bit of the creamy mouthfeel. Take away the comparison, and it’s a citrus, bitter grapefruit, and herbal IPA that couldn’t be easier to drink.
29. Moody Tongue (IL) Barrel-Aged Chocolate Barleywine Barleywine, 9% ABV
From my GABF write-up:
Although the flavors in this beer are not unusual by any stretch, this exact combination was a simple yet new idea. Like a three-layer mousse cake, you could pick apart the individual flavors in this by focusing on them, or just enjoy how each flavor complements the next. The barleywine is reminiscent of a more American interpretation of the English style, like a tamer Firestone Walker Sucaba. But the chocolate is unmistakable, and it adds a bittersweet richness onto this beer’s medium body. Look out for this when it comes to bottles, as it could become even more interesting and smooth as it ages.
30. Lone Pint Brewery (TX) – Yellow Rose IPA, 6.8% ABV
There are simply not enough SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beers out there. This one features the Mosaic hop: a sweet, citrus, piney, and herbal hop that makes it one of the most highly sought-out hops on the market. This beer is a perfect display of Mosaic’s complexity, giving off a crazy melange of tropical fruits, hibiscus, herbs, pine, tangerine syrup, and more.