Top Three Small Breweries (15K bbl or less)
Suarez Family Brewery (Hudson, New York)
Dan Suarez of Hill Farmstead fame recently opened his doors and has been turning out staggeringly well-executed Pilsners, lagers, and saisons. With his emphasis on delicate beers with clean flavor profiles, he is redefining palate expectations in a market saturated with 12°P finishing stouts and 3 pH kettle sours.
Odd Breed Wild Ales (Pompano Beach, Florida)
Florida is the undisputed king of the pastry stouts, but this brewery adds a nuanced feather to the state’s pedigree by offering some of the most interesting farmhouse ales of recent memory. Odd Breed doesn’t leverage a core lineup and instead ages its wildly complex saisons and wild ales for months to produce layered, intensely complex saisons. Their double-barrel wild barleywine, Uppercase Poems, is a testament to their creativity and unmatched ability to craft fascinating ales unlike anything most consumers have experienced.
Floodland Brewing (Seattle, Washington)
This tiny Seattle brewery is often mentioned in the same breath as their neighbor, Holy Mountain Brewing, and for good reason: this upstart is putting out wild ales and cask-driven saisons that have incredible complexity and drinkability. Protection Spells is saison blended with acid beer on pluots, and it demonstrates Adam Paysee’s ability to unite two often-oppositional elements in American wild ales: acidity and drinkability. The result is compelling. Their beers are not easy to locate, but they are certainly worth the hunt.
Top Regional Or National Brewery (15K bbl or more)
Jackie O’s Public House & Brewpub (Athens, Ohio) This Ohio powerhouse is lovable for a litany of reasons. Their commitment to quality and eschewing hype remains paramount. This Athens sleeper releases world-class beers and pushes genre-defining offerings such as Bourbon Barrel Black Maple and Bourbon Barrel–Aged Brick Kiln straight into distribution without the pageantry of raffles, societies, or even waxed bottles.
Jackie O’s continues to brew the most noteworthy barleywines in the entire country, and due to their accessibility, they change and improve palates in a meaningful way. Jackie O’s wild-ale-and-saison program has vastly improved, and gems such as Babbling Brook, a vin santo cask–aged saison, was a praised standout at the Extreme Beer Festival. Even when they collaborated with the much-hyped Side Project Brewing on a beer such as Appervation, they released it by the case without any artificial throttling or news helicopters present at the release. They continue to impress across the board, and I hope that markets beyond the Midwest get to experience their malty goodness.
Top 5 Beers of the Year
Modern Times Beer Monster Tones (San Diego, California) On paper, this imperial stout leverages everything that is now wince-inducing in the realm of excessive stouts: coffee, vanilla, coconut, maple syrup, bourbon barrels. The sheer decadence of each aspect is seamlessly spot-welded together so that the sweet is tempered by the oak, and the residual roasty acidity of the coffee presents an experience that is nothing short of an adjunctive masterpiece. This is the Aristotelian mean, flawless coating without residual batter.
Sante Adairius Rustic Ales Recency Effect (Capitola, California) This gin barrel–aged saison takes all of the masterful herbaceous underpinnings that the Pacific Northwest has been employing and elevates them to the absolute pinnacle of floral refreshment. It maintains the poise of the underlying farmhouse character with a fantastic eucalyptus and lemon meringue swirled together right out of the Brett b. soft-serve machine. The result is a wood and tangelo mélange that is creamy and dry concurrently with a long effusive Vick’s Vapor Rub swallow. It is crushingly enjoyable to the last sip.
Fremont Brewing Brew 2000 (Seattle, Washington) Barleywine is Life, and this beer exists as perhaps the best life lived. Fremont somehow unites the crushing heft of this beer with a deceptive drinkability, so that you imbibe waves of Rolo candy, toffee, and Werther’s candy without realizing the massive structure of this malty beast. Drinking this could convert any floccboi or pastry lover to the woody sweet embrace of Maris Otter. The light alcohol waft on the pralines-and-brown-sugar swallow demonstrates that this resurging style is only getting started.
Närke Kaggen Börb’nåhallon (Örebro, Sweden) This elusive tiny Swedish bottle unites the complexities of transatlantic roast with the force and depth of American excess. If you ask anyone who has been in the beer game since the pre-Vanilla Rye Era (PVRE), they will nod knowingly that Kaggen is the original white whale from across the globe. This takes all the sticky restraint and tobacco, the Darjeeling tea with blackstrap molasses massaged out of that European black patent malt and leans into something unexpected: a fruited raspberry embrace. The entire affair is a teachable moment to breweries that may lean too aggressively on fruiting with an inelegant result.
Funk Factory Framzwartje (Madison, Wisconsin) This beer is the spiritual rebirth of the inimitable Southampton Publick House Black Raspberry Lambic. At first blush, hand picking eighty pounds of blackcap raspberries sounds like some move rooted in marketing…until you taste the puckering, halting depth of this beer. It blurs the line between ales and syrah, uniting the Brett l. with aspects of Grenache and Côtes du Rhône wine. The produce never feels jammy nor enamel-stripping, and threading that needle on such a small batch with no back-blending margin of error is dizzying to behold. This exists as a bold testament to what Levi Funk may be capable of in the near future.
One Classic Beer You’ll Always Order if It’s on the Menu
Bell’s Brewery Two Hearted Ale (Kalamazoo, Michigan) Two Hearted Ale is such a classic beer that has survived the test of time in so many ways. It is an old standby that is refreshing and complex in an era of rapidly (de)evolving consumer preferences. I used to trade for this years ago, and it is always a treat to see it on draft. Unlike some other fish, that catch never disappoints.
Favorite Beer City
Chicago, Illinois. I know some people associate DDB with needling those Bourbon County profiteers, but the city has so many layers of history and depth. I flew out there in January to put on the DDB Barleywine is Live comedy show at Revolution Brewing and everyone was extremely cordial and extremely drunk. From hitting classic bars such as Hopleaf and the Map Room to crushing BMI-shattering pizza at Pequod’s to drilling Half Acre cans in the freezing cold—that city north of the wall has it all.
Favorite Beer Bar, or Beer Bar that Everyone Should Experience
Toronado San Diego (San Diego, California) This Toronado location has genial servers, such as the beer celebrity, Nate Soroko. They have awesome food, a diverse tap list, inspired specials, and—most importantly—you actually want to hang out there. One random Wednesday in 2012, I wandered in there at 4:00 p.m. and bought a $60 bottle of The Lost Abbey Cable Car Kriek to solo. The guy next to me inquired about the expensive magenta beer, so I poured him a glass, and it ended up being the brewer at Iron Fist Brewing Company (Vista, California). It’s an extremely pleasant place to create and erase memories.