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Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine Best in Beer 2016: Readers’ Choice & Editors’ Picks

From your reader picks to our tightly curated (and much argued-over) editors’ picks for the year, we’ve left no stone unturned in bringing you the absolute best in the world of beer this year.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine Best in Beer 2016: Readers’ Choice & Editors’ Picks Primary Image

Our first-ever Best In Beer issue kicks off with a selection of awards categories chosen by thousands of you—our readers—through an online survey of subscribers. What do you, and your beer and brewing enthusiast peers, consider to be your favorite beers, breweries, styles, and more? Read on for your top picks.

Best Beers of 2016

  1. Bell’s Brewery Two Hearted IPA
  2. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  3. Russian River Pliny the Elder IIPA
  4. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
  5. Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale
  6. Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro
  7. Founders All Day IPA
  8. New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale
  9. Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
  10. Founders Breakfast Stout
  11. Stone Enjoy By IPA
  12. 3 Floyds Zombie Dust Pale Ale
  13. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
  14. The Alchemist Heady Topper IPA
  15. Stone IPA
  16. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
  17. Duvel-Moortgat Duvel
  18. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
  19. Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA
  20. Lagunitas IPA
  21. Yuengling Lager
  22. Brasserie d’Orval Orval
  23. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
  24. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
  25. Anchor Brewing Anchor Steam
  26. Verhaeghe Brewery Duchesse de Bourgogne
  27. Bell’s Brewery Hopslam IIPA
  28. Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
  29. New Holland Dragon’s Milk Stout
  30. Tree House Julius IPA
  31. Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale
  32. Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’
  33. Lawson’s Finest Sip of Sunshine IPA
  34. Allagash White
  35. Odell IPA
  36. North Coast Old Rasputin Stout
  37. Victory Golden Monkey Tripel
  38. Cigar City Jai Alai IPA
  39. Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
  40. Prairie Artisan Ales Bomb! Stout
  41. Unibroue La Fin du Monde
  42. Deschutes Black Butte Porter
  43. Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
  44. Samuel Adams Boston Lager
  45. Sierra Nevada Celebration IPA
  46. St. Bernardus Abt 12 Quadrupel
  47. Creature Comforts Tropicalia IPA
  48. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
  49. Jack’s Abby Hoponious Union IPL
  50. Victory Prima Pils

“Wishlist” Breweries & Beers

We asked you to tell us what breweries and what beers you haven’t had (yet) but that are tops on your list to seek out.

Wishlist Breweries

  1. Russian River (Santa Rosa, California)
  2. The Alchemist (Waterbury, Vermont)
  3. 3 Floyds (Munster, Indiana)
  4. Cantillon (Brussels, Belgium)
  5. Brouwerij de Sint-Sixtusabdij (Westvleteren, Belgium)
  6. Tree House (Monson, Massachusetts)
  7. Samuel Adams (Boston, Massachusetts)
  8. Hill Farmstead (Greensboro Bend, Vermont)
  9. Cigar City (Tampa, Florida)
  10. Maine Beer Co. (Freeport, Maine)
  11. Trillium (Canton, Massachusetts)
  12. Founders (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
  13. The Lost Abbey (San Marcos, California)
  14. Toppling Goliath (Decorah, Iowa)
  15. Brew Dog (Columbus, Ohio)

Wishlist Beers

  1. Russian River Pliny The Elder
  2. Russian River Pliny The Younger
  3. The Alchemist Heady Topper
  4. 3 Floyds Dark Lord
  5. Westvleteren XII
  6. Samuel Adams Utopias
  7. Tree House Julius IPA
  8. 3 Floyds Zombie Dust
  9. Cigar City Hunahpu’s Stout
  10. Maine Beer Co. Dinner
  11. Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout
  12. The Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze
  13. Russian River Blind Pig IPA
  14. Toppling Goliath Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout
  15. Cantillon Fou’ Foune

“Desert-Island” Beers & Breweries

That hypothetical scenario where you could drink only one beer or one brewery’s beer while stranded on a deserted island:

“If you could drink only one beer for the rest of your life…”

  1. “My Homebrew”
  2. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  3. Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale
  4. Russian River Pliny the Elder IIPA
  5. Founders All Day IPA
  6. The Alchemist Heady Topper IPA
  7. 3 Floyds Zombie Dust Pale Ale
  8. Guinness Extra Stout
  9. Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
  10. Stone IPA
  11. Duvel-Moortgat Duvel
  12. New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale
  13. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
  14. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
  15. Tree House Julius IPA
  16. Brasserie D’Orval Orval
  17. Cigar City Jai Alai IPA
  18. Odell IPA
  19. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
  20. Creature Comforts Tropicalia IPA

“If you could drink only one brewery’s beer for the rest of your life...”

  1. Stone Brewing (Escondido, California)
  2. Sierra Nevada (Chico, California)
  3. Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware)
  4. Founders (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
  5. Russian River (Santa Rosa, California)
  6. Firestone Walker (Paso Robles, California)
  7. New Belgium (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  8. Boston Beer Co. (Boston, Massachusetts)
  9. Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
  10. “My Homebrew”
  11. Avery Brewing (Boulder, Colorado)
  12. Lagunitas (Petaluma, California)
  13. Tree House (Monson, Massachusetts)
  14. Ballast Point (San Diego, California)
  15. Hill Farmstead (Greensboro Bend, Vermont)
  16. Odell (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  17. Deschutes (Bend, Oregon)
  18. Trillium (Canton, Massachusetts)
  19. New Glarus (New Glarus, Wisconsin)
  20. Boulevard (Kansas City, Missouri)

Your Favorite Breweries

An unabashed popularity contest—here are the breweries you listed as your favorites, categorized by their production scale in barrels brewed in 2015.

A note about our methodology: Categories are based on barrels of beer brewed in 2015. Ranking correlates with reader votes received. Readers typed in their own answers to these questions rather than selecting from a list and were allowed to type in as many as five favorites for each category. The Very Large category was shortened based on the number of breweries in the category and the drop in statistical significance of votes cast for places 5–10 in that category.

Small Breweries (fewer than 15,000 BBLs per year)

  1. Wicked Weed (Asheville, North Carolina)
  2. Hill Farmstead (Greensboro Bend, Vermont)
  3. The Bruery (Placentia, California)
  4. Tree House (Monson, Massachusetts)
  5. Trillium (Canton, Massachusetts)
  6. Tired Hands (Ardmore, Pennsylvania)
  7. Toppling Goliath (Decorah, Iowa)
  8. Breakside Brewing (Portland, Oregon)
  9. Jester King (Austin, Texas)
  10. Other Half (Brooklyn, New York)
  11. pFriem Family Brewers (Hood River, Oregon)
  12. New England Brewing (Woodbridge, Connecticut)
  13. Central Waters (Amherst, Wisconsin)
  14. Creature Comforts (Athens, Georgia)
  15. Night Shift Brewing Co. (Everett, Massachusetts)
  16. 4 Hands (St. Louis, Missouri)
  17. Neshaminy Creek (Croydon, Pennsylvania)
  18. Hardywood Park (Richmond, Virginia)
  19. Maine Beer Co. (Freeport, Maine)
  20. Marble Brewery (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
  21. Port City Brewing (Alexandria, Virginia)
  22. Fieldwork (Berkeley, California)
  23. Grimm Artisanal Ales (Brooklyn, New York)
  24. Williamsburg Alewerks (Williamsburg, Virginia)
  25. Coop Aleworks (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

Midsize Breweries (15,000–100,000 BBLs per year)

  1. Avery Brewing (Boulder, Colorado)
  2. Russian River (Santa Rosa, California)
  3. 3 Floyds (Munster, Indiana)
  4. Cigar City (Tampa, Florida)
  5. Tröegs (Hershey, Pennsylvania)
  6. Revolution (Chicago, Illinois)
  7. Allagash (Portland, Maine)
  8. Rheingeist (Cincinnati, Ohio)
  9. Sweetwater (Atlanta, Georgia)
  10. Left Hand (Longmont, Colorado)
  11. Saint Arnold (Houston, Texas)
  12. Flying Dog (Frederick, Maryland)
  13. Foothills Brewing (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
  14. Ommegang (Cooperstown, New York)
  15. Half Acre (Chicago, Illinois)
  16. Lakefront (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
  17. Short’s (Bellaire, Michigan)
  18. Fat Heads (Cleveland, Ohio)
  19. Karbach (Houston, Texas)
  20. Uinta Brewing (Salt Lake City, Utah)
  21. Modern Times (San Diego, California)
  22. Real Ale Brewing (Blanco, Texas)
  23. Dry Dock (Aurora, Colorado)
  24. Green Flash (San Diego, California)
  25. Captain Lawrence (Elmsford, New York)

Large Breweries (100,000–500,000 BBLs per year)

  1. Stone Brewing Co. (Escondido, California)
  2. Founders (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
  3. Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware)
  4. Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
  5. Firestone Walker (Paso Robles, California)
  6. Deschutes (Bend, Oregon)
  7. Ballast Point (San Diego, California)
  8. Odell (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  9. Victory (Downingtown, Pennsylvania)
  10. Boulevard (Kansas City, Missouri)
  11. Oskar Blues (Longmont, Colorado)
  12. Great Lakes (Cleveland, Ohio)
  13. Surly (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  14. New Glarus (New Glarus, Wisconsin)
  15. Southern Tier (Lakewood, New York)
  16. Harpoon (Boston, Massachusetts)
  17. Anchor Brewing (San Francisco, California)
  18. Brooklyn Brewery (Brooklyn, New York)
  19. Ninkasi (Eugene, Oregon)
  20. Rogue (Newport, Oregon)
  21. 21st Amendment (San Leandro, California)
  22. Saranac (Utica, New York)
  23. Summit (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  24. Alaskan Brewing (Juneau, Alaska)
  25. Abita (Abita Springs, Louisiana)

Very Large Breweries (500,000+ BBLs per year)

  1. Sierra Nevada (Chico, California)
  2. Boston Beer Co. (Boston, Massachusetts)
  3. New Belgium (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  4. Lagunitas (Petaluma, California)
  5. Yuengling (Pottsville, Pennsylvania)

Who Brews It Best?

Since any general “top breweries” list will inevitably be dominated by breweries who make IPAs, we asked about your favorite beers and brewers in these seven specific styles.

Favorite Saison Brewer

  1. Brasserie Dupont
  2. Boulevard
  3. Ommegang
  4. Hill Farmstead
  5. Funkwerks
  6. Allagash
  7. Goose Island
  8. Dogfish Head
  9. Jester King
  10. Tired Hands
  11. Brooklyn Brewery
  12. Blackberry Farms
  13. Jolly Pumpkin
  14. New Belgium
  15. Great Divide
  16. Logsdon Farmhouse Ales
  17. Prairie Artisan Ales
  18. Stone
  19. Crooked Stave
  20. Brewery Vivant

Favorite Stout or Porter Brewer

  1. Founders
  2. Guinness
  3. Left Hand
  4. Goose Island
  5. Deschutes
  6. Samuel Smith
  7. North Coast
  8. Stone Brewing Co.
  9. Firestone Walker
  10. Bell’s
  11. Great Divide
  12. Alesmith
  13. Prairie Artisan Ales
  14. New Holland
  15. Avery Brewing
  16. Sierra Nevada
  17. Oskar Blues
  18. Rogue
  19. Southern Tier
  20. 3 Floyds

Favorite Belgian (or Belgian-Style Brewer)

  1. Ommegang
  2. Chimay
  3. Allagash
  4. New Belgium
  5. Westvleteren
  6. Rochefort
  7. St. Bernardus
  8. Duvel
  9. Westmalle
  10. Unibroue
  11. Brewery Vivant
  12. Avery Brewing
  13. Bosteels
  14. Boulevard
  15. Lost Abbey
  16. Orval
  17. Hughye
  18. Weyerbacher
  19. Sierra Nevada
  20. Monkish

Favorite Pale Ale Brewer

  1. Sierra Nevada
  2. Oskar Blues
  3. 3 Floyds
  4. Deschutes
  5. Firestone Walker
  6. Trillum
  7. Stone Brewing Co.
  8. Founders
  9. Lagunitas
  10. Bell’s
  11. Odell
  12. Ballast Point
  13. Oskar Blues
  14. Toppling Goliath
  15. Hill Farmstead
  16. Samuel Adams
  17. Boulevard
  18. Half Acre
  19. New Belgium
  20. Maine Beer Co.

Favorite IPA Brewer

  1. Stone Brewing Co.
  2. Russian River
  3. Dogfish Head
  4. Bell’s
  5. Ballast Point
  6. The Alchemist
  7. Tree House
  8. Lagunitas
  9. Firestone Walker
  10. 3 Floyds
  11. Sierra Nevada
  12. Trillium
  13. Odell
  14. Founders
  15. Deschutes
  16. Lawson’s Finest Liquids
  17. Cigar City
  18. Fat Heads
  19. Green Flash/Alpine
  20. New Belgium

Favorite Sour or Wild Ale Brewer

  1. Cantillon
  2. Wicked Weed
  3. Russian River
  4. Cascade
  5. Jolly Pumpkin
  6. Crooked Stave
  7. The Bruery
  8. New Belgium
  9. The Rare Barrel
  10. Jester King
  11. Rodenbach
  12. Almanac
  13. New Glarus
  14. Avery Brewing
  15. Side Project
  16. Lost Abbey
  17. Anderson Valley
  18. Allagash
  19. Prairie Artisan Ales
  20. Upland

Favorite Lager Brewer

  1. Samuel Adams
  2. Jack’s Abby
  3. Yuengling
  4. Brooklyn Brewery
  5. Great Lakes
  6. Victory
  7. Pilsner Urquell
  8. Firestone Walker
  9. Sierra Nevada
  10. Weihenstephaner
  11. Bell’s
  12. Metropolitan
  13. Devils Backbone
  14. Spaten
  15. Anheuser Busch
  16. Ayinger
  17. New Glarus
  18. Paulaner
  19. Prost
  20. Anchor Brewing

Favorite Beer Event

Festivals abound in the beer world, but it takes a truly special event to rise above the fray. It’s no surprise, then, that you voted the world’s largest beer festival, the Great American Beer Festival, into the top spot for 2016.

  1. Great American Beer Festival (Denver, Colorado)
  2. HomebrewCon (Baltimore, Maryland)
  3. Craft Brewers Conference (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
  4. Firestone Walker Invitational (Paso Robles, California)

Editors’ Picks

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We’ve tasted through hundreds of beers with our blind panel, writers, and editors, then compared notes, argued amongst ourselves, and finally pulled together our top sixteen beers for the year 2016.

Sudwerk Brewing Fünke Hop Farm

We’ve been enamored with many of the Sudwerk beers we’ve had of late—their Northern Pilsner could have just as easily been a contender for this same honor—but Fünke Hop Farm, a dry-hopped sour beer, was both a departure for this respected lager brewer and a logical extension of their focus on traditional brewing techniques. Our blind panel were huge fans of Fünke Hop Farm—in a special tasting, it stood head and shoulders over every other sour beer they tasted, despite a field packed with heavyweights. They noted the incredibly bright, fresh, and engaging hops aroma with notes of grapefruit, lemon, papaya, mango, and even a touch of blueberry. A sweaty funk balances out the fruit, but those deep fruit notes take precedence over the barnyard underpinnings. It’s rich and complex, with satisfying deep hops notes and a perfectly balanced acidity. It’s not surprising that GABF judges awarded it a gold medal in 2016—our panel reached the same conclusion a few weeks before that award was announced—but it is surprising that a brewery so singularly focused on lagers has surprised the beer world with a masterful hoppy sour beer. Let’s hope they keep making more.

Trillium Brewing Cutting Tiles Double IPA

Our editors and writers taste quite a few IPAs over the course of a year—a few hundred, typically—so standing out in that deep field is a real challenge. However, Trillium’s double IPA selection for our editors’ pick was unanimous. We first tasted it (under its previous name, Artaic) for the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, where our blind review panel blessed it with a score of 99. We’ve since had the pleasure of drinking more than a case worth, thanks to East Coast trips, checked luggage filled with cans, and sympathetic friends. But what makes it so compelling? We have yet to find a better canvas for showcasing what’s possible with deliciously fruity New School hops than this beer. The fluffy and bright mouthfeel complements the low bitterness late-addition hops, but the intensely articulated fruity hops notes are the standout—there’s a presence and clarity to the presentation of hops that takes this beer well past its contemporaries. The wildflower honey addition is an unexpected master stroke, adding alcohol and a touch of earthiness while helping keep the beer dry.

More recently, we enjoyed the Citra-hopped edition, and it was just as delicious as we expected it might be.

3 Floyds French Vanilla Militia

Every barrel-aged Three Floyds Dark Lord variant possesses a signature mouthfeel that makes it impossible to confuse with any other beer. That motor oil viscosity certainly makes us wonder just how long they boil it (12 hours? 18? 24?). We had the pleasure of tasting two of the barrel-aged variants this year—Dwarven Power Bottom (Muscat barrels) as a surprise addition to the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival plus French Vanilla Militia (Armagnac barrels with vanilla, cocoa nibs, and coffee), and both experiences were exquisite. But the nod for “best” clearly belongs to French Vanilla Militia. Clichés such as “silky” and “smooth” hardly do it justice—for those well experienced with imperial stouts, the body of this beer borders on something else entirely. It’s rich, decadent, and viscous like a Mexican drinking chocolate but with an only slight residual sweetness to balance out the alcohol heat of the barrel treatment. The vanilla and cacao-nib additions are masterfully balanced, and the resulting beer racks up points in every category, from mouthfeel to aroma to flavor. It’s rich, decadent, over the top, bombastic, and a perfect example of 3 Floyds’ iconoclastic approach to flavor and brewing.

Melvin Brewing 2x4

For Melvin, 2016 was a breakout year, as their production brewery in Alpine, Wyoming, started pumping out their Wu Tang–inspired hops bombs at a large enough volume to supply the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest. The accolades that 2x4 double IPA has garnered over the years are impressive—multiple Alpha King wins, gold at the World Beer Cup, gold at GABF—but before this year it was almost fruitless (at least as a national beer magazine) to recommend it because there was only so much beer they could push out of the tiny 3bbl brewhouse inside of a Jackson Hole Thai restaurant. Today, the story is different. A gleaming 20,000-square-foot 30bbl production brewhouse on acres of property 45 minutes down the road from über-expensive Jackson makes enough 2x4 to keep their expanded market fed with cans and draft. The beer itself? More West Coast than East in its crispness, with hops notes that range from citrus fruit to a bit of PNW-style dank. A stronger-than-expected residual sweetness keeps the bitterness from overpowering, and accentuates the citrus notes.

Melvin came out of the gate at an incredible pace in 2016, an we’re excited to see where they go from here.

Side Project Brewing Bière du Pays

We’ve been fans of Side Project Founder Cory King since the very first issue of this magazine (see “The Janitor,” Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, Spring 2014), and the work he’s released under his Side Project brand has continued to impress us ever since. We had the pleasure of enjoying about a dozen different Side Project beers over the past year—everything from Tête De Cuvée to Smooth to Derivation 5—and yet, our nod has to go to simple clarity of Bière du Pays. This 4 percent ABV mixed-fermentation wine barrel–aged farmhouse ale does so much with so little, and as Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex.” It’s one thing to load a beer with pounds and pounds of fruit and hops to build flavor, but it’s another challenge entirely to coax that flavor out of finicky yeast and bacteria while adding only the most modest amount of hops. But that’s what King has done with Bière du Pays—built a weightless yet creamy body with bright tropical fruit notes, a subtle barnyard funk, a bit of lemon zest acidity, refreshing effervescence, and a fastidious presentation that makes it appear effortless. It’s a special beer, as are most that King brews, but don’t let the lack of “rarity” steer you away—this one is phenomenal.

Blackberry Farm Summer Saison

It was a year of tragic lows and soaring highs for Blackberry Farm Brewery, who suffered the loss of proprietor Sam Beall in an accident in February and later scored gold and silver medals at World Beer Cup and GABF for their creative farmhouse-inspired beers. One thing has remained true through the turmoil and the celebration—a commitment to excellence, creative experimentation, and a refined and (dare we say) sophisticated approach to flavor.

In 2016 the brewery expand their line of beers to include a broader range of Belgian abbey styles as well as a line of “Native” beers brewed with a wild yeast they isolated on the property, but our favorite this year remains their Summer Saison. The mix of classic farmhouse yeast esters and phenolics on a simple malt base supports gorgeous tropical hops flavors—orange, mango, strawberry, grapefruit—and the result is what we might call the “New England–Style IPA of Saisons.”

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WeldWerks Brewing DDH Juicy Bits

Our review panel tasted this DDH Juicy Bits while reviewing New England–style IPAs for this issue, and made comments like “Beer will never get better than this,” “One of the best beers I’ve ever had,” and “As close to perfect as we’ve tasted.” Calling it a fruit-forward IPA is a massive understatement—the orangesicle, cantaloupe, guava, and mango notes are turned up to 11 in this special version of Juicy Bits, with just enough herbal and dank notes for balance. A touch of bitterness on the finish keeps it clean and drinkable but is dialed down significantly from typical IPA levels.

The panel, without knowing the brewery or beer, named it to our best of the year—a step we took to avoid conflict of interest, as WeldWerks Cofounder and Head Brewer Neil Fisher has been a friend and member of our review panel since Issue #1 of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® (long before the brewery even existed). He’s written and presented on a number of topics for us in the past, from adding adjuncts to stouts to barrel-aging beer. That our friend, collaborator, and drinking buddy has made a beer so significant is a matter of particular pride.

Perennial Artisan Ales Barrel-Aged Abraxas

Let’s not mince words—this barrel-aged iteration of Perennial’s Mexican chocolate-spiced Abraxas stout is one of the best beers we’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. The immaculately constructed beer is, at its core, a culinary achievement—the silky body and touch of sweetness balancing a restrained bitterness and acidity from the roasted malt; the spicing regimen of vanilla beans, cacao nibs, cinnamon, and chiles very subtly yet confidently adding natural highlights; and a smooth, never sharp rye barrel presence that softens any rough edges into a cohesive whole. The real masterwork of the beer is just how well defined each of those flavors is, despite the long ingredient list and extended aging—we’ll chalk that up to an intense focus on individual ingredient sourcing, prodigious brewers, and a test-and-improve process mindset that never rests on its laurels. After finishing this bottle with a group of professional brewer friends, the only question that remained for everyone in the room (brewers who have a collective few dozen GABF and World Beer Cup medals to their name) was “how can we get more?”

Fremont Brewing The Rusty Nail

As unabashed Fremont fans, the only real challenge was to decide which of their very qualified beers of 2016 deserved the most recognition. We’ve reviewed four of their beers in the past year, and the scores would be the envy of most breweries. Bourbon Barrel Dark Star imperial stout scored a 95, the coffee edition of the same scored a 97, and Bourbon Barrel Aged Abominable barrel-aged winter ale scored a world class 99. On top of that, their brilliant Cowiche Canyon fresh hop beers define the style for us. So when bottles of The Rusty Nail arrived, we couldn’t wait to see how this big barrel-aged oatmeal stout with brewer’s licorice stacked up. It led with dark fruit notes of plum and dates, and a notable whiskey and coconut in the aroma. On the sip, a touch of spice emerged with molasses, raisin, dark cherry, and just enough roast to keep the sweeter notes from cloying. Thankfully, that sweetness is velvety smooth, and while the sip races through a litany of discernable flavor notes at a pace that would make Usain Bolt jealous, the strong vanilla note at the end pulls the entire thing together into a gorgeous whole. This one is special.

Russian River & Firestone Walker STiVO Pils

When we first heard that two of our favorite brewers, Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, were brewing a collaboration Pilsner that borrowed equally from Firestone’s Pivo Pils and Russian River’s STS Pils, we couldn’t have been more excited. We’ve become self-described “Pilsnerds,” so tasting the collaboration (at the world class Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival in June, no less) was a special treat at a festival filled with incredible beer.

The slightly higher gravity added a touch of sweetness over the two foundation beers, but (as expected) the beer finished very dry and provided a delicious canvas for the New School German hops that both brewers embrace. While some were surely disappointed that the collaboration wasn’t some Franken-Pliny, we were thrilled to find that the most sought-after beer at the fest was this Pilsner and were even more excited to see the breweries re-brew it and share draft with their wider networks. It’s about time a Pilsner drove some hype.

Live Oak Hefeweizen

Live Oak Hef and Pilz have long been favorites of fellow Texas brewers, but until 2016 it wasn’t packaged—if you were lucky enough to get some on draft or at the tap room, you understood. With the opening of their new Austin brewery in February came the addition of canning, allowing more people to enjoy these beers where they should be enjoyed—which is pretty much anywhere. The Hef deserves particular note as it achieves an elusive balance of yeast fruitiness (hello, banana) and a perception of malt sweetness that heightens and complements that fruity note, yet the beer still finishes dry and drinkable. For beer nerds who love to dissect their beers, there’s plenty here to explore, but it’s equally appealing to those without a beer PhD.

Scratch Brewing Single Tree Hickory

We could have named any of the Scratch Brewing beers we tasted this year to our list—Oyster Weiss was particular intriguing—because the reason for their inclusion has less to do with the individual flavors of a single beer and more to do with their philosophy, process, grounded artistry, and dogged experimentation reflected in everything they brew. For those not familiar, Scratch focuses on foraged ingredients, and Single Tree Hickory was brewed without hops, using elements of a hickory tree on their property—leaves, nuts, toasted bark—for bittering and flavor. The results, of course, are weird, oddly compelling, and remarkably contemporary—while their methods are quite “back to the earth,” this beer and others in the family taste more “today” than “throwback.” More Alinea than hippy vegan café. They’re the synthesis of a deep and broad understanding of flavor and a determination to get there through more interesting, and more local, means. We will continue to see more brewers pursue this approach in their brewing, and one day, we’ll look back at Scratch Brewing as visionaries who helped pave the way.

The Rare Barrel Forces Unseen

You may notice a common theme in our 2016 list—we’re very, very partial to beers without fruit. That’s not an accident, and it’s not for a lack of enjoyment of beers with fruit—we certainly drink plenty of them and love quite a few—but there’s something about beers that push their beer-ness forward and create a certain artistic balance with core beer ingredients that we gravitate to the most. The Rare Barrel produces plenty of fruit-forward sour beers from their Berkeley, California, blending and aging warehouse, and we’ve tasted many of them—sixteen different beers this year alone. Our favorite remains their basic golden sour, Forces Unseen. Its simplicity, balanced acidity, perfectly dialed sweetness, and brilliantly clear citrus-fruit flavor notes make it the first bottle we grab from the cellar when choosing a sour beer for pairing with a meal, and there’s nothing like it on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set over the mountains.

Editors Picks web 3

Creature Comforts Epicurious

In every issue of the magazine, we tap our chef friends to create dishes made with beer and develop our own beer pairing suggestions for those dishes because beer deserves a place at the fine dining table. Creature Comforts has taken this idea from the other direction, working with their chef friends to develop Epicurious, a beer designed specifically to pair well with a wide variety of cuisine. The resulting table beer tastes instantly familiar yet distinct—a touch Pilsner-esque, but with a slightly softer body and not as much bite. A touch more tooth than a Helles. Less tang than a Kölsch. But in our experience of the beer, it’s perfectly suited for the task the brewers set out to achieve.

That goal is the real reason for the selection. We’ve enjoyed numerous beers from Creature Comforts this year—Tropicália IPA, See the Stars barrel-aged stout, Tritonia Gose, Athena Paradiso Berliner weisse, Transmission, Mutualism, and more—and have loved every sip. But we couldn’t help celebrate this bold pursuit of the culinary world.

Allagash Brewing Coolship Resurgam

We toured Allagash Brewing’s Portland, Maine, brewery in July, and it was one of our high points of the year. In their sour-beer building, we ran across Brewmaster Jason Perkins hand-filling a wooden barrel with berries (he later racked in some three-year-old Coolship wort from another barrel, and let us sample the leftover unblended, uncarbed wort that was displaced by the fruit—amazing). Later, we drank a bottle of Coolship Resurgam in their coolship room behind the brewery—an experience we won’t soon forget. And so, as we’ve said many times in the past, the experience of drinking a beer in a specific time and place with people we like has indelibly impacted our perception of a beer. We loved Coolship Resurgam before the trip—it is, in our humble opinion, the best blended spontaneously fermented beer brewed in the United States—and it’s on par with the Belgian beers that inspired it. The bright lemony tartness, the touch of sweetness, the earthy funk, and the mild minerality are all perfectly placed, and the process—fermenting the beer with only naturally occurring airborne yeast and microflora—made drinking the beer at the source all the more meaningful and memorable.

Cantillon Vigneronne

Naming any Cantillon beer to our “best of” is a bit like announcing Mother Teresa’s sainthood—it’s something so obvious that it almost seems trite. But we don’t want to overlook the classics just because some newer, flashier, and more hyped beers continue to appear on the market. No, the reason we’ve included Vigneronne this year is because it too often is overlooked in the Cantillon canon in favor of the Lou Pepe beers (aged in wine barrels with extra fruit additions), Fou’ Foune (aged on apricots), or Blåbær (aged on European bilberries). We’ve had all of these this past year, and our far and away favorite remains Vigneronne.

The beauty of the best Belgian lambic beers is the residual sweetness and controlled acidity that most don’t notice as they concentrate on the funk (and often conflate that funk with “sourness.”) Vigneronne rides that line with that subtle sweetness serving as the perfect foil for the deep depths of funk, fruit, and acidity. Balancing each of these very strong elements is no small task, and that task is made even harder by the fact that the beer is produced through traditional spontaneous fermentation—no yeast or bacteria added other than what’s in the air as they cool the wort. But Jean Van Roy, Cantillon’s brewer and blender, has a masterful touch, and we think Vigneronne is one of the very best of his achievements.

The first annual Best of Beer 2016 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® (December/January 2017) is available now. It features reader, contributor, and editor selections for Best Beers of the Year, Best Breweries of the Year, Best Homebrew Gear of the Year, and much more! Plus, we explore New England–style IPAs and introduce more up-and-coming breakout brewers. Subscribe today or order your single copy.

MATT GRAVES