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Critic’s List: Courtney Iseman’s Best in 2023

The New York City–based writer, tarot enthusiast, author of the Hugging the Bar newsletter, and noted metalhead shares her beery high points from the past year.

Courtney Iseman Nov 22, 2023 - 7 min read

Critic’s List: Courtney Iseman’s Best in 2023 Primary Image

Top 10 Beers of the Year

Oxbow Amaro di Malto (Newcastle, Maine) This dark “farmhouse ale”—9.5 percent ABV, brewed with 25 herbs and spices and barrel-aged—is astonishingly complex. Every sip demands thought as you make new discoveries—anise, cardamom, nutmeg, peppermint, and orange peel. With uncanny Fernet-Branca vibes, this special accomplishment begs the question: Why bother with a beer and a Fernet shot anymore, when you can just get lost in this?

Miel Smoked Braggot (New Orleans) Need to feel excited by beer again? Take one eye-widening sip of Miel’s smoked braggot and … of course there are new explorations to make and new heights to reach. This strong, honeyed ale has some moderately crisp effervescence and piney bitterness from smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, which nicely cuts the sweet honey, as subtle smoke carries from that first inhalation to that just-long-enough aftertaste linger.

Strong Rope Renewal (Brooklyn, New York) I was enjoying this guaranteed referesher when I realized I don’t reach for cream ales often enough—or maybe this one just happens to do the style extra proud. It’s got a little corn-and-grain sweetness, a touch of floral-herbal bitterness, and a lot of crisp, thirst-quenching effervescence.

Hércules Lager Apparatus Cervecita Alemana (Querétaro, Mexico) “Ideal to ask for one, then another, and then another,” is what the menu description for this German-style leichtbier says at Lagerbar Hércules, the brewery’s lagers-only taproom in Mexico City. All the beers there lean easy-drinking, yet the Cervecita stands out. At 3.4 percent ABV, it is the Platonic ideal of the proverbial desert-island beer—highly effervescent and dry, with a nice bitterness and perfectly restrained herbal-spicy notes.

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Fidens Fairy Ring (Albany, New York) With each passing year, my personal bar for what makes a standout hazy IPA—and what makes it worth the ABV—ticks upward. This double IPA from the upstate haze specialists broke through the noise with a big ol’ hop blast worth savoring: sugared-citrus-gummi sweetness meets a touch of earthiness and cannabis-petrol funk, as a zing of white-wine acidity dances through each sip of pillowy velvet.

Elsewhere Gest (Atlanta) All of Elsewhere’s beers are inspired by times that founders Sam and Sara Kazmer have enjoyed on their world travels, and their ode to Czech dark lagers is one of the brewery’s best sellers. That’s no surprise: The 4.7 percent ABV beer has rye-bread heartiness and spice, some dark, dried fruitiness, and a touch of bittersweet chocolate, while remaining pleasantly crisp and finishing dry.

Endless Life I Heard You Calling (Brooklyn, New York) Smoked lagers have—I am happy to say—become a bit easier to find in New York City breweries, but the subtle differences in this smoked blonde ale are special and easy to appreciate. Its light, bready sweetness and low-key floral-citrus notes are beautifully complemented by a smoke that builds from aroma to aftertaste without ever overwhelming.

Smith & Lentz Pepperoni Castle (Nashville, Tennessee) Smith & Lentz was dry-hopping lagers before “West Coast pils” got cool, but Pepperoni Castle is delightfully barking up that tree. Dry-hopped with Simcoe, it boasts classic pine-citrus notes but it’s oh so crisp, finishing dry with a touch of lingering bitterness. An ideal partner to their taproom’s own pizza, it also proved to be a refreshing treat later in the cans we took away.

Lasting Joy Heartbeet of the Hudson (Tivoli, New York) Using locally grown ingredients, Lasting Joy’s beers show off the flavors and aromas of New York state crops at their best. I learned that New York farms grow a third of the country’s beets, thanks to this delicious stout—classic in form, rich and bittersweet, with its roast cut by the beets’ earthy flavor. Plus: The naturally pink foam is a fun finish.

3Bir Stolen Pine Tree (Novi Sad, Serbia) European IPA lovers will be the first to tell you that their breweries still haven’t nailed the IPA in its extremes—whether hazy juice bomb or bitter and bright West Coaster. Yet 3Bir’s double dry-hopped American-style IPA blew my expectations away. It truly straddles the Northeastern and West Coast styles, with tropical sweetness opening up into citrus pith and piney resin.

My Perfect Beer Bar

The ideal would combine elements of my favorite real-life spots—the audiophilia of BierWax in Brooklyn; the tight, thoughtful curation that represents every style you could want, as at the Muted Horn in Berlin; the enthusiastic, education-driven conversation of Malt Bunny in Mexico City. Its design would keep total accessibility, safety, comfort, and community in mind—and, of course, it would be pug-friendly.

Most Unique Taproom Experience This Year

A standout taproom reminds you of what’s still exciting about beer, and it has the ability to foster an authentic sense of community. I felt that upon entering Trace Brewing in Pittsburgh. One of the building’s former lives was as a punk venue, and Trace’s near-daily roster of music-centric, inclusivity-focused events keeps that spirit of gathering and the arts very much alive.

Most Encouraging Thing Happening in Craft Beer Lately

Vocational and mentorship programs that help underrepresented people build careers in beer, brewing, and distilling. Joining trailblazers such as the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, Beer Kulture, and Women of the Bevolution are more localized efforts such as the Lovibond Project in New York or programs at the aforementioned Trace. Altogether, these should have an incredible impact.

Top of My Beer Bucket List

Bamberg. This one is so easy for me. Smoked beer is the best, and I dream of spending a solid week indulging in it and absorbing the local history.

Beer Resolution for 2024

I want to plan my beer-related travels and experiences more around history, processes, and ingredients than around specific breweries. Rather than going out of the way to find some hyped, bold-faced name, I want to chase the thrill of beer at the source, such as fresh hops in the Pacific Northwest or maybe even that trip to Bamberg for the rauchbier.

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