Best Beer-Related Experience of the Year
Brewing a barrel-aged barleywine with the guys at Highland Park Brewery (Los Angeles, California) was extremely fulfilling, and I look forward to being involved in more collaborations in the near future. In terms of events, I always love meeting the brewers and seeing the disappointment on their faces (as they realize it’s me) at the Firestone Walker Invitational every year. It is an annual highlight.
Most Underrated Brewery
Revolution Brewing (Chicago, Illinois) is upsetting the apple cart in so many ways. They consistently brew one of the best barleywines in the entire world, in massive volume, and send it out to wide distribution and ensure that the public is dripping in quality barrel-aged wares. As if this weren’t enough, they announced that they are taking their most coveted deep wood entries, canning them, putting them in 4 packs, and lowering the price. Where other breweries are shifting to gimmicks for releases—long lines, raising prices, lowering limits, or online sales—Revolution is eponymously creating an uprising and bucking market trends.
Top Breweries of the Year
Homage Brewing (Pomona, California): Tucked away in Pomona, this reclusive gem has turned out some magnificent sleeper wild ales without lotteries or hype-driven online sales. As LA’s beer moves east, Homage focuses on refined, delicate, oak-aged beers with an emphasis on grace and understatement.
Black Project (Denver, Colorado): After shocking everyone with an incredible GABF performance, long-time homebrewers James and Sarah Howat opened their doors in Denver and endeavored to turn out top tier barrel-aged saisons and mixed-fermentation ales. Their fruit sourcing and produce profile are exemplary, and their recent Roswell set has been setting the beer-trading world ablaze for good reason—it’s an overwhelming fruit profile in each one of their beers. Low acidity and an almost unfair addition of 5 lbs of fruit per gallon produces beers unlike anything you’ve had previously.
Scratch Brewing Company (Ava, Illinois): This brewery set the tenor of their ambition with the staggeringly exotic Homebrewer’s Almanac, and their beers are equally off-center, with noteworthy results. Their beers include foraged herbs, dandelion, carrot tops, lavender, mushrooms, and all manner of other insane flora. More than a gimmick, their beers push the envelope for flavor profiles and stand out with an almost Fantôme-esque stature.
Moonraker Brewing Company (Auburn, California): Opening on Earth Day 2016 (powered by 1,100 solar panels), this brewery not only has a focused narrative with regards to their impact on the planet, but their hops game is jaw-dropping. Hazy bangers such as DOJO and Electric Lettuce are proof that the greater Sacramento area received a blessing from the rhizome gods when Moonraker opened their doors.
Elk Valley Brewing Company (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma): This brewery completely defies convention with amazing results. OKC has long been a prairie hotbed of activity, but Elk Valley does not care about the status quo in any meaningful way. They turn out impressive powerful barrel-aged beers and then almost irresponsibly put them in cans. Canning a barrel-aged pumpkin barleywine? Sure. How about a rum barrel–aged cinnamon coffee strong ale? They canned it. In addition to this, they have furtively been turning out impressive fruited wild ales, and the locals can only keep this spot a secret for so long with the quality of Elk Valley slowly permeating beyond Oklahoma state lines.
Top Beers of the Year
J. Wakefield Brewing Bake Kujira (Miami, Florida): This beer has a conflicted history of teeth gnashing and anger behind it due to sales on the secondary market, rarity, and other factors, but suffice it to say this is one of the best stouts I have ever had. Chunks of coconut and a massive vanilla coffee profile rides the syrupy wave down the back of your palate. Absolutely incredible, toe to tip, and arguably the pinnacle of what the pastry-stout genre is capable of.
Wren House Brewing Company Who Hit John Grand Cru (Phoenix, Arizona): One of the most original and jaw-dropping beers that I tried in 2017. Composed of several years of different massive barrel-aged porters, this beer was then racked to a Superstition Meadery barrel that added intense complexity with waves of leather, fruit, tannins, char, and roast.
Holy Mountain Brewing Co. Hand of Glory (Seattle, Washington): Barleywine is Life, and some lives are lived better than others. Holy Mountain already set a precedent of impressive wild-ale capabilities, but this bourbon and cognac barrel–aged toffee bomb just detonates with caramel and vivacious Sugar Daddies along the gumline.
Kuhnhenn Barrel Aged Eisbock (Warren, Michigan): Last year I was singing the praises of the raspberry version of this beer until I tried this even more outrageous iteration of that phenomenal eisbock lineage. This lager oddly ends up falling squarely in Life/Barleywine territory with an intense spirit profile and layered brown sugar and cask-strength bourbon depth. Absolutely stunning.
McKenzie Brew House Saison Vautor Peach (Berwyn, Pennsylvania): This beer manages to retain the silky body of the saison and provide the vellus hairs and fibrous structure of decadent stone fruit without overplaying its hand on acidity. The delicate balance is phenomenal, and this is one of the finest fruited wild ales that I have ever tasted.
Side Project Three Candles (Maplewood, Missouri): It’s almost unfair to tout the merits of this draft-only decadent treat, but it so flawlessly demonstrates the pinnacle of the cask-aged stout game, I would be remiss not to mention it.
The Veil Brewing We Ded Mon (Richmond, Virginia): The deft craftsmanship of The Veil resulted in this hoppy IED that detonates and coats everything in alpha acids. It has the body and force of its 11 percent ABV underpinnings but still remains enjoyable, layered, and—above all else—almost negligently drinkable. That balancing act is an incredible feat to accomplish, and a tip of the rhizome trilby is warranted.
Hill Farmstead Clover (Greensboro Bend, Vermont): Whenever a khaki-mouthed dude in cargo jorts complains that a beer “didn’t stand out,” you can readily assume it was nuanced, delicate, and in Clover’s case, phenomenal. This soft kitten of a beer shines a focused iris on what Shaun Hill does best in his beers—understatement. The seraphim-down mouthfeel, coupled with velvet lemon meringue and Flintstones Orange Sherbert Push Ups swallow made this endlessly layered beer consumable to a fault.
Jester King Grim Harvest (Austin, Texas): Most “sours” shared by 14 dudes in a backyard regularly rely on excessive fruit or excessive acidity to stand out, but Jester King ironically outdid themselves with this understated, poised, “second use” beer made from the spent remains of their more touted genie bottle line. Grim Harvest outshines Nocturn Chysalis itself. It exhibits so many gentle berry fractals with one of the most pillowy memory foam mouthfeels one could ask for. The fruit works flawlessly in tandem, providing tannic structure and a smattering of acidity to compel frustratingly fast disposal.
Tired Hands Helles Other People (Ardmore, Pennsylvania): This strips away everything that Tired Hands is commonly associated with (off-centered farmhouse ales, vanilla milkshake IPAs, and any manner of other banana sandwich beers) and treads lager-forward, as a helles reduced. Simple, clean, endlessly drillable, and fulfilling without any pretense.
Favorite Beer Trend
The gradual demise of beer trading is one of the best indicators of beer progress possible. The increased quality of local breweries, the uptick in amazing beers hitting distribution, and more discerning consumers shows that if pressed by secondary markets, many beer nerds will abandon the hype. While the trade boards are still ablaze, innumerable local options now provide a viable alternative to firing up a FedEx account.
Least Favorite Beer Trend
Too. Many. Reserve. Societies. Breweries who saw the skyrocketing success that The Bruery (Placentia, California) enjoyed, coupled with the desire for automatic dedicated annual income, have all attempted to cash in on the annual “Brewery [generic moniker] Societies.” What started as a model for putting limited product in the hands of dedicated consumers has become its own cliché. Breweries with no pedigree or demand are now commonly shilling $300 annual subscriptions hoping to entice someone who will roll the dice on hypothetical libations. This has been nerfed by consumer choice and a litany of other local options that don’t require a substantial yearly investment with questionable returns.
Is Barleywine Really Life?
That really depends on how you spend your life. If you want to engage in toffee-mouthed introspection, falling down in the entryway, burning your hands on Totino’s Pizza Rolls, taking Ubers you don’t remember, constantly re-meeting people for the first time, dry cleaning your duvet, giving your friends long tight bear hugs, walking around reeking of Werther’s Originals, or crying and reinstalling AIM to “reconnect” with forgotten high-school friends at 3 am, then yes, barleywine is life. By contrast, all other beer styles are tame, restrained, less than life, and amount to mere existence.