Top 10 Beers of the Year
The Veil Vast:ONE and Culminate (Richmond, Virginia) Vast:ONE drops the cherry string down a note for a resonant droning crunch, with musty cellar harmonics and a complex acid profile that highlights the fruit’s woodier, almondy sides. Brilliant and unapologetic, its low-key rumble interspersed with some roundly tart cherry hits, it’s one of a handful of American fruited spontaneous beers that hold their own with Belgian forebearers. Culminate—a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old barrel-aged spontaneous beers—pushes the sour lemon, lime, and orange notes hard, with touches of oak and barnyard. The sip is lively, dusty, earthy, with an aged character that balances the fruit-juiciness. Acidity is perfectly controlled in both; drink both at cellar temperature for best results.
Burial The Distortion (Asheville, North Carolina) Like a Deafheaven song, a delicate, exquisite melody peeks through a swirlingly intense cacophony, achieving a precarious and dangerous balance. Bright pineapple and citrus/pith hooks draw you in, while layers of soft tropical and herbal bitterness give it an edge.
Cellarmaker Wild Gooseberry Chase (San Francisco, California) I’m increasingly drawn to brewers who push hops in new directions, and Cellarmaker’s masterful wrangling of Nelson Sauvin in this dry-but-hazy IPA achieves a beautifully vinous, pungent expression of one of my favorite hops.
East Brother Bo Pils (Richmond, California) I drank a few hundred different pilsners this year and enjoyed a large percentage of them. Bo Pils was a particular standout and was a proverbial “final table” beer thanks to its clean and classic Noble floral notes, its light but characterful malt body that contrasts beautifully with its nimble and lively carbonation, and the tight editing they’ve done to eliminate any distractions and polish the edges.
de Garde The Kriekenbloesem (Tillamook, Oregon) Cotton candy–pink foam and a brilliant, ruby-red body make it quite the looker. On the nose, nutty pie cherry with strawberry rhubarb highlights. The sip offers vinous cherry and light funk, with a curious herbal line that draws a fine edge through it. Remarkably sophisticated in how it creates depth without heft. More pinot noir than cabernet.
Hill Farmstead Double Nelson (Greensboro Bend, Vermont) Few coax the personality out of Southern Hemisphere hops like Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead, and Double Nelson was again a standout, with exquisitely delicate yet punchy white-wine and tropical-fruit notes.
Monkish Meditatio (Torrance, California) Just when I thought I had Monkish figured out, they unleashed this gem of a barrel-aged stout at the Side Project Invitational, in a room filled with the very best of the style. Confident in its restraint, classic yet forward-looking.
Triple Crossing Summer Jetlag (Richmond, Virginia) Barleywine purists may scoff at the idea of adjuncts such as vanilla and coconut in a barrel-aged barleywine, but this was a remarkable example of how ingredients, in small amounts, can heighten the barrel experience without overpowering it.
Yeast of Eden Internal Dialogue (Salinas, California) Hovering somewhere in that middle ground between rustic mixed-fermentation and full-on Pajottenland-style funk, Internal Dialogue channels musty lemon Brett into a farmhouse ale that drinks like a gueuze. But it does so quietly, furtively, without a show and with nothing to prove, for an introspective sip.
Westbound & Down Western Conference All-Stars La Cumbre (Idaho Springs, Colorado) The creativity driving new developments in West Coast IPA is astounding, and Colorado’s Westbound & Down gets my local nod this year for their commitment and thoughtful approach to moving the style forward. Sabro brings just the right tropical element to this dry but fruity expression, proving that fun can be had regardless of IPA subset.
Today’s Drinkers Should Pay Attention to…
Inspired creativity over adherence to style. Style guidelines have their place as guardrails in competition settings, but that’s about all they’re useful for. There is such beautiful work being done in the brewing world between the lines, whether it’s cold- fermented IPAs, “lagers” fermented warm with kveik strains, double IPAs with low IBUs, West Coast IPAs brewed with English yeast strains, or the like. Look for those brewers whose beers are so compelling, the rules end up changing to accommodate them.
Today’s Brewers Should Pay Attention to…
Integrity in process. There are many ways to accomplish goals in the brewhouse, and as breweries grow, the temptation is certainly there to simplify more difficult processes. Some of those processes may not be apparent to the end consumer, and it can be easy to justify cutting corners as a result. But pouring industrial drums of synthetic flavoring or acid into beer is not why anyone got into the brewing business. Ask yourself this question—if Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer were filming your brew day with a hidden camera, could you defend the integrity of every step? If the answer is “no,” then consider what you should change until the answer is “yes.”
Promising Thing that Has Come out of this Year of COVID-19?
Softening of Prohibition-era Blue Laws. Beer has been over-regulated since the repeal of Prohibition, both for misguided moral reasons and due to sheer protectionism for a certain tier of the three-tier system. From many states allowing bars to sell to-go to the softening of interstate shipping regulations, this year has been tremendous proof that excessive regulation in the beer world doesn’t make us safer and that we can function soundly without it. My big hope for 2021 is that we continue to solidify this progress with legislation at the state level, all across the country.
What’s Your Guilty Pleasure Beer?
Hard seltzer. Go on, judge me. I’ve been in your shoes, and ultimately I changed my mind after tasting some very compelling examples of this rapidly growing and evolving subset of the fermented-beverage world. It’s neither the future of beer nor the end of all we hold to be holy, but there definitely are times when I’d much rather grab a Boulevard Quirk or Untitled Art Florida Seltzer than a beer.
Have We Reached the Peak Number of Breweries in the U.S.?
No. Buckle up because the number of breweries is going to rise as breweries continue to replace neighborhood bars. The trend has been happening for the past decade and shows no sign of abating; breweries tend to be much more welcoming, bright, open, and family-friendly spaces compared to the bars they’ve been replacing.