Top 10 Beers of the Year
Jack’s Abby Shipping Out of Boston (Framingham, Massachusetts) An exemplary, flavorful amber lager offering comforting malts with the cozy factor of a hand-knit afghan: aromas of pumpernickel toast mingle with earthy hops, foreshadowing the soft, sweet brown-bread flavor to come. I’m not surprised the lager experts at Jack’s Abby knocked this out of the park.
Crux Bubble Wrap IPA (Bend, Oregon) This hazy IPA made me sit up and take notice—no easy feat in 2020. It’s ripe but not sticky, with flavors of kiwi, strawberry, and honeydew. Flaked oats and wheat lend a soft but clean mouthfeel, ending with gentle carbonation that nonetheless wraps everything up. Juice, with none of the pulp.
Piece Swingin’ Single (Chicago) Venerated brewer Jonathan Cutler has left the brewpub since I last enjoyed this beer, so let’s cross our fingers Piece can continue brewing this elegant Belgian singel in his absence—lightly bitter with characterful yeast presence and an easy-drinking ABV, it’s just as much a draw as Piece’s tomato pies.
Wayfinder CZAF (Portland, Oregon) True to its name, this lager is Czech as … heck. Kudos to Wayfinder’s brewers for their attention to detail: Decoction mashing creates brioche-like malt flavors met by assertive, woody-resinous hop bitterness. Pay attention to all that subtlety the first time you drink it, then just enjoy the ride.
Heirloom Rustic Ales Rodeo Spritz (Tulsa, Oklahoma) I didn’t choose this beer just for the name. The 3.2 percent ABV rice lager is absurdly refreshing, not far from a macro light lager but with less sweetness, finishing with a gentle hop kiss at the end. It boasts actual body in such a light beer, bright and smooth and delicate. Yeehaw.
Half Acre Original Reaper (Chicago) In last year’s Critic’s List, I asked brewers for more dry stouts. Thanks for listening, Half Acre! This one’s a gorgeous rendition, straightforward and sturdy with no adjuncts, lactose, or other distractions—just satisfying roast and notes of dusty almond shell and molasses.
Black Tooth 1314 2019 (Sheridan, Wyoming) The 2019 edition of this barrel-aged English strong ale rested a year in Wyoming whiskey barrels, yielding a decadent but finessed jewel that showcases fruit flavors without turning saccharine. The barrel layers vanilla over a smooth base of plum, fig, toffee, and licorice, with just enough sherry character and alcohol prickle to provide warmth and depth.
Dovetail Kölsch (Chicago) This beer is wonderful, but the experience of drinking it was what made it unforgettable for me: Last fall—too late to include the beer in last year’s list—Dovetail hosted a Kölsch Night at its brewery, turning itself into a bierstube à la Köln, with long communal benches and proper service of constantly replenished 200 ml stange glasses that just kept coming until I finally, reluctantly, waved them off.
Allagash Two Lights (Portland, Maine) Combining sauvignon-blanc must, lager and champagne yeasts, and the hops trio of Amarillo, Simcoe, and Nelson Sauvin, this beer-wine crossover was total catnip to me as a fan of sparkling wine. Spritzy, sophisticated, and quenching, it’s hard to categorize, but easy to enjoy both on its own and with grilled vegetables or delicate seafood.
80 Chain Oatmeal Stout (Bozeman, Montana) I’m not aware of a better brunch beer, especially on a bitter, cold, winter morning. Oats smooth out the body while the flavor is all about roasted and chocolate malts’ coffee, molasses, and walnut warmth. It’s a feat of recipe development and, sitting at 6.2 percent ABV, an easily enjoyed fridge staple.
Today’s Drinkers Should Pay Attention to…
Draft lines. They’re an overlooked, underrated contributor to the pleasure of drinking at a bar. (Remember how nice it is to drink at bars?) But they can also be nefarious havens for gunk and chemicals that’ll ruin even the most expertly brewed beer. Let’s normalize asking bars about their draft-line cleanliness and speaking up when something tastes off.
Today’s Brewers Should Pay Attention to…
Integrity. We can’t expect breweries or any small business to solve global problems such as climate change or institutional racism, but I believe it’s fair to want the breweries where we spend our money to reflect our values. This is the year to say what your brewery stands for, then live it.
Promising Thing that Has Come out of this Year of COVID-19?
An expansion of e-commerce for beer buying. Alcohol—and beer especially—has for years lagged behind other categories in terms of online purchasing, but COVID-19 has seen more breweries and more apps/websites facilitate these orders. Now if we could only ship beer more easily between states…
What’s Your Guilty Pleasure Beer?
Because I don’t believe in moralizing beverage choices or assigning cultural capital to the intoxicating goods we consume to briefly escape the moil of daily existence in a pandemic-ravaged and increasingly isolated society, there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure beer. But I don’t think I’m allowed to say that, so, Coors Light, I guess.
What Brand-New Beer Experience Did You Have this Year?
Last winter (when we could all still gather in places in groups), one of my favorite local breweries, Missoula’s Draught Works, hosted a party on its deck—yes, an outdoor party in the dead of Montana winter. To warm us up, Draught Works served its Graupelbock Doppelbock with the option to have the beer’s residual sugars flash-caramelized via a red-hot poker inserted into the glass. In Germany, this is known as bierstacheln. In Montana, we just call it good fun.