We feel a special affinity for craft beverages that are beer-adjacent, but not beer themselves. Craft beer was once that orphan, too—a tiny fringe thing driven by passion and potential—and when people care, they tend to make great things. We’re always a bit skeptical when pitched the latest and greatest new thing, whether that’s hard ’booch or the plethora of non-alcoholic beers on the rise right now (which you won’t find on this list because we have yet to taste one we’d recommend). Here we share a few particular standouts that should be on any creative drinker’s list.
The metamarketing sell for Superstition Meadery’s Blueberry Spaceship Box is unsettlingly self-perpetuating—“Buy this because it’s the top-rated cider”—and the idea of paying $25 for an on-premise bottle of a 5.5 percent ABV cider is at best extravagant. Still, this over-the-top blueberry apple cider offers a decadently silky body and rich vinous character that suggests more sophistication than the printed bottle projects. We’d order it again at that price.
Three seltzers stood out for us this year, and each for different reasons. Boulevard Brewing’s Quirk family of seltzers offers the best fruit flavor we’ve found in the low-calorie, no-sugar category, with high carbonation and a lively mouthfeel. It’s not perfectly clear, but we’ve yet to taste a perfectly clear hard seltzer that still retains great flavor. Untitled Art’s Florida Seltzer with prickly pear and guava takes that fruit flavor and murkiness three steps further into full-on juicy, hazy seltzer territory, but the flavor experience is intense and genuine, and it’s a pleasure to drink. On the weird and wonderful side, Cerebral Brewing’s Brain Wash Watermelon Sour hard seltzer channels watermelon Jolly Ranchers and Warheads sour candy for those who love a bit of pucker. Hard seltzer is the perfect medium for brewers who want to play with flavor combinations and get weird, and we suspect we’ll see more brewers backing away from beer to push hyper-fruited sours in the seltzer realm in 2021.
We’ve tasted a number of hard kombuchas before, but none excited us the way Jiant’s Hicamaya and Original flavors did. Lightly spicy and floral, dried-fruit tea notes on the nose lead to a clean, snappy sip with just the right balance of light fruit cider-like sweetness and herbal definition. At 120 calories and 6 g of carbs, they’re not quite in the low-calorie category, but they’re close. More importantly, they’re intriguing without being overbearing.
The current trend in “hyped” fruit-forward dessert mead is still not one we find particularly compelling—too many one-note, sickly sweet, fruit-and-vanilla iterations. But we’ve enjoyed a few standouts this past year, such as Pips’ The Monte, which accentuates the tannic berry and currant notes. Superstition’s Juicius Caesar was creative and boundary-pushing, with its use of hops to create a character more akin to white wine than beer.