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Russian River Intinction Sauvignon Blanc (Windsor, California)
This Northern California brewery needs no introduction, and their place at the nexus of major American brewing trends—spontaneously fermented beer and West Coast double IPA, in particular—is common knowledge. But that ubiquity comes at the risk of excessive familiarity, so it’s easy to overlook when they go out and try new things.
But make no mistake, the addition of the Intinction series to their storied lineup of wild and sour beers is nothing short of incredible. They’re not the first to explore this territory, but with their proximity to some of the best grape growers in the world and the relationships they’ve built with those growers, combined with the exceptional palates and techniques they’ve built over decades … well, it’s fair to say that they have developed some strong perspective.
This Sauvignon Blanc edition offers a weightless nose of white grape and all that it holds—cotton candy, honeydew melon, kiwi—reinforced by an understated sip of soft acidity, ever-so-slight sweetness, and gently effervescent body. The power is in its subtlety, the appeal in its privileging of confidence and nuance over the typical bold display of intensity. It’s delicious and groundbreaking, setting a new standard for others to follow.
Schönramer Pils (Schönram, Upper Bavaria, Germany)
The locals down in Bavaria prefer the helles, but up in Berlin, this has become a cult beer—a favorite of geeks and brewers, appearing regularly on the capital’s savvier tap lists. Its cachet there might have something to do with its high bitterness—compared to most other German Pilsners—backed by a big burst of lemony-spicy-herbal hop flavor.
This is not just a Pils—it is hoppier than many pale ales, with a refreshing bitter bite that today’s IPA brewers (yes, even in Germany) increasingly avoid to please sweeter tastes. In the glass, it shows a deep, bright gold (and is that a faint greenish tint, or only a trick of the hop-fueled imagination?) with a gorgeous cap of resilient white meringue-like foam when properly poured. The beer is well-attenuated but not thin; it has enough body and residual malt sweetness to embrace all those hops.
It’s available in the United States but not widely. Take them as you find them.
Lawson’s Finest Triple Sunshine (Waitsfield, Vermont)
A strange energy propels Triple Sunshine. The huge-and-hoppy West Coast triple IPA (10.5 percent ABV) teeters perilously on the edge of cacophony, with brash and bold flavors that could easily spiral out of control. Harnessing that power and keeping it focused requires a master’s touch, and that’s exactly what Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest has. When it comes together, it really comes together.
The hops blend purposefully and intentionally avoids singular notes, with a focus on the harmonic whole over the individual voice. Dulcet fruity high notes are braced by a warm but dry middle malt note, with just a faint touch of sweetness to amplify the fruit. Bitterness is impressively smooth and controlled, unassuming in its gentle roll across the palate. At once, the feeling is both comfortably familiar yet new and exciting, confident without being showy, modern yet classic—and it’s the expert balance of these tensions that makes Triple Sunshine such an accomplishment.
New Anthem Songs Unsung and Steez (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Songs Unsung and Steez came seemingly out of nowhere. They took our blind-review panel by storm. Both were revelations within review flights stacked with great beers. They stood out with such focus and vivid expression in hops and fermentation that they were unanimous favorites.
Songs Unsung is everything you would think of if you ever happened to think, “Southern Hemisphere–hopped hazy IPA.” Its gorgeously articulated grapefruit and kiwi on the nose is sweet, a touch funky, and thoroughly deep. Some dank diesel notes in the flavor are bold but not rude, providing structure for the strong, perceptibly sweet fruit notes.
Steez is more citrus-focused, with concise, sculpted orange-passion fruit initially that broadens with dank notes, cucumber, and an herbal undercurrent that keeps the sweetness in check.
New Anthem has creatively envisioned and confidently crafted these, reflecting a deft talent not often found among breweries of a similar age. Or any age.
Parish Brewing Ghost in the Machine (Broussard, Louisiana)
Tiny Broussard, Louisiana, might not be the first locale you think of when you think “world-class hazy and juicy IPA.” As it turns out, great beer can be made anywhere, and Parish and their flagship Ghost in the Machine IPA have put the city on our map.
Bold cantaloupe and peach lead the nose with a spicy lemongrass undertone. The aroma is intensely thick and round, and a quick swirl of the glass unleashes concentrated orange and tangerine notes with a snappy herbal bite, tempered by a touch of fruit-smoothie creaminess as it opens up. The sip is soft, as the best are, but sits wider on the tongue with a mouth-filling roundness that inexplicably finishes lean, leaving a softly bitter and slightly fruity sensation. Matching this level of drinkability with such bold fruit notes is no small task, and the Parish brewers handle it like old pros.
KC Bier Helles (Kansas City, Missouri)
We know, helles isn’t sexy. In Kansas City and its environs, it’s not usually KC Bier’s Helles but rather the (also excellent) Dunkel that tends to appear on tap in unlikely places, such as dive bars and barbecue joints.
However, it wasn’t the Dunkel or even the Pils that our Missouri-based managing editor kept reaching for all summer, amongst lake-time beer runs and country cookouts. It was the Helles, again and again. A blind-tasting in our editorial office sealed the deal, when this beer beat out others from better-hyped breweries.
The malt here is simply richer than the American standard, with a light honey-like sweetness and rounder mouthfeel, while the beer dries enough in the finish to leave you wanting more. As a Munich-style helles, it is totally convincing, which makes sense given the brewery’s devotion to German ingredients, decoction mash, and natural carbonation.
KC Bier deserves more attention as one of a small but growing handful of breweries nationwide using traditional methods to make truly distinctive lager.
Other Half HDHC All Green Everything (Brooklyn, New York)
Leave it to Brooklyn to create new hype-onyms for beer. Since DDH alone doesn’t move crowds anymore, and contortionist moves such as “Triple Dry Hopped” or “Quadruple Dry Hopped” seem contrived and uncool, the Other Half crew instead dropped a new aggro acro: HDHC (High Density Hop Charge). It describes the insanely large mix (15 pounds per barrel) of cryo and pellet hops that they push into their most heavily hopped beers.
Whether it spawns copycat rhymes is yet to be seen, but this fresh mix is pushing Other Half’s hops louder and louder. In All Green Everything, the nose of papaya and pineapple takes on wall-of-sound scale, voluminous and all-encompassing, with sharper guava mid-frequency, touched by lemongrass and Thai basil. Sweet fruit and spicy herbs offer indulgence and repentance in equal measure.
When it hits your lips, big sweet citrus and guava push forward with a soft herbal bitterness that keeps it from sprawling out of control, but it constantly rides the edge—threatening saccharine sweetness or rough hops burn, but deftly weaving through these alternating verses.
Going this big while retaining dynamics and not just clobbering the drinker with nonstop volume is a skill Other Half has been honing since the beginning. Their focus on longevity and stability deserves praise—we’ve had plenty of their triple IPAs this year, and their technical ability to reduce packaged oxygen while centrifuging to maintain haze and reduce particulate matter in the beer leads to hazy beer that tastes great even four months after release. Creativity plus bullet-proof production makes for a string of bangers that just can’t be ignored. Holla.
Modern Times Barrel-Aged Stouts (San Diego, California)
Excuse the overly broad language—in today’s world of one-and-done releases, it’s increasingly meaningless to celebrate a beer that may never be made again. So rather than do that, we’ll broaden the scope of this Top 19 list to allow for a range from a specific producer.
Over the past year, we’ve tasted, and been floored by, a number of Modern Times’ barrel-aged offerings: Espresso Macaroon Monster’s Park, Wizard’s Blend with Vanilla Beans, Monster Tones 2019, Dragon Mask, Modem Tones Aged in Bourbon Barrels with Vanilla, Mega Devil’s Teeth Aged in Bourbon Barrels With Pistachio and Coconut, and a few more.
The common thread throughout these disparate beers is a careful editing—eliminating distractions, focusing on impactful flavors, and refusing to release anything that doesn’t meet their high standards. Their method of integrating adjunct ingredients into beers is generally flawless, with bold flavors that not only meet expectations but set the standard for what’s possible in barrel-aged flavored stouts. Most importantly, they never lose sight of the stout in their beers. Even in those beers where waves of sweet adjuncts get borderline-cloying, the bitter and roasty malt notes bring everything back to earth.
It’s one thing to make one or two of these beers well. It’s another to ensure that dozens in a given year are all killer, and no filler. In that sense, Modern Times’ barrel-aged stout program is firing on all cylinders.
Beachwood Funk Yeah and Coolship Chaos (Long Beach, California)
Acidity is easy; balance is elusive. Moving past acidity alone, and instead capturing a gorgeous intersection of fruity and phenolic Brett funk, layered malt character, actual dryness with a perceived sweetness, aged-hops minerality, depth, and light acidity, is something with which American brewers—with some exceptions—continue to struggle.
Beachwood Blendery, however, is helping to redefine just how thoughtfully nuanced American sour beer can be, and our blind-review panel awarded both Funk Yeah and Coolship Chaos scores of 100 earlier this year. The fascinating thing is that the beers are made in different ways—Funk Yeah is a blend of beers aged one, two, and three years in oak barrels, and pitched with their carefully developed and selected house culture.
Coolship Chaos is also a blend—the ages of its components unspecified—but of coolship-inoculated wort (brewed to Methode Traditionnelle standards), aged in wood barrels, and then blended. Despite these different methods, both beers feel as if they are cut from the same cloth.
Funk Yeah presents strong peach and apricot notes on the nose and more subdued layers of minerally sulphur and phenol funk. While we’re sure it finishes bone dry, the fruit notes convey a small perception of sweetness, and the acid profile is suitably complex; clean lactic acid does the heavy lifting and traces of acetic acid in the blend offer rounder red-fruit notes.
Coolship Chaos is a touch more austere, with a nose of unripened guava, wet concrete, a bit of diesel, and verdant ferns in a humid forest. The body is lean with less perceived sweetness, but the flavor is remarkably lambic-like and thoroughly deep. Together, they’re two different takes on American sour and wild beer, both deep and full of personality.
Weihenstephaner Korbinian (Freising, Upper Bavaria, Germany)
It shouldn’t really be a surprise. Yet when a beer from one of the oldest and most highly regarded breweries in the world emerges as a clear favorite with our blind-review panel, it always raises a few eyebrows. Of course, the Hefeweissbier, often regarded as the pinnacle of southern German wheat beer, is better known. The Korbinian ought to have the same status among doppelbocks.
Right away, its lush, beige, resilient, cappuccino- like froth and sticky lacing catch the eye—reassuring marks of the highest technical ability. The nose brings Tootsie Roll–like dark caramel, laced with raisin, undergirded by roast nut and chocolate. The flavor is neither sweet nor bitter but perfectly, roundly, harmoniously bittersweet; the body is full but never feels heavy. It is rich but clean, totally smooth; it doesn’t warm the tongue but rather the brain, some minutes later. It is so utterly drinkable for its strength that it is perilous.
This is the work of masters, a showcase of luxurious malt that never puts a foot wrong.
Jester King Moderne Dansk (Austin, Texas)
Frederiksdal cherry wine has attained cult status in certain beer circles, as the Danish vintner took a fairly pedestrian enterprise—when is the last time you got excited about a wine made from something besides grapes?—and elevated it to produce something of outstanding depth and complexity. This collaborative, hybrid cherry wine-beer from Jester King adds yet another layer by comingling mixed-culture farmhouse ale with Stevnsbaer cherry juice from the Frederiksdal estate, then fermenting the mix in barrels previously used for Frederiksdal’s sour-cherry wine.
The result is an intensely fruit-forward beer with a remarkable tannic undercurrent and soft woody, nutty notes of almond and hazelnut. The kriek-like beer character is there and present, creating an immediate familiarity despite toned-down funk, and the residual sweetness (more perceived than actual) gives the full-spectrum cherry notes a lift straight through the dry finish.
Achieving this kind of balance—without falling into the sweet excess of most fruit wine—is a deft act, but Jester King are experts at riding this line. Modern Dansk, as a result, expresses something more modern and yet more timeless than anything else from the cherry-beer realm. It’s a gorgeous accomplishment, and one we can’t stop drinking.
Off Color Miscellanea Volume 2 (Chicago, Illinois)
The conceit is breath-taking—after producing a series of one-off collaborations with peers such as Allagash, Central State, Jester King, and Side Project, the offbeat cat fanatics at Off Color had the oh-so-fancy idea to combine these various mixed cultures into a sort of supergroup. Like Fantômas, Run The Jewels, or Jack Ü (or Cream or The Traveling Wilburys, for the old school), it can be a volatile mix that may work only once, but the world is a better place for it having existed, if only briefly.
A musty vin-jaune nose of dried orange peel, aspen bark, a hint of aged sherry, and woody tannic midtones gives way to a sip that’s perceptibly sweet despite the beer’s dryness. It may be a testament to the attractiveness of rough edges—unpolished, it’s more jam session than thoroughly rehearsed album—but finding the influence of the various cultures in the notes of every new sip provides endless entertainment to those of us so disposed.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Sour Rosé (Denver, Colorado)
Five years ago, who would have guessed that we’d have achingly gorgeous, soft, tart, wood-aged, fruited sour beers readily available in cans? The delicate beauty of Crooked Stave’s Sour Rosé would be at home on a wine list at the finest restaurants, but in a feat of everyman populism, the brewery has instead moved the other direction—making it widely available, accessible, and … crushable? It seems louche to even cast it that way, but kudos to the brewery for de-fetishizing and mainstreaming what should be in drinkers’ everyday repertoire.
Our review panel loved it, scoring it a 98 in a stacked lineup of far more precious competition. The combination of bright but measured lemony acidity (more tart than sour), soft raspberry notes with only a slight twang, and a very subtle Brett and hops funk make for a gentle beer that doesn’t sacrifice character on the altar of appeal.
Foothills Brewing Torch Pilsner (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
Earlier this year our blind tasting panel scored this 99 out of 100, tops in its class. It’s also taken home a couple of Great American Beer Festival medals in the past few years, from the Bohemian Pilsner category. They must be doing something right there in the Piedmont Triad.
The Torch Pils strikes the right balance between its lightly sweet malt backbone and spicy Saaz hops character. That sweetness is not on the level of bigger-bodied Czech lagers, but more of a compromise with the crispness-seeking American palate. It has plenty of hop flavor but not too much; in fact the beer never goes too far in any direction. It’s like a master class in how to pack character into an easy-drinking lager.
Pinthouse Pizza DDH Green Battles (Austin, Texas)
Pinthouse is no stranger to winning, and Green Battles has racked up accolades—two gold medals in successive years at the Great American Beer Festival (in the Strong Pale Ale and Fresh Hop Beer categories) and another gold at the 2018 World Beer Cup (for American-Style Strong Pale Ale). This double dry-hopped edition ratchets the West-Coast-dank-meets-East-Coast-tropical-fruit meter up to 11, with an unfiltered gold- amber body that suggests they left the rich hop polyphenols in without intentionally hazing it. The result is that holy grail of a beer that smells incredibly sweet on the nose—with waves of guava, kiwi, tangerine, orange oil, and honeydew braced by a touch of diesel dankness—but it drinks dry with a softly assertive citrusy bitterness that sneaks up and scrubs your palate before you realize what’s happened.
It’s a beer that defies easy categorization by straddling so many lines, yet its personality is undeniably compelling. One could argue that this is the future of West Coast IPA as easily as argue that this is the future of “drinkable” hazy IPAs. And while the major competition judges seem to agree, we’ll leave it to the history books to figure out its place while we enjoy sip after sip of this gorgeous tropical stunner.
Allagash Brewing White (Portland, Maine)
When Rob Tod first brewed Allagash White 25 years ago, the craft beer world was a completely different place. Yet today, White feels as current as ever. It’s a fixture in the pantheon, one of those that people mention as an all-time favorite alongside Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bell’s Two Hearted. But familiarity and ubiquity are no reason to discount it.
Our blind panel gave it top billing in our wheat beer–focused issue this year (and they are not the first; this beer has won gold medals from every major national and international competition over the years). It’s lively, peppery, with its spice checked by a pleasant hop-bitterness, subtle tartness—which draws out the citrus character and keeps the beer refreshing—followed by a dry, crackery finish.
We are not breaking any new ground by including it here. Call it a lifetime achievement award if you must—we’re simply giving a modern classic its proper due.
Sun King Shadow Proof (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Sun King’s barrel-aging program has turned out a number of remarkable beers as of late—their Magpie Muckle wee heavy aged in mead barrels comes to mind—but rather than cram the beers with the latest adjunct of the month, they instead focus on creative interplay of barrel and beer.
Shadow Proof embodies that approach. It’s inky and sharp on the nose like imperial stouts used to be, un-adjuncted, barrel-aged, and ponderously deep. Licorice and fennel aromas drive the nose, with just a touch of oak tannin and vanilla to soften it. The sip forgoes the sharpness of the nose for a beautifully rounded, only subtly sweet body that wraps around your tongue in the warmest of bear hugs. The body is substantial without being cloyingly thick, and the roasted malt notes keep everything honest with an underlying cleansing bitterness.
It’s expertly constructed, designed to thrill those of us who love barrel-aged beers but aren’t yet ready to abandon imperial stout history.
Civil Life American Brown Ale (St. Louis, Missouri)
It’s not a story you hear often—one of a brewery’s original beers turns out to have staying power, and then it stays and stays. And it evolves and improves, as the brewer tinkers and makes adjustments over the years. That’s the story with Civil Life’s flagship.
It helps to be there, just like it helps to be in Düsseldorf if you’re going to drink an altbier. Civil Life’s Brown tastes good anywhere—and it’s become a fixture on tap around St. Louis—but it surely tastes more exciting on draft at their own pub, the cozy, welcoming, wood-paneled jewel they built within their own brewery. That’s where the American Brown is fresher, and the Cascade manifests somehow as an herbal-earthy thicket that covers the malt like a sylvan untamed thing. Over time in the package, more of that malt comes to the fore and restores balance—and then it probably becomes a better beer, more balanced, if less provocative. It’s an extraordinary ordinary beer.
Cerebral Brewing Vanilla Rye Here Be Monsters (Denver, Colorado)
It’s sheer pleasure to watch a brewery iterate over years and make a great beer even better. Such is the case with Cerebral’s Here Be Monsters—we’ve tasted the evolution in real time, with each new release and watched the tweaking and fine-tuning that has led to this—the best barrel-aged stout they’ve released, and one of our very favorite beers of this past year.
A big and sweetly endearing marshmallow vanilla nose is underpinned by dark chocolate and a nostril-tickling faint roast acidity. The sweetness isn’t cloying sucrose, but deep caramelized/burnt sugar with a satisfyingly savory vanilla top note that pushes a perception of sweetness without actual sweetness. On the sip, it’s immediately fruity and nutty before the roast kicks in, quickly scrubbing those flamboyant notes. But they provide just enough character without sacrificing the clarity and crispness of the beer.
The lingering vanilla on the retronasal—breathing in, breathing out—pushes the dark molasses and carmelized sugar note long after the sip, lending a decadent finish to a disciplined beer.
Note- to see all of the Best in Beer issue content, including Readers' Choice and Critics' Lists, subscribe to Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®!