This was going to be the year that life got back to normal. Maybe it did—we’re not sure what normal means anymore. Amid the ups and down and variants and gradual, stutter-step return to social life, we experienced some transcendent beers—beers that shone, beers that enlightened, beers that made us stop and remember what it’s all about. Here are the pinnacles of the craft.
To hear more about all 20 beers and your Readers’ Choice picks too, be sure to check out this special episode of the Craft Beer & Brewing Podcast.
Green Cheek It Just Works
For the second year in a row, a cold IPA has made our top 20. Does this portend some alternate future for West Coast IPA? Maybe. But there’s no denying how compelling these beers are to those of us who love a crisp yet expressively hop-forward beer.
Conceptually, it makes sense—today’s hops are pretty incredible, and pushing those to the forefront while minimizing other impacts from fermentation or malt is an elegant way to tell those hops’ stories. Yet those tools, in the hand of a visionary brewer such as Green Cheek’s Evan Price, can make real art.
One of just a few 100-point beers this year, It Just Works is a master class in subtlety and expression. It doesn’t shy away from bitterness, but it’s sculpted just-so with a tropical tinge that draws it together with the prominent tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Glimpses of grassy grapefruit and pine are there, but flash through without dominating the conversation. Taken together, there’s a feeling of precision on display. It does exactly what it intends to do, and nothing more or less. Despite that precision, it hasn’t lost the “soul and spark” that take a beer from something we respect to something we love.
WeldWerks Starry Noche
We choose beers for this annual list in a few different ways. First, we consider the top scorers in each of our issues throughout the year. Next, we solicit new submissions from breweries, and we taste through them just for this issue. Finally, we consider the beers we’ve tasted all year, outside of the review process. When tasting submissions for the issue, we don’t go through the typical blind-panel scoring process. But to add some gravitas to this year’s Best in Beer, we invited contributing editor Kate Bernot and noted author Stan Hieronymus to the Craft Beer & Brewing office in Fort Collins for a few days of marathon blind-tasting.
Because we give primacy to the scores from our blind-review panel, it’s exceedingly difficult for a beer in a style that we’ve reviewed earlier in the year to make the list from the Best in Beer tasting. More often than not, we find beers in styles we haven’t reviewed earlier in the year. This year‚ WeldWerks Starry Noche is an outlier.
After tasting this beer—again, blindly—Stan stood up and informed the room that if this beer were not added to the Best Beers of 2021, he would no longer write for Craft Beer & Brewing. In a fit of judging bravado, Stan put it all on the line … for a dessert stout. Imagine just how delicious a barrel-aged, adjuncted, very sweet stout would have to be to move Stan to such a definitive gesture.
Flavor notes? It captures the expected macaroon notes and Samoa cookie, while layered threads of caramel bridge the sweeter top-notes and roasty low-notes. It knits together these intense but real flavors that evoke nostalgic moments for all of us, yet it does so without losing sight of the beer underneath. It’s a beer of intentional excess, yet surprisingly refined balance—a beer worth Stan’s grand gesture.
Triple Crossing One and the Same
Looks can be deceiving, as one whiff of this pale mixed-fermentation farmhouse beer can attest. Amid the Brettanomyces lambicus mineral funk are intriguing plum and raspberry notes with a light tannic backing, painted over with brighter apricot tones and highlighted with a lemony sheen. From the aroma, you might expect an acid-forward dive into wild ale, but One and the Same doesn’t succumb. Instead, light stone fruit mingles with berry, while wood-tannin offers a touch of herbal spice that’s more sensation than flavor.
Subtle white floral notes evolve and develop as it sits, offering Sacch structure within the broader mixed-fermentation chorus. But that red-wine barrel keeps adding the perfect twist; any time it appears, the flavor may shift to more conventional tones.
Creating a beer with this much depth but such light acidity is a gamble. But it suggests a beautiful future for mixed-culture beers that can (and should) be considered in the same conversation as wine when paired with a fine meal. This beer is one that should be on every sommelier’s list—it has the potential to change opinions about what sour or mixed-fermentation beer can be. Delicate yet sturdy, understated, and intriguing, it’s one of the most compelling mixed-culture beers we’ve tasted this year.
Breakside True Gold
Our February-March 2021 issue was a chance for us to revisit “craft classics”—those styles that beer drinkers profess to love yet which rarely enjoy the hype or flashy qualities that can spur high Untappd scores. One of the standouts from that issue—Breakside’s True Gold—fits that bill perfectly. Our judges scored it a 96—a far cry from the 3.63 aggregate Untappd rating it holds at press time.
There’s a place for crowd-sourced ratings, but this beer is proof that expert reviews with an understanding of context, subtlety, and nuance are still valuable in the craft-beer world. The structure is elegantly understated but distinctly modern, with gentle stone-fruit notes that whisper rather than scream, and an understated yet defined bitterness. The lightness is a virtue, but in less-deft hands it would be easy for this Mosaic-Galaxy golden ale to become IPA-light or some other iteration of hop-driven beer. Instead, it’s a thoughtful take that embraces the classic style with a modern energy.
It is not the highest-scoring Breakside beer we’ve reviewed this year—that honor belongs to Wanderlust IPA (98), an absolute stunner of a West Coast IPA. But True Gold moves the needle for us in another way, as it prizes subtlety and history with a clever contemporary twist.
Resident Culture Static God
(Charlotte, North Carolina) One of the beautiful things about the craft lager surge is that it lifts all lager ships, including one of our favorite things in the whole wide world: a well-executed India pale lager—or hoppy lager, cold IPA, whatever you want you call it, we don’t care. What we care about in this context are those twin drives pushing for ample hop aroma and flavor alongside that lean, clean body and drier finish. You don’t have to brew it as a hit-the-numbers lager to get there, but doing so certainly seems to encourage delicious results. That’s especially true in the hands of skilled, flavor-forward brewers, such as those at Resident Culture.
In Static God, the intensity and the complexity of the hops are crystal-clear and ponderous—they didn’t dial any of that back just because this is a lager. The nose is decidedly tropical, with notes of guava, pomelo, and pineapple along with a slight diesel whiff that reminds you that this is hop-stuff and probably not a tiki drink. On the palate, more flavors emerge and express themselves, including a range of melons, grapefruit, and a hint of lime; tight, smooth bitterness and sweetness are evident and balanced, carried via a surprisingly pillowy mouthfeel. Bold, remarkable, delicious, and docked at a port only reachable by the unique route they took to get here.
Wild Provisions Metes & Bounds: Red Globe Peach
(Boulder, Colorado) It’s a peculiarity of the English language, but we have a spectacular dearth of vocabulary when it comes to describing fruit. An orange is orange and tastes like … orange. How do you describe a peach—peachy? Or do you use close relatives, such as apricot or the more generic “stone fruit?” Rather than draw comparisons between an object and a quality it might have in common with other objects, we associate the character with the fruit itself, making nuanced appreciation of the delicate differences that much more difficult.
For a beer such as Metes and Bounds: Red Globe Peach, that more descriptive language would come in handy. The broader terms do little justice to the nuance at play, and comparisons to other fruits seem lackluster at best. Yes, there are glints of lemon-and-lime acidity. In her notes, Kate describes the nose as a mix of dandelion, honey, and green grape; Stan describes it as peach pit and funk. We find elements of wood and a light minerality, a touch of fresh-baked bread in the nose, and a misty fruit tempo at the start of the sip, relative to sharper iterations. Taken together, it’s a quiet storm; the soft fruit pulls you in and oscillates between tart and sour. A touch of overripe funk adds fatter mid-tones, and the acidity lingers into the finish with a propulsive twang. Here’s another word for it: stimulating.
(Newcastle, Maine) This compelling blend of saison crispness and light tropical fruitiness stood out through our Best in Beer tasting—not because of its intensity, but because of its restraint. As mixed-culture beers increasingly push into acid-forward, wild-ale territory, Crossfade reminds us of the subtle energy that Brett convey in skilled intersection with hops and a light malt frame.
The framework of yeast character is there—crisp, light floral tones with a fresh edge, softened by light yeast-spice and palest-malt approach. In his notes, Stan hails the perfect integration of hops with the light lemon, citrus, dried fruit, and pineapple notes. That hop character is firm, bolstered by a Brett Brux-like bitter edge, highlighting funkier fermentation notes. Yet despite the subtle machinations of rustic complexity, it’s just as easy to enjoy it without overthinking. Crossfade is a beautiful beer for pairing with food; the crisp body with its tight bitterness supports flavors. It doesn’t steal attention.
There was a time when such Brett beers carried more currency, before the push into extended wood-aging morphed our perception of farmhouse-style beer. As our collective excitement over acidity wanes, Crossfade is proof that such an approach is worth renewed attention today.
Green Bench Postcard Pils
(St. Petersburg, Florida)
We’ll be frank about a semantic issue that has little or nothing to do with how tasty this beer is: As shoppers, we find the phrase “American-style pilsner” to be uniquely unhelpful. Sometimes it means a sweetish, lightly flavored adjunct lager akin to Budweiser; at other times it might mean something more brusque, pumped up with fruity-dank American hops. If everyone were to somehow agree that from now on, this is what it means—“you know, like Postcard Pils”—we’d be cool with that.
Postcard has its own strut. Embracing Noble-esque Mt. Hood and bittering to the tune of 35 IBUs, while employing a decoction mash with corn and German Barke Pilsner malt—these are hints that the brewers want to show us what they can really do … and/or, they are hard at work on perfecting their “shifty.” We reckon this is the beer they want to drink after work. If so, we’d like to join them. The yellow-gold color is bright and brilliant, while the aroma has an unassuming confidence: herbal-floral hops that hint at citrus zest melding with light, sweet bread in a familiar gestalt. The flavor is similarly integrated, with even-keeled, spicy-herbal bitterness locked in a balanced embrace with delicate malt to wind up harmoniously bittersweet. We love beers like this—the kind that hold up beautifully to sensory scrutiny, or else they fade without complaint into the background of great conversation, there to taste great whenever you bother to pay attention.
Vitamin Sea Tropical Envy (Collaboration with Civil Society Brewing)
(East Weymouth, Massachusetts)
Apologies to those who might expect us to turn our noses up at the thought of triple IPA, but while we appreciate (and drink) plenty of small beers, we have developed quite the crush on these 10-plus percent ABV IPAs—or as Joe likes to call them, “hopwines.” There’s just something about the intensity, alcohol, and sweetness that heightens the experience of today’s new hops.
Tropical Envy was top of the triple IPA charts for our blind-review panel this year, and for good reason—this intricate machine made of many moving hop-parts evokes tropical-fruit juice with orange, pineapple, papaya, and mango, and it does so with light, funky tropical notes in tow—those light sulfur and phenol notes that add the beloved spicy foil to the more obvious sweet-fruit elements. A beer so excessively hopped could easily become a train wreck of muddled flavors and hop burn, but Tropical Envy lives up to its billing with cleanly expressed fruit flavors and just a touch of creaminess to highlight them. It’s definitely dessert-ish, but “hopwines” are generally our last beers of the night, and none satisfied us this year quite as much as this one.
Maplewood Barrel Aged Cuppa Vanilla Rye
Vanilla rye barrel–aged stout isn’t new territory—Goose Island’s 2010 and 2014 releases of Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Stout are legendary—so it takes a bit of swagger for a fellow Chicagoland brewery to tread that same ground. Maplewood’s barrel program has been on the upswing for the past few years, driven by Cuppa coffee stout, and this 2021 release of Barrel Aged Cuppa Vanilla Rye finds them coming into their own with a maturity and spark.
Three varieties of vanilla do the heavy lifting, adding sweet floral layers over the woody whiskey heat and accentuating the very light sweetness in the body without excessive or flabby heft. The coffee adds a subtle roast and additional dark fruit notes. The expected rye spice is there, but it’s defined by a smoothness that works that spice into a consistent flow. Chocolate notes help cut the sweetness with some darker cacao, while a touch of boozy heat also cuts through.
What makes it great? Decadence, without excess. It’s relatively easy to make a 20°P finishing stout with a huge body that’s syrupy sweet. It’s harder to orchestrate all these competing forces—malt body, barrel heat, coffee roast and fruitiness, lactose, vanilla herbal notes and fruitiness, malt caramel mid-layers—into something cohesive. Add in the component of time in the barrel, and the complexity increases further. It takes a particular vision matched with technical skill to produce a beer this compelling, and Maplewood has it dialed in.