Good things happened in 2016. No, for real! I’m not going to deny that a few ungood things happened, too, but let’s try to focus on the nice stuff for a minute or 10. For instance, the Cubs won the World Series and that made a lot of people happy. Colombia got at least marginally more peaceful. The drinking water is perfectly safe in literally hundreds of American cities. We’re on pace for 364 days on which Prince does not die. Some other things are fine.
American beer had another great year, too, and not only because we all had so many great excuses to start drinking halfway through “The Price Is Right” most goddamn mornings. We finally have over 5,000 breweries, and most of them make good beer. That makes it impossible for any one person to reliably name the 10 best new beers of the year. Nevertheless, here is my honest, if ultimately unreliable, attempt to do just that.
My personal tastes have me in the Basic Craft Beer Bro camp, which is to say I’m a sucker for assertive hops, barrel aging, and fruity sours. I drink and enjoy plenty of quieter styles, too, but it’s harder for a pilsner, say, to make a strong enough impression on me to be included in this list. That’s a personal bias of mine; I’ll try to correct it in time for next year’s list. As for 2016, presented below are the new beers that hit me the hardest over the past 12 months.
Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion
The tasteful geniuses at The Full Pint recently named this their Beer of the Year, and I’m inclined to agree. FW’s new “revolving hop series” beer keeps the malt bill consistent while switching up the hop load with each quarterly release. It’s a clever hook that keeps drinkers interested without confusing retailers or requiring sales reps to hustle up interest in a brand-new brew every three months. I’ve enjoyed all four renditions released in 2016; they’re broadly similar, because they’re made by the same people using the same barley and the same equipment, but I think a mildly discerning palate could tell them all apart. I’ve convinced myself my favorite was Revolution 002, with 003 pulling up the still-distinguished rear. The newest, 004, featuring a quartet of South African hop varieties, packs tons of tropical and floral flavors into an easy-drinking 5.9-percent ABV pale ale.
Half Acre Orin
This is an imperial brown ale aged for nine months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, and it blew my little mind. It had every good flavor a big, dark beer can offer, including roasted walnuts, brownie batter, and vanilla milkshake.
Building 8 The Double
This is the newest beer on the list, and also the selection most likely influenced by personal bias. My wife and I spent a couple of late-November days in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the locals speak highly of Building 8’s The IPA. We walked a very cold mile to the brewery one afternoon only to find a “Sorry, out of beer” sign taped to the door. This made me very angry. Then the next day we happened upon The IPA’s brand-new big brother, The Double, on the tap list at the Moan and Dove, one of our all-time favorite beer bars, which made me very happy
The Double is fruit-forward for sure, with lots of grapefruit along with some mango and orange up front. But there’s more bitter pine presence than most other ambitious New England IPAs feature these days. It’s smooth, balanced, and very approachable for its weight class (8.2-percent ABV). The Double made the list because it’s objectively great, and also because it’s a welcome reminder that a top-notch double IPA needn’t be hazy and juicy.
Kent Falls Anachronism
Kent Falls is a dynamic little Connecticut brewery that specializes in weird beers of all stripes, and they do fantastic work with this Grodziskie, or Grätzer, an old Polish style of oak-smoked wheat beer. Anachronism’s gentle smokiness is augmented by piney noble hops and a vaguely meaty aspect that makes it a great beer and also a fine meal-replacement option for the adventurous gourmand who doesn’t have time to chew.
This new fall seasonal is quietly subversive for a modern IPA, with a sweet, bready Märzen-inspired maltiness adding class and depth to the citrus and pine hop profile.
Tröegs Nimble Giant
If Tröegs had any decency at all, it would make Nugget Nectar available year-round. That may never happen, but at least it took a step in the right direction in 2016 by introducing this gorgeous 9-percent ABV double IPA to help fill in some of the gaps between Nugget seasons. Nimble Giant’s only available part-time, too, and it’s also more than worth the wait, with huge pineapple, grapefruit, and pine flavors that were unsurpassed by any DIPA I drank this year.
Allagash Little Brett
Brettanomyces beers are everywhere all of a sudden. But a lot of them are deeply underwhelming. There’s reason to hope this sad situation will improve as brewers gain more experience with the funky yeast strain. But you don’t need to hold your breath if you’re lucky enough to live within Allagash’s distribution footprint. Little Brett has a deep, robust earthiness augmented by a strong pineapple burst from Mosaic dry-hopping, along with subtle doses of both tartness and bitterness.
Notch Infinite Jest
One of my personal beer highlights of 2016 was taking the ferry from Boston to Salem to visit Notch’s new taproom (they have skee ball!). These session beer masters can do no wrong in my book, and this hoppy wheat beer is among their very best. Mosaic, Equinox, and Citra dry-hopping provide the full range of tropical and citrus flavors atop a light bed of fresh-baked bread.