Late December “Best of the Year” lists are dicey at best, and corrupt at worst. So I have good news for you: This is the best kind of list! It’s not corrupt, because I’m not trying to advance any nefarious agenda. Make no mistake: my integrity is absolutely for sale. But no one’s made a compelling offer, other than the odd free beer, which I’ll disclose when relevant. So the following list is marred only by its manifest diceyness, which is due mostly to my limited access—I’m not saying any of these beers are objectively superior to Quintuple Dry-Hopped Pappy-Barrel-Aged Pliny the Dopest, but I don’t get my grubby little lips around every beer produced.
A couple of other things: My memory is decent, for a guy who writes about beer for a living, which is to say my memory is only 90 percent shot. That means I’m certainly forgetting at least a two dozen transcendent beers from the past dozen months. I’m also giving “best” a pretty shaky definition. All of these beers excelled at a particular thing in a particular context. One of them, for instance, was great at being a very good session rye IPA that showed up at my doorstep unannounced from a brewery I’d barely heard of. No other beer can make that claim, hence that beer was the best at that important task. Okay, enough disclaiming, let’s get on to the semi-arbitrary anointing.
This was 2015’s best beer in the crucial category of Things I Drank While Playing Hooky At A Brewery One Tuesday Afternoon. I’m a huge Jack’s Abby fan, which I try to keep quiet around these parts because it’s not (yet) distributed widely enough to solve problems for most of you. But this sour lager bears mentioning, because it shows a perfect balance of fruit and funk, with obvious nectarine and less prominent orange and lemon flavors, with just enough tartness to justify the name, but not so much that it overpowers the rest of the beer’s character.
Here’s a sour beer that’s a little easier to get a hold of, as Deschutes is distributed to just about every state west of Ohio (I don’t live in one of those states, though; I got a sample from the brewery). The Dissident is an oud bruin, which is a Flanders-style sour brown ale. It’s aged partially in red wine barrels, with wild yeast and cherries adding the tang. It opens with a resolutely woody aroma that’s quickly followed by tart cherry, vanilla, brandy, and orange. Black pepper was the first flavor across my taste buds, joined in a hurry by lemon, cherry, and cinnamon. Even at nearly $20 a bottle, this is worth tracking down.
Virginia’s Port City isn’t sold in my state, but they send me a li’l bribe, so here we are discussing one of my favorite low-octane beers of 2015. This 4.5-percent ABV rye IPA has a spicy pepper kick along with the traditional citrus and pine, along with a firm dose of caramel malt. That’s an awful lot of action for a session IPA, a category many cynics dismiss as simply watered-down versions of full-strength IPAs. I’ve had at least a hundred 7-plus-percent India pale ales that are less compelling than Ways and Means.
Representing the other end of the IPA strength spectrum, we have Boston Beer Company’s ambitious new 10-percent ABV face-melter. Other double IPAs might be better, but not many, and not by much. What makes Rebel Raw a “best” beer of 2015 isn’t just its very high quality, but also the crucial role it’s going to play in encouraging other breweries (and their distributors) to make sure we drinkers get the freshest possible beer. Each 16-ounce can of Rebel Raw bears an easy-to-spot brewed-on date and an admonishment to “Keep Cold. Drink Now.” Too many IPAs languish on store shelves well past their primes, and although beer geeks deride Samuel Adams for jumping late onto the DIPA bandwagon, and rightfully credit Stone’s Enjoy-By for raising freshness awareness, Rebel Raw might be our most important ally yet in the war against faded hops.
Here’s another double IPA that stands up to the best of the category in terms of sheer quality while also bringing something else to the table: Sucks is very easy to find, and it’s sold in quart bottles. At 7.85-percent ABV, it’s not quite as potent as some of the newer models, and although it has Lagunitas’s signature dank, resinous hop character, the multigrain malt bill also asserts itself throughout. This is a well balanced, approachable beer with lemon, pine, tropical fruit, and caramel flavors, and I hereby vow to drink at least a quart a month in 2016. Join me, won’t you?
Okay, that’s enough kowtowing to the big boys. The pain-in-the-butt truth of the matter is that most of the better American IPAs really are brewed by boutique outfits in isolated areas. Fortunately, Foundation makes great beer squarely on the beaten path in Portland, Maine, so while it’s still not real easy to come by, at least it doesn’t require a trip to the middle of nowhere to wait in line hoping that some megalomaniac hillbilly will deign to sell you his beer. If you track down a can of Epiphany, you’ll be blown away by the rich aromas and flavors of pineapple, mango, grapefruit, and light pine.
Forget about who owns Goose Island. Forget about the hype around the annual Black Friday release and the skuzzy after-market for the rarer variants. I know that I’ve invoked characteristics beyond a beer’s sheer quality in making arguments for some of the other entries on this, but right now I’m asking you to do the opposite, and consider this beer outside of any context beyond “Is this one of the top barrel-aged stouts in the world?” Even the biggest InBev-basher has to concede that it is. Should you wait in line for it? I wouldn’t. It’s easy to find a barrel-aged imperial stout that’s nearly as good. But the 2015 BCBS is so full of roasted coffee, chocolate, molasses, leather, tar, vanilla, and black fruit flavors that it’s well worth the $11 retail price if you don’t have to jump through any hoops. (This varies widely by market; a store in my neighborhood still has dozens of cases nearly a month after the release, but I understand this is not the norm.)
This is a bit of a cop-out in that Curieux is my all-time favorite beer, and I put it on every listicle I construct, including “Best Cheeseburgers in Louisville” and “Best Beers Other Than Curieux.” This is why I was tempted to put Allagash’s tart strawberry wonderbrew Avance here instead, but the plain truth is that I prefer Curieux. A blend of fresh Belgian tripel with tripel that’s been aged in Jim Beam barrels, Curieux tastes like an ideal combination of yeast esters, vanilla, caramel, oak, coconut, dried fruit, and whiskey.