2016 was an amazing year for beer, especially at Paste headquarters. This year we did 10 blind tastings, covering everything from Oktoberfest beers to American IPAs.
Most of the beers in each tasting were sent to us directly by brewers, while others were purchased near our home office in Georgia. Our tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, and beer reps, all of whom judged beers completely blind.
We had a ton of good beers this year, some great ones, and a handful of truly remarkable, absolutely outstanding brews. What follows are the winners of the 10 tastings we did this year, each of which is an outstanding representation of their respective styles. If you happen to have the opportunity to pick any of these up at your local bottle shop, or are able to try a pint at your favorite pub, DO IT. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Fremont Brewing Co. Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale
City: Seattle, WA
Fremont Brewing Company’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale beat out 25 other beers to win top honors in the Fresh-Hop Harvest Ale category. Woah, did this beer come out of left field to surprise us. Note: We weren’t surprised that Fremont Brewing Co. was the winner, because Fremont is a damn good brewery that has proven itself repeatedly in these tastings, but because we’ve never tasted any hop-forward beer from Fremont before that tastes like this one. Where many of their other hop-forward beers have seemed well-balanced, classical and measured to us, this one is rowdy, juicy and free-wheeling.
With a hop nose almost as purely big as the Born Yesterday, Cowiche Canyon is certainly one of the hoppiest beers in the tasting. It presents big, juicy lemon citrus and tropical fruit notes, chased by more bitter, resinous impressions. Compared side-by-side with the Born Yesterday, it’s the citrus that edges out resin this time. On the palate, it’s juicy and semi-sweet, a bit less dry than Born Yesterday and with just a ghost of soft, bready malt as well. The hops here are simply perfect in their integration and how they fit into the beer as a whole. The whole thing deserves a standing ovation, and we at Paste are happy to be the ones to give it.
Cigar City Good Gourd Almighty
City: Tampa, FL
Cigar City took top honors this year for its pumpkin masterpiece, Good Gourd Almighty. The name of this beer more or less approximates the first thought that goes through your brain after taking a sip of it, immediately followed by “what is the ABV on this again?” Because good lord, this beer is a monstrous flavor bomb. The bourbon barrel aging really transforms the original Good Gourd, adding such a depth of flavor and intense fruitiness that the resulting beer almost seems more like a barrel-aged Belgian quad than something immediately identifiable as a pumpkin ale. Waves and waves of dark and dried fruitiness abound, with big plum, raising, etc notes on both the nose and palate. Big booze naturally brings with it decadent sweetness, but to quote one score sheet, “If you’re going to do big and sweet, here’s how to do it right.” The caramelization and vanilla character comes along with the whiskey barrel-aging, but the takeaway is just how much malt and fruit character they crammed into its frame, supported by spices that are actually fairly subtle—or perhaps they just have a harder time peeking out when you have so many other flavors turned up to 11. Regardless, Good Gourd Almighty is sinfully decadent—it feels like something you’d drink out of a little cordial glass at the end of a meal as a digestif. This would be an amazing pumpkin beer to split among several friends on Halloween evening, no doubt about that.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
City: Aying, Germany
It’s no surprise that a classic German märzen took the top spot in this category. Ayinger is a perennial favorite in this category, and a beer that plenty of American craft beer geeks think of as their annual oktoberfest must-buy, and this result justifies that position in the marketplace. In terms of profile, though, it’s actually a fair bit different from most of the other German märzens that were on the table. It’s somewhat darker for one, with a distinctly creamy, viscous mouthfeel that most of the beers in this style don’t have. Smooth, toasty malt is dominant, with a small but noticeable level of balancing bitterness. Multiple tasters even noted a light citrus note that was also unexpected. Between the mouthfeel and mild residual sweetness, though, the biggest impression one takes away from the Ayinger is the unquantifiable idea of “smoothness” and rounded flavors—there are no rough edges here. It’s quite drinkable, but in a slightly richer, fuller way than in say, the #2 beer from Third Street Brewhouse. It’s a German classic, but it hits a distinctive sweet spot between many of the other German interpretations of the style and the profile that American consumers expect. And as a result, it’s a consummate oktoberfest beer.
Prison City Pub & Brewery Mass Riot
City: Auburn, NY
We went through a mind-boggling 247 American IPAs this summer to get to Prison City Pub & Brewery’s Mass Riot. In terms of profile, Mass Riot is a huge, massively tropical, unabashedly juicy hop bomb. Orange juice hits hard, as does pineapple juice and grapefruit candy. Resinous flavors on the back end help rein things in only the slightest bit, but this is definitely a juicy IPA first and foremost, and a moderately sweet one as well. One tasting sheet dubs it “Caribbean pale ale” for its tropical flavors, while another refers to it as “The Big Juicy.” In the finals, it was particularly beloved despite having a little bit of age on it, with one taster writing “Rich and fruity, cantaloupe and citrus, a beautiful combination.” Likewise full in terms of mouthfeel, it seems significantly bigger than its 6.3% ABV, with a body that goes on for days. It’s truly a decadent IPA, and we can’t wait until Prison City is producing a much larger amount of beer so we can taste it more often. In the meantime, we’d settle for just one more taste.
Urban Chestnut Stammtisch
City: St. Louis, MO
I’d say we’re surprised, but honestly, we’re not. Urban Chestnut, who we wrote about as Missouri’s most underrated brewery, simply makes superlative German beer styles, and there’s no denying it. Whether it’s a hefeweizen or zwickelbier or pilsner, they are experts at handling the subtleties of German styles, especially those that are dependent upon malt complexity.
What this brewery manages to do on the regular is wring unique flavor out of ingredients that literally everyone uses. What are they doing to get this kind of perfectly balanced bready, grainy flavor profile out of simple pilsner malt? I have no idea, but there’s a degree of malt complexity in most of their German beer styles that makes those beers pop. In Stammtisch, that maltiness is balanced by wonderfully floral, perfumey, evocative hops that dominate the nose before slowly ceding to malt on the palate. It’s an extremely clean, crisp German pilsner that strikes the ideal balance between drinkability and character—a hoppy beer that would never overwhelm the palate of a hop-averse drinker, and provides a little bit of something for everyone. It’s just a delicious pilsner.
Stone Enjoy By 05.04.16 Black IPA
City: Escondido, CA
Like most hopheads, we’ve enjoyed Stone’s regular Enjoy By IPA ever since its first release, but it was a pleasant surprise to try this beer and come to a realization: Enjoy By Black may have surpassed its original inspiration.
This offering is seriously hoppy, which gives it perhaps the best overall nose on any of the beers in the tasting. A plethora of fruit notes explode from the glass—tropical fruit in particular, but also a delightful stone fruit character that reminded some tasters of apricot. It’s admittedly lighter on the “black” side of the equation—dark brownish red in color, really, rather than true black—and this is reflected in the malt flavors, which are more like the stage for hops to dance upon. Search enough, though, and you’ll find just enough cocoa and nutty malt impressions on the back end that you would realize this wasn’t simply an IPA, drinking it blindfolded. It’s also remarkable how well that ABV is hidden. There were beers on the table in the 7% ABV range that tasted boozier than this 9.4% offering.
The nose on this beer is a beautiful thing—we may like this hop profile even more than the one in the original version of Enjoy By. It reminds us that in the end, “black IPA” is a style that each brewery essentially gets to define for itself—it’s malleable to the personal style of a brewmaster, and there’s no right answer. Whatever you want to call it, we’re happy to refer to it as our new favorite black IPA.
Revolution Brewing Straight Jacket
City: Chicago, IL
After tasting Straight Jacket, we were not at all surprised to see that it was a gold medal winner at FOBAB—Chicago’s Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers—because this beer from Revolution is an absolute monster. There’s a stupid amount of flavor in this beer—it’s like you’re drinking it straight out of the barrel, and each barrel still had a quart of whiskey in it when the beer entered.
Of course, “tastes biggest” is not a free pass to “tastes best.” The amazing thing about Straight Jacket is that it takes these massively rich flavors—vanilla custard, grade A maple syrup, butterscotch—and somehow creates something that is not difficult to drink and enjoy. This beer isn’t “challenging,” or any of the words we beer writers like to use in order to describe something you have to work at in order to savor. God help us, this gigantic, whiskey-soaked, 13.5% ABV barleywine is somehow frighteningly drinkable. It’s like all the rough edges have been expertly smoothed away with a bevel made of solidified bourbon. It’s downright scary.
I close with this: One of the taster’s notes for this beer simply read “Oh my god.” Is it any wonder it’s our new favorite barleywine
Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw (Blue label)
City: Mechelen, Belgium
What Chimay Blue was to one day of the blind tasting, Van de Keizer was to the next. This is a truly beautiful Belgian dark strong ale, and one that’s been sitting right under many of our noses. Toasted malt and rye bread flavors are complemented by light cocoa, unusual to see in most of the Belgians … plus a dark, cherry/plummy fruitiness. Once again, there’s no mistaking the source, as it’s obvious from the first sip that you’re drinking a product of Belgium. The caramel/crystal malt character is extremely well-balanced by a drying finish, as most of the classic Belgians possess, which also does a remarkable job of hiding the 11% ABV. It’s assertive without being obnoxious and rich without being cloying. Van de Keizer simply does everything well. If it’s been a long time since the last time you tasted one, I highly recommend you pick some up and maybe compare it side by side with a few of the other Belgian classics. We promise, it’s more than worthy.
Boneyard Beer Co. Bone-A-Fide Pale Ale
City: Bend, OR
A taster marking down a beer with a rating of “100” is something we’ve seen only a handful of times in the course of doing these sessions. This was one of those times.
On some level, we were surprised it was Boneyard, but on second thought we weren’t surprised at all. They performed well in our DIPA tasting, and their single IPA, RPM, made the finals of our original 116 IPA blind tasting. This is a brewery that knows hops, but this beautiful pale ale might be their most perfect execution of a hoppy beer.
To quote directly from that 100-point score sheet: “Gorgeous hop aroma/flavor. Huge floral, tropical fruit and honey malt flavors. Fan-damn-tastic.” The flavors aren’t just big, though, they’re staggeringly complex. You get waves of tropical fruit (pineapple, passionfruit) on the nose, along with citrus, but also an almost peppery spiciness. It’s sweet without being cloying, light of body without being watery, hugely flavorful while being drinkable. It barges in and puts your taste buds on notice.
Go out and get some of this beer, and conduct your own blind tasting. If Bone-A-Fide doesn’t win, write to us and let us know about the magical beer you’ve discovered that beat it. Because Boneyard has served up one of the best American pales ale here that we’ve ever had.
Angry Orchard The Old Fashioned
City: Cincinnati, OH
Yes, we even did a hard cider tasting this year. We honestly figured that the winner of this kind of tasting would probably be some artisanal, funky cider from a small, hyped cidery, but this is why blind tastings are so interesting. Angry Orchard, the biggest cider-maker in the U.S., arrives out of left field with a new product that has barely even hit the market yet, and gives us a cider that is not quite like anything else out of the other 81 in the tasting.
The Old Fashioned is fascinating in both conception and execution, especially given that one doesn’t necessarily seem to reflect the other, at least on first inspection. It’s a cider made from a blend of American apples that is then aged on oak with tart cherries, orange peel and bourbon barrel staves. Note that this is staves, the broken-down pieces that were once the interior of a bourbon barrel, rather than aging the entire thing in a whiskey barrel. The result is a very complex, subtle and wonderfully executed cider that drinkers might not initially understand, because they’re expecting it to be so much more brash. But there’s a big difference in how this cider interacts with a wood addition and how, say, the Woodchuck Barrel select uses its bourbon barrels.
The Old Fashioned simply doesn’t come off with a “bourbon” quality. Rather, it uses disparate elements—light, neutral oak, zesty citrus, a hint of vanilla and supple tannins—to create a wholly different impression, almost as if it had been aged in a crisp white wine barrel. Hints of tropical fruit are only amplified by the slight vanillans and caramelization presumably provided by the bourbon barrel staves. It’s a beautifully complex cider that forces you to look at the label and then imagine its construction from the brewer’s point of view. It’s a surprising treat.