The Top 20 Beers of 2017

Aaron Goldfarb picks the most memorable beers he tasted this year.

Sometimes, when it’s late at night, after I’ve had a little too much to drink, I think about quitting the writing life.

Fuck it, I say to myself, I’ll just open a brewery instead. On Monday we could brew a New England-style IPA (NEIPA), double dry-hopping it with, oh, Citra and Galaxy. The next Saturday I’d arrive at work and find several-hundred hirsute and heavy men camped outside on the sidewalk. I’d open the garage doors and sell each a case of pounder cans and maybe some branded TeKu #glasswhales as well. By the end of the day, I would have made a cool $500,000.

The continuing fervor over juicy, hazy NEIPAs became so predictable and ubiquitous in 2017 it’s almost impossible to satire. If you simply brew these beers, beer geeks will magically come, quod erat demonstratum. Thus, even breweries that promised to never, ever make an IPA started completely betraying their ethos to do so. I don’t blame them, they’re businesses first, and there’s a seemingly endless amount of NEIPA-earmarked money burning holes through beer geeks’ cargo shorts. Nevertheless, while 2017 may indeed be the year of the NEIPA, the style represents a small portion of my essential beers list.

What impressed me the most in 2017? Craftsmanship, for one. This was often seen in Old-World styles made from beer’s four basic ingredients, like TRVE’s Cold; breweries making beers of nuance and subtlety, like Jester King’s Saison Americaine and Threes Brewing’s Grain of Salt; and beers created through the use of the wild yeasts and bacteria inherent in each brewery’s unique location, like The Ale Apothecary’s Minotaur and American Solera’s Norton Fellowship.

Of course, this list is highly personal. A good 100,000 new beers were released in the last 12 months, and I am but one man (who, yes, lives in New York). The beers below also reflect where I am at in my own craft beer-drinking journey—one that has taken me from the more bombastic beers of my youth to styles that reflect, more purely, both the expert hand of the brewer and the unique place they come from.

TRVE Cold | 4.9 percent

No longer were hip breweries embarrassed to make no-frills lagers in 2017, especially if they were the delicate, unfiltered kind. Such was the case for this heavy metal brewery out of Denver, Colorado, whose Czech-style kellerbier (a somewhat obscure, cold-lagered style) pours a hazy straw yellow, with a nose of hay and grass, leading into a biscuity, if not a tad fruity, note on the palate. A crisp, slightly bitter finish keeps you coming back for more of this sub-5 percent ABV crusher.

Proclamation Tendril (Double Dry Hopped) | 7.5 percent

I literally drank every single beer at every single Rhode Island brewery on a single Friday back in February. I found a highly-underrated brew scene, with quite a few local heroes that should be nationally renowned by now. The best of the bunch is Proclamation Ale Company, a spot just outside Providence making, yes, de rigeur hazy and hoppy beers, but coaxing unique character out of them. In a double dry-hopped version of their “1 and 1/2 times IPA,” Tendril—i.e. halfway between a single and double IPA—old-school “C” hops (Columbus, Centennial, etc.) play nice with the hipper, experimental varieties of today. It makes for a beer that is, yes, juicy and tropical as is the style these days, but still balanced by a piney, resinous quality the East Coast now mostly avoids.

Tree House Bright with Citra | 7.8 percent

Of course, the reason NEIPAs became the dominant fad in brewing today was because some places were just so damn good at making them. The preeminent producer—if not the initial popularizer of the style when they released Julius in 2012—comes out of central Massachusetts. I tried most of Tree House’s 2017 offerings and this was the one that stuck with me the most: A double IPA that’s surprisingly clean, and allows for the extraordinarily citrusy Citra to take center stage. With strong notes of mango and tangerine on the nose, with a flavor profile and texture leaning toward fresh-squeezed OJ and ruby red grapefruit juice, it’s become the archetype of the style for me.

Hudson Valley Amorphia | 6 percent

When I ran into brewer Jason Synan in early October, he hinted that he’d invented a new style of beer with the upcoming release of this sour IPA. I was leery to say the least. Weren’t there plenty of Brett-spiked IPAs already out there? This was a completely new vision, though. It is NEIPA-esque in body, green-hop character and softness—he calls on both malted oats and milk sugar—but with an added spike of tartness from strawberries. If NEIPAs are ever going to advance from their salad days, this is the direction in which they should head.

Folksbier Citrus Melange Glow Up | 4 percent

Fruited Berliner weisse is another style that has seemingly become a pure cash grab, with every brewery making fairly one-note offerings, simply because they sell so well. Not so at Travis Kauffman’s Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn brewery, which produces a series of these beers under the Glow Up moniker. Though this year saw pineapple, watermelon and cucumber-lime releases, Citrus Melange (featuring Cara Cara navel oranges, Minneola tangelos and Meyer lemons) was the best of the bunch. Wheaty with a yogurt tang on the palate due to the Lactobacillus inoculation, the addition of citrus fruit and a tinge of salinity has this drinking like the beer version of a Salty Dog.

Jester King Saison Americaine | 5.2 percent

This Austin-area brewery continues questioning what certain once-localized beer styles should offer, often to groundbreaking results. Need a lambic only be made in Pajottenland? Can you make a saison in the hot Hill Country farmlands of Texas? Whatever you want to call it, the answer in this case was a definitive yes. A true standout in the category, Saison Americaine is fermented with a mixed culture inside foudres (essentially massive oak barrels), producing a beer that is tart but not punishing, and redolent of dried apricots and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

Threes Brewing/Eleven Madison Park Grain of Salt | 5.8 percent

Today, quality beer isn’t just served at the best restaurants in the world, it’s commissioned by them. This collaboration between a hip Gowanus, Brooklyn brewpub and Daniel Humm’s Michelin three-star spot arose when the latter’s team wanted a unique beverage pairing for a new dish on their tasting menu. A quintessential food beer, this saison is brewed with Amagansett sea salt. Bright and slightly funky, the salinity almost acts as seasoning for whatever you’re eating, while the fizziness scrubs your palate for another bite, another sip, ad infinitum.

Blackberry Farm Barrel Series 18 Month Brett Saison | 8.5 percent

“Farmhouse” breweries were long a misnomer in the American beer game, with most saisons coming out of your typical urban warehouse district. That’s why it’s been exciting to see a new breed of great beers actually coming from the farm. This farm in Walland, Tennessee, which has become a food-world destination, started brewing their own farmhouse and Belgian-style beers in 2013, but of late they’ve really come into their own. This special release takes their classic saison (which is high on the fruity esters from a special house yeast) and ages it in red wine barrels for 18 months. Bright acidity and and a dose of funk give way to plenty of bright, tart strawberry fruit with an herbal freshness that recalls dill. 

Suarez Family Backroads | 5.6 percent

This Hudson Valley outfit might have become the best brewery in America in 2017. Dan Suarez proved to be a master with unfiltered lagers last year; this year he showed his excellence in the art of funk and barrel-aging. He calls his farmhouse ales “country beers,” and they range from the simple to the sublime. While he typically eschews adjuncts, this atypical offering features foraged staghorn sumac and locally grown tangerine marigold. A masterclass in nuance and complexity, Backroads hits you with expressed citrus oils on the nose, leading into a bramble of berries and then more vinous notes, finishing with a lemon drop candy note.

Oxbow Ish | 7 percent

So often brewery collaborations are less than the sum of their parts. Not this time. Maine’s top farmhouse specialist combined with LA’s Monkish, who started out exclusively producing Belgian-style offerings to produce Ish, a dark farmhouse ale made of 95 percent Maine grains (including triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid) barrel-aged with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and saison yeast. Oaky and highly acidic, almost vinegar-like, it’s full of highly concentrated dark fruit (think plums, blackberries and sour cherries).

The Ale Apothecary Minotaur | 8.67 percent

My most memorable brewery visit of the year was at this just-opened barrel-aging facility in Bend, Oregon. There, Paul Arney produces single-barrel offerings that are strictly fermented by wild yeast and bacteria—though sometimes he adds fruits and botanicals—and then aged. Hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, Arney’s beers take years to mature, and such patience leads to extraordinary complex, truly one-of-a-kind brews. This year’s release of Minotaur, which is aged in wine and bourbon barrels with blackberries, particularly wowed me. Bordeaux-like, with rich, dark fruit and bittersweet chocolate notes and a tart finish, there’s simply no one else on earth making beer quite like this.

Four Quarters Brewing Co. Little Umbrellas | 3.5 percent

It would seem impossible for a beer, if not a brewery, to fly under the radar in the beer geek wonderland that is Vermont, but such is the case here. Located in Winooski, just outside of Burlington, Four Quarters is fond of using unexpected fruits for their wild ales. Thus, this unusually composed sour ale is made with toasted coconut and pineapples. Like a piña colada in a tulip glass, sweet coconut notes on the nose betray a lean, high-acid beer. Highly carbonated and just 3.5-percent alcohol, it’s extremely drinkable and refreshing.

Holy Mountain Brewing Wraith | 6 percent

Released in the last weeks of 2016, this fruited sour ale shows why many folks now hail this Seattle brewery as one of the best in America. Mixed-fermented in oak barrels with their house culture, the beer is further aged in puncheons that include blackberries and raspberries. The color of NyQuil, it’s funky, yet fruity on the nose, finding a delicate balance between the tart and jammy. Bone dry on the palate, like the best Belgian fruit lambics, the vinous mouthfeel and vivid berry flavor stuck with me all year long.

Logsdon Farmhouse Ales Spontane Wilde | 7.4 percent

The breweries with the chutzpah to attempt to make American-style gueuzes are some of the biggest names in the industry. And while Logsdon Farmhouse is hardly chopped liver, I still didn’t expect them to completely dominate our November blind tasting. Yet they did with their coolship-fermented, oak-aged spontaneous blend. Coming from Oregon’s Hood River Valley, this so-dubbed “method van lembeek” offers intense blue cheese on the nose, with notes of banana and “Honey Nut Cheerios,” matched by a mouthfeel that manages to be both creamy and sharply acidic.

American Solera Norton Fellowship | 6 percent

As Tulsa Oklahoma’s breakout brewery enters year two, brewmaster Chase Healey (formerly of Prairie Artisan Ales) is already firing on all cylinders. Norton Fellowship is American Solera’s most sophisticated, ambitious offering to date, a blend of a sour ale fruited with norton wine grapes as well as two-year-old spontaneous-fermented beer. Funky on the nose, the beer is dry and lip-puckeringly tart with a tannic finish; think of it as an American version of Cantillon’s much ballyhooed Saint Lamvinus.

Casey Brewing/Side Project Brewing Jammy | 8 percent

Another collaboration, this one between two of America’s most sophisticated wild-barrel blenders. Both the Colorado-based Casey and the St. Louis-area Side Project brewed the same saison recipe at their home base, which they then fermented and aged in oak with their respective house yeast and bacteria. After aging for several months, Colorado blackberries were added, creating two wine-like beers with assertive acidity. The beer is funkier on Side Project’s side, and jammier on Casey’s. Both are excellent.

Toppling Goliath Assassin | 12 percent

“Dessert” stouts are in the same boat as NEIPAs. These Banana Split beers are easy enough to enjoy, but they aren’t exactly nuanced. Still, if Tree House is able to stand out in a crowded field of NEIPAs, Toppling Goliath does so in the dessert stout world. First released in 2012, this latest batch was exceptional. So thick you can almost chew on it, the 12-percent ABV offering is hardly one-note. Mocha and chocolate-covered cherries are prominent with underlying notes of caramel, vanilla, marshmallows and coconut.

Mikkeller SAS RAS No. 5 – Past, Present & Future | 9 percent

I used to be happy to see Goose Island Honkers Ale on the inflight menu. This year, however, I was completely shocked to find a chardonnay barrel-aged sour ale made specifically to be served on Scandinavian Airlines and engineered for “high altitude” drinking. This “Rare Air Series” beer is citrusy and slightly herbal on the nose, with a tart and tropical body backed by a spicy yeastiness. I’m not going to tell you to fly Scandinavian Airlines just to try this beer. But I’m not going to tell you not to, either.

Bokkereyder Framboos Vanille | 6 percent

I saw no way Bokkereyder could live up to the immense hype American beer geeks started bestowing on it in 2016. But Raf Souvereyns’ one-of-a-kind blends (he doesn’t brew currently) are as good as anything produced by the blue bloods of Belgian beer. There’s also utterly unique, calling on barrel finishes and flavor additions traditionalists would never dare attempt. Framboos Vanille is a lambic aged for two years in pinot noir barrels with Pajottenland raspberries and Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla beans. Extremely fruity and sweet on the nose, it’s a roller coaster ride between the bombastic notes of barrel and vanilla and the tart, lactic notes characteristic of lambic.

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Cuvée Armand & Gaston (2016-2017) | 5.2 percent

Often unfairly seen as the 1B to Cantillon’s 1A in the Great Lambic Wars, 3 Fonteinen continues to produce world-class blends every year. This classic gueuze only utilizes lambics brewed at 3 Fonteinen, which started brewing these current batches in 2013 (though they have been blending since 1883). Armand Debelder took over from his father, Gaston, as current brewer and blender in 1982. Their eponymous beer, a blend of lambics aged on four different barrels originating from eight different brews, is incredibly refined and complex. Funk, hay and a cheesy note on the nose gives way to more delicate stone fruit flavors and a crisp, dry finish.

All these beers were released in 2017, or released late in 2016 and not not available to most until this year.

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