The week before Thanksgiving, Monkish Brewing Co. dropped a new release. This in itself was not atypical. The Los Angeles–area brewery, which opened in 2012, has built its reputation on acclaimed weekly releases of hazy IPA cans. This latest troika of offerings mostly fit that pattern: a triple IPA made with Citra hops as well as a buzzy double dry-hopped double IPA. Less expected, however, was the third can that hit the market: Pug Claw—a hibiscus- and lime zest–flavored hard seltzer.
In 2019, the biggest trend in alcohol—the insane rise of White Claw and other ready-to-drink malt beverages—has begun to usurp even the IPA’s seemingly immutable stranglehold on craft beer.
“I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure what a good seltzer actually is…,” wrote one Monkish fan on Untappd, a social media app in which drinkers review beers. “I’m hoping this fad doesn’t last long.”
I’m hoping the same thing. Craft brewing was built in response to the bland sameness that had infected the beer world in a post-Prohibition America—a movement that saw vibrant, regional facilities replaced by a select few mega-breweries all making identical fizzy yellow beer. Then along came Sierra Nevada in 1980 with its bracingly bitter pale ale; Sam Adams with its all-malt lager in 1985; Dogfish Head, which proved no ingredients were off-limits in 1995; and Stone Brewing, which that next year started pumping out boozy, highly-hopped ales, brashly guided by their motto: “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” (The notion of toxic masculinity had clearly not yet entered the national conversation.)
Somewhere along the way, however, craft beer has become exactly what it once railed against: a regression toward homogeneity, all for an easy buck. Every brewery has a juicy IPA, a pastry stout and a fruited kettle sour with very little distinguishing one from another. Now, apparently, breweries are clamoring for a piece of the hard seltzer pie, too.
Luckily, a few breweries are refusing to bow to trends, looking, instead, to differentiate themselves with beers that are designed to do more than just generate buzz. Like Wayfinder in Portland, Oregon, daring to make an altbier, a style few young drinkers have ever even heard of. Or Mindful Ales in New Jersey and Fonta Flora in North Carolina, producing foraged beers that take time and effort to make and are so difficult to calibrate that their success is far from a guarantee. In other words, the polar opposite of hard seltzer.
As I mention every year, top beer lists are inherently personal—this one is no exception. There are now around 8,000 breweries in America, many of which release multiple new beers every weekend. It’s become hard enough for me to try every acclaimed beer in Brooklyn where I live, much less the world. For that reason, and for the second year in a row, I have focused my list strictly on American beer.
The following comprises many beers that fall under the catchall term “sour.” That is, they run the gamut from mixed-culture farmhouse ales to foeder-rested lagers to fruited lambic knockoffs and Brettanomyces-dosed “wild ales.” Whatever you want to call them, these sorts of heavily yeast- and bacteria-reliant beers continue to be the ones showing the most innovation, complexity and brewery-to-brewery differentiation within America, and for that reason they dominate my list.
Bearded Iris Brewing, Pharmacy Pils
Produced for a local Nashville joint, The Pharmacy Burger, this generously-hopped pilsner is a perfect food beer. But it’s even better without a messy bacon cheeseburger getting in the way. The Saaz hops give it an intensely grassy, floral nose, though the palate is distinctly lemony. It’s crisp and refreshing, and an impeccable example of modern American mastery over Old World classics.
- ABV: 5 percent
Wayfinder Beer, Pink Phoenix
In one of the most brewery-packed cities in the world (more than 100 in the metro area) it can be hard to stand out from the crowd, yet in Portland, Oregon, Wayfinder is managing to do just that—with impeccable old-school styles, no less. This German altbier is a rustic-style lager made using what the brewery calls “heritage” yeast—that is, yeast that originated in 19th-century Germany, where the style was created. Bitter with a bready base, there’s a spicy zip and just a hint of bubblegum esters.
- ABV: 5.5 percent
Green Cheek Beer Co., Oaked Just Right
In this era of barrel-rested everything, it was only a matter of time before crisp, clean beers got the wood treatment too. This Orange County brewery’s barrel-aged helles is one of the finest examples I’ve ever had from this emerging trend. An unfiltered lager rested for three months in medium-toast American oak barrels, this beer offers the signature dryness and crackery maltiness of the German style, while adding some butter cookie, coconut and cream soda–like notes from the barrel. Extremely complex and layered, yet eminently drinkable.
- ABV: 5.2 percent
Threes Brewing x Forest & Main Brewing Co., Slowly, We Learn
I’m often dubious of collaboration beers—their raison d’être seems to typically stem from two breweries wanting to get together to goof off on a workday. Now, while I have no idea how much fun was had when the mixed-fermentation experts from just outside Philly (Forest & Main) visited Brooklyn’s farmhouse masters Threes Brewing, I do know the result was incredible. This saison, brewed with both fresh and aged hops, was fermented in wine barrels with Threes’ house culture and Forest & Main’s bottle dregs before being blended with raw wildflower honey for a second round of fermentation. The resulting green bottle saison has a Champagne-like effervescence. It’s floral and minerally and tastes like sour candy.
- ABV: 5 percent
Mindful Ales, A Walk Amongst the Trees
Picking a homebrew for this list might seem exceedingly pretentious, but Dave Martin’s mixed-fermentation beers are so polished and refined, they transcend the homebrew moniker and have even appeared at ticketed beer festivals. This farmhouse ale (made in his parents’ Jersey City garage) is brewed with locally foraged juniper branches and berries, coriander, and farm honey, before being fermented and aged in oak barrels. There’s an intense peach note on the nose, though the palate is drier, more herbal, and even vegetal, with gin-like characteristics. It’s immensely refreshing.
- ABV: 5.6 percent
Homage Brewing, Chat Flou (2/9/19)
It seemed like anytime I attended a beer event in 2019, this was the hot bottle that was making the rounds—a California friend of mine even checked a magnum of this wild ale before flying to New York, certain it was one of the few beers from his neck of the woods that might impress us jaded Brooklyn drinkers. It deserves all the beer geek buzz it’s generated: A sour ale conditioned on Masumoto Family Farm’s Spring Lady peaches, it can’t help but recall the legendary Cantillon Fou’ Foune in both name and flavor profile. An intense peach bomb—how can there be so much peach aroma?—that becomes dry, acidic and fizzy once you dive in.
- ABV: 6 percent
Fonta Flora Brewery, AWAS Blend #4
There are certain fruits that inherently “work” in sour ales—cherries and berries are surefire, as are most stone fruits. Watermelon? Now that’s a little odd. But so is Fonta Flora, Appalachia’s iconoclastic foraged beer brewery. This bottle, originally released only to members of the brewery’s Appalachian Wild Ale Society, is a blend of 75 percent foeder-aged watermelon wild ale and 25 percent black raspberry wild ale from the 2017 vintage; I was lucky enough to try it at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival over the summer. Juicy and fruity on the nose, this purple beer has an underlying layer of cheesy funk that is quite enjoyable.
- ABV: 6.4 percent
Monday Night Brewing, Brevis and Bretthead
On last year’s list I railed about a beer world that refuses to grow up, best illustrated by the rampant, cartoonish IP infringement on labels, the apex being the Lucky Charms–filching Saturday Morning that went viral. This year I’m including a Beavis and Butt-Head spoof. What can I say, they still make me laugh and this beer is fire (“Fire! fire! fire! fire!”). A special one-off, this double dry-hopped sour IPA was fermented with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus brevis cultures. The Mosaic, Simcoe, Citra, Idaho 7 and El Dorado hops, typically employed in juicy IPAs, instead play off the funky notes of the yeast and bacteria, to create an extremely tropical, almost Daiquiri-like beer.
- ABV: 8 percent
Sapwood Cellars Brewery, First Blush
Emerging from a 1-year-old brewery co-founded by Michael Tonsmeire, who literally wrote the book on sour beers, this beer shows he’s not just a thinker, but a skilled doer as well. This ambitious pale beer from Maryland uses chardonnay barrels from nearby natural winery Old Westminster. It’s fermented using a combination of Sapwood’s two house mixed cultures along with the winery’s yeast and chardonnay pomace, and is then topped off in the barrel with Spanish cedar and cabernet franc grapes. The result is a moderately tart and light beer more akin to a rosé—it’s delicious.
- ABV: 8.2 percent
Russian River Brewing, Intinction - Sauvignon Blanc
If you don’t live on the West Coast, you might think this Sonoma-based brewery has been resting on their Plinys for the last decade. Hardly, though their new releases still don’t manage to escape California. Melding the best of Russian River’s classic sours with a uniquely 2019 vision, this is a mixed-fermentation pilsner aged in sauvignon blanc barrels, with secondary fermentation using local sauvignon blanc grape juice. Bright on the nose, the beer is citrusy and tart from the addition of Brettanomyces, with a nice, oaky backbone.
- ABV: 8.25 percent