This past year was an odd one for me–a good portion of the best beers I tasted came from breweries beyond Oregon. I spent six weeks on the road, traveling to 24 cities in 18 states (plus DC), and managed to drink a beer or four at each stop. What I enjoyed is illustrative of what’s available in American craft brewing right now. We can’t really hope to keep abreast of the beer scene anymore, with upwards of a hundred thousand different brands being made last year. (Rough math: if the 3,800 breweries last year made an average of 26.3 different brands–which sounds about right–we had 100k beers in 2015.) The best we can do is sample and hope to have found a few big winners. Here are mine.
- Block 15 [forgotten name] saison. One of my first events was at Block 15, at their new Taproom outside of town. It’s a great facility and they pour a nice selection of the kind of beers I think of when I think of Block 15–saisons, sours, barrel-aged beers. I had a couple beers that evening, including a summery saison that was kissed by Brettanomcyes. Delicate, fresh, tropical, and it drank way underneath its heft. I was reminded why I think this is one of Oregon’s best breweries.
- Russian River Beatification. In Corte Madera, I had a wonderful event at Book Passage, in which the bookstore had four beers available for tasting. My event became that tasting, which included a porter, two IPAs, and Russian River’s Beatification–the batch that hadn’t even been released to the public yet. About halfway into the first beer–Russian River–I realized I could talk about the beer from the point of view of what the dominant ingredient contributed, and people were wowed to learn how much yeast can do for a beer.
- Fremont Interurban. The Book Larder in Seattle arranged to have growlers of Fremont Brewing. I am ashamed to say I’d never had Interurban IPA. Vivid, Northwestern, sessionable–a great beer.
- Revolution What the Helles. I made a special trip out to Revolution when I was in Chicago, and on the whole I was underwhelmed. (Top to bottom, Goose Island, where my event was, had more accomplished and daring beer.) But they had a helles that saved the day. It wasn’t particularly authentic, but it was just perfectly made in terms of balance and pleasure.
- Urban Chestnut [forgotten name] corn lager. This was an evocation of a classic American pale lager made with corn, and it showed how well corn works when people are trying to make a good beer with it. Supremely crisp, but with a hint of sweetness, all of which made for a perfect platform for zingy little hops.
- Schlafly Lemon Basil Gose. Gose was the big surprise on my trip: I would estimate that at least 75% of my stops had one on tap. My fave, and perhaps my favorite beer on the trip was Schlafly’s gose, which had a perfect savory-tart-sweet balance point. It was in so many ways not like beer–it was like a beery Gatorade on a hot day–and yet I couldn’t imagine anyone not liking it. I loved it.
- Other Half Brett IPA. I managed to get half a glass of this elixir as the keg blew, and it was one of the highlights of the trip. Other Half is the beer geek’s choice in the Empire state, and they really had this beer dialed in; it was all sticky tropical fruit and deep aromatics. I suspect no one knows what the “brett” meant, but I bet they love this beer.
- Hidden Springs Berliner Weisse. Tampa, Florida, unexpectedly had a fantastic beer scene. My event was at Hidden Springs Ale Works, which was just a few months old. Nevertheless, the brewery had already dialed everything in. The IPA could have come straight from Portland, but what really caught my eye was the tropical-fruit Berliner (there was more than one fruit and I forget which ones). Even in November, when I visited, the city was 85 degrees. What you want is something like this that can both impress with its intensity, but also slake a mighty thirst.
- Ardent Single Hop IPA. In Richmond, VA, I did another guided tasting at Ardent Craft Ales, a wonderful newish brewery there. As I was talking, I got off on an IPA jag (I was supposed to be talking about saison) and the brewery folks ran back and got tasters of an IPA so people could see what I was talking about. They brought out one of their single-hop IPAs (they did a long series), and I think it was with El Dorado. Whatever the reality, it was a perfect example of the (new) American penchant for late- and dry-hopping beers to tease out insanely intense flavors and aromas.
- Fullsteam Wild Sacch beer. In Durham, NC, the Fullsteam Brewery is trying to isolate a wild Saccharomyces strain to use as a house yeast. We generally think of Brett when we’re thinking wild, but standard Sacch start out that way, too. The beer they had made was a session ale that had something of a saison and something of a kellerbier in it. Crisp but slightly funky, hazy, and rustic.
- Atlas Brew Works Home Rule Lager. Maybe it was just because I was tired and that point a bit sick, but my last stop, which I enjoyed with my brother- and sister-in-law, really hit the spot. Lightly sweet, a bit cakey, and laced with just enough herbal hopping to keep it interesting, Atlas was a perfect final beer for the trip.
|A typical blackboard, this one at Ale Yeah! in Decatur, GA (note gose).|
I also had great beer at Boulder, New Belgium, Goose Island, Yazoo, Magnolia, and at various pubs in Brooklyn (things got a bit away from me there), but those are the ones that really stood out. It has become pretty easy to find good beer in this country of ours. You no longer have to be in a town like Portland to do it.