The ‘Definitive’ Guide to the ‘Best’ Beer of 2017

If there was ever going to be a year in beer to highlight the “haves” and “have nots,” might as well be 2017.

Since 2014, I’ve been pulling together a compilation of “best beer” lists from writers and publications across the U.S., taking subjective choices of what is “best” and trying to add some layers of objectivity on top. (see 2015 and 2016, too) The goal of compiling these lists into one conglomeration allows for some consensus – or at least clearer focus – of what pleased the palate of “taste makers” from around the country.

A theme that began in last year’s analysis became a full-blown trend this time around, with rarity proving to be a pivotal trait for the majority of beers included across 13 year-end “best” lists. Of 150 beers provided by brewers, writers and beer enthusiasts, there were 142 different brands included in my data set. Nearly three-quarters (74.3%) were limited one-offs or specialty releases, never to be duplicated in that same way again.

An easy argument for why this might happen is simply the number of breweries (6,000+) and beers (A LOT) available to consumers, and as more people preach “drink local,” surely those local breweries will step up to provide.

Except these lists come from people exposed to beer from all over, of all availability levels, from the rarest to core lineups, and “best of” lists are seemingly getting more exclusionary year-to-year. This is not a good or bad thing, as it shows there’s phenomenal beer being made all over, but it does seem to be A Thing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Overall, the criteria for selection into this analysis was simple: beers were focused on 2017 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward lists that included a wide geographic representation. An important note on the overall UNscientific nature of this analysis is that the lists chosen differ year-to-year (it’s almost literally whatever I can find) and the total number of beers is different, too. That said, the process still holds, I believe, as an exercise in moving past easy impressions to better understand what the last year has provided us.

Breakdown of Styles

Thanks to the prevalence of higher ABV New England IPAs, the DIPA is 2017’s most-represented style. This is an interesting transition from “regular” IPA, as one correlation may be due to the change in flavor profile in spite of the increase in alcohol. By virtue of their ingredient use and brewing process, NE IPAs would be more likely to hide the ABV boost. In fact, 17 of the 31 DIPAs included in this list are NE IPAs. To put that in context, there were 27 DIPAs in 2015 and 21 in 2016.

All the same, here’s the breakdown. Note that 12 different styles are included in “other,” all of which had one beer each in this data set, from Blonde Ale to Vienna Lager.

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Because these compiled lists change year-to-year, comparing the number of beers represented by style isn’t apples-to-apples, but one way to try and analyze growth (or lack thereof) is through a style’s representative percentage in the overall list. Essentially showcasing a few heavily-included styles as percentages of the overall number.

In that case, you can see some changes occurring over the past three years:

2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers 2017 % of Total Beers
IPA 18.1 20 11.3
Imperial Stout 10.9 14.8 15.3
DIPA 14 13.5 20.7
Sour/Wild 11.9 14.2 13.3
Saison 5.2 7.7 14

I think it’s worthwhile noting the outlier that DIPA became in 2017 since more than half (17) of the total number (31) of this style is NE IPA, the beer du jour among enthusiasts. It’s possible that figure is cannibalizing the “regular” IPA category, which dropped significantly in its percentage for 2017.

Your eye may also be drawn to the listing for saison, which is almost wholly occupied by hard to get beers. Fourteen of 21 unique saisons were one-offs, with Left Hand’s Saison Au Genievre the only widely-available seasonal saison out of all brands.

All the same, a quarter of the full list was saison or sour/wild, which I also think speaks to the increasing number of breweries utilizing barrel-aging more regularly, and especially for specialty beers. Putting it in context of the latter is particularly important, as “barrel-aged” anything is more common, so now may be a good time for breweries to find ways to make their barrel-aged [whatever] stand out in some way, either through availability or process.

Speaking of which…

Rarity and Liking

As a primer for discussions around rarity, authenticity and our perception of quality, I’d love to point you toward this post that goes deep on the subject. It’s particularly important in context in how this compilation of “best” beer lists has evolved since its start, as taste makers creating these lineups select from a network of thousands of breweries around the country, all trying to find ways to differentiate. Taste, flavor and other sensory aspects are obviously of utmost importance, but psychologically, ideas of rarity and “authenticity” can also be part of valuation.

And as you’ll see, they certainly are a part of this year’s list. Out of 150 beers – 142 of which were unique – rare or one-off beers were a *large* part of the crop:

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The four year-round offerings that made the cut were:

  • Ommegang Pale Sour Ale
  • Ayinger Bavarian Pils
  • Green Flash Blonde Ale
  • Ecliptic Capella Porter

This is considerably different from previous years. While I didn’t track the limited vs. rotating vs. year-round aspect in the same manner previously as I am this time, some of the most-cited best beers (consensus best) included DuClaw’s Sweet Baby Jesus and Firestone Easy Jack (2014), Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter, Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin and Avery Liko’i Kepolo (2015), and Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion (2016). To be a new, year-round beer and thought of as a “best” seems near-impossible now.

Part of this, of course, is the sheer volume of options available. On top of that, the number of specialty releases sampled by list-makers is likely a result of a brewery showcasing it’s particular niche, which could result in a more special, rare and “authentic” creation.

The Power of Rarity

This theme particularly comes into play in two ways.

First, we see it through the increased existence of New England IPA, which occupied 34 of the 150 spots. The breakdown of sub-style was two-thirds DIPA, one-third IPA, with a total average ABV of 7.6% across all 34 beers.

There were plenty of well-known NE IPA makers on this list, including Trillium, Hoof Hearted, Hudson Valley and Other Half, all mentioned twice. I’d like to point out two breweries in particular in Noble Ale Works and Sixpoint.

(WARNING: Inside baseball) Noble had plenty of attention already for their IPAs, and their two NE IPAs were listed, it appears, from batches made after head brewer Evan Price left in early 2017. Kudos to the talents of Brad Kominek and Matt Fantz for not missing a beat. Sixpoint is worth mentioning for their Smoothie NE IPA, created not long after Trilliums’ Eric Bachli joined their staff and the beer was sold via their new mobile app.

But I digress.

NE IPA’s forced rarity due to its small production size, preferred shelf life and specialness certainly help its case to grow on these lists moving forward, and they’re also just delicious beers. A style here to stay, I’d say.

But outside of this, What really caught my eye were 15 collaboration beers, representing 10% of the total sample size. Naturally, these are all limited, one-off deals and the breweries highlighted for 2017 are some of the most beloved among beer geeks, including Casey Brewing, Oxbow, Monkish, Trillium and plenty more.

Of the 15 collaboration beers, eight were IPA/DIPA (six of which NE IPA), four saisons, two imperial stouts and one sour/wild.

I mention this as a useful point of information mostly because collaboration brews are becoming so commonplace that even Boston Beer has done them, and Sierra Nevada has turned it into an annual festival and one of the costliest 12-packs I’ve ever seen (usually ~$30 where I live, before going on sale because they sit for so long). But in terms of deriving value from team-ups, it seems easier and more beneficial than ever.

With thousands of breweries across the US, finding a willing partner is easy enough, but the connectivity of sub-cultures within craft beer (NE IPA makers, barrel-aging specialists, etc.) cries out for working together. It offers brewers a friendly reason to compare notes, drinkers are excited, and the money is certainly right in retail.

ABV Insight

A quick detour.

In the last three years, tracking the overall ABV averaged across these sets of beers stayed surprisingly consistent: 7.6% (2014), 7.5% (2015) and 7.7% (2016). It took a bit of a bump this year, though, climbing to 8.1%.

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That 8.1% is across all 150 beers, and here’s the breakdown by ABV segment, with somewhat arbitrarily chosen endpoints that fall where along the lines of low-ABV styles to “average” ABV strength to imperial styles:

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For fun, I also placed 2016’s beer list by ABV segment with 2017’s list – but note these lists are not the same in source and a little off in total number, with 2016 having five more beers:

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A key difference between that 5 to 6.9% area from 2016 to 2017 was last year’s list had a large selection of pale ales that masqueraded as IPAs (low ABV, insane hop bills) and a good number of wild/sour beers that sat lower on the alcohol content spectrum. If I were to take anything away from looking at the ABV content, it would be that the people creating these lists aren’t that worried about levels of alcohol, so much as the experience of what’s in front of them. This comes at an odd time, when industry professionals and beer geeks alike talk about how lagers are such a big deal (and they are growing) but when it comes to what’s “best,” opposing forces of maximum flavor and ABV may correlate with more liking.

Preferred Tastes of ‘Taste Makers’

What exactly is creating those maximum flavors?

Across the full list of beers, 53 had easily referenced ingredients that supplied the variety of hops used in recipes. Almost all of those were pale ale, IPA or DIPA. Seven non-IPA styles were included. Of the 53, the most-used hop was Citra, which was the same story last year.

Here are the top hops that were cited in at least four recipes:

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Citra and Mosaic are no surprise – they’re beloved by brewers and drinkers alike and Mosaic played a big role in New Belgium’s successful rebrand of their Ranger IPA. Simcoe, only noted in four recipes in 2017, fell from 12 recipes last year, likely a cause of appearances of El Dorado and Azacca on this chart, neither of which showed up last year.

Of the 53 beers with identifiable hop bills, 31 were NE IPAs. Out of that subset of 31, 18 recipes included Citra and 17 included Mosaic. There were four NE IPAs solely made with Mosaic hops and just one with 100% Citra. Nine New England IPAs had both Citra and Mosaic.

Of note is Galaxy, which was included in five of 42 known recipes from 2016’s “best” beer list, now doubled to 10 overall. Anecdotally, I certainly heard more about this variety in 2017 and has become the most popular hop associated with varieties grown in Australia. In one case, it’s the variety Australian Brewery is banking on to win over US audiences.

In regard to flavor enhancements outside of just hops, here were the most cited additional ingredients and the number of recipes in which they were included:

Vanilla 17
Raspberry 9
Cherry 7
Salt 6
Coffee 6
Blackberry 4
Honey 4

Vanilla was most commonly used in imperial stouts (11 beers) but also showed up in five IPA/DIPA recipes, thanks to ongoing interest in NE IPA and “milkshake” IPAs. The use of sea salt appeared where you’d expect (gose) but also with a saison and a couple pastry stouts – imperial stouts meant to mimic ice cream, donuts, or something of the sort.

Lastly, a total of 65 beers mentioned barrel-aging, almost all limited release one-offs, and here’s how barrels were cited by style:

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The ‘Best’ Beers of 2017

With all this background information, we’ve got some extra context in which we can better understand the “best” beers of last year. For the sake of understanding, please realize that the process I use for this analysis doesn’t mean these beers are a kind of religious experience, but are pulled from the subjective decisions of drinkers, experts and panels. Anyone can go out and make a list of WHALEZ, but in this case, I believe consensus is more powerful than originality.

Given this, 2017 was the first year there was no actual clarity of a single or group of beers. Not a single brand was listed more than twice across beers pulled from 13 year-end lists. With that in mind, here are the eight beers mentioned twice in these collections:

Beer Brewery Style
Medianoche Reserve WeldWerks Imperial Stout
Incipient Speciation Artisan Ales Sour/Wild
Cream Get the Honey Other Half IPA
Brett IPA Allagash IPA
Bavarian Pils Ayinger Pilsner
Amorphia Hudson Valley IPA
Backroads Suarez Saison
Oak-Aged Vanilla World Wide Stout Dogfish Head Imperial Stout

In terms of lineup, this might be the most diverse collection of “best beer” finalists I’ve seen across four years of doing this analysis, but it’s also worth noting that this is also the first time so few lists have featured duplicated brands. Ayinger Pils, just launched in the U.S. in 2017, was included in DRAFT’s breakdown of beers, which was also partially sorted by style, as well as Ken Weaver, taster extraordinaire.

The rest of it all seems pretty consistent with what’s been shown in previous iterations, though. Rare beers with a nod toward NE IPA, imperial stout and barrel-aging. I’m thrilled to see Allagash Brett IPA on this list, as I personally loved that beer, but it also represents the lone widely-released brand of all these beers.

One side note to these, as Hoof Hearted’s Who’d Like To Hold My Clipboard NE IPA was also mentioned twice, although through two of that beer’s rotating variants of peach and pineapple. That beer arguably had the most exotic hop bill of (Azacca, Motueka, Falconer’s Flight) along with Brett IPA (Amarillo, Bravo, Cascade, Centennial, Citra and Galaxy).

‘Best’ Breweries of 2017

There are two qualifications to make this list: a brewery has to be cited multiple times, with preference for a range in the beers included across this year’s 150. Two breweries definitely made the cut, with one showing prowess in a single category. All three were cited individually multiple times by the lists:

Holy Mountain Hand of Glory Barleywine
Three Fates Pilsner
Wraith Sour/Wild
Modern Times Dragon Mask Imperial Stout
Triton Project DIPA
Critical Band IPA
Suarez Family 100 Ft North Vintage Saison
Backroads Saison
Call to Mind Saison

Personally, I like the geographic variety of Washington (Holy Mountain), California (Modern Times) and New York (Suarez Family). An important note from these three breweries: this is Suarez Family’s second consecutive year included in this lineup after being cited for Crispy Little (wheat), Believe You Me (pale ale) and Palatine Pils (pilsner) in 2016. I know that Suarez has gained plenty of attention among beer geek circles (read the brewery’s story here) and after garnering significant attention from taste makers in 2016 and 2017, is very much on the map.

Since 2017 seems to have been the year collaboration brews truly broke through on these lists, it’d be impossible to mention the other breweries mentioned multiple times:

Brewery Beer Style
Trillium Dialed In DIPA
Trillium and Omnipollo Covered in Puppies DIPA
Trillium and J Wakefield Affogato Imperial Stout
J Wakefield and Abnormal All of the Lights Imperial Stout
J Wakefield That’s The Ticket Imperial Stout
Burial Innertube Light Lager
Burial and Interboro Stay G-O-L-D IPA
Burial and Threes Both Ways IPL
Aslin Beaumont Imperial Stout
Aslin and Graft Cider 50/50 Bar IPA
Aslin and SØLE Artisan Ales Mocking Birds Mocking IPA

For posterity, these breweries represent Massachusetts (Trillium), Florida (J Wakefield), North Carolina (Burial) and Virginia (Aslin). All earned a combined three mentions across lists, whether on the brewery’s own beer or something made in collaboration with another. Given the number of combined efforts shown on 2017’s list, it made sense to mention these, especially for a brewery like J Wakefield that seems rather prolific in its efforts with others.

Takeaways

So what the hell does this all mean? It’s a lot of disparate information pulled together with hope of finding connected aspects, of which I believe do exist.

While it was nice to see a broad range of styles, nothing changes in terms of the specialty beers that consistently catch drinker’s attention, typically IPA, DIPA and imperial stout. Increasingly, however, there seems to be room to play with saison and sour/wild beers, which again reflects a growing number of breweries taking the time to play in this area, as well as the psychological pull of drinkers who enjoy rare beers never to be made again. In one case, there’s clear room for saison to grow as a category, and sour/wild beers provide an exotic excitement that definitely apply to beer enthusiasts, as it’s been called a “new” trend for literally a decade.

The question is how do all these things apply to the totally average beer drinker, for which pretty much none of these beers apply and are/were almost entirely unavailable to anyone not waiting in line, working beer trade boards or an industry insider?

A couple years ago I wrote about not looking at beer trends in terms of styles but through the idea of taste, as brewers started to shift flavor experiences into more palatable recipes on a biological level. We see this as part of the success with New England IPA, documented here, and anecdotally we have the rise of pastry stouts and the collection of adjuncts that appeared across this years collected “best” beer list, highlighting a variety of fruit and vanilla, which was listed on 17 ingredient lists posted online. We even see this in the slight change of most-cited hop varieties, with Galaxy’s heavy lean toward citrus and tropical fruit gaining more attention.

Taking away the overarching issue related to availability, which can be a road map to raising interest on its own, I wonder how breweries can continue to take the sensory aspects that drive beer geeks crazy and translate them with some amount of financial efficiency into beers for a wide audience. The continued release of fruited beers is one sign of this, but I also think of a business like New Belgium, which has also revamped its barrel-aging lineup through packaging and brands to maximize appearance and perceptions of quality and authenticity.

The easy part for the majority of American breweries is that finding ways to incorporate qualities of “best” beers may be costly, but many businesses are small and nimble enough to utilize the increased expectation for limited and one-off beers (among beer geeks) to drive interest and word of mouth. It’s a lot harder for the big players like Sierra Nevada or Boston Beer to pivot in the same way.

What are your thoughts and takeaways? Tell me on Twitter.

Until next year.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

For reference, the lists from which I compiled data. In some cases I only pulled the top 10 of new beers because lists were otherwise incredibly long. Other lists had a mix of old beers and new releases, in which case only new releases were included in this data set.

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