A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2016

2016 best beer header

Ask friends and family. Look around the Internet. Talk to a stranger on the street. It seems just about everyone is over 2016.

But it wasn’t all bad, right? We drank some good beer.

With start of a new year, it’s time to reflect on the great ales and lagers we enjoyed in 2016. Just kidding. It’s only IPAs and imperial stouts.

What has become an annual tradition, I’ve compiled a collection of “best” American beer lists as a way to better determine some ground breaking brands found across the country. For all the subjectivity that goes into creating lists to rank our favorite movies, TV shows and more, I try to find some objective consensus to provide a clearer view of what pleased the palate of drinkers.

To do this, I found a collection of 15 “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from social media to prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2016 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation.

That left me with 155 total beers to analyze with several clearly separating themselves as 2016’s best.

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Do All Session IPAs Taste the Same?

same glass of beer

Session IPA, the hottest sub-category of beer’s hottest style, has me thinking.

A question runs through my mind nearly every time I sip on one of the low ABV, highly hopped brews and like deja vu, a wave of reactions are signaled from my nose and taste buds: doesn’t this taste familiar?

(Tongue somewhat planted in cheek)

The creation and purpose of these beers is simply an extension of trends we see with hop-forward brews. As aroma hops continue to take up more acreage on farms across the country and drinkers favor certain flavor characteristics, the session IPA is a perfect storm of raw ingredients and expectations.

But do these beers often taste the same (to me, at least) because they’re using the same hops? Or, at least, how the hops are used? Typical brewing practice for these beers relies on “hop bursting,” adding a large quantity at the end or after boiling in order to maximize aromatic oils and minimize bitterness.

Across the most widely distributed session IPAs (so we’ll also assume some of the highest selling ones) four hops lead the way: Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe. Why might these beers share a similar profile? Here’s a breakdown of eight session IPAs and hops that appear in their recipe:

Amarillo Citra Mosaic Simcoe
21st Amendment Down to Earth Y
Oskar Blues Pinner Y Y
Saranac Gen IV Y Y
New Belgium Slow Ride Y Y Y Y
Harpoon Take 5 Y Y
Founders All Day IPA Y Y
Stone Go To IPA Y Y
Firestone Walker Easy Jack Y

If you caught my post on current trends in hop usage, the chart probably makes sense, especially when it’s led by five beers featuring Mosaic, 2015’s “Hop of the Year.” Not surprisingly, Easy Jack – cited as a “best beer” in both 2014 and 2015 by my own analysis – uses Mosaic along with two of the more “exotic” varieties found in these recipes, Bavarian Mandarina and Hallertau Melon.

Of note, Oskar Blues doesn’t list the “six to eight” hops used in their boil of Pinner, but highlight Citra and Mosaic as the pivotal pieces of their dry hopping, which makes sense as drinkers definitely want the brewery to milk as much out of those two hops as possible.

Looking at this bunch, arguably my favorite of the lot is Harpoon’s Take 5. While the taste may offer a recognized experience, the “New England” take of a stronger balance between hops and malt is nice. But the biggest difference is what separates Take 5 from being hop water.

Brewers at Harpoon mash their grain for Take 5 at higher temperatures (160 to 161 degrees F) which leaves more unfermentable sugars that contribute to a fuller body. In a category that’s constantly expanding – 161 entries in GABF’s session IPA category in 2015! – small changes like that can certainly help a beer stand out from the pack.

Which leaves me pondering more about the style: if so many are ending up with interchangeable tastes, why aren’t more breweries taking another route?

As aroma hops continue to be thrown into more of our favorite IPAs and pale ales, would it make sense to counter the culture and (gasp) use more “traditional” hops as the basis for these beers? Would being a showcase for Cascade, Centennial or Chinook offer something new that people would want?

Because these beers are super easy to drink, and I could definitely go for something new.

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

Trend Spotting: What Can RateBeer’s Best New Beers of 2015 Tell Us?

ratebeer header JPG

In my previous post about RateBeer’s latest collection of “best” beers, we focused on the overall top 100, as released annually by the beer review site. But new this year, RateBeer has also shared a list of 50 best new beers released in 2015.

This is exciting because it not only gives us a better glimpse into trends and preferences for the subgroup of active reviewers on the website, but it also provides an opportunity to compare with my previous “best of 2015” list compiled from a collection of writers and beer enthusiasts.

Like RateBeer’s overall list analyzed in my last post, this one is a wide collection of rare and hard to find beers. As mentioned in a previous piece about the rising price of beer, expensive and speciality brews cater to “snobconsumers, “for whom the acquisition of scarce goods generate ‘signaling effects’ on consumption, increasing their utility when the good consumed is uncommon and generates status.”

In an age of accumulating badges on Untappd and standing among beer loving peers, a list like this isn’t representative to Average Jane Sixpack, but it’s still useful to look at to get a better grasp on the socio-cultural preferences shown by beer lovers.

So let’s once again get to crunching some numbers.

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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2015: The Beer

best beer header file w coconut

Yesterday, we looked at the “best” breweries of 2015.

Today, we use the same unscientific process on the best beers we might have enjoyed last year.

To do this, I used a collection of 2015’s “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from blogs to newspapers and prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2015 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation. There are more city/state best beer lists than we could shake a pint glass at.

That left me with an eclectic group of lists, ranging from three to 25 beers. In all, there were 193 total beers to analyze with a handful of beers vying for best of 2015.

Nine made the cut.

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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2015: The Breweries

best breweries header file

About a week into the New Year and I can only assume we’re all so over 2015.

It’s time for a fresh start with new goals, attitudes and beers, of course. With beer aisles brimming with choices like never before, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest 2016 release even though there were so many great options we probably missed last year.

Which is why it’s also time to briefly look backward.

For the second year, I’ve worked to determine the “best” beers of a year gone by. For all the subjectivity that goes into creating lists to rank our favorite movies, TV shows and more, I’m trying to find some objective consensus to provide a clearer view of what pleased the palate of drinkers and brewers across the country.

To do this, I found a collection of 16 “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from blogs to newspapers and prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2015 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation. There are more city/state best beer lists than we could shake a pint glass at.

That left me with an eclectic group of lists, ranging from three to 25 beers. In all, there were 193 total beers to analyze with a handful of beers vying for best of 2015.

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Copy Cat: A ‘Best Beer’ List Loves IPAs, ABV. Again.

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Last week, Zymurgy, the official publication of the American Homebrewers Association, released its latest update to its annual “Best Beers in America” list.

The compilation of top-50 beers, voted on every year by readers of the magazine, typically stands out slightly from other such lists from Beer Advocate or RateBeer because of general lack of imperial stouts, which so often dominate other polls. There were seven this year and one imperial porter.

Despite that difference, Zymurgy’s voters do have one thing in common with just about any other “best beer” list you’d find – they love IPAs.

zymurgy best beers-ipa and dipa

After last year’s dissection of Zymurgy’s list, I took additional data with hope to better analyze the outcome of historical votes, offering context to any shifting preferences and patterns from over the years.

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Reporter’s Notebook: Why I Wanted to Write About Barrels

beer notebook_web2

Writing a piece on the market for barrels seemed like a no-brainer.

Aside from continued interest from beer enthusiasts – half the top-50 beers on Beer Advocate are barrel-aged at the moment – it seemed almost impossible to turn my head recently and not find some piece of news about the liquor industry or its growing secondary market with beer.

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Trend Watching: Are Craft Lagers Destined To Be ‘A Thing’?

trend arrow beer

Just like any other industry, beer and its community are influenced.

Whether it’s a flash in a pan fad or an honest to goodness trend, the ideas that impact people who create and consume beer can have lasting impacts. Then there are behemoths like the IPA – now making up roughly a quarter of craft beer sales – a style which just a few years ago seemed like a trend until it starting setting its own sub-trends with double IPAs and session IPAs and whatever India’d style you can dream of.

We’re always looking for that Next Big Thing that’s going to start something new, gazing into metaphorical crystal balls with hope of understanding what will next be poured into our glass. For Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, that answer is lager:

Going booth to booth at the recent craft brewer pavilion at the National Grocers Association show, nearly every brewer had a great pilsner. Some were brands that have been around for a while, but there were plenty of new additions. Those new entries are combining with longer-term brands to create new excitement around pilsners.

Even if January sales of pilsners were up 56 percent in 2015 compared to the same month in 2014, the big question to ask isn’t just whether “excitement” equates to groundswell of a trend, but also do American drinkers want this trend in the first place?

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RateBeer Ranked: A Historical Analysis of “Best Beers”

header ratebeer historical

After looking back at RateBeer user preferences for 2014 as all as a comparison of the last two years, it’s time to take a step even further back.

RateBeer’s “best beer” list goes back as far as 2002 – missing in 2004 and 2005 for some reason – so what I’ve done is taken the past 10 years of data from the annual rankings and selected the best of the “best” to try and gain some kind of insight.

What we have now is historical proof of our drunkenness. Or, at least, signs that demonstrate if we’re sipping on world-class beer, it better bring the heat.

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RateBeer Ranked: Comparing “Best Beer” of the Last Two Years

RateBeer-header 2013 vs 2014

In the first post analyzing RateBeer’s 2015 “best beer” list, which covers beers in 2014, a few things stood out:

The Expected

  • Imperial stouts, double IPAs and IPAs reigned supreme, making up 59 percent of the list.
  • The average ABV for the top-100 beers was well above average, clocking in at almost 10 percent.

The Unexpected

  • Decorah, Iowa-based Toppling Goliath produced beers that ranked #1 (Kentucky Brunch) and #5 (Mornin’ Delight) that tied or beat classic “best” beers like Westvleteren 12, Pliny the Elder and Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.

One of the fun aspects of these lists is the ability to compare and contrast, so today we take a step back one year to see what 2014’s best beers looks like when compared to our tastes in 2013.

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