The 15 Best Beers We Drank This Year
(Bloomberg) -- Needless to say, 2020 was a challenging year for craft beer. Turns out, those early pandemic headlines of skyrocketing alcohol sales didn’t tell the whole picture. While discount and grocery store sales are up, many small breweries at least anecdotally report double-digit cuts in both production and sales, while seeing their most profitable revenue stream—straight to consumers in the taproom—all but snuffed out. Most of us, it seems, enjoy drinking outside the house with friends rather than alone, by ourselves, in our cramped apartments.
Fortunately, most breweries are small and nimble, and are somehow weathering the pandemic for the time being. Perhaps it’s a miracle that the industry hasn’t seen mass closures on the scale of, say, the restaurant or retail industries.
Based on dozens of conversations I’ve had with brewery owners over the past nine months, drinkers’ choices have shifted significantly—mine included. Brewers have scaled back on experimentation while refocusing production efforts on flagship and core brands, satisfying the comfort many of us get from drinking beers we know and love.
As a result, not every beer that made our list this year is necessarily new. A couple have been around for the better part of a century (see: our European holiday section) while others are old standbys or reprises that kept us moving through the year. Most are current for 2020. In normal times, I would taste hundreds of new beers each year, but—having attended not a single festival and barely having set foot in a tasting room—my overall tasting numbers are a fraction of what they would be.
Instead, each pick is situational—something we longed for, a new normal we had to become accustomed to, or something we flat-out wished to forget. The one through line? They’re all delicious.
Best Beers for Sessioning Over Zoom
Before March, I was aware only casually that Zoom existed, mostly from hearing the company’s NPR underwriting campaigns. Now, I use it nearly every day for everything from group beer tastings to podcast recordings to Friday trivia nights with a dozen or so friends. A good session beer—a low ABV (alcohol by volume) one that you can have multiples of in a single sitting and still go for a run or bike ride after—goes a long way toward making the digital life slightly less of a slog.
Style: Helles lager, 4.4% ABV
Brewery Location: Chicago
Part of the ebb and flow of the craft beer journey is the return afresh to classic styles after drowning in a sea of newfangled gimmick beers. (That Fruit Loops-infused milkshake IPA might have sounded intriguing at one time, but it’s currently a hard pass.) Chicago’s Dovetail Brewery does things the old-school way, taking inspiration and techniques from Germany and Belgium for its lineup of uber-traditional lagers and ales. Many of the beers fall into the session category (below 5% ABV), but the Helles hits the spot, one after another, with its robust malt roundness and a subtly dry finish. The beer’s heady aromas, redolent of tangerine and lime, come from German-grown Saphir noble hops.
Style: Highball-inspired cider, 4.8% ABV
Brewery Location: Vergennes, Vt.
This citrusy, refreshing, and supremely sessionable dry cider gleans inspiration from classic low-alcohol cocktails such as whiskey sodas and Japanese-style highballs. Originally released near the start of this year’s delayed Major League Baseball season in cute-but-crushable 8-oz shorty cans, Shacksbury recently upgraded Lo-Ball to “Big Slugger” 16-oz tall boys (pictured above). Which means—for better or worse—you won’t have to awkwardly put yourself on mute and run to the fridge every 30 minutes for a top-off.
Best Beers for Forgetting There Ever Was a Zoom
On the flipside, if you’re sick of this whole virtual world, a couple of high-gravity booze bombs should do the trick.
Lagunitas Sucks (2020)
Style: Double India Pale Ale (IPA), 8% ABV
Brewery Location: Petaluma, Calif.
Originally brewed more than a decade ago as a one-off stopgap seasonal, Lagunitas reprised the high-gravity Sucks to assert that, yes, 2020 does that. Comprising a medley of piney and resiny hops and a blend of four grains—barley, wheat, rye, and oats—the beer recalls the days when West Coast brewers were locked in a heated IBU (international bitterness units) war to see who could create the most aggressively bitter beer. Now that the pendulum has largely swung in the opposite direction to soft, pillowy, zero-bitter hazy IPA’s, Sucks drinks like a breath of fresh, boozy air that’s perfect for drowning out your pals who still haven’t learned to work the mute button.
3 Floyds Permanent Funeral
Style: Imperial IPA, 10.5% ABV
Brewery Location: Munster, Ind.
One upside of the pandemic is that many cult breweries, whose beers were once hard to come by, have now expanded distribution, seeking out new markets as the bars and restaurants of their hometowns have dialed back business. Take 3 Floyds, for years the holy grail for beer geeks outside the greater Chicagoland area. As of August, many of its sought-after brews are available in my local bodega, at the Target down the street, and at grocery stores all over New York. Permanent Funeral, an apocalyptic pale ale that was once traded for and shipped by collectors around the country, is an over-the-top, aggressive IPA that I found myself returning to when I needed relief from the stresses of the year.
Best Smoked Beers for the Dumpster Fire That Is 2020
To “honor” the year that was, reach for a smoky rauchbier. Traditional to Bamberg, Germany, rauchbier is brewed with gently smoked malts that impart campfire-like aromas and dusky, earthy flavors. The style has never been more popular among stateside brewers, particularly German-inspired ones.
Fox Farm the Cabin
Style: Smoked Helles lager, 5.3% ABV
Brewery Location: Salem, Conn.
The Cabin, from Connecticut’s Fox Farm, tastes like a late fall New England afternoon in a can. Brewed with a touch of beechwood-smoked barley, the pale, crisp Helles-style lager is the right balance of smoky headiness and pure, clean refreshment.
Live Oak Schwarzer Rauch
Style: Smoked black lager, 4.8% ABV
Brewery Location: Austin, Texas
Perhaps it’s the proximity to the region’s ubiquitous barbecue, but one of the preeminent makers of American smoked beers is Austin’s Live Oak Brewing. Its Schwarzer Rauch (“black smoke”) is a schwarzbier (black lager) brewed with both deeply roasted malts and smoked barley. The result is a complex blend of near-burnt toast, pit aromas, and a bracing Noble hop spiciness.
Best Beers to Remind You Life Is Still Sweet
On the other hand, if you’re looking for something to write in your gratitude journal, try dessert-inspired takes on the style.
PFriem Maple Barrel Aged Smoked Porter
Style: Smoked porter aged in maple syrup barrels, 9.1% ABV
Brewery Location: Hood River, Ore.
Oregon’s PFriem Family Brewers seemingly took inspiration for this sweet-smoky-savory beer from Vermont pancake houses or the famed French Canadian sugar shacks. The base smoked porter is rested in maple syrup barrels for a decadent blend of pecan pie, Irish coffee, and wood-fired bread flavors.
Dogfish Head Campfire Amplifier
Style: S'mores-inspired smoked milk stout; 6.5% ABV
Brewery Location: Milton, Del.
Whether social distance-friendly camping was on Dogfish Head’s mind when creating this s’mores-inspired milk stout is unclear, but it recalls cool fall nights around the campfire, and for that we’re happy. We also admire that for a beer brewed with a litany of ingredients—marshmallows, graham crackers, cocoa nibs, cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla beans, and smoked malt—it shows remarkable restraint and balance in the glass, with just a subtle hint of smoke and some bittersweet chocolate-like aromas.
Best Beers for Social Change
Open-ended collaborations using open-source recipes became a hallmark of beer activism this year. Like software, recipes were made freely available by their respective breweries in order to raise awareness and money for racial and economic justice causes.
Weathered Souls Black Is Beautiful
Style: Imperial Stout, 10% ABV
Brewery Location: San Antonio, Texas
After the killing of George Floyd in May and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed, a number of breweries stepped forward to offer support. The most visible and wide-ranging was spearheaded by Marcus Baskerville of San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing. The base Black Is Beautiful beer recipe is for a straightforward imperial stout, which Baskerville encouraged other brewers to tinker with to fit within their own wheelhouses. Breweries that signed on were expected to donate 100% of their version’s proceeds to local foundations that support police reform and legal defense funds. As of Dec. 17, nearly 1,200 breweries in all 50 states and 22 countries have participated.
Finback Breathing Conversations
Style: New England-style Double IPA, 8% ABV
Brewery Location: New York
A similar initiative was adopted by Finback Brewery in Queens, N.Y., with a juicy and hazy New England-style Double IPA. Before coming together to brew the beer, breweries were expected to gather their employees for an open and sustained hard conversation about racial and social injustices, differing perspectives and experiences, and how to find common ground among themselves. Finback is donating its share to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Black Lives Matter and has pledged an additional $10,000 to found BeyondBeer, a planned not-for-profit fund with the mission of engaging the brewing industry and people of color to work on issues of diversity, inclusivity, and equality for the long term.
Other Half All Together
Style: New England-style IPA, 6.5% ABV
Brewery Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Washington
Just weeks into the pandemic, with restaurants, brewery taprooms, and bars forced to shut down, Brooklyn’s Other Half open-sourced All Together, an easy-to-brew creamy, low-bitterness, New England-style IPA. Other Half donated its proceeds to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation while other breweries were encouraged to donate to hospitality fund organizations in their areas. According to Other Half co-founder Matt Monahan, the effort raised several million dollars with 855 breweries from all 50 states, as well as 53 countries, participating.
Best Beers for a European Holiday From Your Couch
Chances are you missed out on a European vacation this year. Luckily, the continent’s revered and regionally distinctive liquid exports are still flowing freely stateside.
Style: Altbier, 4.7% ABV
Brewery Location: Dusseldorf, Germany
Altbier, a specialty of the Westphalian town of Dusseldorf, is not a style widely seen in the U.S. Even in Germany, it’s a bit of an outlier because it’s fermented with ale yeast rather than given a traditional lagering. Uerige, with its distinctively slender, swing-top bottle, is the primo example of the style, showing big, spicy hop aromas and a complex malt base that’s at once both warming and refreshing.
Style: Trappist pale ale/saison, 6.2% ABV
Brewery Location: Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval, Belgium
Routinely regarded by those in the know as the greatest beer in the world, Orval is a staggeringly multifaceted ale brewed by Trappist monks at the Abbaye d'Orval in southeast Belgium. Though nominally a “pale ale,” the beer has more in common with the country farmhouse saisons of Wallonia than anything that would be considered a pale ale today. Due to its complex character, Orval is known as something of a shapeshifter, a beer that can change from sip to sip as it warms, evolves, and unfurls in your glass. Its distinct funky-fruitiness comes from a unique strain of yeast called Brettanomyces, which makes it ripe for cellaring over a period of years, or even decades. Seek out vintage bottles, if you can, to taste and compare alongside fresh ones.
Harvey’s Christmas Ale
Style: English barleywine, 7.5% ABV
Brewery Location: East Sussex, England
With its cheery, Santa-adorned label, Harvey’s Christmas ale is a supremely festive looking bottle. The boozy barleywine inside oozes notes of fruitcake, dark cherry, and winter spice, and gets its decisive bitterness from local Fuggle and Golding hops grown within 35 miles of the brewery. The silky smoothness is derived from a famed variety of malts called Maris Otter.
Best Beer for a Carefree 2021
Long, hot days will be here again. Till then, here’s a liquid reminder of good friends, sandy beaches, and a time when the only Corona we knew went with a lime.
Allagash Little Grove Peach & Kombucha
Style: Sparkling Session Ale, 3.6% ABV
Brewery Location: Portland, Maine
Allagash’s entry to the low-calorie beer trend is this delightful little ale spiked with tart kombucha and succulent peaches. Though the description on the pastel can (“Bright Light Fruited,” “Sparkling Session Ale”) reads as if it might be laying down the law with White Claw, the liquid inside is far more complex and enjoyable than any alco-pop I’ve tasted. The complexity comes from Allagash’s house saison yeast strain, which adds depth and just a hint of funkiness that keeps things lively. And at just 3.6% ABV, it’s a beer you can sip all day long while working on your 2021 beach bod.
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