Beery Interesting: Top 10 Beers of 2015
Here are the 10 most captivating brews I tasted this year
And the winner is... | Photo by Bruce Glassman
I taste a lot of beers. Over the course of a normal year, I’d estimate that I test, savor, and evaluate about 200 new brews. Add to that the recreational drinking I do (on a somewhat regular basis!) with my tried-and-true favorites and everyday beers. With the sheer volume of IPAs, stouts, and Belgian styles washing over my palate every week, it takes a lot for a beer to really stand out. That’s why I’d like to call out ten beers that made a particular impression on me during the past twelve months.
Looking over this list, it struck me that—overall—these are not the “craziest” or most over-the-top beers I’ve tasted; rather, these are beers that combined something new and interesting with an impressive balance and restraint that kept them utterly drinkable. So, these are not the two-and-three-sip wonders that you taste and think “wow, that's interesting,” and then order a pale ale. These are beers that, after a few sips, you think, “Yum. I can drink a whole glass of that, no problem.”
10. Helles Smoked Lager (32 North)
This hazy light-yellow beer had rich aromas of freshly baked bread and smoked peat. Flavor-wise, it had the perfect balance of sweet, bready, pils-like malt mixed with just the right amount of smokiness, all wrapped up in a crisp, refreshing package. Finding the right balance of smoke and flavor in a light-style beer like this is no easy feat, so kudos are due.
9. Barrel Aged Pogue (Groundswell)
This unique beer is a variation of an Irish-style bitter. [The word pogue actually carries several colorful connotations, one of which is a pejorative term for non-combat personnel and another that is associated with the band The Pogues, whose last album was titled Pogue Mahone, which is the name of the base beer for this creation.] Groundswell’s Barrel-Aged Pogue is a dark caramel bronze, and smells of Belgian yeasty esters with hints of clove, black pepper, and tropical fruit. The flavor is a rich and unusual mix of molasses, banana, clove, and tropical fruit, with just the right amount of oak imparted from the barrel.
8. Father Ted Belgian Blonde (Half Door)
I love Belgian-style beers, but many of them are often too “Belgian-y” for me, meaning the characteristic esters imparted by the yeast strain tend to overpower the other elements in the beer. Half Door’s blonde, however, strikes just the right balance for me. It’s got plenty of that fruity-and-bready, spicy Belgian-like yeasty character, but it’s tightly wound into a light, crisp, exceptionally food-friendly beer.
7. Cucumber Longfin Lager (Ballast Point)
This riff on Ballast’s Longfin Lager was the first cucumber beer I’d ever had. It’s also a perfect example of something that—if you had described it to me ahead of time—would have made me skeptical. But the truth comes in the tasting, and the perfect blend of flavors in this beer won me over. It turns out that the crisp, clean, refreshing flavors of cucumber meld perfectly with the crisp, clean, refreshing aspects of a great lager. Ahh, what a wonderful revelation…
6. Noir Saison (Lightning)
With many of Lightning’s beers, there’s a lot of flavor and finesse packed into a light, crisp, well-balanced blend, and this beer is no exception. The Noir Saison uses a fairly classic saison style as its base, but it employs some black malt that has been debittered. (The typical saison, also called “farmhouse ale,” is straw colored, highly carbonated, and light and refreshing enough to be a go-to summertime sipper.) The dark malt gives the beer an interesting, dark brick-brown color as well as a brown sugar aspect, and the addition of orange zest and currant extract embellish the spicy, fruity, and bready elements already in the base beer.
5. Tequila Barrel Imperial Pils (Karl Strauss)
Before drinking this pilsner, I hadn’t tasted a beer of this style that had so much body, flavor, and character (or alcohol: this baby is 10.8% ABV). For the base beer, Karl Strauss’s brewers made a high-gravity German-style pilsner that wasn’t overly hopped or too malty. The hefty backbone was important because the beer needed to stand up to the strong flavors that were imparted by American oak tequila barrels, which were used to age the beer for a year. The result is a wonderfully smooth, malty, complex beer with medium body and scads of flavor.
4. XOCOVEZA Charred (Stone)
This thick, smooth mocha stout is brewed with cocoa, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and Pasilla peppers, all of which waft from the glass as soon as it’s poured. Like the Mexican hot chocolate that inspired it, dark chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon are the predominant flavors, along with notes of vanilla, smoky pepper, and nutmeg. In addition to the “charred” version of this beer, Stone has also released a “regular” version (in 12-oz. bottles) and an “extra añejo” which has been aged in tequila barrels. This is one to sip by the fire this winter; it’s decadent, rich, and delicious, with great flavorings that don’t obscure the beer.
3. Beatitude Imperial Tart Saison (Council)
Brewed with organic peaches and nectarines, this beer is pleasingly tart without being mouth-puckering. Its flavors are a restrained mix of funk, tang, fruit, breadiness, and spiciness that make it uniquely refreshing on the palate and very easy to drink. Thanks to aging in French Oak, the many flavor elements of this beer have become especially well integrated and smoothed out, which results in a wonderfully complex but light-bodied sipper.
2. Noir Sauvage (Cellar 3)
This intriguing black ale was aged in bourbon barrels and was fermented with Brettanomyces (a strain of wild yeast) that gives the finished product an impressive and complex mix of aromas and flavors, many of which you don’t normally get in the same glass. On the nose, the beer smells of chocolate, molasses, dark fruit, and caramel. The rich body delivers similar flavors of dark fruit, chocolate, and molasses, but these are integrated with a layer of funky Brett and sourness, creating a finished product that is simultaneously malty sweet and also sour; heavy yet crisp.
1. Funky Sea Monkey (Monkey Paw)
Ok, I said in my intro that most of these beers were not “crazy,” but this one kind of is (in a very good way). This is a gose (light-style lager-like beer) that was made with squid ink. And, yes, you guessed it: I’d never had a squid ink beer before this one… As crazy as it may sound, this beer was eminently drinkable. It balanced light hoppiness and crispness with a briny aroma and flavor (typical of the style), which kept it clean and refreshing on the palate. Not only was the flavor of this beer a pleasant revelation, its dark greenish-black hue made it—by far—the most interesting beer color I’ve ever seen.