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Top 100 Beers of 2015 (Issue 22)

With a new year upon us, there comes a time when we must ruminate on our past. For us, that means a discussion of the best beers we reviewed in 2015.

There were a lot of changes for us in 2015, especially when it comes to our beer review. We greatly expanded the amount of beers we review for every issue – increasing the number from around 20 to upwards of 100! We gained many new judges and now have over 20 BJCP-ranked beer experts on call from all over the world ready to grade some of the best brews around.

In 2015, twelve beers we reviewed attained the level of “world-class,” ranging from obscure Belgian styles to ubiquitous American IPAs. Congratulations to all the breweries that achieved this status; your efforts have helped craft beer grow into a joyous celebration of delightful flavors and artistic experimentation, where nothing is off-limits and rules are meant to be broken.

For each beer that attained a world-class ranking, we interviewed one of the brewers that made that beer happen to discuss some of the beer’s backstory. Also, the judges have revisited the world-class beers they evaluated, discussing various topics that revolve around the best beers they reviewed in 2015.

Without further ado, here are the Top 100 Beers of 2015.


 

Top 100 Beers of 2015
Quick List

 


World Class (100 to 96)


1.
98
by Jim Koebel
Oude Geuze Boon
Brouwerij Boon

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Read Review
Brewer Q & A

oude-geuze-boon.jpg


Judge's Second Opinion
from Jim Koebel
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I consider myself lucky to have heard about the Beer Judge Certification Program just as I began homebrewing and discovering good beer. It wasn’t long before I sat for the exam and began spending way too many Saturday mornings judging beer competitions. Since then, I haven’t looked back, which makes my personal history with beer virtually inseparable from my experience with homebrewing as well as the BJCP.

That’s probably the reason why – like a lot of folks, but maybe more than some – I have serious respect for stylistic accuracy. It’s safe to say that I have plenty of room for improvement as a homebrewer, so when I’m not drinking my own, it needs to be good. Beer fads have their place, but I’d prefer a well-brewed example of any given defined style regardless of whether it’s commercially created or homebrewed. Finding one in a particularly exacting style is icing on the cake.

Enter Oude Geuze Boon. I rated this beer a 98 out of 100 points in my review, meaning it’s a world class representation of the Gueuze style and one of the best beers available commercially. All things considered, this is a nearly perfect beer. In a few words, this beer’s most impressive qualities are its distinctiveness, balance and depth, resulting in something almost unrivaled in any other beer I have tasted in the last few years. The beer’s tangible qualities earned Oude Geuze Boon its score of 98 points, but it’s what those qualities represent that earns it the title of world-class.

Making gueuze requires an infrastructure that the overwhelming majority of homebrewers do not have. Consequently, in my experience, gueuze is one of the least entered styles in homebrew competitions, and the few that are entered often suffer from hard-to-avoid flaws. That’s not knocking homebrewers; it is simply a difficult style to make even for commercial breweries. One reason is that the lambics that are blended to make gueuze may, by themselves, be unpalatable – either too dry, too sweet or too acetic and sharp. Although the blending process will mitigate any extreme characteristics, it is still an unpredictable process relative to modern brewing. Uncorking a bottle of imported gueuze can be a game of Russian roulette of sorts; I know enough to do it over a sink in case an infection occurred during secondary fermentation or transport.

Still, they’re worth trying because they can be amazing beers. In Frank Boon’s Q & A with The Beer Connoisseur, he claimed that bottles of Oude Geuze Boon could be kept for twenty years. I’m not sure I could hang on to a bottle for that long without enjoying it, but I definitely believe him. The bottle I reviewed changed markedly while I drank it, presenting two different versions of itself. I have no idea what this beer would taste like in 20 years, but it certainly proved itself over the course of thirty minutes. Unlike the majority of other beers that would become undrinkable in that amount of time, this beer has the potential to become even better.

And that is no fluke. Oude Geuze Boon’s potential is the product of over a century of tradition, retooling and, probably, quite a few failed attempts. As Mr. Boon said, this beer has been brewed since 1899, but it was only perfected in 1975. That persistence is something any homebrewer can respect, and something every beer judge appreciates.

We can be pretty sure Mr. Boon didn’t spend the years leading up to 1975 tweaking his recipe so that Oude Geuze Boon would fit into the BJCP style guidelines (they didn’t exist then). Instead, as he put it, he was aiming for perfection. And look where it got him; it’s evident that the BJCP style guidelines for Gueuze were written around his beer. If that’s not representative of a World Class Beer, I don’t know what is.


Brewer's Thoughts
from Frank Boon

New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration. With a new year sprawled out before us, it feels like a new start – this is the year where everything will fall into place. The holiday is also rife with booziness, especially champagne. But for discerning craft beer drinkers, that super-sweet fizzy beverage can feel like the lowest common denominator so, next year, why not pop open a world-class alternative: Brouwerij Boon’s incredible Oude Geuze Boon, our highest-rated beer of 2015.

Our judge was blown away by the expert craftsmanship of this beer, saying that this Gueuze “typified both art and craft.” I spoke with the founder of Brouwerij Boon, Frank Boon, about one of his most widely acclaimed creations.

I asked Frank why he thought Oude Geuze Boon attained our highest score of 2015, and he gladly elaborated: “The use of wild yeasts, collected from the air of the Zenne River Valley in Belgium, make Oude Geuze Boon a beer that keeps for at least 20 years. To make Oude Geuze Boon we blend Lambics that are between 1-3 years old and re-ferment them in the bottle. Because of this blend, Oude Geuze Boon has the winy character of a fine white wine, the body of a good glass of beer and the phenolic and oaky qualities of a good glass of whiskey.”

The most difficult aspect of brewing Oude Geuze Boon is the aging of Lambic in oak casks. If something goes wrong during the aging process, the beer gets too vinegar-y and has to be drained. According to Frank, “To obtain a gentle, wine-like sourness, our brewers only brew in the seven cold months in Belgium, avoiding the wild yeast that can overpower the sour-making bacteria.

Many of the fine flavors found in Oude Geuze Boon are from the quality, and perfect aging process of the Lambic that go into the beer. “Well-aged Lambic will have lost its ‘young beer flaws,’ such as goatcheese and horse-sweat, which are sometimes mentioned as typical aromas and flavors for Gueuze are due to the use of too much young Lambic.”

Because Oude Geuze Boon blends young and old Lambic, it takes on the character of a good glass of champagne – the perfect accompaniment to a new year of drinking fine beer in 2016.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


2.
96
by Phil Farrell
Tropicália
Creature Comforts Brewing Co.

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-12681-1428586663.png
from Phil Farrell

I will never forget my first beer partly because I don’t remember it. Evidently my Dad and my Uncle Bill (his brother), future pub owners, thought the little guy needed to taste what he was so intensely curious about. As the story goes, I was given a sip, immediately turned red and spit out the Ballantine IPA, thus ensuring a lifelong grail-like quest to re-experience my first taste of a class of beverages I later embraced in adulthood. My mother, who never met a story she wouldn’t repeat, has exponentially added new details to the story every year – even though she wasn’t there. I was only 2 in one telling and as old as 4 in another, but that is what you get when it is the story of something someone doesn’t remember as recounted by someone who wasn’t there. As far as family oral history goes, three times the sum total of my living relatives at the time were all in the room when it happened. Today I simply triangulate my age to have been 3, which thankfully agrees with almost 66 percent of those relatives polled.

Beer for me has always been a tapestry of the familiar stitched together by the thread of the unique. As the years go by it is really difficult to experience uniqueness as an isolated thing. I remember my first Cascade hop rush from a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my first Boston Lager, the oxidized sherry notes in my first Thomas Hardy, my first proper pint of cask ale, my first Weizen, my first Trappist Ale as well as my first truly intentionally wild beer. Every time I personally experienced something unique (for me), I filed it away even if I wasn’t initially taken by it. Much like the musician who gets drawn into others’ compositions the moment the first notes are strung together, I am most often treated to familiarity because let’s face it: I drink around. I enthusiastically seek unique yet don’t consider familiarity a failure.  Familiarity presented in a unique manner is always welcome. Amadeus Mozart essentially worked with the same 7 notes Dee Dee Ramone did, even though Dee Dee could only find 4 of them on a good day. Both created unique from the familiar.

My Familiarity Factor is particularly relevant for IPAs, Ballantine notwithstanding. You are setting yourself up for disappointment by limiting yourself to unique IPAs, considering they are the lifeblood of craft beer. Creature Comforts Tropicália is one of those beers that is so good precisely because it is unapologetically a master of familiarity. Hops can be thought of in the same manner as spices – with some chefs working with a few favorites and others throwing in the entire rack. In this case whether they utilized one or a blend of several, the brewers at Creature Comforts emphasized the pleasant aspects of tropical hop characteristics. The aroma is an array of tropical mainstays such as mango, orange, grapefruit, and even a little Georgia Peach. There is a bit of pine resin and a generic spiciness that hits the mark perfectly. If it were a song it would be a 45-RPM single playing in the key of Hop Sharp. The malt drum set keeps the beat going with a simple one-two of toast and caramel. The palate is then cleansed by a firm bitterness that is dry and not so thin as to disappoint yet not so full as to end your evening.  So delicious and drinkable, it is a Lennon-McCartney tune you can’t get out of your head rather than the overproduced Phil Spector “wall of sound” version that diminishes the original genius by too many additions. Tropicália is that tight 3-minute song that is so good you play it 3 times in a row.


Brewer's Thoughts
from Adam Beauchamp

Georgia’s craft beer scene is experiencing something of a resurgence. Despite extremely antiquated beer laws that hinder the growth and sales of many breweries, Georgia has a host of thriving and popular breweries that excel in making terrific brews.

One of the state’s hottest new breweries is Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, GA, the home of the University of Georgia. Though they only currently have two year-round offerings, they make them count. The first is Athena, a flawlessly executed Berliner Weisse, and the second is their flagship IPA Tropicália.

Featuring a juicy cocktail of mango, guava and grapefruit flavors from Citra, Centennial and Galaxy hops, Tropicália is one of the hottest IPAs on the market right now, and I spoke with Creature Comforts brewmaster and co-founder Adam Beauchamp about this delectable drink.

“Tropicália features a ton of hop flavor and aroma, without the intense bitter aftertaste that many highly hopped IPA's exhibit. We avoid adding large amounts of colored malts to this brew in an effort to allow the bright hoppy flavors to shine,” said Adam. “At Creature Comforts we have a major focus on quality and freshness, and Tropicália greatly benefits from this by typically being offered to customers within a few days of canning.”

With any hugely popular craft beer that’s created by a microbrewery, supply and demand is important. Adam discussed how the brewery is trying to keep up with the voracious appetite for Tropicália that craft beer lovers have.

According to Adam, “We're able to keep the Athens, GA area fairly well supplied, but Atlanta has been a challenge since the beginning. We're brewing as much beer as we can at the brewery and are planning expansions that will come online very soon. We are staying totally focused on quality during this growth period, and we will never sacrifice the integrity of our products for the sake of growth.” 

“People should know that we sold about 1,800 barrels during our first year and we plan to hit close to 9,000 barrels this year,” Adam continued. “This upcoming year, with our new tanks, we should be able to do quite a bit more. We are growing extremely quickly, but from the customer's perspective, there are often only empty shelves where Tropicália should be. We are diligently working to fix that.”

Hopefully Creature Comforts expands quickly and easily, and Tropicália gets the widespread recognition it deserves as one of our best beers of 2015.

 


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


3.
96
by Phil Farrell
Cali-Belgique
Stone Brewing Co.

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Read Review

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-12681-1428586663.png
from Phil Farrell

Every one of my favorite songs also remind me of a place. Stone’s Cali-Belgique is an iPod shuffle of a walk down my personal Beer Memory Lane. By combining so many favorite beer flavors in such a unique progression, I am reminded of all the reasons I liked beer in the first place. If Tropicália is a hit single, Cali-Belgique is an entire Rock Opera. This beer is not someone mixing four random alcohols and having it taste like iced tea. It is more like the wonderful contradiction of smelling the ocean while you are skiing down a glacier. Stone Head Brewer Mitch Steele’s creation initially transports me to the Pacific Northwest and the thick resinous forests where there are no hop farms (or grapefruits for that matter), but work with me here for a moment. I smell the low, rain-heavy clouds engulfing the dormant volcanic mountain peaks, a hop harvest and the rugged Oregon coastline, but then, there is something more. How can my perfect Norman Rockwell hop vision of grapefruit and pine resin be clouded by a Belgian daydream of lemon zest and white pepper?

My Beer GPS is really confused by the straw, biscuit, and pear flavors in the middle of my taste that perfectly complement the spice and citrus. How did I get from Bend to Brussels in half a sip? Okay, just as I am getting comfortable finishing up on the other side of The Pond in my Belgian Cafe I am treated to Act 3, the Big Bitter. Not the palate-crushing grunge rock destruction of bitterness, but rather that perfectly timed bass drum of one that shatters the trance and says, “Hey I’m an IPA over here.” But wait, there’s more! While many IPAs would be satisfied with a bitter ending and quit while they are ahead, there is still one surprise left. Instead of rebooting the palate, the initial bitterness is a grand finale of the Tour de Belgium reprise. Earth, pepper spice, pear, and lemon zest deliciously linger in the finish. This is one beer that managed to make me think of an entire evening of beer enjoyment in one glass. More cowbell not required.  


Brewer's Thoughts
from Mitch Steele

Stone Brewing Co. has never been a business that pays attention to the norm. Much of its branding, specifically the “Bastard” line of beers, focuses on how difficult it is for people to fathom how great their beers are because the palates of the masses aren’t refined enough.

Though this might not necessarily be true, it hasn’t hurt Stone’s sales, as they are the eighth-largest brewery in America according to the BA.

Cali-Belgique IPA, one of Stone’s highly acclaimed year-round beers, tells you exactly what to expect in the title: this is a perfect intermingling of American and Belgian beer flavors.

Despite its status as one of Stone’s beloved year-round brews, it didn’t start out that way. Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele told me that its creation was a “serendipitous thing."

"We had experimented with fermenting some of our year-round beers with a Belgian yeast, just to see what would happen. This is the beer that worked the best! So much so that it’s now in the lineup of Stone year-round beers,” Mitch said.

The original creation of the beer occurred in 2008 and involved pitching wort from a batch of Stone IPA into Vertical Epic Ale 08.08.08. Mitch takes over the story: “After adding the yeast, the initial yeast propagator had leftover beer. So we tasted it, really liked it and decided to dry-hop it. We called it Stone Cali-Belgique IPA. Since then, we have brewed it using the exact same recipe as Stone IPA, except fermented with Belgian yeast and dry-hopped with Chinook.”

Mitch favors the beer’s overall flavor balance and fruit character, discussing the combination of citrus and banana from the hops and yeast, respectively. He also discussed that the Stone brewers have been “playing around with some unfiltered versions” of Cali-Belgique, furthering the Belgian character that is based on. While that beer would surely be a hit, for now, Mitch can only say, “We’ll see where it goes.”


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


4.
96
by Jason Johnson
Todd The Axe Man
Surly Brewing Co.

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Read Review

Brewer Q & A

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-22945-1434373351.jpg
from Jason Johnson

When I started reflecting back on this collaboration beer between Surly Brewing Company and Denmark’s Amager Brewery, I was lucky enough to still have a stray can in my fridge – what better time to crack that last can than right now? I admit, I’m a hop head, and I really enjoy bright, hoppy beers from the IPA family. For me, it’s not so much the bitterness of IPAs that draws me in, but rather the marriage of hop aromas and flavors. This is why I tend to gravitate towards the less bitter and more hop-forward IPAs. I’ve had the likes of Sculpin, Maine Beer Company’s Lunch, Stone IPA, AleSmith IPA, Bell’s Two-Hearted and many, many other top-rated IPAs that are extremely well-balanced, bright and truly delicious. One of my local favorites here in Wisconsin is the intensely citrusy Green 19 from Titletown brewery in Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

Recently, I have come to appreciate the beautifully bright tropical and melon notes of the newer hop varieties. Beers like Heady Topper are a nice blend of traditional American pine and citrus flavors and the mango and pineapple notes in the newer hop varieties. Todd the Axe Man fits that bill perfectly of being on that cutting edge of bright and flavorful hoppy IPAs without that out-of-bounds bitterness. That is a very difficult act to pull off. We all know hops are bitter, but they can also be incredibly flavorful and juicy as well. It’s very impressive to not only be able to create a beer that’s chock-full of big bright hop flavors and aroma, but also avoid hop astringency and bitterness. 

I also think Todd the Axe Man is proof that less can be more. This beer consists of a single grain and two varieties of hops – that’s it. There is no complicated five grain grist to get a nice malty backbone, there is no complex blend of six different hops; it’s just Golden Promise for the base malt and Mosaic and Citra for the hops. That’s it! Surly did a great job balancing the flavors well even with so few ingredients. The beer is far from boring or one-dimensional. In fact, it’s proof that simplicity can achieve results that are deserving of becoming one of the best beers of 2015.

As a homebrewer, I’m generally not fond of “cloning” beers. I feel that if I like a beer that much, I will just buy it. So while cloning beer recipes is great, often there are minute details that brewers focus on that still set the beer apart from a clone – be it water chemistry, specific fermentation temperatures or yeast selection. But in the end, as I finish this glass, it’s still a mighty fine IPA, even if it is several weeks old. The big bright tropical notes are still delicious, and it has inspired me to brew some sort of variant of this beer with the ingredients listed on Surly’s website. What better compliment can you give a brewer or brewery than telling them that their beer has inspired you to brew something similar? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?


Brewer's Thoughts
from Todd Haug

After we released numerous stories about the brewery and its head brewer, Todd Haug, we finally reviewed some of Surly Brewing Company’s popular IPAs in 2015. The one that received the most acclaim from our reviewer was this Todd the Axe Man, a collaboration between Denmark’s Amager Brewery and Surly.

The name is based on Haug’s rather impressive guitar playing, which rivals his brewing prowess. According to Todd, the intention for Axe Man was “to create a collaboration beer that employed raw materials that each brewery hadn’t used before. Golden Promise malt is featured in a handful of my recipes here at Surly, and Mosaic hops are a favorite at Amager and also ones that I’ve never brewed with before.”

The use of Mosaic hops turned out to be an inspired choice, as our reviewer noted the subtle interplay of malt and hops as a highlight of the beer. Todd outlined the hop profile explicitly: “We used Warrior for bittering and Mosaic and Citra for aroma.” When I asked him to elaborate on quantity, he deflected: “We use a lot. It’s a secret.” With Axe Man scoring so highly in 2015, it’s understandable that Todd didn’t want to provide any more information on the hop profile, as he wants it to be a highly sought after beer in 2016 as well.

Speaking of 2016, Surly does plan to release Todd the Axe Man this year as well, though a release date hasn’t been set. “[Axe Man] will be available in cans and on tap in our markets occasionally throughout 2016,” Todd said.

As Axe Man has edged out Surly’s year-round Furious IPA in Todd’s list of favorite Surly beers, do yourself a favor and search far and wide for the 2016 release. You won’t be disappointed.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


5.
96
by Josh Weikert
Blast!
Brooklyn Brewery

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Read Review

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-22951-1434120269.jpg
from Josh Weikert

I’ve got a thing about IPAs – I almost never make them. I’ll brew anything. I’ve won medals in literally every BJCP style category (and the 2015 guidelines will let me hit some new ones!) as a means of ensuring that I can confidently brew across the whole beer spectrum. But I don’t really brew IPAs. Why not?

Well, because there’s a whole world of competent IPAs out there. Why would I brew my own when I can pick up a case of just about any brewery’s IPA? The dirty secret in the beer world (which maybe isn’t so secret) is that the distance between an IPA at the 95th percentile of quality and the 5th percentile of quality isn’t all that large.  Maybe the very, very best of them are much better than the very, very worst, but honestly, most of the time they’re all just somewhere between OK and pretty good.  

Having said that… sometimes you get to enjoy one of those really great IPAs, like Blast!, and for me it really just makes me wonder why more breweries don’t just…. you know… STOP making theirs so that we can appreciate the really good ones.  If there’s an area that is screaming for some winnowing out in the beer world, it’s in the realm of IPAs.

This one is awesome. It’s a pretty beer that smells fruity and fresh but still lets you know it’s beer (because, you know, grain). It tastes wonderful – extremely high bitterness, but not in a way that grates on the palate. It’s a smooth bitterness, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. And it isn’t all just the bitterness: some brewer went out of his/her way to make sure that you can taste all of the other elements of the beer as well.  

That’s the thing. IPAs are so popular because of two things: one, anyone can pick out their key feature (hop flavor/aroma/bitterness); and two, even mediocre brewers can make a decent one. But they can’t make a great one because they‘re using hops to paper over a sloppy or mediocre beer.

Making a great IPA like Blast! is an exercise in balance. That’s an odd sentence in a style that supports ridiculously high bitterness, but it’s true. Great brewers can have a dominant flavor, but still find ways to let the other elements contribute, and not just in a way that keeps that dominant flavor from being offensive. Yes, you can use alcohol sweetness or crystal malts to offset hop bittering – but isn’t it better to also have them contribute in a meaningful way to the overall gustatory aesthetic? So get yourself a bottle and remind yourself why big, beautiful IPAs are such a great find. For those of us who are wading through the sea of mediocre IPAs to help you find the great ones, it’s the best outcome we can hope for. Reward Brooklyn for their efforts, and your palate will thank you!


Brewer's Thoughts
from Garrett Oliver

Another one of the biggest breweries in America, Brooklyn Brewery has a vast and varied selection of year-round and limited-release beers, but according to our reviewer the best one we reviewed this year was Brooklyn’s Blast! Double IPA.

I spoke to Garrett Oliver, founder of Brooklyn Brewery, to discuss one of his favorite brews. I first asked where the recipe of Blast! came from: “Blast! was actually the name of my first batch of homebrew in 1984, though that was a pale ale, not an IPA. We've produced a version of this beer for about 10 years now. I did the original recipe, but as new hops have become available, I've sat down with our team to make little adjustments here and there over the years. We love where Blast! is right now.”

With so many Double IPAs available on the market today, I wanted to get Garrett’s thoughts on why Blast! rose above the ranks in our 2015 ratings. “I think the structure and sense of balance set it apart. It's not only hoppy, but it also just tastes really good. There's a nice stone-fruit character in the center from the use of some great British hops alongside the American ones, which give the beer its ‘pop.’ The most important trait here is outright deliciousness.”

Garrett finished up by saying Blast! is indeed one of his favorite beers, which is “vaguely problematic, as it’s easy to forget that the beer is 8.4 percent ABV. He also said that while British hops tend to age better than American ones, there’s no time like the present to enjoy a cold Blast!.

Obviously, our judge had a "blast" drinking this beer, and we think you will too.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


6.
96 
by Michael Heniff
Pinchy Jeek Barl
Anderson Valley Brewing Co.

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-22989-1434729974.jpg
from Michael Heniff

Ahhh… a revisit of Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Pinchy Jeek Barl Bourbon Barrel Pumpkin Ale... if only there was more of this liquid inspiration to be enjoyed while writing this article. This was a beer that I had not tasted before, which in itself can be an amazing feat since I have recorded tasting notes for 23 years, amassing notes on over 5,600 commercial beers. The list could be as high as 8,000 if I chose to count brewpub beers, and maybe even as high as 10,000 if I included homebrewed beers!

On first thought, Wild Turkey Bourbon would not have been my first choice as a bourbon source for a barrel-aged beer; Wild Turkey isn’t renowned as one of the finest bourbons that Kentucky has to offer. My first recollection of Wild Turkey was on my 21st birthday, when an acquaintance bought me a shot of Wild Turkey. I wasn’t an immediate fan, and at that time I was primarily a light lager drinker as the craft beer movement was still young (and I was certainly a bourbon neophyte) so my palate was still very early in development. Since then, I have grown to appreciate bourbon, especially when beer is aged with bourbon or in bourbon barrels. With this beer, the barrel character of toasted oak and vanilla comes through strongly without being too overly bourbon-driven; the bourbon provides a complementary flavor to the base beer and spices without becoming the dominant flavor of the beer.

Second, the beer was brewed “with pumpkin and [unnamed] spices.”  Personally, I dread pumpkin beer season – when seemingly every brewery releases its take on a pumpkin-pie-style beer. The season seems to start as early as August and runs until the last beers at the store gets sold. These beers typically feature nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice and many brewers are not shy to push this spicing well to the forefront. The aggressive spices typically need a hefty malt base to temper the otherwise unbearable astringency that these spices provide. For this beer, however, the spices are more subtle and complement the caramel/chocolate malt and toasted oak/vanilla barrel character beautifully.

Finally, a characteristic that I believe all great beers need to have is the element of balance. I’m not advocating that all beers need to have an equal level of malt and hops, but the best beers, regardless of style, should have complementing or contrasting characters that work together to add to the depth and complexity of the beer. For this beer, the aroma exuded toasted oak and vanilla barrel character with complementing caramel and chocolate malts and pumpkin spices. The pumpkin spices hint at pumpkin pie, but they never showcase any singular spice above others. The body was quite a bit more complex, conveying an almost even balance between the barrel character, malt and spices. The Wild Turkey Bourbon never comes to the forefront and remains complementary element, perhaps appropriately so (based on my earlier impression). The finish once again demonstrates complexity with the interplay of malt, barrel and spices with only a slightly spicy astringency. In summary: This is a complex, rich, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable Pumpkin Beer.


With a new year upon us, there comes a time when we must ruminate on our past. For us, that means a discussion of the best beers we reviewed in 2015.

There were a lot of changes for us in 2015, especially when it comes to our beer review. We greatly expanded the amount of beers we review for every issue – increasing the number from around 20 to upwards of 100! We gained many new judges and now have over 20 BJCP-ranked beer experts on call from all over the world ready to grade some of the best brews around.

In 2015, twelve beers we reviewed attained the level of “world-class,” ranging from obscure Belgian styles to ubiquitous American IPAs. Congratulations to all the breweries that achieved this status; your efforts have helped craft beer grow into a joyous celebration of delightful flavors and artistic experimentation, where nothing is off-limits and rules are meant to be broken.

For each beer that attained a world-class ranking, we interviewed one of the brewers that made that beer happen to discuss some of the beer’s backstory. Also, the judges have revisited the world-class beers they evaluated, discussing various topics that revolve around the best beers they reviewed in 2015.

Without further ado, here are the Top 100 Beers of 2015.


 

Top 100 Beers of 2015
Quick List

 


World Class (100 to 96)


1.
98
by Jim Koebel
Oude Geuze Boon
Brouwerij Boon

View Beer
Read Review
Brewer Q & A

oude-geuze-boon.jpg


Judge's Second Opinion
from Jim Koebel
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I consider myself lucky to have heard about the Beer Judge Certification Program just as I began homebrewing and discovering good beer. It wasn’t long before I sat for the exam and began spending way too many Saturday mornings judging beer competitions. Since then, I haven’t looked back, which makes my personal history with beer virtually inseparable from my experience with homebrewing as well as the BJCP.

That’s probably the reason why – like a lot of folks, but maybe more than some – I have serious respect for stylistic accuracy. It’s safe to say that I have plenty of room for improvement as a homebrewer, so when I’m not drinking my own, it needs to be good. Beer fads have their place, but I’d prefer a well-brewed example of any given defined style regardless of whether it’s commercially created or homebrewed. Finding one in a particularly exacting style is icing on the cake.

Enter Oude Geuze Boon. I rated this beer a 98 out of 100 points in my review, meaning it’s a world class representation of the Gueuze style and one of the best beers available commercially. All things considered, this is a nearly perfect beer. In a few words, this beer’s most impressive qualities are its distinctiveness, balance and depth, resulting in something almost unrivaled in any other beer I have tasted in the last few years. The beer’s tangible qualities earned Oude Geuze Boon its score of 98 points, but it’s what those qualities represent that earns it the title of world-class.

Making gueuze requires an infrastructure that the overwhelming majority of homebrewers do not have. Consequently, in my experience, gueuze is one of the least entered styles in homebrew competitions, and the few that are entered often suffer from hard-to-avoid flaws. That’s not knocking homebrewers; it is simply a difficult style to make even for commercial breweries. One reason is that the lambics that are blended to make gueuze may, by themselves, be unpalatable – either too dry, too sweet or too acetic and sharp. Although the blending process will mitigate any extreme characteristics, it is still an unpredictable process relative to modern brewing. Uncorking a bottle of imported gueuze can be a game of Russian roulette of sorts; I know enough to do it over a sink in case an infection occurred during secondary fermentation or transport.

Still, they’re worth trying because they can be amazing beers. In Frank Boon’s Q & A with The Beer Connoisseur, he claimed that bottles of Oude Geuze Boon could be kept for twenty years. I’m not sure I could hang on to a bottle for that long without enjoying it, but I definitely believe him. The bottle I reviewed changed markedly while I drank it, presenting two different versions of itself. I have no idea what this beer would taste like in 20 years, but it certainly proved itself over the course of thirty minutes. Unlike the majority of other beers that would become undrinkable in that amount of time, this beer has the potential to become even better.

And that is no fluke. Oude Geuze Boon’s potential is the product of over a century of tradition, retooling and, probably, quite a few failed attempts. As Mr. Boon said, this beer has been brewed since 1899, but it was only perfected in 1975. That persistence is something any homebrewer can respect, and something every beer judge appreciates.

We can be pretty sure Mr. Boon didn’t spend the years leading up to 1975 tweaking his recipe so that Oude Geuze Boon would fit into the BJCP style guidelines (they didn’t exist then). Instead, as he put it, he was aiming for perfection. And look where it got him; it’s evident that the BJCP style guidelines for Gueuze were written around his beer. If that’s not representative of a World Class Beer, I don’t know what is.


Brewer's Thoughts
from Frank Boon

New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration. With a new year sprawled out before us, it feels like a new start – this is the year where everything will fall into place. The holiday is also rife with booziness, especially champagne. But for discerning craft beer drinkers, that super-sweet fizzy beverage can feel like the lowest common denominator so, next year, why not pop open a world-class alternative: Brouwerij Boon’s incredible Oude Geuze Boon, our highest-rated beer of 2015.

Our judge was blown away by the expert craftsmanship of this beer, saying that this Gueuze “typified both art and craft.” I spoke with the founder of Brouwerij Boon, Frank Boon, about one of his most widely acclaimed creations.

I asked Frank why he thought Oude Geuze Boon attained our highest score of 2015, and he gladly elaborated: “The use of wild yeasts, collected from the air of the Zenne River Valley in Belgium, make Oude Geuze Boon a beer that keeps for at least 20 years. To make Oude Geuze Boon we blend Lambics that are between 1-3 years old and re-ferment them in the bottle. Because of this blend, Oude Geuze Boon has the winy character of a fine white wine, the body of a good glass of beer and the phenolic and oaky qualities of a good glass of whiskey.”

The most difficult aspect of brewing Oude Geuze Boon is the aging of Lambic in oak casks. If something goes wrong during the aging process, the beer gets too vinegar-y and has to be drained. According to Frank, “To obtain a gentle, wine-like sourness, our brewers only brew in the seven cold months in Belgium, avoiding the wild yeast that can overpower the sour-making bacteria.

Many of the fine flavors found in Oude Geuze Boon are from the quality, and perfect aging process of the Lambic that go into the beer. “Well-aged Lambic will have lost its ‘young beer flaws,’ such as goatcheese and horse-sweat, which are sometimes mentioned as typical aromas and flavors for Gueuze are due to the use of too much young Lambic.”

Because Oude Geuze Boon blends young and old Lambic, it takes on the character of a good glass of champagne – the perfect accompaniment to a new year of drinking fine beer in 2016.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


2.
96
by Phil Farrell
Tropicália
Creature Comforts Brewing Co.

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from Phil Farrell

I will never forget my first beer partly because I don’t remember it. Evidently my Dad and my Uncle Bill (his brother), future pub owners, thought the little guy needed to taste what he was so intensely curious about. As the story goes, I was given a sip, immediately turned red and spit out the Ballantine IPA, thus ensuring a lifelong grail-like quest to re-experience my first taste of a class of beverages I later embraced in adulthood. My mother, who never met a story she wouldn’t repeat, has exponentially added new details to the story every year – even though she wasn’t there. I was only 2 in one telling and as old as 4 in another, but that is what you get when it is the story of something someone doesn’t remember as recounted by someone who wasn’t there. As far as family oral history goes, three times the sum total of my living relatives at the time were all in the room when it happened. Today I simply triangulate my age to have been 3, which thankfully agrees with almost 66 percent of those relatives polled.

Beer for me has always been a tapestry of the familiar stitched together by the thread of the unique. As the years go by it is really difficult to experience uniqueness as an isolated thing. I remember my first Cascade hop rush from a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my first Boston Lager, the oxidized sherry notes in my first Thomas Hardy, my first proper pint of cask ale, my first Weizen, my first Trappist Ale as well as my first truly intentionally wild beer. Every time I personally experienced something unique (for me), I filed it away even if I wasn’t initially taken by it. Much like the musician who gets drawn into others’ compositions the moment the first notes are strung together, I am most often treated to familiarity because let’s face it: I drink around. I enthusiastically seek unique yet don’t consider familiarity a failure.  Familiarity presented in a unique manner is always welcome. Amadeus Mozart essentially worked with the same 7 notes Dee Dee Ramone did, even though Dee Dee could only find 4 of them on a good day. Both created unique from the familiar.

My Familiarity Factor is particularly relevant for IPAs, Ballantine notwithstanding. You are setting yourself up for disappointment by limiting yourself to unique IPAs, considering they are the lifeblood of craft beer. Creature Comforts Tropicália is one of those beers that is so good precisely because it is unapologetically a master of familiarity. Hops can be thought of in the same manner as spices – with some chefs working with a few favorites and others throwing in the entire rack. In this case whether they utilized one or a blend of several, the brewers at Creature Comforts emphasized the pleasant aspects of tropical hop characteristics. The aroma is an array of tropical mainstays such as mango, orange, grapefruit, and even a little Georgia Peach. There is a bit of pine resin and a generic spiciness that hits the mark perfectly. If it were a song it would be a 45-RPM single playing in the key of Hop Sharp. The malt drum set keeps the beat going with a simple one-two of toast and caramel. The palate is then cleansed by a firm bitterness that is dry and not so thin as to disappoint yet not so full as to end your evening.  So delicious and drinkable, it is a Lennon-McCartney tune you can’t get out of your head rather than the overproduced Phil Spector “wall of sound” version that diminishes the original genius by too many additions. Tropicália is that tight 3-minute song that is so good you play it 3 times in a row.


Brewer's Thoughts
from Adam Beauchamp

Georgia’s craft beer scene is experiencing something of a resurgence. Despite extremely antiquated beer laws that hinder the growth and sales of many breweries, Georgia has a host of thriving and popular breweries that excel in making terrific brews.

One of the state’s hottest new breweries is Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, GA, the home of the University of Georgia. Though they only currently have two year-round offerings, they make them count. The first is Athena, a flawlessly executed Berliner Weisse, and the second is their flagship IPA Tropicália.

Featuring a juicy cocktail of mango, guava and grapefruit flavors from Citra, Centennial and Galaxy hops, Tropicália is one of the hottest IPAs on the market right now, and I spoke with Creature Comforts brewmaster and co-founder Adam Beauchamp about this delectable drink.

“Tropicália features a ton of hop flavor and aroma, without the intense bitter aftertaste that many highly hopped IPA's exhibit. We avoid adding large amounts of colored malts to this brew in an effort to allow the bright hoppy flavors to shine,” said Adam. “At Creature Comforts we have a major focus on quality and freshness, and Tropicália greatly benefits from this by typically being offered to customers within a few days of canning.”

With any hugely popular craft beer that’s created by a microbrewery, supply and demand is important. Adam discussed how the brewery is trying to keep up with the voracious appetite for Tropicália that craft beer lovers have.

According to Adam, “We're able to keep the Athens, GA area fairly well supplied, but Atlanta has been a challenge since the beginning. We're brewing as much beer as we can at the brewery and are planning expansions that will come online very soon. We are staying totally focused on quality during this growth period, and we will never sacrifice the integrity of our products for the sake of growth.” 

“People should know that we sold about 1,800 barrels during our first year and we plan to hit close to 9,000 barrels this year,” Adam continued. “This upcoming year, with our new tanks, we should be able to do quite a bit more. We are growing extremely quickly, but from the customer's perspective, there are often only empty shelves where Tropicália should be. We are diligently working to fix that.”

Hopefully Creature Comforts expands quickly and easily, and Tropicália gets the widespread recognition it deserves as one of our best beers of 2015.

 


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


3.
96
by Phil Farrell
Cali-Belgique
Stone Brewing Co.

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from Phil Farrell

Every one of my favorite songs also remind me of a place. Stone’s Cali-Belgique is an iPod shuffle of a walk down my personal Beer Memory Lane. By combining so many favorite beer flavors in such a unique progression, I am reminded of all the reasons I liked beer in the first place. If Tropicália is a hit single, Cali-Belgique is an entire Rock Opera. This beer is not someone mixing four random alcohols and having it taste like iced tea. It is more like the wonderful contradiction of smelling the ocean while you are skiing down a glacier. Stone Head Brewer Mitch Steele’s creation initially transports me to the Pacific Northwest and the thick resinous forests where there are no hop farms (or grapefruits for that matter), but work with me here for a moment. I smell the low, rain-heavy clouds engulfing the dormant volcanic mountain peaks, a hop harvest and the rugged Oregon coastline, but then, there is something more. How can my perfect Norman Rockwell hop vision of grapefruit and pine resin be clouded by a Belgian daydream of lemon zest and white pepper?

My Beer GPS is really confused by the straw, biscuit, and pear flavors in the middle of my taste that perfectly complement the spice and citrus. How did I get from Bend to Brussels in half a sip? Okay, just as I am getting comfortable finishing up on the other side of The Pond in my Belgian Cafe I am treated to Act 3, the Big Bitter. Not the palate-crushing grunge rock destruction of bitterness, but rather that perfectly timed bass drum of one that shatters the trance and says, “Hey I’m an IPA over here.” But wait, there’s more! While many IPAs would be satisfied with a bitter ending and quit while they are ahead, there is still one surprise left. Instead of rebooting the palate, the initial bitterness is a grand finale of the Tour de Belgium reprise. Earth, pepper spice, pear, and lemon zest deliciously linger in the finish. This is one beer that managed to make me think of an entire evening of beer enjoyment in one glass. More cowbell not required.  


Brewer's Thoughts
from Mitch Steele

Stone Brewing Co. has never been a business that pays attention to the norm. Much of its branding, specifically the “Bastard” line of beers, focuses on how difficult it is for people to fathom how great their beers are because the palates of the masses aren’t refined enough.

Though this might not necessarily be true, it hasn’t hurt Stone’s sales, as they are the eighth-largest brewery in America according to the BA.

Cali-Belgique IPA, one of Stone’s highly acclaimed year-round beers, tells you exactly what to expect in the title: this is a perfect intermingling of American and Belgian beer flavors.

Despite its status as one of Stone’s beloved year-round brews, it didn’t start out that way. Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele told me that its creation was a “serendipitous thing."

"We had experimented with fermenting some of our year-round beers with a Belgian yeast, just to see what would happen. This is the beer that worked the best! So much so that it’s now in the lineup of Stone year-round beers,” Mitch said.

The original creation of the beer occurred in 2008 and involved pitching wort from a batch of Stone IPA into Vertical Epic Ale 08.08.08. Mitch takes over the story: “After adding the yeast, the initial yeast propagator had leftover beer. So we tasted it, really liked it and decided to dry-hop it. We called it Stone Cali-Belgique IPA. Since then, we have brewed it using the exact same recipe as Stone IPA, except fermented with Belgian yeast and dry-hopped with Chinook.”

Mitch favors the beer’s overall flavor balance and fruit character, discussing the combination of citrus and banana from the hops and yeast, respectively. He also discussed that the Stone brewers have been “playing around with some unfiltered versions” of Cali-Belgique, furthering the Belgian character that is based on. While that beer would surely be a hit, for now, Mitch can only say, “We’ll see where it goes.”


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


4.
96
by Jason Johnson
Todd The Axe Man
Surly Brewing Co.

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Brewer Q & A

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-22945-1434373351.jpg
from Jason Johnson

When I started reflecting back on this collaboration beer between Surly Brewing Company and Denmark’s Amager Brewery, I was lucky enough to still have a stray can in my fridge – what better time to crack that last can than right now? I admit, I’m a hop head, and I really enjoy bright, hoppy beers from the IPA family. For me, it’s not so much the bitterness of IPAs that draws me in, but rather the marriage of hop aromas and flavors. This is why I tend to gravitate towards the less bitter and more hop-forward IPAs. I’ve had the likes of Sculpin, Maine Beer Company’s Lunch, Stone IPA, AleSmith IPA, Bell’s Two-Hearted and many, many other top-rated IPAs that are extremely well-balanced, bright and truly delicious. One of my local favorites here in Wisconsin is the intensely citrusy Green 19 from Titletown brewery in Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

Recently, I have come to appreciate the beautifully bright tropical and melon notes of the newer hop varieties. Beers like Heady Topper are a nice blend of traditional American pine and citrus flavors and the mango and pineapple notes in the newer hop varieties. Todd the Axe Man fits that bill perfectly of being on that cutting edge of bright and flavorful hoppy IPAs without that out-of-bounds bitterness. That is a very difficult act to pull off. We all know hops are bitter, but they can also be incredibly flavorful and juicy as well. It’s very impressive to not only be able to create a beer that’s chock-full of big bright hop flavors and aroma, but also avoid hop astringency and bitterness. 

I also think Todd the Axe Man is proof that less can be more. This beer consists of a single grain and two varieties of hops – that’s it. There is no complicated five grain grist to get a nice malty backbone, there is no complex blend of six different hops; it’s just Golden Promise for the base malt and Mosaic and Citra for the hops. That’s it! Surly did a great job balancing the flavors well even with so few ingredients. The beer is far from boring or one-dimensional. In fact, it’s proof that simplicity can achieve results that are deserving of becoming one of the best beers of 2015.

As a homebrewer, I’m generally not fond of “cloning” beers. I feel that if I like a beer that much, I will just buy it. So while cloning beer recipes is great, often there are minute details that brewers focus on that still set the beer apart from a clone – be it water chemistry, specific fermentation temperatures or yeast selection. But in the end, as I finish this glass, it’s still a mighty fine IPA, even if it is several weeks old. The big bright tropical notes are still delicious, and it has inspired me to brew some sort of variant of this beer with the ingredients listed on Surly’s website. What better compliment can you give a brewer or brewery than telling them that their beer has inspired you to brew something similar? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?


Brewer's Thoughts
from Todd Haug

After we released numerous stories about the brewery and its head brewer, Todd Haug, we finally reviewed some of Surly Brewing Company’s popular IPAs in 2015. The one that received the most acclaim from our reviewer was this Todd the Axe Man, a collaboration between Denmark’s Amager Brewery and Surly.

The name is based on Haug’s rather impressive guitar playing, which rivals his brewing prowess. According to Todd, the intention for Axe Man was “to create a collaboration beer that employed raw materials that each brewery hadn’t used before. Golden Promise malt is featured in a handful of my recipes here at Surly, and Mosaic hops are a favorite at Amager and also ones that I’ve never brewed with before.”

The use of Mosaic hops turned out to be an inspired choice, as our reviewer noted the subtle interplay of malt and hops as a highlight of the beer. Todd outlined the hop profile explicitly: “We used Warrior for bittering and Mosaic and Citra for aroma.” When I asked him to elaborate on quantity, he deflected: “We use a lot. It’s a secret.” With Axe Man scoring so highly in 2015, it’s understandable that Todd didn’t want to provide any more information on the hop profile, as he wants it to be a highly sought after beer in 2016 as well.

Speaking of 2016, Surly does plan to release Todd the Axe Man this year as well, though a release date hasn’t been set. “[Axe Man] will be available in cans and on tap in our markets occasionally throughout 2016,” Todd said.

As Axe Man has edged out Surly’s year-round Furious IPA in Todd’s list of favorite Surly beers, do yourself a favor and search far and wide for the 2016 release. You won’t be disappointed.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


5.
96
by Josh Weikert
Blast!
Brooklyn Brewery

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from Josh Weikert

I’ve got a thing about IPAs – I almost never make them. I’ll brew anything. I’ve won medals in literally every BJCP style category (and the 2015 guidelines will let me hit some new ones!) as a means of ensuring that I can confidently brew across the whole beer spectrum. But I don’t really brew IPAs. Why not?

Well, because there’s a whole world of competent IPAs out there. Why would I brew my own when I can pick up a case of just about any brewery’s IPA? The dirty secret in the beer world (which maybe isn’t so secret) is that the distance between an IPA at the 95th percentile of quality and the 5th percentile of quality isn’t all that large.  Maybe the very, very best of them are much better than the very, very worst, but honestly, most of the time they’re all just somewhere between OK and pretty good.  

Having said that… sometimes you get to enjoy one of those really great IPAs, like Blast!, and for me it really just makes me wonder why more breweries don’t just…. you know… STOP making theirs so that we can appreciate the really good ones.  If there’s an area that is screaming for some winnowing out in the beer world, it’s in the realm of IPAs.

This one is awesome. It’s a pretty beer that smells fruity and fresh but still lets you know it’s beer (because, you know, grain). It tastes wonderful – extremely high bitterness, but not in a way that grates on the palate. It’s a smooth bitterness, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. And it isn’t all just the bitterness: some brewer went out of his/her way to make sure that you can taste all of the other elements of the beer as well.  

That’s the thing. IPAs are so popular because of two things: one, anyone can pick out their key feature (hop flavor/aroma/bitterness); and two, even mediocre brewers can make a decent one. But they can’t make a great one because they‘re using hops to paper over a sloppy or mediocre beer.

Making a great IPA like Blast! is an exercise in balance. That’s an odd sentence in a style that supports ridiculously high bitterness, but it’s true. Great brewers can have a dominant flavor, but still find ways to let the other elements contribute, and not just in a way that keeps that dominant flavor from being offensive. Yes, you can use alcohol sweetness or crystal malts to offset hop bittering – but isn’t it better to also have them contribute in a meaningful way to the overall gustatory aesthetic? So get yourself a bottle and remind yourself why big, beautiful IPAs are such a great find. For those of us who are wading through the sea of mediocre IPAs to help you find the great ones, it’s the best outcome we can hope for. Reward Brooklyn for their efforts, and your palate will thank you!


Brewer's Thoughts
from Garrett Oliver

Another one of the biggest breweries in America, Brooklyn Brewery has a vast and varied selection of year-round and limited-release beers, but according to our reviewer the best one we reviewed this year was Brooklyn’s Blast! Double IPA.

I spoke to Garrett Oliver, founder of Brooklyn Brewery, to discuss one of his favorite brews. I first asked where the recipe of Blast! came from: “Blast! was actually the name of my first batch of homebrew in 1984, though that was a pale ale, not an IPA. We've produced a version of this beer for about 10 years now. I did the original recipe, but as new hops have become available, I've sat down with our team to make little adjustments here and there over the years. We love where Blast! is right now.”

With so many Double IPAs available on the market today, I wanted to get Garrett’s thoughts on why Blast! rose above the ranks in our 2015 ratings. “I think the structure and sense of balance set it apart. It's not only hoppy, but it also just tastes really good. There's a nice stone-fruit character in the center from the use of some great British hops alongside the American ones, which give the beer its ‘pop.’ The most important trait here is outright deliciousness.”

Garrett finished up by saying Blast! is indeed one of his favorite beers, which is “vaguely problematic, as it’s easy to forget that the beer is 8.4 percent ABV. He also said that while British hops tend to age better than American ones, there’s no time like the present to enjoy a cold Blast!.

Obviously, our judge had a "blast" drinking this beer, and we think you will too.


 

 

 


World Class (100 to 96)


6.
96 
by Michael Heniff
Pinchy Jeek Barl
Anderson Valley Brewing Co.

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Judge's Second Opinionpicture-22989-1434729974.jpg
from Michael Heniff

Ahhh… a revisit of Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Pinchy Jeek Barl Bourbon Barrel Pumpkin Ale... if only there was more of this liquid inspiration to be enjoyed while writing this article. This was a beer that I had not tasted before, which in itself can be an amazing feat since I have recorded tasting notes for 23 years, amassing notes on over 5,600 commercial beers. The list could be as high as 8,000 if I chose to count brewpub beers, and maybe even as high as 10,000 if I included homebrewed beers!

On first thought, Wild Turkey Bourbon would not have been my first choice as a bourbon source for a barrel-aged beer; Wild Turkey isn’t renowned as one of the finest bourbons that Kentucky has to offer. My first recollection of Wild Turkey was on my 21st birthday, when an acquaintance bought me a shot of Wild Turkey. I wasn’t an immediate fan, and at that time I was primarily a light lager drinker as the craft beer movement was still young (and I was certainly a bourbon neophyte) so my palate was still very early in development. Since then, I have grown to appreciate bourbon, especially when beer is aged with bourbon or in bourbon barrels. With this beer, the barrel character of toasted oak and vanilla comes through strongly without being too overly bourbon-driven; the bourbon provides a complementary flavor to the base beer and spices without becoming the dominant flavor of the beer.

Second, the beer was brewed “with pumpkin and [unnamed] spices.”  Personally, I dread pumpkin beer season – when seemingly every brewery releases its take on a pumpkin-pie-style beer. The season seems to start as early as August and runs until the last beers at the store gets sold. These beers typically feature nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice and many brewers are not shy to push this spicing well to the forefront. The aggressive spices typically need a hefty malt base to temper the otherwise unbearable astringency that these spices provide. For this beer, however, the spices are more subtle and complement the caramel/chocolate malt and toasted oak/vanilla barrel character beautifully.

Finally, a characteristic that I believe all great beers need to have is the element of balance. I’m not advocating that all beers need to have an equal level of malt and hops, but the best beers, regardless of style, should have complementing or contrasting characters that work together to add to the depth and complexity of the beer. For this beer, the aroma exuded toasted oak and vanilla barrel character with complementing caramel and chocolate malts and pumpkin spices. The pumpkin spices hint at pumpkin pie, but they never showcase any singular spice above others. The body was quite a bit more complex, conveying an almost even balance between the barrel character, malt and spices. The Wild Turkey Bourbon never comes to the forefront and remains complementary element, perhaps appropriately so (based on my earlier impression). The finish once again demonstrates complexity with the interplay of malt, barrel and spices with only a slightly spicy astringency. In summary: This is a complex, rich, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable Pumpkin Beer.


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