Critic’s List: Josh Weikert’s Best of 2017

Top New Breweries

Cloudburst Brewing (Seattle, Washington): It’s certainly not a novel choice, but as we don’t see it much on the East Coast, it was a little while before I could persuade someone to bring some back from Seattle for me in good shape—and wow! was it in good shape! It’s always nice to find breweries that care about making their hops work in a recipe rather than just shoveling them in and hoping for the best, and I got to enjoy three of the best hoppy beers around, each with its own distinct character.

Suarez Family Brewery (Hudson, New York): Keep your unfiltered, hazy IPAs (not all of them—there are some I like), but leave me the unfiltered Pilsner/Kellerbier from this Hudson Valley brewery. The fact that they also turn out some great mixed-fermentation beers is just icing on the cake.

La Cabra Brewing (Berwyn, Pennsylvania): Barely a year old, this suburban Philadelphia brewpub is racking up well-earned awards all over the place. The tap list can look scattershot from a stylistic perspective, but their house flavor (a rustic graininess) imbues each and every one. And their duck fries (fries with duck confit, smoked gouda, manchego, and more) are so good that there are laws I’d break to get them. Hop a train out of the city—they’re a short walk from the Berwyn train station on the Paoli-Thorndale line.

Cape May Brewing Co. (Cape May, New Jersey): Technically they’re more than three years old, but it’s only in the last year or so that we’re seeing more of this New Jersey brewery’s beers out on the taps, and their revamped tasting room is worth a visit, too. I’m always skeptical of breweries in vacation destinations since they may not be committed to earning repeat business, but CMB is producing a big slate of excellent beers. By all means, try their IPA (by far the most ubiquitous, and an outstanding example of the style), but try to find their other offerings as well—they’re getting a ton of things right.

Most Underrated Brewery

Tröegs Brewing Co. ( Hershey, Pennsylvania): They churned out an unbelievable run of one-off beers as part of their “Scratch Series” that included everything from session IPAs to fruit goses to weizenbock to light lagers, and each one was more impressive than the last. Although brewed on their pilot system in very limited quantities, several are made available in bottles through their General Store. Additionally, their “Anthology” seasonal samplers often feature a scaled-up version of the Scratch beers, broadening their reach even further. In short, it shows that a brewery that turns out classic examples in their flagship beers can still find the time to produce literally dozens of creative small-batch beers that make it into the hands of more than just their regular taproom customers.

Top Beers of the Year

There’s a multi-way tie for me for the best beer of the year, and all came from the same brewery— Conshohocken Brewing Co. (Conshohocken, Pennsylvania). Their Buckmild buckwheat English mild, Life Coach session IPA, and conshoHOPFEN Hull Melon Helles were all creative, clean, and simply outstanding.

Half Acre Pony Pilsner (Chicago, Illinois) shows that the brewery knows their way around a classic lager as well as an American pale ale or IPA. Crisp, Spartan, and refreshing.

Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Ecomis Double IPA (Croydon, Pennsylvania) is probably the most dangerously drinkable Double IPA this side of the Rockies. Although Shape of Hops to Come gets more attention, Ecomis wins out for me thanks to its classic hops profile (Simcoe FTW) and dry, flinty finish (again, hard to believe in a 9 percent ABV beer).

Deschutes Red Chair NWPA (Bend, Oregon) felt like a throwback to the good old days of the West Coast red ale. Big grapefruit and orange flavors and a biscuit-and-toffee malt background made for a great combination.

Bell’s Brewery Oatsmobile Ale (Kalamazoo, Michigan) blew me away with what might be the best summer beer I’ve ever had—low ABV, rich but light malt flavor (thanks in part to the oats), and lots of peach and tropical fruit hops notes. Honorable Mention, too, for their Third Coast Beer, which is in the same session-y vein, but with a more-resinous dry hops flavor.

Uinta Baba Organic Black Lager (Salt Lake City, Utah) was a very pleasant surprise. “Black Lager” is too often code for “dark but unremarkable lager with little real flavor,” but this was the opposite. It was still easy-drinking and clean, but the deep chocolate and light charred wood flavors are spot-on.

Port City Brewing Porter (Alexandria, Virginia): An outstanding Robust/American Porter that stood out, in part, because it had the best expression of alcohol I’ve had in a beer in years. It was warming and perfume-like and perfectly complemented the underlying beer.

Favorite Beer Trend

This is going to sound insane, but hops. I don’t just mean hoppy beers, because obviously that’s not a trend, but the way in which breweries have retreated from the IBU and dry-hopping wars in favor of beers that are using the multitude of available hops to make balanced and creative and genuinely new hoppy beers is a real breath of fresh air. That they’re doing so with both the newest experimental hops and the oldest classic hops is all the more encouraging. However…

Least Favorite Beer Trend

Low- and no-IBU “IPAs.” This is the other edge on my double-edged sword of hops emotions this year. First of all, bitterness in beers exists for a reason—without it, they can be unpleasantly sweet thanks to residual sugars, esters, alcohol, and more that can all impart sweetness or the impression of it. Beers don’t all need 60 IBUs, but 5–10 IBUs or less in a 7 percent ABV “IPA” is missing too far in the other direction. And are we right to even call these things IPAs just because they’re hops-forward? Say what you will about IPAs and all of their variations, the one thing they all had in common was a moderate to “absurdly high” (2015 BJCP guidelines, Double IPA) level of bitterness. I’m not a slave to orthodox or doctrinaire thinking, but if you’re taking something intrinsic to a style out of that style, then using the same name to describe it creates a legitimate need for evaluation of the language we’re using.

Favorite Development in Homebrewing

Bulk ingredient purchasing by more homebrewers. Not only does it drive costs down, but it makes brewing easier and more common because it no longer requires as much planning and a trip to the homebrew shop! Homebrew shops are starting to play along, too—deals that I used to have to work through breweries to get (piggybacking on their grain purchasing and splitting off a sack, for example) are now regularly available through my local homebrew shops. Everybody wins.

Biggest Challenge for Homebrewing

Coaching up new brewers without being so critical that they get discouraged. The way some homebrewers recoil from anyone who starts a sentence with “I bought a kit at a cooking supply store!” can be off-putting. We all started somewhere, and whether it’s a Mr. Beer kit or a pre-hopped can of malt extract or an all-grain batch, we should be happy that someone is jumping into the hobby. That first batch (and others) will probably also need some adjustment and care, but we need to find the right balance between frank and positive; most of us benefit from feedback on our beer, but it’s especially vital early on to help develop good habits. Be helpful and critical—not elitist and mean.

Favorite New Homebrewing Gear

Digital pH meters aren’t “new,” I realize, but the price of a good unit is now less than $100, which means that more and more brewers are using them. I find that lots of brewers are now focusing a lot more on what’s happening in their mash tuns, with predictably valuable improvement in the resulting beer.

Favorite New Homebrewing Ingredient

I’m not sold on it yet, but I’m excited to be playing around with hops powder. Early results suggest that it’s certainly got potential. Now comes the part where we try to determine whether it’s superior to the other existing forms available to us.

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