Top Ten New Beers for 2017 from Beer Critic GT Wharton
A wise man once said that the best beer in the world is the one right in front of you. Especially in recent years in the U.S., we have been inundated with excellent craft beer. There are just too many breweries and too many beers for me to say which ones are the best. There are so many outstanding beers (and even entire breweries) out there that I have not yet had the pleasure of trying. But I take the community’s word for it that the world of outstanding craft beer keeps expanding, and there is no feasible way to keep up even for the enthusiast. Please keep that in mind when reading this list, as my favorite beers this year are limited to simply what I had the privilege of sampling. You will also see that I have a huge bias towards Southern California (fresh, local, ~400 breweries) leaning more towards drinkable, bright beers.
#10 El Segundo Clear AF
Description: 7.1% Our very own Franny Fullpint and Javi Fullpint collaborated on a lean and mean West Coast IPA over at El Segundo Brewing. This beer features Citra, Nelson, El Dorado and Mosaic hops. Article on the creation of the beer: https://thefullpint.com/dans-b
Clear AF was originally made in collaboration with The Full Pint, though I promise that has nothing to do with its inclusion here. Clear AF made its debut at The Full Pint’s 10th Anniversary party at Toronado San Diego this year and was one of my favorites of the evening. With all the hazy IPAs inundating the California market, Clear AF was a direct assault on that trend and puts those murky beers in their place with this show-stopping performance.
I sampled this up against some top-notch hazy IPAs on tap at the anniversary party like Pure Project Murklands and Modern Times Mango Hedge Witch. El Segundo’s Clear AF made waves with the event crowd throughout the evening earning universal praise. It was super fresh tasting with chewy sourdough crust and wet dough in the body paired with aggressive but not overdone bitterness focused on white grapefruit rinds. It was clean, bright, and refreshing in the way that hazy IPAs cannot touch.
#9 Pizza Port Carlsbad / Freigeist Bierkultur Smoked Seabass
Description: Collaboration German smoked lager with only German malt including pilsner malt and cherry wood and olive wood house-smoked malt and only German hops including Perle and Hallertau Mittelfrüh. Video on the making of Smoked Seabass:
Flying well under the radar this year was an epic tag team of Pizza Port Carlsbad and Sebastion Saur of Freigeist Bierkultur (Rhineland, Germany). This combined two of my favorite things, Pizza Port and German beer. German styles in general are underappreciated here in the U.S. and talented breweries usually pass on these to brew Belgian and American styles. But once you’ve had 30 hazy IPAs, smoked lager is an amazing treat. Pizza Port Carlsbad and Freigeist collaborated on a few other beers this year, including an IPA recipe with all German ingredients, Hopheitsgebot. This beer was phenomenal with an exquisite malty base balanced with fresh Valencia orange and touches of creamsicle sweetness. It had more finesse, less bitterness, and a touch more malty sweetness than your typical Pizza Port IPA, but it was extremely quenching and brought together flavors we seldom see in California.
The Smoked Seabass was even more impressive with a Bamberg-style rauchbier character all packaged in a 5% blonde lager format. The body was juicy and silky with rendered bacon fat and sweet smoked ham character from the house-smoked malt. A beautiful aroma hop character added grilled mango and pineapple in there for one novel flavor combination you’ll never forget. This was most of the most drinkable, delightful beers I’ve ever had and has to make my Top 10 this year even though it was a tap-only offering.
#8 Lindheim Ølkompani / Oud Beersel Friendship Series: FiftyFifty
Description: Blend of Oud Beersel 2015 lambic and Lindheim’s 2014 and 2015 coolship ale.
This year Lindheim (Gvarv, Norway) has released 375mL corked and caged bottles of their special collaborative series, the Friendship Series. Others in this series are collaborations with Crooked Stave, Birrificio Del Ducato, and Põhjala (Tallinn, Estonia). I was fortunate to try three of them this year thanks to a Norwegian friend of mine. Each one was impressive, though the FiftyFifty was the most surprising as it tasted exactly like top-end Belgian geuze. The Friendship Series name is actually a pun as these beers all include Lindheim’s coolship ales, which are fermented in open vats like traditional Belgian lambic. And Lindheim has obviously been able to make some impressive lambic clones with their coolship.
The overall beer hits that perfect leathery red grapefruit flavor and musty barrel character that we all love in Drie Fonteinen geuze, which I sampled back to back with the FiftyFifty. The acid was a touch high with the FiftyFifty, but acetic acid was thankfully absent. Carbonation was high and flavors were bright giving this a super authentic feel. Coolship ales are incredibly difficult to master. It’s amazing to see this level of sour beer coming out of Norway.
#7 Fall Brewing Malicious Compliance
Description: Plenty For All Pilsner dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Polaris hops. Collaboration with Big Trouble Tattoo.
When you live in IPA world, then you start jonesing for stuff like Pilsner where Southern California has yet to have a brewery on par with say Victory Brewing for German-style lagers. Fall Brewing is a small brewery in North Park, San Diego putting out some exceptional beers that go against the latest trends in many respects like their 5% coffee and vanilla stout, 2 AM Bike Ride, and their Plenty For All pilsner with German noble hops.
Malicious Compliance was released this year and is simply the Plenty For All dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Polaris. I tried this on-tap at the brewery and was blown away. It’s exceedingly rare that I get a pilsner this good. But this time it was also available in 6-packs.
Malicious Compliance is ultra-bright straw colored, SRM 2, with slight haziness with 12oz bottles having some yeast sediment that will add turbidity when dumped in. This didn’t change the flavor in any negative way from my experience. Enormous, super dense white foam erupts in the pilsner flute persisting for several minutes.
There’s a beautiful aroma of fresh air, golden honeydew melon, starfruit, lemon muffin, and fresh pilsner grain. You then get a bright white wine character like Riesling grapes from the Hallertau Blanc. The flavor is bright and lightly bitter at about a 2 out of 10 with the focus on its pillowy, soft pale grain base. It’s bready and rich-bodied for style with a prominent soft water component and expressive minerality. In true German pilsner fashion, this beer evaporates from the flute glass in under 5 minutes easily.
It’s not a perfect pilsner rendition, but it is so drinkable and enjoyable that I find it to be more than a sufficient fix when I’m craving my favorite beer style. Trading for Victory Braumeister Pils growlers just isn’t sustainable you know.
#6 State Brewing Company Project Nicaragua
State Brewing Company opened their tasting room 5 weeks ago and is already putting out some top-class product. Located in Gardena, CA, our beer enthusiast group visited this past weekend and was blown away by the quality. Look for an upcoming in-depth review of our experience on The Full Pint.
With our group, we collectively sampled each beer State Brewing had on tap, which was a mind-blowing number for this brewery’s age – 14 unique beers available. I believe State has been brewing here since Spring of this year, but only recently opened their taproom. Still, the majority of beers did not taste like the typical fare you expect from a new brewery.
I personally liked their Earl Grey tea infused Kölsch while the crowd favorite was a hazy IPA with fresh blueberries, Scuffed Chucks. But the most impressive beer by far, in my opinion, was their coffee imperial stout, Project Nicaragua. This beer had a counterpart as well, Project Brazil, which was just as good but I give the edge to Nicaragua. If you are a coffee beer lover, this needs to be on your want list. State Brewing has learned some trade secrets on how to make outstanding coffee beer because this is the most insane coffee forward aroma and flavor I’ve ever experienced in a beer. Sure, AleSmith’s Double Hammerhead Speedway Stout is up there in the insane category as well. But this beer’s light acidity and lasting aftertaste is uncannily similar to high-end espresso. The quality of the coffee used and correct infusion process really shows here. It’s also incredibly drinkable even at 10.8%.
#5 Pizza Port Bressi Ranch / Noble Ale Works Light House Double IPA
Description: Collaboration Double IPA with pilsner malt, unmalted wheat, and flaked oats. Hops: El Dorado, Mosaic, Polaris, Waimea, and Citra. A clear version was brewed at Pizza Port (Light House) and hazy version at Noble Ale Works (Fog Horn). 8.7% ABV. Video on the making of this beer:
This year Pizza Port Bressi Ranch and Noble Ale Works teamed up to make something spectacular. This Double IPA was closer to a regular strength IPA in mouthfeel with tropical fruit juice flavors and sharp red grapefruit. Both the clear version (Light House) and hazy version (Fog Horn) were phenomenal, but I think the clear version had a better mouthfeel and was a more complete beer overall. It wasn’t overly aggressive like most Double IPAs and had such a silky near oily mouthfeel. Light House is probably the best Double IPA I’ve had in several years. Read the full review here.
#4 Superstition Meadery Devil Berry
Description: Raspberry mead aged on cacao nibs in a Bruery Black Tuesday Reserve barrel.
I could probably populate this entire list with Superstition meads, but that would just be unfair. Superstition has quickly gained a cult following as the premier mead producer in the world along with Schramm’s Meads, which produces such masterpieces as The Heart of Darkness, Black Agnes, Madeline, and many more melomels or fruited meads. Superstition’s Berry White series is the current lineup of their best melomels.
For this year’s Woodshop 11, a variety of Superstition meads were passed around for sampling including the Coffee Marion, Chocolate Strawberry Sunrise, and the Devil Berry. The first two were incredible. The Coffee Marion had a rich dark coffee nose, and in the flavor, brilliant marionberry skin and acid with tannins for balance. The Chocolate Strawberry Sunrise had rich flavors of strawberry and rhubarb pie, warming alcohol, and mega fruit skin tannins for balance. Another masterpiece, the Devil Berry, was my favorite with an ethereal balance of wood and fruit tannins, berry acids, viscous honey, and warming alcohol. I sampled small pours of these meads, but their aromas, flavors, and palates are so intense that I think I got a solid impression of each. Still, swap these with any other Superstition melomels and one of them would have made this list.
#3 Casa Agria Champagne Room
Description: A barrel-aged and blended spelt Saison aged on sauvignon blanc grape skins and blended with saison barrel stock to taste. 5.9% ABV.
Casa Agria Specialty Ales (Ventura, CA) opened its doors last year and hit the ground running with exceptional beer, namely sour/wild ales. After our first visit in October 2016, our tasting group was so impressed that two of them signed up for the reserve society on the spot. Since then, we’ve been privileged to try most of Casa Agria’s bottled offerings. Some favorites from this year were the Boysenberry Spread (foeder-aged golden sour re-fermented on boysenberries), Guayaba De La Pasion (sour wheat with guava and passion fruit), and Pinot de la Casa (house saison aged for 6 months in freshly dumped Pinot Noir wine barrels from Casa Barranca Organic Winery – Ojai, CA). Casa Agria even won best of show at one of our tastings this year with their session hazy IPA, Loopy Fruits. With all these high-quality beers, I was really hoping Casa Agria would put out a hands-down masterpiece. And they did.
With such an incredible barrel program at such a young age, Casa Agria even in year two has the ability to really blend beers and create something with depth that is hard to replicate. If you’ve read some of my reviews in the past, you’ll know I’m a big fan of half and half sours. That is, sour ales where the final product is a blend of the soured beer with fresh, unsoured beer. This blend is usually more drinkable and allows you to enjoy a sweet and sour play instead of drinking what can taste like pure lemon juice.
Champagne Room does precisely this with a sweet and sour play on the palate that isn’t possible without blending. Their house saison, Saison de la Casa, forms the basis for many of these blends. It is itself quite a complicated beer made with pilsner malt, oats, rye, spelt, and wheat. It is fermented with a house yeast blend that includes Brettanomyces and bacteria. It then goes into oak for secondary fermentation.
Into the glass, Champagne Room brings you that bright glowing orange color with medium carbonation coming out of the 750mL bottle. The aroma has an amazing mix of house yeast with cedar-like Brett, satsuma orange, sweet white grapes, and touches of saltwater. In the flavor, there is just a hint of saltiness and acetic acid that gives it a bright, acidic punch. That is balanced out quickly with sweet wine grapes, which bring white peach, guava paste, honeydew melon, and candied lime. High carbonation and low ABV keep it refreshing. In the finish, you get some lengthy citric acidity coupled with salt spray. Mild oak barrel presence softens it up with vanilla and sweet cream butter.
Overall, this was an incredible barrel-aged, sour saison. And yes, even with the Thomas Fire, Casa Agria is still standing.
#2 Modern Times / Cellarmaker Clear & Present Dankness
Description: Collaboration Hazy IPA with Simcoe, Citra, Galaxy, and Nelson hops. 7% ABV.
I tried so many hazy IPAs this year that they are starting to blur together. I had excellent hazy IPAs from Trillium, Tree House, Tired Hands, Monkish, Highland Park, Cellarmaker, Noble, Pizza Port, Fair State, Pure Project (San Diego, CA), Mumford (Los Angeles, CA), Casa Agria (Ventura, CA), Burgeon (Carlsbad, CA), Evil Twin, and many others. There was even the epic tag team of AleSmith and Beachwood for their outstanding hazy IPA, Broken Filter. With so much overlap and essentially the same experience with each one of the top tier renditions, how can I choose a favorite? Well, Modern Times is the brewery I visited the most this year and I’ve been trying all of their special releases and distributed beers this year. They cranked out at least two dozen different hazy IPAs in 2017, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses. Perfect Talon was probably my second favorite beer they made all year. This was pure tropical fruit smoothie in beer form: banana, papaya, and ripe mango all pureed in the blender and dumped into the glass with a shot of rum.
However, Clear & Present Dankness was a step above all of these taking less of a murky fruit smoothie approach and really focusing on making a complete beer with prominent base malt with exceptional balance. Even though MT marketed this as a hazy IPA, it really had nothing in common with what you and I may envision for that style. The color was slightly hazy, bright straw with a neon glow to it that almost looked greenish when held up to the light. Aroma-wise, you were gifted with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, passion fruit, honeysuckle, vanilla, key lime pie, and freshly churned sweet cream butter. Flavors danced around lemon custard, whipped cream, white chocolate, pineapple, and macadamia nut. Bitterness was lower but sugar content was almost non-existent, which is atypical for these hazy IPAs. Still, it was ultra-drinkable with a melt-in-your-mouth experience.
This had a perfect mouthfeel – dry and slate heavy. Really, Clear & Present Dankness was closer to a chardonnay turned IPA than anything else. This was a unique experience. It was one of the most tropical and also refreshing IPAs I’ve ever had all while towing the line between the low IBU hazy IPA and traditional west coast clear IPA or even a Session IPA as the beer felt like 4% due to the lighter mouthfeel.
I had a chat with Nate Soroko of Toronado fame over at Modern Times a few weeks ago and we quickly discovered that we shared the same favorite Modern Times beer, Blanc on Blanc on Blanc. This was a Hallertau Blanc & Nelson Sauvin dry-hopped IPA with sauvignon blanc wine grapes added. That beer was made for their 2nd Anniversary Party and never made again. That masterpiece is still lost to the ages, but Clear & Present Dankness is the closest thing I’ve tried to it since.
#1 Beachwood The Scul Pint
Description: 7.1% west coast IPA with all Southern Hemisphere ingredients: Waimea and Rakau hops from New Zealand and malt from Chile.
Full Disclosure: Danny and Jonny did collaborate on this beer with Beachwood, but I had nothing to do with it and actually did not know anything about it until I tasted it at the Full Pint’s 10thAnniversary party this year at Toronado San Diego.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this beer except for some other take on Beachwood’s Invasive Species series and other such obvious digs at a well-known San Diego IPA. Now, I have no idea what this Chilean malt is that Beachwood used, but good lord does this recipe need to be made again. I’m not exaggerating here when I say that after about two gulps, I proclaimed to my wife and friends at our table that this was the best IPA I’ve ever had in my life. I searched through some of my old reviews after the event to see if I could prove that with data. I sorted through some 12,000 reviews, and only three IPAs even made my Top 50: Grassroots (Hill Farmstead) Legitimacy, Tree House Sap, and Trillium Melcher Street IPA. Only a few other IPAs made my Top 100: Pizza Port’s Wet Hop version of Grapefruit Puncher, Pizza Port / Beachwood Hop Ramen, and Beachwood Amalgamator. I think you might see the pattern here. At the very least, The Scul Pint easily slots into this group of my favorite IPAs ever.
The Scul Pint was your clear, West Coast IPA perfection showcasing Beachwood’s expertise in malt extraction and neutral yeast character: bready, doughy, and chewy with a sourdough type of fluffiness. For balance, you have aggressive but super refreshing flavors of pomelo rind, red mango, cherimoya (custard apple). The aroma had that stinky exotic fruit character from the NZ dry-hopping. The mouthfeel was crisp and perfectly balanced with a silkiness absent in all but the best IPAs. You could not have had a better IPA than this beer on this day. Nice job team!