Since the last time we ran a story on the best new beers, back in 2015, the number of American breweries has ballooned by more than 50 percent, from roughly 4,000 to 6,000. And the trend shows no signs of stopping: another couple thousand breweries are in planning phases and the Brewers Association estimates that more than eighty percent of the American population now lives within 10 miles of a local brewery. Lucky us!
What does all of this mean? For one, I had a deluge of beer to try this year, more than ever before. I did my best to get out there and drink it all (admittedly, an impossibility), and along the way, I found dozens of top-tier beers. (Unfortunately, I drank plenty of crappy beer, too; an inevitable side effect of a prospering industry.) Whittling the finest down to an elite 10 was tough work, but I’ve done my best here to pick an illustrative range of styles and flavors—from the lightest lagers to the burliest barleywines—to represent the very best of what the industry has to offer. Here’s a look at the 10 best beers I tasted in 2017.
Burial Beer Co. Innertube
(American Light Lager; 3.2% ABV)
Chalk it up to palate fatigue from a decade of drinking hop bombs and boozy stouts, but 2017 was a year when breweries brought “boring beers” (think plain ol’ pilsners and Mexican-style lagers) back in a big way. This crisp little number from Burial Beer in Asheville, North Carolina, was at the top of that tall stack of nostalgic brews. It calls to mind a simpler time, when drinking was integral to outdoor sports and leisure activity—it’s a beer your dad might have chugged after a softball game, say. Innertube is a light, lean, and just-a-touch-bitter lager with a trace of sweetness on the finish: an expertly constructed beer-flavored beer, plain and simple. It’s perfect sustenance for floating the river on a lazy Saturday afternoon, with the sun high above and a cooler tethered to your tube. Call it ironic or even hipster, but as the pendulum swings, this is a style to which we all eventually return, even if briefly. And within the realm of craft brewers, Burial did it better than anyone else.
Two Roads Brewing Two Juicy
(New England Double IPA; 8.2% ABV)
The sub-style called New England IPA, or NEIPA, known for producing turbid, juicy, low-bitterness beers, continued to dominate the IPA discussion in 2017. But honestly, even though they garner increasingly extreme hype and, at many breweries, require hours-long waits just to purchase a couple four-packs, most NEIPAs range from ho-hum to flat-out undrinkable. The best was this bright golden ale from Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing, a brewery marked by wide regional distribution and nearly zero ballyhoo. It ticks all the boxes of an NEIPA, but illustrates that the style can be made with mastery and, yes, even some bitterness. It’s hazy rather than muddy, juicy but not oily or flabby, and dank while not going bonkers with those gunky green-onion notes, a common foible in so many of these beers.
Speciation Artisan Ales Tequila Barrel Aged Incipient
(Golden Sour Ale; 7.5% ABV)
A tequila barrel–aged sour with blood oranges, pink guava, limes, and salt might sound like an absolute abomination, especially coming from a freshman brewery in frigid Michigan. But trust us: this beer from Speciation Ales is anything but. For starters, it tastes nothing like a margarita. Each element is restrained, dialed-back even, coming together to synthesize an intriguing mélange of funky, fruity deliciousness. The citrus adds bright, tangy notes, the guava lends a musky tropical-fruit flavor, and the salt and tequila barrel broaden the scope with a rich savoriness. With so many components interweaving and commingling, Incipient is a demonstration of layered beer composition at its finest.
Folksbier Brewery Raspberry Glow Up
(Berliner Weisse; 4.3% ABV)
The sheer amount of fresh raspberry flavor packed into this gorgeous ruby-colored sour from Brooklyn’s sleeper-hit brewery Folksbier makes Raspberry Glow Up a next-level beer. It’s a testament to the power of well-integrated fruit to create flavors that are at once unwavering and deeply nuanced. In fact, there’s something almost avant-garde in the beer’s unrelenting dedication to a single flavor—a pure distillation of raspberry essence. There’s some real depth here, too, as all that tart fruitiness is foiled by a thin undercurrent of earthy funk.
Heavy Gem Virga
(Saison; 6.7% ABV)
Heavy Gem was an ephemeral side project of sorts from Pennsylvania’s Tired Hands and Chicago’s Half Acre. The collaboration produced just two beers—a double IPA and a saison—and then, seemingly, evanesced. (Whether more releases will come is anyone’s guess; the project’s Instagram account was recently deleted, though its enigmatic website is still up.) Virga, the saison, stood out as hands down the most cohesive, best-constructed saison we tasted this year, a textbook example of how beguiling this style can be. It gets layers of dry, white-wine character from mixed-culture oak fermentation, illustrating that barrels can be used for nuance rather than pure woodiness or bourbon-fueled aggression. One of the most balanced, complex, and enjoyable beers of recent memory.
Suarez Family Brewery Call to Mind
(Farmhouse Ale; 5.4% ABV)
Beers infused with flowers, herbs, and spices often get a bad rap, and for good reason—most taste like dish soap or liquid potpourri. But this one, from Suarez Family Brewery in New York’s Hudson Valley, is the exact opposite, a beer of great finesse whose botanical additions (chamomile, lemon balm, and lemon thyme) are seamlessly integrated with the dry, tart, pale-ale base. Aromas of lemon peel dominate the nose, with beguiling floral notes in the background and a dry, citrusy bite on the finish.
Trillium Brewing & J. Wakefield Brewing Affogato
(Imperial Lactose Stout; 13.3% ABV)
Though we’re usually tepid on confectionery stouts, Boston’s Trillium and Miami’s J. Wakefield absolutely nailed it with this espresso-over-gelato-inspired beer. Lactose and flaked oats lend a creamy, rich body, while dark-roast coffee and whole vanilla beans re-create the classic flavors of the beer’s namesake Italian dessert drink. All those bake-shop flavors are skillfully balanced with bitter chocolate malts and earthy, black-peppery hops. The best pastry stout of the year.
Revolution Brewing Sun Crusher
(Hoppy Wheat Ale; 5.3% ABV)
As breweries continue to find more creative ways to pack all those hops beer lovers crave into low-alcohol ales, session IPAs have become old hat. Styles like dry-hopped sours, “extra” pale ales, and hoppy wheat ales, like this one from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, are far more interesting than any run-of-the-mill session IPA. Unlike those beers, which can be thin and watery, Sun Crusher uses a simple, silky wheat base to showcase a quartet of diverse hops—Apollo, Amarillo, Crystal, and Mosaic—for a bouquet of heady, earthy, citrusy aromas and fresh-as-can-be hop flavors. It was our favorite spring seasonal this year and, as the name suggests, an absolute crusher of a beer, perfectly suited for drinking in the sun.
Allagash Brett IPA
(Brett IPA; 7.1% ABV)
Most drinkers associate the yeast strain Brettanomyces with tart, funky beers. But it’s usually a duo of bacteria that brewers commonly pair with Brett—lactobacillus and pediococcus—that makes a beer super tart and barnyard-y. For its superb Brett IPA, the best example of this IPA subgenre that we found this year, Allagash uses the Brett strain not for the funk factor, but to double down on fruit-forward hop aromas. With notes of overripe peach and pineapple layered with bursting-fresh hops, like Citra and Galaxy, the beer is a tropical love-fest of crisscrossing citrus, pineapple, and passion fruit flavors, and only a whisper of Brett mustiness. It’s proof that Brett can indeed play well with hops.
Holy Mountain Brewing Hand of Glory
(Barley Wine; 13% ABV)
This Seattle brewery excels at crafting some of the country’s finest farmhouse-style ales, but in 2017 it also demonstrated a clear mastery of non-funky, “clean” beers, like pilsners, IPAs, and this cognac- and bourbon-barrel barley wine. Hand of Glory gets an honorable mention with one significant caveat: it was a limited release beer, and we couldn’t even get our hands on another bottle to photograph. It was memorable enough to make this list, though. The flavors are a full-on assault of toffee and caramel stickiness, and the glutinous mouthfeel is evocative of a Werther’s Original. The finish is sweet and bready but surprisingly snappy, with a toasted maltiness that doesn’t linger too long. A surefire stunner if you can dig one up.