I know a good beer when I taste one. Palates and personal preferences vary, but for the most part—no matter where you are, who you’re with or what vessel you’re drinking from—good beer finds a way to shine.
We never really encounter beer in a vacuum. Often referred to as the functional drink, it’s typically lower in alcohol than wine or spirits, enabling it to fit more seamlessly into daily life. Rather than being the focus of a drinking session, beer is often just one element in a larger moment. It’s about the sights, sounds and emotions that surround you while you’re drinking—and the memories of those things that a specific brew’s taste and smell often conjure.
It could be a bottle of aged-to-perfection stout shared with your closest drinking buddies. Or an IPA practically poured out of the vat at a brewery where the bartender walks you through the flavour profile as it unfolds. Sometimes, it’s just an ice-cold can of pale American lager on your porch after a long day of yardwork. Context counts.
Over the past year, I’ve sampled exactly 879 beers on three continents. The ones that stood out came from all over the US, from California to Maine; the one I found in Las Vegas came from Germany. These 11 beers are good enough on their own to make any year-end best-of list. But where I was when I drank them made them even better.
Schilling Brewing Co. “Foeder Lagered Karluv 13°”Dark Lager 5.3% Littleton, New Hampshire
You want the freshest beer possible. Nothing tastes like a pour from a keg with no miles on it. But the true virtue in drinking at a brewery is being surrounded by people who know and care about the product. Staff members—sometimes the brewers themselves—can be accessed to answer questions, explain their process, walk you through the tap list and share the story of the brewery. With Schilling you get the added bonus of drinking your foamy, oak-aged, Czech-style black lager, bready and herbal, in a rustic, wood-frame brewery nestled in the majestic White Mountains and overlooking the rushing Ammonoosuc River.
Fidens Brewing Co. “Illuminating Serenity”Double New England IPA, 8.2% ABV
Albany, New York
This year, I had the opportunity to explore craft beer scenes in Peru, Italy and Greece. Athens seemed to be in full swing of the hazy IPA craze, which drew hop-head Americans like me (almost certainly by design). I tasted a lot of good Greek IPAs. But it was in a bottle shop called Tales of Ales near the Varvakios Central Municipal Market that I spotted a can of this Fidens Double IPA, all the way from upstate New York. The small-batch brewery just outside Albany is one of the few places where people still line up to catch new releases. I jumped at the chance to buy a 16-oz can without even noticing that, at €20 ($22), I was paying for that mileage. I took it back to the Airbnb, climbed to the rooftop terrace and drank it while my wife, brother and I looked up at the Acropolis, lit against the Greek sunset. I’d say this was an experience worth every cent.
Sacred Profane Brewing “Dark Lager”Czech-style Dark Lager 4% ABV Biddeford, Maine
Sometimes the most memorable drinking experiences happen at home. Firing up the grill or smoker on the deck without a can of beer in hand is like fishing without beer. Or watching a ballgame without beer. Or golfing without beer. It just isn’t done, man. And while I love a good, pale, American “lawnmower” beer like Busch Light or Stag, sometimes I want a little more flavor. The weather had just started to turn brisk late in the summer when I fired up my propane grill, threw on some bratwurst and cracked open a can of this incredibly simple, smoky, full-bodied and yet oh-so-crushable lager from Maine. I could’ve had two.
Scratch Brewing Co. “Black Trumpet Beire De Mars”Farmhouse Ale, 6.9% ABV
There’s going to the source—and then there’s a visit to Scratch Brewing Co. This microbrewery and farm, just five miles from the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, has been nominated for two James Beard Awards for its unique foraged beers. That’s right, foraged, as in brewed from plants, herbs, fruits, nuts, roots and even leaves found and harvested on the secluded, wooded property. That means you can sit outside and hear hickory nuts pinging off the tin roof that may wind up in the Single Tree Hickory sour ale, spot the purple flowers of wild passion fruit plants that will produce the Wild Passion Fruit Saison and perhaps go in search of the black trumpet mushrooms that are the base of this rich and malty ale. The experience redefines farm-to-glass.
Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. “Church Salad”Sour, 7% ABV
Tiny Decorah, Iowa, might produce more ounces of quality craft beer per capita than anywhere else in the world. The scenic college town of fewer than 8,000 residents is famously the home of Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., makers of the fantastic Pseudo Sue IPAs and Fandango kettle sours. And the adventurous Convergence CiderWorks puts an interesting spin on cider. But the hidden gem is just a leisurely walk across the Upper Iowa River. Pulpit Rock punches way above its weight in just about everything: pre-Prohibition lagers, imperial pastry stouts, hazy IPAs. You can’t miss with the sours, though, such as this ode to Grandma’s potluck marshmallow salad, packed with toasted walnuts, coconut, and fresh pineapple juice. It’s comfort food in a can.
Phase Three Brewing Co. “P3 Doppelbock”German-style Doppelbock, 8.2%
Lake Zurich, Illinois
I’m an avid beer tourist, and visiting beer scenes is a big part of my job. But like most people, I consume most of my beer at home. This doesn’t mean that these experiences all just blur together. In February, for instance, we experienced a break in our Midwestern winter when it became “warm” enough to head outside, light the firepit and sit beneath the stars. It wasn’t quite Oktoberfest weather, but this German-style Doppelbock from just outside Chicago offered a perfect blend of winter and fall with a dark malt base, a toasty richness and a warming high-octane 8.2% ABV.
Snafu Brewing Co. “Keeping It Teal”Fruited Sour, 5% ABV
North Charleston, South Carolina
A cotton candy sour? I curled a lip and raised an eyebrow; I moved on and ordered something else. Snafu is famous for its sours, and there were plenty of more enticing options. I was in Charleston, South Carolina, for a work conference and managed to steal time with Justin, a buddy from college. We picked up as if we’d seen each other far more than a handful of times in 20 years. We reminisced, caught up with news about our respective families and gradually, almost subconsciously, talked about that cotton candy beer. Intrigued, we dared each other to try it. The sour came out greenish blue, as the title implied. And it was amazing: a sweet-and-sour (but not too tart) blend of cotton candy and blue raspberry, smooth with milk sugar. A gratifying new adventure with an old friend.
Resident Culture Brewing Co. “Lighting Drops”Hazy IPA, 6.5% ABV
Charlotte, North Carolina
Nearly every October for the past 13 years, some writer friends and I have gathered in a rustic, remote South Georgia location to share war stories and talk about the craft. I realize that’s a very specific example, but most of us go on work retreats or conferences and conventions, and a full day of examining and rethinking your job and how you approach it is often harder than the work itself. There’s no bond quite like that formed by colleagues who have shared in self-scrutiny. And there’s no better way to solidify that fellowship and blow off steam afterward than over a beer. This citrusy New England IPA, hopped with Citra, Mosaic and Strata, hit the spot for me.
Cheluna Brewing Co.“Chilango”Hefeweizen, 5% ABV
A beer festival is not only a great place to try new beers, it’s also the perfect setting to meet fellow enthusiasts and even brewers who can direct you to new beer experiences. At this year’s Great American Beer Festival, I met Javier Perez, co-owner of Cheluna Brewing Co. He wasn’t pouring there, but he directed me to his Latin-inspired brewery on the west side of Denver. I stopped in the next day on my way to the airport and discovered this refreshingly crisp mango wheat beer with just enough chile habanero kick at the finish. It was as good as anything I had tried at the festival.
Bottle Logic Brewing “ Fundamental Observation”Barrel-age Imperial Vanilla Stout, 13% ABV
Many beers, especially those coveted barrel-aged stouts and barley wines, come in 750 milliliter bottles, or “bombers.” With alcohol levels that typically blow past 10%, this is a problem for even a pair of friends. That’s where the bottle share comes in. It’s essentially a more intimate mini beer festival in which a few acquaintances, or a pack of brewery club members, assemble. Each person brings a bottle or two from their stash. Then you pop open a few and pass them around while you talk shop and share experiences. At such events, you tend to get as good as you give, but I can’t say that what I brought to this members-only share at St. Louis’s 2nd Shift Brewing was as delectable as Bottle Logic’s infamous “liquid brownie batter.”
Schneider Weisse, G. Schneider & Sohn “ Aventinus Cuvée Barrique”Weizenbock, 9.5% ABV
Las Vegas might be the easiest place on Earth to get a drink. But the odds of finding a good beer in Sin City are actually pretty steep. There are a few fantastic breweries (including Able Baker and Beer Zombies) in either direction off the Strip, but your best bet is downtown’s Silver Stamp. The interior looks like a 1970s basement hangout with a drop ceiling, wood-paneled walls and mosaics of vintage tin beer cans; in other words, it feels like home. The real welcome comes from owners Rose Signor and Andrew Smith, who curate an astounding tap list of brews from all over the world. They lovingly, patiently walked me through this unique Weizenbock, which has been aged in wine barrels and blended with cuvée for a rich, slightly sour drink. At a beer bar, as with a blackjack table, a good dealer makes all the difference.
Written by US-based freelance writer Tony Rehagen.