Pour one out for 2016, fill a glass for 2017

by Ryan Urban

The year 2016 won’t go down as a favorite in my book, but it did have some redeeming qualities—one being in beer.

Where to begin? I figure: Close to home.

In the craft beer desert of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, we finally have a place to get a decent beer. Opening in June was the White Stag, which also has awesome food and allows me to live my dream of playing trivia master once a month. In the vast world of beer, this is the biggest to me.

One needs a local watering hole, a place everybody knows your name–if you will. Every time I walk in, I see friends and also meet new people. After 6 years in a small city, this was well over due.

Soon, hopefully, local options will grow. Another taproom is nearing completion and, though setback-laden, there are plans to open a brewery in Rice Lake.

Elsewhere, the word uttered more and more is saturation. America now has more than 5,000 breweries, finally surpassing the number open prior to prohibition. But signs of an apex are showing.

A Wausau brewer noted it recently. The owners of Minneapolis brewery Harriet also used the term in explaining a decision to close. I just happened to stop at Harriet shortly before the announcement. Super chill atmosphere, live music and very good beer—I was surprised.

But in a market of many great breweries, some are bound to fall. I have an almost constant desire to make the 2-hour drive to the Twin Cities and hit a taproom or two. Many expansions in the metro give me hope that more may distribute here. Some that really caught my attention in 2016 were Urban Growler, Fair State, Sisyphus, Bauhaus… But there are so many I have yet to visit… sigh.

But I would be remise not to mention the great things happening in the Chippewa Valley. In Eau Claire, though Northwoods Brew Pub went south to Osseo, Lazy Monk opened a fantastic taproom and the Brewing Projekt finally appears to be on track to a major expansion. Brewster Brothers became neighbors with Leinie’s in Chippewa Falls. Even Cornell has brewery now. New distribution into northern Wisconsin from great brewers like Bent Paddle was also a big plus.

Looking at Wisconsin as a whole, the big action is taking place in Milwaukee. There’s a beer renaissance happening there big enough to attract the North American Guild of Beer Writers to hold its annual conference there in 2017, which I’m really looking forward to.

Mobcraft hopped ship from Madison, where the opening of Lone Girl and Rockhound brewpubs still produced a net increase in options in the Capital.

But back to Milwaukee—I enjoyed visits to Brenner, Urban Harvest and Good City in 2016. Good City appears to be well on its way, already distributing its Motto Mosaic-hopped pale ale. Breweries like 3rd Space, Westallion, City Lights, Broken Bat, Big Head, Like Minds and others give me much to look forward to in 2017.

All the same, it’s the veterans of the industry that I keep going back to. Lakefront’s My Turn series was a highlight at my local liquor store all year, with Evan Mexican Lager, Howard Helles and Latif double chocolate stout. Summit had a phenomenal 30th Anniversary lineup, including the Keller Pils, English Barleywine, Us & Them threads and Unchained Dark Infusion. The old standbys from Lakefront, Summit, Bell’s, New Glarus, Sierra Nevada and other craft beer pioneers are still among my favorites and constantly in my fridge.

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Nationwide, big mergers caught headlines as InBev bought up SAB Miller, a couple craft brewers and homebrew mainstay Northern Brewer. Craft brewers Cigar City and Oskar Blues; and Victory and Southern Tier formed new ties.

Hop bombs, sours and barrel-aged beers—and combinations therein–remain ever popular, but more traditional styles like the Pilsner seem to be regaining respect as more new breweries release their own renditions. The year gave rise to the crowler as another awesome way to get beer from the brewery to the fridge.

I’m out of analysis and prognostications. Simply stated: What a great year for beer! The glass is full for 2017, and I’m just going to try and enjoy it. Cheers!

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Best beers I tried for the first time in 2016

By Ryan Urban

As I work on a larger year in review article, I thought a good way to start would be to review the best beers I tried for the first time in 2016. Some are new, some are classics. Some are regional, other came from the southern and western U.S. and beyond. Here’s the some of the best I had in 2016:

  1. Toppling Goliath Pompeii—Though I am not a hophead, this beer made me realize the draw of this craft beer giant. It has all the wonderful fruity flavors of late-hop additions, without the mouth-numbing IPA bitterness I associate with the style. Pompeii blew my mind.
  2. Burial The Rosary Export Stout—I had the pleasure of visiting the Asheville, N.C. in 2016 and touring a beer scene that definitely lived up to the hype. The unexpectedly pleasant surprise of the trip was Burial Brewing Company. The Rosary is all the black goodness of stout with a Belgian twist—something sure to be emulated more in the years ahead.
  3. Hi-Wire Lager—Another Asheville favorite. My fondness for a flavorful, easy-drinking lager was satisfied with this beer.
  4. Green Man Porter—One more from Asheville. This made me fall in love with porter all over again after tasting a long series of “meh” versions. This is a ROBUST porter, and everything it should be.
  5. Live Oak Pilz—I only ventured outside the Midwest once, but my girlfriend Anna did many times and brought me some great stuff from many places. Austin, Texas proved to have awesome stuff. This has soft maltiness and spicy Saaz hops that make Pilsners so satisfying.
  6. Austin Beerworks Black Thunder—If there’s anything I like better than a good pils, it’s a tasty schwarzbier. Oil black, big on flavor, this was just the ticket.
  7. Summit Keller Pils—This St. Paul craft beer pioneer delivered again and again in 2016. A highlight of this well-rounded 30th anniversary lineup was this refreshing lager. Superb summer beer.
  8. New Glarus Oud Bruin—New Glarus remains No. 1 on my list of favorites thanks in part to a winning regular lineup and once-in-awhile gems like this. I don’t go wild for sour beers, but this was awesome.
  9. Central Waters Cassian Sunset—Another winner in a phenomenal barrel-aging program. I was skeptical at first, but goddamn was this delicious. Central Waters makes awesome beers top to bottom, sunrise to sunset.
  10. Sierra Nevada-Mahrs Brau Oktoberfest—Have I mentioned that I like lagers? This was a super cool interpretation of a German classic. I refilled my stein many times over.
  11. 3 Floyds Wigsplitter—I had come to think of 3 Floyds as one of the most overrated breweries out there. Same for coffee beers. But I finally came around this year, and boy was this tasty tribute to dark brewed goodness.
  12. Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale—The best of beer is barleywine, especially on a cold night in the Upper Midwest. I had many of those, and nothing warmed me more than Bell’s Third Coast. Every sip is a bit different, more complex than the last.

Check out the archives for more beer reviews from 2016. And follow me on Twitter and Untappd for more throughout the coming year.