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.

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Beer Run Episode #7

To listen now, click here. Or enjoy our blog recap first.

Beer Review: Ale Asylum Oktillion

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Not to be confused with this Disney villain—though we didn’t get her name right.

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We talked Oktoberfest variations.

Oktoberfest beer

Drink up the best of Oktoberfestbiers before they’re out of season.

In Brew News:

Self-Driving Truck’s First Mission: A 120-Mile Beer Run
World’s longest pub crawl: Maths team plots route between 25,000 UK boozers
Voldemort buys Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies

Interview: Isaac Showaki of Octopic/Third Sign.

 

We gave a shout out to our good friends at the Handy Homebrew Show!

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Matt Paulson of the Handy Homebrew Show and our very own Carl Cooley.

Kick back, uncap and listen to our full episode below. Cheers!

Beer of the Week: Valkyrie Big Swede

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Valkyrie Big Swede

I live in a beer desert. I live in a town of 8,000+ that doesn’t have a brewery. I lived here 5 years before any place even offered an IPA or stout on tap. One Wisconsin brewmaster once told me Barron County is where craft beer goes to die.

But there has always been a single saving grace. Twenty miles down some county roads lies a beer Valhalla at Valkyrie Brewing in Dallas, Wisconsin.

When I think of Valkyrie, I think of small town charm, unique beers and nice people.

When entering Dallas, it would seem the last place to have a craft brewery, much less one that’s been around 22 years. With a population of 400ish, there isn’t much happening in Dallas. There’s a gunsmith shop, antique store, post office, fire hall, one bank, one gas station, a church, a park, a restaurant, another bar and Valkyrie. But owners Randy and Ann Lee keep the beer flowing for cheap ($1 for 8 oz.), served with smiles and hearty laughs that would make anyone feel more than welcome in their taproom, which is adorned with medieval weaponry.

When I think of VaIkyrie, I also think of truly one-of-a-kind beers. A Valkyrie beer never reminds me of another beer. There’s a smoked Marzen (Whispering Embers), coffee milk porter (Warhammer) and black licorice IPA (Raven Queen). Some are more traditional, like the Velvet Green Irish stout, Night Wolf schwarzbier and Abbey Normal tripel, but they are still all their own.

One of my favorites—right up there with Warhammer and Berserk Barleywine—is the Big Swede Swedish Imperial Stout.

What makes it Swedish? I’m not sure, but it has all the hallmarks of delicious big black stout. Loads of caramel, vanilla and booze all the way down. A year in the fridge makes it all the better.

It will be a go-to this winter while the brewery is closed (January and February). Make a trip before then to stock up. The best time is this weekend at Dallas Oktoberfest, featuring a kubb tourney, 1860s baseball, polka band and weiner dog races!

Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG

Beer of the Week: Bent Paddle Black

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Bent Paddle Black Ale.

A rare summer day in Duluth–upper 70s balanced by a cool, gentle breeze off Lake Superior. This after quite literally 8 months of mainly cold weather.

Really a shame I wasn’t paddling a kayak, shredding trails on a mountain bike or hiking to an overlook of the Great Lake on the Superior Hiking Trail.

But I was doing the next best thing, sipping a few cold ones with friends in the taprooms of the Twin Ports. We were in town to celebrate the marriage of two good friends after all.
Home to eight breweries, Duluth has quality and variety that does not disappoint. There are distribution only Blacklist and Borealis Fermentery. Carmody and Dubh Linn add Irish pub options. Founded in 1990, Lake Superior harkens back to the early days of the craft beer boom.

In this most recent visit, I enjoyed quality food, beer and atmosphere at Fitgers (quirky, cool historic building) and Canal Park (beer around a campfire near the lake after dark).
The only better option might have been a deep dish pizza and any number of flavor-packed brews at Thirsty Pagan across the St. Louis River in Superior, Wisconsin.
But that’s a story for another post.

Given the recent expansion of distribution into my home state, I’m highlighting a Bent Paddle beer this week.

Set apart from other Twin Ports breweries, but following the no-food, taproom-first, distribute-second philosophy common to many breweries today, Bent Paddle frankly has a good thing going.

Tucked into a somewhat-shabby part of town in an unremarkable warehouse building, Bent Paddle’s street parking draws many a Jeep/Suburu with a kayaks/bikes on the rack. Inside, a mixed crowd gets into games of cribbage, marvels at a myriad of shiny tanks, all the while filling the ample industrial, yet rustic space with a dull roar of conversation.

The beers share the liveliness of the taproom and the bold, adventurous spirit of the North Shore—e.g. Roof Rack Lager, Harness IPA, Venture Pils and 14º ESB–a two-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival.

The lineup is solid top to bottom. But needing some dark beer in the fridge as a contrast to many summer lagers and pale ales, I grabbed a sixer of the Black Ale on the way home.

Bent Paddle says, “This Black Ale drinks like a porter but is opaque like a stout. Brewed with a generous amount of oats to round out the flavor.”

I can’t describe it any other way. It seems neither a stout or porter. Black ale is a wholly appropriate title. The beer is jet black with an easy-drinking body, but full roasty, chocolaty flavor.

Such a satisfying beer, I’m going to burn through this six pack quick, maybe while enjoying a hobo dinner of sausage and root vegetables somewhere along the way.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Beer of the Week: Central Waters Cassian Sunset

 

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Central Waters Cassian Sunset.

If Goose Island is #1 in the barrel-aged beer game, Central Waters might well be a close second. This is a common ranking in the Midwest.

In my book, however, Central Waters is #1. Granted, I’ve only had two vintages of the original Bourbon County Brand Stout. Reason: 1. Hard to get in Northern Wisconsin 2. Only released once a year 3. I’m not into shelling out extra cash or trading for beer 4. Goddamn InBev.

Alternatively, I can get better than a half-dozen of this Amherst (WI)-based brewery’s barrel-aged beers in a year’s time for less than $15 per 4-pack. This lineup is all affordable, consistent beers with big barrel character.

Granted, this has changed somewhat with tickets to the brewery’s anniversary releases selling out in minutes and the introduction of $40 per bottle Ardis Insignis.

So, is Ardis Insignis worth it?

Hell, I have no idea. I didn’t even bother to enter the raffle because I’m not paying $40 for 22 oz. of beer. Hey, I gotta draw the line somewhere.

No, rather I’ll be reviewing another recent release, Cassian Sunset.

Central Waters says: “A bourbon barrel aged imperial stout with local Emy J’s coffee, whole vanilla beans and cinnamon.”

First thought: “YAASSS! A new Central Waters beer!”

Second thought: “Oh no, they’ve taken a perfectly good BB stout and ruined it with spices and shit.”

You must understand, beers jam-packed with vanilla and/or coffee have almost always ended in disappointment for my taste buds.

Well, I bought some anyway. After all, I could attest to the fact that Emy Js has great coffee, having spent 4 years in college in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. And, Central Waters’ Brewhouse Coffee Stout is a rare exception to my “coffee beers suck” belief.

After my first glass, my suspicions seemed correct. I was ready to give away the other three bottles.

But, the first taste was from a shaker pint glass at a cold temperature. I felt I had done an injustice. So, a week later I had another from a tulip/snifterish glass at the proper temp. Big improvement.

Yes, the coffee, vanilla and cinnamon is there, but remain subtle enough. I still can’t say I’m a fan of these additives, but there is good balance in this beer. I certainly can’t fault Central Waters for trying something new with its tried-and-true barrel aging project.

This beer is, ultimately, another testament to the fact that Central Waters is one of the best in the business.

Too often beers are made extreme for extreme’s sake. Central Waters has certainly jumped in on the popular trends of incorporating barrel aging or huge amounts of sexy hops, fruit, peppers, spices, etc. But the brewery has also shown enough restraint and skill to produce flavorful beer that is also easy-drinking. I was surprised how quickly I finished my glasses of Cassian Sunset.

This supped-up bourbon barrel stout is decadent, like maybe spice cake, brownie and coffee ice cream mixed together. That sounds a little strange and excessive, but damn, I’d be a fool not to try it.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Beer of the Week: Base Camp S’more Stout

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Base Camp Brewing S’more Stout.

For those who love beer and love to travel, naturally, beercations are a must.

I’m heading to Asheville, North Carolina this week. I can only hope the trip is as good as the one I took last fall, visiting the Pacific Northwest. I spent most of my time in three legendary beer towns—Bend, Portland and Seattle.

I have many great beer memories from the trip. I watched the sun set behind the Three Sisters mountains—after climbing South Sister earlier that day—with a few hoppy ales and an amusingly drunk mother-daughter combo at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend. I talked politics with an odd duck of an old man at the hole-in-the-wall taproom of Wingman Brewers in Tacoma, Washington over a P-51 Porter.

But the best company I had in my travels was my cousin Bean—real name Jenny, short for Jelly Bean—who lives in Portland. After not seeing each other for 3-4 years, we reconnected in perhaps the best way possible—over beers. We had an absolute blast meeting other people’s pups at the Lucky Labrador, marveling at the $1,500 Dave at Hair of the Dog and enjoying a warm night from the comfort of the Bailey’s Taproom patio—so much in fact we swiped a couple glasses, either just for laughs or for a memento of the many laughs we had that night.

Perhaps the most distinct taproom we visited was that of Base Camp Brewery, themed to recreate the feel of a remote mountainside. Also distinct was the S’more Stout. I had high expectations, but did not expect my glass to have a perfectly roasted marshmallow as a garnish. Given a quick scorch from a blow torch, the marshmallow was a delightful touch on a great beer.

I feel a little strange about this review, having just found out about this incident, but I won’t hold it against the beer. It was also one of the few beers I had on my beercation that I could find in the Midwest—in a sleek, 22-ounce, aluminum, bottle-shaped can no less.

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Despite the badass vessel, having it a second and third time does not compare to the first. Beer is always better in a taproom near where it was made, especially if enjoyed with good company and maybe a toasty garnish.

Regardless, this stout is rock-solid with plenty of roasty and chocolaty notes and a smooth, sweet finish. At 7.7% it is middle of the road for a stout and a good beer to stuff in a backpack on a hike out to quiet spot under towering trees and bright stars. I’ll build a fire and have a cold aluminum cup in one hand and a sticky s’more in the other.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Bonus photos from Bend!

A six pack of Wisconsin stouts for International Stout Day

Today, Nov. 5, is International Stout Day, a celebration of one of the best loved beer styles in the world. The day is comes as the fields brown, the forests bare their branches and the nights grow longer and darker here in Wisconsin. Thankfully, this state’s breweries understand the yearning for a roasty, chocolaty treat. I drink dark beers all months of the year, but I definitely make a point to stock up on the black beauties for winter. Here’s what I’m reaching for today, tomorrow or in April because these dark ales are delicious.

South Shore Rhoades’ Scholar Stout

South Shore Brewery has served up this Wisconsin stout lover’s favorite for much of the Ashland brewery’s 20-year history. Coming in at 6.1% ABV, this beer carries a velvety mouthfeel and chocolaty sweetness. This is one of the oldest stout brands in Wisconsin, and few rival its flavor even today.

Stone Arch Vanilla Stout

If anything complements the roasty, chocolaty malt of a stout, it’s vanilla. This Appleton brewery uses natural vanilla to produce a 5% ABV oatmeal stout. Many vanilla stouts are too heavy on the vanilla, but this one is just right. The subtle vanilla melds with the caramely, chocolaty nature of this beauty.

Sand Creek Oscar’s Oatmeal Stout

Sand Creek Brewery’s oatmeal stout is true to form with this strong-bodied 4.5% brew. There’s a rich nutty, chocolaty taste and enough hop presence to balance the delightful sweetness. This is easily the best brew you’ll find in this Black River Falls brewery’s homey taproom or your hometown bottle shop.

Lucette Slowhand Stout

Stout is all about the malt. Lucette takes this notion to the next level with Slowhand. There’s little to no flash of hops in this beer. It’s all roasty coffee dryness on a creamy body, packing a modest 5.2% ABV. Like many of this Menomonie brewer’s creations, Slowhand is a distinct beer and a wonderful take on this iconic style.

Milwaukee Brewing Company Polish Moon

We can’t talk about stouts in Wisconsin without mentioning a milk stout. This Milkwaukee brewery makes a fine one. Brewed with a well-portioned dose of milk sugar, this dark, silky beer has extra sweetness yet remains quite drinkable at 4.5% ABV. Like the namesake clock on Milwaukee’s heavily-Polish south side, this stout is a landmark in Milwaukee.

Central Waters Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout

There isn’t a style of beer that stands up better to the bite residing in the wood of a bourbon barrel. Amherst’s Central Waters harnessed the wonders of barrel aging a decade ago. It’s flagship in this project is this stout aged in oak barrels. At 9.5% ABV, it packs a punch but less of one than similar barrel-aged stouts. While boozy, the oak and vanilla flavors this beer produce a savory treat.