When Paste first began its series of blind tastings in 2014, we were heading into fairly uncharted territory. The internet is rife with large-scale beer lists from all sorts of publishers, but blind tastings are another matter entirely. Put simply, it’s a whole lot more work, and it’s also a much bigger risk. The format itself has the benefit of taking hype entirely out of the equation, but in doing so, you have to live with the consequences of your blind tasting results, even if they may be different from what you expected. Case in point: Would I have predicted Angry Orchard to win our 2016 blind tasting of ciders, even if it was a special release? Answer: Nope. But that’s what happened, and it was a deserving win. https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2016/03/82-of-the-best-hard-ciders-blind-tasted-and-ranked.html
Therein lies the true value of the blind tastings Paste continues to conduct on a monthly basis. They strip away the BS and the bias from this process, and in doing so they have a tendency to shine a light upon underappreciated, undervalued breweries and beers, many of which are easy to find and drink. At the same time, they also validate the hype that certain popular breweries have received by giving them the best vindication we know how to give—victory in a big blind tasting.
2017 was a banner year for our beer tastings. A quick bit of math tells me that we blind-tasted a whopping 1,022 beers by the end of November, and that’s not even including December’s Christmas beer tasting, which will likely add more than 100 more. It’s by far the largest number we’ve ever handled in a single calendar year, and the rate of submissions only seems to be increasing. The more breweries we reach out to, the more express interest in seeing where their beers stack up.
In the end, there’s something about the format itself that evokes the craft beer industry’s most romanticized aspects. It’s a free, democratic process. We charge nothing for entries. We accept entries from any and every brewery, regardless of ownership. We get as many as we can, blind taste them, and simply let the chips fall where they may—and may the best beers win.
Here, then, are our favorite beers we blind tasted in 2017.
Best Imperial Stout (Non Barrel-Aged): River North Mr. Sandman
City: Denver, CO
Way back in the summer of 2014, I visited a young brewery in Denver called River North while spending five days drinking my way up and down the breweries of the front range. Although they’re now housed in a different building, I noted then that they could make a good stout. Now, they’ve made our #1 non-barrel aged imperial stout.
River North sent in no fewer than four stouts for this tasting, all of which were interesting in some way. Mr. Sandman is the closest to a “standard” imperial stout, being the same base beer used in their coffee variant, Nightmare Fuel. The latter was also included, and proved divisive in the blind tasting because there was just so much coffee in it. In a tasting of 102 imperial stouts, River North undoubtedly, easily, without question made the beer with the most insane amount of coffee character, and that beer still didn’t make the top 40 because frankly, some of the tasters just couldn’t deal with such an overwhelming surge of java.
The version without coffee, though, was a revelation—one of those rare beers that comes along and no one at the table has anything negative to say about it. It excels not by being specifically unique but by assembling a pitch-perfect composite of all the flavors you want in a big, motor oil imperial stout. Dark fruit flavors of raspberry and cherry intermingle gently with dark, bittersweet baker’s chocolate. Sturdy roast provides a drying counterpart to molasses-like caramelization. Booze—there’s definitely booze, no doubt about that. And like so many of the other great stouts, the x-factor is textural, as Mr. Sandman perfectly balances a decadently creamy mouthfeel with surprising, dangerous drinkability. You could nurse one of these all night, or you could just as likely consume it all too quickly. That’s what being a great imperial stout is all about.
Best Session IPA: Southern Prohibition Devil’s Harvest
City: Hattiesburg, MS
Wow, wow, wow. Now I can see why we’ve been hearing about Southern Prohibition lately. Devil’s Harvest is the first beer we’ve ever had from the brewery, and it’s our #1 session IPA. The brewery cheekily calls it a “breakfast IPA,” which might lead the unwary to expect a coffee-infused beer, but they’re more accurately referring to either the ABV (which is actually on the higher end as far as the style goes) or the juicy, citrusy hop profile. Either way, this stuff is delicious.
With a soft, creamy mouthfeel similar to the previous beer from Night Shift, Devil’s Harvest takes more than a few cues from NE-IPA brewing techniques. A “moderate dose of oats” enhances the creamy mouthfeel in a way we tend to associate with Maine Beer Co.’s IPAs, and that comparison isn’t too far off. Big waves of orangey citrus give way to lots of apricot-like stone fruit character that is particularly lovely. Bitterness is more or less nil—this beer is an aromatic powerhouse, but it leans entirely on texture rather than bitterness to keep it from coming off like fruit juice. To quote one score sheet, “This is effortless drinking.” To quote another that didn’t exactly mince words: “People will like this beer.” True enough. If the goal of session IPA is to deliver a decadently hoppy, but still drinkable profile in a small package, then Devil’s Harvest is a beer that exemplifies the spirit of the style. If session IPA is your thing, then you need to seek this one out.
Best Belgian Tripel: Straffe Hendrik Bruges Tripel Bier
City: Brugges, Belgium
I can’t help but be reminded here of when we did our Belgian quad tasting, which was won by Gouden Carolus Cuvee de Van de Keizer. Like that tasting, this one has been won by a classic Belgian brewery … but perhaps not exactly the one you might be expecting. Referred to by one of the tasters on his sheet as “concentrated tripel,” it packs a serious punch in its 9% ABV frame. Boozier than most (though on par with many of the other Belgians), it has a sherry-like alcohol note that is not unpleasant, and fades without astringency into a plethora of fruit flavors of both banana and red fruit. To quote one score sheet: “Soft and peppery spice, very nice.” It’s a very assertive take on tripel, but it manages to do so (and to express quite a bit of alcohol) while having a dry finish, which is fairly rare. Even more rare is the fact that it can be both boozy and dry without being at all harsh on the palate. This beer walks a very delicate balancing act, and pulls it off with eloquence. It’s our pick for the best pure tripel among these 36 beers.
Best Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout: Fremont Brewing Co. BBA Dark Star
City: Seattle, WA
After plowing through 144 barrel-aged imperial stouts, we reached the top of the mountain with Fremont’s BBA Dark Star: The epitome of barrel-aged stout. And perhaps fittingly, it’s just a “plain” old bourbon barrel-aged stout that takes home the championship. No spices, no cacao nibs, no vanilla beans. No coffee, either—it’s the original version of BBA Dark Star that is superior. But that doesn’t mean this beer doesn’t have unique aspects. In fact, the way BBA Dark Star is blended for consistency and depth of flavor is interesting: It’s actually three different batches of the base beer, aged for 18, 12 and 8 months respectively before being blended together. In doing so, Fremont is presumably able to achieve a profile that combines the best aspects of both shorter and longer aging periods.
On the nose, this beer is burly, boozy but ultimately inviting. The barrel comes through in a big way, throwing waves of rich caramelized sugar and vanilla custard, along with solid roast. The oatmeal in the grist helps contribute to a luxurious, silky texture—as we noted earlier, each Dark Star was among the best of the tasting in terms of mouthfeel. On the palate, deep, rich molasses sweetness gives way to charred oak, vanilla and maple syrup, and what one of the tasting sheets refers to as “velvety heaven.” It’s simply a gorgeous beer, and one that shows a barrel-aging program that has invested years into making the best possible stout that they can. Everyone pay your dues to Fremont on this one: They are the barrel-aged stout masters.
Best Wheat Beer/Hefeweizen: Live Oak Hefeweizen
City: Del Valle, TX
Okay, well now we know why many critics and fans have called this the best American-made hefeweizen on the market. Live Oak is one of those breweries that has been building hype in Texas for years, and I’ve been hearing about them nearly as long, but this is their first appearance in a Paste tasting. Suffice to say, it looks like they could form a terrifying hurdle alongside Urban Chestnut for any upcoming tastings of German beer styles, because Live Oak Hefeweizen is the truth. In fact, of all the other beers in the tasting, the one it reminds you of the most is the Weihenstephaner. It’s very authentically German on the nose—you would almost certainly think it was imported, rather than American, thanks to the pronounced, nuanced clove phenol in particular, and a touch of bubblegum fruitiness. Beyond that, banana bread and spice assert themselves in a gentle way, blending with a creamy, bready malt backbone. It’s exactly what you would describe if someone was asking you to tell them what the style of hefeweizen was all ‘bout. It’s a spectacular brew, and it’s our #1 wheat beer.
Best Saison: Burial Separation of Light and Darkness
City: Asheville, NC
We’ve known for a while now that eventually, Burial was going to win one of these tastings. Their batting average is almost always in the top tier; they’ve just been waiting for exactly the right category to spring something like this on us. If you haven’t had much of their beer, you may think of the brewery as something of an IPA factory, given that they seemingly have a new IPA every two weeks, or perhaps as the makers of Skillet Donut Stout, but there’s one other style that this popular Asheville destination produces in abundance, and that’s saison. Burial has made a staggering number of different saisons in the last few years, of every conceivable substyle.
This one, Separation of Light and Darkness, is a showpiece for both their brettanomyces and lactobacillus mixed culture as well as their skill with using hops as a finishing touch. Moderately tart, it’s quickly clear that this is a brett beer as well, as it puts forth a telltale funk that is earthy and almost slightly leathery. Of course, you’d really have to be searching to find either of those, because sweet-blooming citrus is the first thing you’ll get on the nose, which follows through onto the palate. Says one score sheet: “Amazing citrus aroma, and perfect acidity.” From another: “Funky, tart, citrus, peppery, wow.” From one more: “Just a clean, bright, hoppy, perfect saison.” And because someone will surely ask why the photographer chose to shoot only this one before pouring the beer, I can only say that your guess is as good as mine.
Best Sour/Wild Ale: Black Project Peacemaker
City: Denver, CO
It was telling that while looking over all of the beers that were arriving for this sour/wild ale tasting, multiple tasters pointed toward the Black Project label and said something to the effect of “I’ve been hearing a lot about these guys.” One of Denver’s most hyped up-and-coming young breweries, Black Project specializes in these heady and spontaneously fermented wild ales, and delivered a beer in Peacemaker that was unique from pretty much anything else in the entire tasting. It’s a blend of two beers, “both fermented from coolship-caught microbes,” before being aged in bourbon barrels that then were used to mature Colorado cherry wine.
The result is the best of both worlds—a softened bourbon whiskey character with traces of the original caramel, vanilla and deeply toasted oaky notes, but with the addition of bright cherry and strawberry fruitiness. There’s elements of funk, which contribute some light barnyard characteristics and perhaps a touch of light peach fruitiness, but that’s the running theme of this beer—many, seemingly disparate elements that are all working together, with none coming to dominate the others. The “cherry wine” element is frankly one that would have scared me if I read it in advance on a beer label, as it seems like a recipe for a saccharine disaster, but I’m rather amazed by how subtle that character is in Peacemaker. This is not some treacly, sweet, artificially fruity attempt at an American wild ale. It’s a sophisticated, complex beer that uses both complementary and contrasting notes to build layers of flavor. And it’s our #1 American sour/wild ale.
Best Gose: Creature Comforts Tritonia
City: Athens, GA
None of us here at Paste are surprised to see Creature Comforts take home a #1 spot in one of these tastings—if anything, we’re surprised that this is the first time they’ve ever done so, despite plenty of impressive finishes over the last few years. Tritonia is certainly a deserving beer for the honor of best gose, though: It’s the ultimate summer refresher. It takes cucumber and makes it the star of the show, with a clean, incredibly refreshing cucumber note that shines through the beer from start to finish. At the same time, though, it never loses track of the other “gose” elements: There’s some pronounced coriander and a big twist of lemon-lime citrus, which provides just enough residual sweetness. Tartness is right in the middle—firm enough to be refreshing without getting excessive. For all intents and purposes it’s pretty much a classic gose in the mold of the Westbrook above … until the cucumber element comes in and takes the beer to the next level. I know that I called it the ultimate summer refresher above, but this beer is begging to exist all year round. Tritonia is #1 in the sense that it’s the gose that every taster wanted to drink more of—much more of, to be precise.
Best Double IPA: Brew Gentlemen Lou (Ales for ALS, 2017)
City: Braddock, PA
Somehow, we get the feeling that when the folks at Brew Gentlemen sent this one in for our double IPA tasting, they knew exactly where it was going to end up. And not just because praise for this beer (and this year’s batch of this beer) has been uniquely effusive online (and it has, if you look it up), but because it’s just so damn good. In the top 49 entries of the double IPA tasting, we praised a lot of different kinds of double IPAs—malty DIPAs, bitter DIPAs, West Coast DIPAs, juice bomb DIPAs—but ultimately, the winner was the beer to best blend any and every aspect of what we love about DIPA into a single package. Call it a representative of NE-IPA if you will (because it is one, at least to look at), but that’s almost doing it a disservice. If you’re going to call it anything, just call it amazing.
Best Pumpkin Beer: Lift Bridge Imperial Pumpkin Porter
City: Stillwater, MN
Minnesota’s Lift Bridge is a brewery that regularly produces top-tier barrel-aged beers but continues to fly under the radar outside the Midwest—why, we can’t say. But they know their way around a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, and this beefed up pumpkin porter is no different, earning the top spot in our pumpkin beer tasting. This beer simply has it all: rich caramelization; molasses-like sweetness; jammy dark fruitiness; prominent (but tactful) booziness; and of course, a deft use of spice. The bourbon barrel-aging contributes subtle notes of oak and vanilla custard-like sweetness, while the mouthfeel is full, viscous and mouth-coating. Forget October; this would get barrel-aged beer geeks excited at any time of year.
Best Stout (Under 8%): Proof Brewing Co. Coffee Creatures in the Dark
City: Tallahassee, FL
We’d like to make the claim that this beer’s 7.8% ABV, almost right at the 8% maximum for this best stout tasting, didn’t really play into its score, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The truth of the matter is that its more robust ABV simply works in perfect harmony with the burly coffee stout profile that Proof has put together, creating a beer that is equal parts vivacious and composed. Assertive, dark-roast coffee swells out of the glass on the nose, rich and sweet—one of the best overall coffee aromas of the tasting. On the palate, Creatures in the Dark is very creamy, sporting chewy malt, dark chocolate notes and significant sweetness, some of which is almost certainly derived from the ABV level. From one score sheet: “Dark plum fruitiness and very dark, bitter cocoa.” From another: “Rich, powerful coffee nose and hints of dried fruit and alcohol.” You might argue that this beer’s richness cuts its drinkability just a bit, making it a “one and done” selection, but it’s hard to care when you enjoy the “one” this much. Overall, a superb coffee stout.
Best Christmas Beer: Scaldis Noel
City: Leuze-Pipaix, Belgium
In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the finishing places of Scaldis Noël in this annual Christmas beer blind tasting are as follows: #2, #1, #1. That alone should tell you all you need to know about what an amazing, classic Belgian dark strong ale we have in this holiday staple. It is ridiculously consistent, and never short of awesome.
What we have here is a beer in the same mold as St. Bernardus (which earned#2 in this blind tasting), but it forgoes a little bit of Bernie’s balance in favor of festal ebullience. Which is to say, it’s just a little bit more of everything—a bit sweeter, a bit more overtly boozy, a bit more intense in its flavors of dark fruit and spice. Bready malt is buttressed with columns of intense dark fruitiness like black raspberry and maybe cranberry, and perfumed generously with cloves, allspice and ginger. You can’t take a sip of this and not be mentally and emotionally transported into the holiday season. The contents of this bottle are a magical elixir in that way. It has firmly established itself as our #1 Christmas beer, and judging from the last few years of tastings, it’s going to take a whole lot for anything to ever unseat it.