Here’s an understatement for you: 2014 was a great year for beer.
Seriously, it’s hard to put into words just how awesome American craft beer was this year. IPAs got sessionable, then they got fresh-hopped, breweries collaborated like hip hop moguls, older (let’s call them classic?) breweries reinvented themselves with ambitious experiments while young breweries helped push the envelope of style and taste…there were hundreds, probably thousands of new beers hitting the shelves and taps all year long, challenging our palates and expectations day after day. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
True, there are a fair number of social injustices and the health care system in this country is ridiculous, but the beer is soooo good. I don’t know about you, but our cup is half full. Full of really, great beer. Literally. We sorted through as many new releases as was humanly possible and came up with what we think is a pretty damn good list of new beers that hit the market this year. The best list, in fact. Hell, let’s just call it, “The Best New Beers of 2014.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Style: Coffee Stout
This one snuck up on me. Don’t get me wrong—I like a good coffee stout. I just don’t expect much from the style. Sierra Nevada’s new Coffee Stout came in a mix pack that, honestly, I purchased so I could try the brewery’s new Boomerang IPA, but I found myself searching the empty box for more of this simple stout. It’s a masterful example of the style—slightly sweet, milky, roasted, malty. It’s not an imperial, it’s not barrel aged, it’s not a farmhouse ale brewed with sage or pumpernickel or the yeast found on the shoe of George Washington. It’s just damn good. -Graham Averill
Style: Farmhouse Saison
Picture via Craft Beer Kings
Visionary brewer Henry Nguyen may refuse to brew an IPA, but don’t think he’s scared of hops. His Belgian-style ales frequently feature judicious applications of new hop varieties, and all the stars aligned when he brewed his light, dry saison Selah—a honey-gold farmhouse ale dry hopped with aromatic mosaic hops and bottle conditioned with Brettanomyces. When fresh, the earthy and tropical Mosaic flavors dominated, but in the months since the beer’s initial release, the brett character has gracefully developed as the hops have faded into balance. Selah is lightning in a bottle. -John Verive
Style: Pumpkin Wild Ale
This beer arrived a few days too late to participate in our 2014 pumpkin beer tasting/ranking, which was a good thing for every other entry: This “sour quad” would have been the consensus #1 beer, I have no doubt. On paper, it sounds absolutely insane—a soured quadrupel, aged in rum barrels with spices and pumpkin? But oh my, what a flavor bomb this thing is (in a good way). The way the brewers and blenders at Cascade managed to capture flavors at this level of intensity but still keep them all well-balanced with one another is almost miraculous. It will be an immediate front-runner for best pumpkin beer of 2015.—Jim Vorel
Style: Imperial Porter
The original Night Train porter spawns variants like Tapout stores spawn over-aggro douchebags. Difference is, you actually want to spend a little time with every member of the Night Train family. O’so released a bourbon-aged version of the standard strength base beer a while ago, and it was pretty great. This beast, though, was only recently unleashed at a special release party at the brewery, along with blackberry and poblano pepper variants. The jury is still out on the latter two, but this “regular” version is sublime. Toffee, chocolate, and charred oak are expected, and present in spades, but there’s a wonderful toasted coconut presence that just sends this beer over the top. Miraculously, the body remains light enough to be damningly drinkable. -Josh Ruffin
Paste was already drooling over Half Acre’s Heyoka back in February, long before it won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Fest, so that win simply confirmed what we already knew—this is one of the best new IPAs of the year. A real American classic, it’s not one of the new breed reveling in really funky, tropical fruity hops. Rather, it’s a great, classic West Coast IPA, filled to the brim with orangey citrus, pine, and maybe a touch of mango. As we wrote at the beginning of the year, “it’s the kind of beer you can smell from a couple feet away.” -Jim Vorel
Three Weavers Brewery is one of the newest, most exciting breweries in L.A.’s exploding craft beer scene, and veteran brewer Alexandra Nowell (Sierra Nevada, Drakes Brewery) has crafted an eminently drinkable pale ale with the hoppy aroma of a full-strength IPA. Nowell coaxes an array of resinous citrus flavors from classic American hops and layers the pungent aromas over a sparkling light body. It’s a beer tailor-made for Los Angeles, and it won’t bore you or fatigue your palate even after two or three (or four or five) pints. -John Verive
Style: Belgian Farmhouse
Oh look, a year-round “shelf turd” saison. Big whoop, right? Listen, this is Allagash’s first new year-round beer in 10 years, so we think a parade is in order. On top of that, it fills what had been a glaring gap in their flagship portfolio—a Belgian-style brewery without an easily gettable saison? For shame. And this is a great one: falling distinctly on the American side of the spectrum, the beer is dry and effervescent, with a distinctly peppery hop profile. At just over 6% ABV, it’s also light enough for warmer months, yet sufficiently robust. Well done, Allagash. Now how about bottling Session Brett? -Josh Ruffin
Style: Pale Ale
The star of an in-office tasting of 2014’s fresh hop ales, Born Yesterday is one of the more aptly named beers we tasted this year. With samples bottled only a day or two before they arrived in the Paste office and shipped in an ice-packed box, there’s pretty much no way they could have been fresher. Overflowing with tropical fruit flavors, Born Yesterday is like a paean to the possibilities of fresh, green hops and why bottled-on dates are so important.—Jim Vorel
Style: Imperial IPA
The hop savants over at Toppling Goliath occasionally brewed this beer—a ramped-up version of Citra pale ale Pseudo Sue—for taproom consumption or special events only; it was spoken of in whispers outside of Iowa. But this past year, they released it in a single bottling run, and the beer lost none of its potency. While not the most streamlined or balanced beer, TG knows how to squeeze the most out of their hops, and King Sue is the ultimate example. It pours like a glass of orange juice, the Citra hops’ tropical fruit and catty character going full frontal, and will ruin your palate for a week. -Josh Ruffin
San Diego, Calif.
Ballast Point’s Sculpin is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the West Coast IPA style, and the grapefruit infused variant has long been a local favorite at the brewery’s tasting rooms. Finally bottled in 2014, the bitter-on-bitter blast of grapefruit pith on top of a melange of tropical hop flavors somehow makes Grapefruit Sculpin even more quaffable than the original. There is perhaps no better beer to pair with a plate of fish tacos and a San Diego sunset. -John Verive
Paso Robles, Calif.
Style: Session IPA
It seemed like every major brewery in the country introduced a session IPA in 2014, but one of our favorites was the masterful Easy Jack from Firestone Walker. Built on an impossibly light and dry body, world class brewer Matt Brynildson sourced hop varieties from across the globe to infuse Easy Jack with a complex array of fruity flavors from melon to tangerine. The new brew was a runaway hit for the Central Coast brewery, who had never seen a new beer sell as quickly. Look for cans of the 4.5% refresher to hit more markets in 2015. -John Verive
Style: Pale Ale
With Alpha King, Zombie Dust, Dreadnaught, and Arctic Panzer Wolf, et al absolutely crushing it year after year, does the world really need another hoppy beer from Three Floyds? Of course it does—what the hell is wrong with you? This pale ale actually stuck around for a bit, considering it was a fairly limited release; maybe the label art, which looked like a Fanta commercial funneled through a Bollywood nightmare, threw people off. Either way, score this the next time it comes around. At 5.5% ABV, it’s nearly sessionable, and the hush-hush proprietary blend of hops bestows a refreshing apricot, grapefruit-y profile, with just a hint of crackery malt to carry it lightly across your palate. -Josh Ruffin
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Style: India Pale Lager
For all the love their barrel-aged offerings get, Founders’ hoppy brews too often get lost in the shuffle. Pro tip: Centennial IPA comes in cans now, in 12-packs, and you should be drinking that right now, I don’t care if you’re in the shower, playing peek-a-boo with the cat, whatever. Also this: The Dissenter, hopped to high heaven like an imperial IPA, but fermented with a lager yeast and cold-conditioned. As a result, the hop flavors are in your face, but cleaner and brighter. At 8.7%, this beer goes down way too smooth, and sat on the shelves for a criminally long time, because you know nothing, Jon Snow, or Jon Smith, or whatever your name is. -Josh Ruffin
Fort Collins, Colo.
Style: Chocolate Stout
Part of New Belgium’s experimental Lips of Faith Series, this complex brew was a collaboration with Perennial Artisan Ales, and in my opinion, easily the most successful Lips of Faith to hit the market this year. It’s about as balanced as a “dessert beer” can get, thanks to that handy Belgian yeast. Yep, there’s chocolate here, and a bit of funk and fruit. But the most intoxicating aspect of this beer (aside from the alcohol, of course) is the hint of salt that’s left on your lips after the sip disappears. It’s like a damn magic trick. -Graham Averill
Style: Milk Stout
With so many ingredients, it would have been easy to overdo any one of them and leave this beer too sweet, too spicy, too messy. Instead, Stone Brewing harmoniously combined cocoa, coffee, chile peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg to create a beer that is smooth, layered and complex. It’s perfect for lovers of Mexican hot chocolate, which is just about everyone, right? -Daniel Hartis
Style: Sour Ale
Okay, technically, this isn’t a “new” beer. It won gold in the American Style Brett category at GABF in 2013, but Wicked Weed didn’t put this beauty into a bottle until this year. In fact, it was the first beer the Asheville brewery decided to bottle and distribute. The barrel-aged farmhouse ale is wickedly good (I couldn’t resist)—plenty of funk without being overwhelmingly sour, hints of fruit, pepper…in the words of Frank Costanza, “Serenity Now!” I’m excited to see Wicked Weed’s reputation grow, now that beers like Serenity are bottled and mobile.-Graham Averill
New Glarus, Wis.
Style: Imperial IPA
Dan Carey is killing it, just killing it, lately. The man already brewed the best, cleanest German-style lagers in the country like it ain’t no thang, wrangled authentic wild ales from one of America’s only coolships, and made beer nerds care about fruit again. Never one to rest on his laurels, Carey took care this year to retool his double IPA recipe, this time using truckloads of whole-cone Cascade hops. As a result, the newly-christened Scream is intensely pine-forward and citrusy, sticky with hop resins and eminently drinkable. It’s probably one of the best double IPAs of the year, and one of the best beers period. -Josh Ruffin
I think 2014 was the year of the fresh hopped ale (see Lagunitas’ Born Yesterday). The goal with these beers is to get the hops into the beer as quickly as possible to maximize the pungent characteristics that our favorite weed contributes to beer. For Chasin’ Freshies, Deschutes plucked Mosaic hops then rushed them directly to the kettle to help bring out the juicy qualities of this relatively new hop strain. There are some Bravo hops thrown in too, but Mosaic is given the spotlight, and the result (in my opinion) is the best fresh hop ale to hit the market this year. Chasin’ Freshies has a tropical fruit-like sweetness without much bitterness, and is creamy almost to the point of being buttery. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a hell of an IPA. -Graham Averill
ABV: Good question
Style: English Barleywine
At this point, we’re starting to wonder if Shaun Hill pawned his soul to the goddess Ninkasi for his brewing prowess. After putting most other pale ales, imperial stouts, porters, and especially saisons to shame in barely a half-decade of production, Hill tossed his hat into the barleywine ring, immediately inspiring reverence, awe, and countless ISOs on the Beer Advocate forums. Aaron, an English-style (read, malt-forward) barleywine aged for two whole years in used bourbon barrels, is a master class on subtlety and depth: toffee, fig, raisin, crème brulee, milk chocolate and coconut are just some of the flavors you’ll tease out, and nothing gets in the way of anything else. -Josh Ruffin
Style:Aged Brown Ale
“This is the best beer I’ve had in, like, forever.” Those are the actual words I spoke to my wife before giving her a sip of this beer straight from the can. She shrugged. Whatever. Let’s just take a look at what’s going on inside this can. Brown sugar and snow melt help make Upslope’s standard Brown Ale bitchin’ in its own right, but then the Boulder-based brewery sticks their Brown into used rye barrels from Leopold Brothers. The result is a rich treat full of caramel, oak and spice from the barrel with plenty of hop bite for balance. You get all of the hallmarks of a big barrel-aged sipper, but in a lighter, more user-friendly package. Barrel Aged Brown, or B.A.B.s, was Upslope’s first experimental beer in their new Lee Hill series, and it has set the bar really freaking high for the rest of that series. -Graham Averill