If you’re alive right now, you should give yourself a pat on the back. A hardy congratulations just for being able to participate in this special era. Sure, it might look like we’re living through “the end of times,” what with the sexual predators being elected to office and an impending nuclear war brought on by Twitter trolling, but look at the bright side: the beer has never been better. Not only is craft beer ubiquitous (seems like every back alley in this country is sporting its own brewpub), but it’s better than ever, with styles that continue to evolve and breweries that continue to push the envelope. Did you know that you can get an IPA that tastes like a strawberry milkshake?! The future is now! Political landscape be damned, we say it’s an exciting time to be alive. Want proof? Check out this list of the 10 best breweries in America. There are all kinds of feel good stories in here, from tiny brewpubs outscoring the big boys in global competitions to breweries that are single handedly redefining popular styles. And did we mention milkshake IPAs?! Here are the 10 Best Breweries of 2017.
They say that the cream rises to the top, and no more assuredly does that happen than in a giant Paste blind tasting. Yes, it’s always impressive to walk away from one of our large-scale blind tastings with an accolade like “best gose” or “best hefeweizen,” but in the end, we know which styles butter the bread of this industry. Case in point: Our September tasting of DIPAs/Imperial IPAs was our second largest blind tasting ever, with a whopping 176 entries. And no other brewery could outperform Braddock, PA’s Brew Gentlemen, formerly known as The Brew Gentlemen. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t really a surprise to us, because we’ve been lucky enough to sample Brew Gentlemen’s hop-forward lineup before, and we know just how good they are. Suffice to say, this small Pennsylvania brewery is putting out some of the best hazy IPAs in the world right now; beers that can absolutely go toe-to-toe (and exceed) similar entries from the likes of Tree House or Trillium in a blind tasting setting. But that’s not all, because Brew Gentlemen ALSO is producing some pretty impressive farmhouse beers—look no further than their “Mise en Rose” series of barrel-aged saisons. Ultimately, one gets the sense that comparing them to Tree House or Trillium is selling Brew Gentlemen short—the more appropriate comparison might actually be the likes of Hill Farmstead. Albeit, with a truly absurd number of different DIPAs. But either way, this is one of the most exciting breweries in the U.S. right now.
Brew Gentlemen may have placed #1 in our 176 DIPA blind tasting in September, but no brewery made such a loud, undeniable statement as Richmond, VA’s Triple Crossing when their two entries BOTH scored in the top 5. That’s the kind of absurd achievement that almost never happens in these competitions, but it speaks to just how confidently and flawlessly Triple Crossing has approached the modern IPA. Their output in this field is nigh unparalleled. What’s ironic is that although Richmond has become a craft beer hotspot in the last couple of years thanks to other breweries such as The Answer and especially The Veil, many of the beer tourists coming to town still seem to be overlooking Triple Crossing, which is an absolutely criminal omission to make. You could look up and down the coast without finding another DIPA as impossibly smooth, luxurious and juicy as Triple Crossing’s Interstellar Burst in particular. All in all, they still remain a brewery we haven’t sampled all that often, but we’re hoping to see many more Triple Crossing representatives in the 2018 blind tasting schedule.
Two Roads is the largest craft brewery in Connecticut, and that certainly must play into why they simply don’t seem to receive the respect they deserve as makers of world-class beers. This is an unpleasant reality of the craft beer hype cycle—get big enough, or successful enough, and it’s that much harder to generate beers that really get people excited. But man, you should be getting excited about some of these Two Roads brews. Few breweries have been as consistent in Paste blind tastings in the last two years. Allow me to simply note some of the places they’ve finished: 2 out of 67 in stouts under 8%; 4 out of 64 in goses, 26 and 28 out of 143 in sour/wild ales and 5 out of 63 in pumpkin beer, just for starters. Those last four beers listed have something else in common, all having come from this brewery’s profoundly underrated sour/wild program. Entries in Two Roads’ “Tanker Truck Series” of fruited sours in particular are a wonderful midpoint between complexity and accessibility to drinkers beginning their exploration of beer’s sour side. It’s a brewery that tends to present us with entries that are simply friendly, free from flaws and extremely easy to enjoy, and we have huge respect for that kind of consistency.
WeldWerks is a brewery that has come a long way since the first time I tasted them at the Great American Beer Festival in 2015. Back then, I was just swinging by the booth of a relatively unknown brewery because they had a medal on display, an accolade they’d won for a fairly classical hefeweizen. There was nothing to suggest that within the space of a few years, they’d be one of the most popular booths at the same festival, but that’s where we find ourselves today. WeldWerks has managed to claim “hot young thing” status over the last few years in a market that is particularly saturated with young breweries striving for exactly that same type of hype, the result being that very few are able to achieve it. They’ve done it by being Front Range pioneers of the NE-IPA, and a major driving force behind bringing the hype of hazy, juice-bomb IPAs to Colorado in earnest. Their Juicy Bits IPA was a top 10 entrant in our blind tasting of 247 single IPAs, while the imperial version did similarly well in our DIPA tasting. And that’s not even getting into the family tree of huge imperial stouts that WeldWerks seems to have on hand at any given time, such as the Medianoche that had GABF attendees up in arms this year. WeldWerks is a profoundly American craft brewery, specializing in the styles that tend to get beer geeks most excited.
Athens, Ohio’s Jackie O’s is a brewery that can do it all. They make beer so incredible that if it was repackaged in discarded bottles from the likes of Hill Farmstead, Side Project or Jester King, nobody would think twice or feel shortchanged. They’re the true definition of an underrated but world-class brewery, even in their native Ohio. Their year-round selections such as Mystic Mama IPA are undeniably solid, but it’s the barrel-aging and wild program where these guys truly excel, and that skill has shown through repeatedly in our blind tastings. No one would have predicted that Jackie O’s would walk out of the blind tasting of 144 barrel-aged imperial stouts holding the #2 position (for a beer called Spirit Beast), but that’s what happened. A few months later it happened again, as Jackie O’s Pockets of Sunlight was our #3 saison out of 116 beers. There are few breweries we’re more excited to see a new entry from in any given blind tasting than these guys, and we’ve yet to have a barrel-aged beer from them that wasn’t impressive.
If I had to pick a single brewery whose entries into any given blind tasting are likely to end up in the top 10%, then Perennial would be one of the first candidates I would consider. They have earned that kind of just baseline esteem from us over the years with impressive showing after impressive showing in a great variety of blind tastings, but never does this brewery seem content to rest on its laurels. They’re always experimenting with some kind of new wild ale/saison release, and each one is more delightful than the last, whether they’re expressions of brettanomyces or hops, or mixed culture beers. Their Abraxas imperial stout is of course a yearly pleasure that is well known to beer geeks and traders, but they also produce a bevy or other imperial stouts that are arguably even better, from the Sump imperial coffee stout (#4 out of 102 in our tasting) to the bourbon barrel-aged Maman. There are probably some traders out there who think of Perennial as simply “that brewery that gave birth to Side Project,” but their output continues to rival even that of their much-celebrated progeny, while doing it across a significantly wider array of beer styles.
Societe is a brewery that has not yet placed at #1 in a Paste blind tasting … but it’s also a brewery where it feels like it’s probably only a matter of time. They’re just a consistently impressive San Diego outfit, whether they’re turning out clean, crisp IPAs or lovely barrel-aged wild ales. Every year at GABF, they always seem to bring something that captures my attention in a way that is unique—this year it was their hop-forward stout The Volcanist, which seems to be on a mission to revive one of the industry’s most neglected beer styles, the “American-style stout.” They just do everything well, from pilsner to imperial stout, and all of those beers tend to have one thing in common—they are pristine and immaculate in terms of their execution. Clean, crisp beer is the trademark we’ve come to associate with Societe, and it’s part of the reason why their entries seem to score well in every blind tasting they enter. They make a pilsner that is a great example of west coast pils, and a session IPA that is a great argument in favor of why we should bother making and drinking session IPA. All that, and they’ve got some of the best-looking labels, iconography and growlers in the game today. Societe is a very complete package.
Like just about everybody reading this right now, John Wakefield was a beer fan who really started to geek out after he got a Mr. Beer homebrew kit. The similarities between Wakefield and the rest of us stop there, as Wakefield went to win a bunch of homebrew competitions and land a coveted internship at Cigar City. Eventually, he used his cult-like status in Florida’s robust beer scene to open his own brewery via a crowd-funding campaign. J. Wakefield, which opened its doors in 2015, slays a wide variety of styles (their imperial stout is one to look for) but the brewery has a specific talent for the Berliner Weiss, putting their own spin on the low-ABV German style by adding a bushel of fruit to the mix for an element of sweetness to an otherwise tart beer. It’s a style that’s become known as a Florida Weisse, and Wakefield is the current king of the niche. He brews a handful of fruity variations, including one that tastes like a sports drink, and another that tastes like a margarita. His Miami Madness hits the fruit hard with mango, guava and passion fruit, but his Dragon Fruit Passion Fruit Berliner is considered one of the best examples of the Berliner Weisse style. Period. J. Wakefield has managed to breathe new life into this very old beer style, giving it a sense of terroir in the process. If you’ve grown tired of “Florida man” headlines (Florida man shoots bullets into hurricane…) here’s a new one for you: Florida man…makes great beer.
It’s tough for a small brewpub to make a list like this that takes a broad look at the national scene and picks favorites; it’s a matter of size and scope. Needle in the haystack kind of stuff. But sometimes, a small shop with a tiny distribution footprint does such a great job that their mastery is simply undeniable. And that’s the case with Austin Beer Garden Brewing (ABGB) which has firmly established itself as the king of the pilsner. Their Rocket 100 (a pre-prohibition style pilsner that incorporates corn) has more hardware than Mr. T in the ‘80s. It won gold at GABF in 2015 and 2017 and bridged those awards with a bronze at the World Beer Cup in 2016. The brewery bagged another gold this year for Velvet Revolution in the Bohemian-style pilsner category, and oh wait, they also won gold at GABF 2016 for their Industry Pilsner, and a bronze in the Bavarian-style lager for Hell Yes Helles. Essentially, for the last two years, ABGB has owned the pilsner style. It’s a crazy pedigree considering the size of ABGB and the stiff competition in the pilsner categories, and it’s why they’ve earned Best Small Brewpub honors at GABF for two years running. We’ve been enamored with their stuff for a while now (we had the chance to talk to ABGB in depth earlier this year) and think it’s about time the whole country put the small brewpub’s beers on their “must drink” bucket list. Just be prepared for a road trip. Aside from crowlers, ABGB doesn’t can or bottle so you’ll have to visit the brewery in person.
Just when you think the IPA has reached transcendent levels with the hazy, fruity Northeastern take on the style, and that it can’t possibly evolve any further, someone goes and takes it up to another level creating a mind-blowingly new and innovative take on the style. That “someone” is Tired Hands. That innovative new take is the “Milkshake IPA.” Take your hazy, tropical-forward IPA and add lactose sugar, oats and different kinds of fruit and you get a beer that looks a bit milky and packs a hell of a sweet punch. Tired Hands has an entire series of Milkshake IPAs, each featuring a different fruit. Blueberry Pancake Milkshake IPA, Coconut Double Milkshake IPA, Strawberry Milkshake IPA…The beers are thick and decadent, and yet still very recognizable as IPAs. Tired Hands isn’t the first brewery to use lactose sugar in a beer, and they’re not the first to call a beer a “milkshake.” But the Pennsylvania brewery has certainly perfected the style, taking it to new heights. The milkshake IPA is arguably the most exciting thing happening in the world of IPAs right now, and as such, other breweries are getting in on the fun, releasing their own versions of the milkshake IPA. We say bring them on. Sing it with us, “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard…”