Best Breweries of 2016Drink Lists craft beer
We spend a lot of time obsessing over the next great thing in the beer world. New hops, new beers, new breweries. And while it can be fun to ogle the new hotness, it’s important to recognize and appreciate the breweries that have been around the block a few times but still manage to knock our socks off. The breweries on this list might not have that “new car smell” anymore, but they’re still killing it. And they impressed the hell out of us this year, maybe because they brought back some long-lost fan favorites or maybe because they created something entirely new and out of this world. For a variety of reasons, these are our favorite long-standing breweries of 2016, in no particular order.
Prison City Pub and Brewery
Auburn, New York
The first time I tasted something from Prison City, it was because a person I trusted while attending GABF told me that I needed to go out of my way to find their booth. And I’m glad that I did. That year, they walked away with a silver medal for their Belgian pale ale, Bleek Worden, but they were still very much flying under the collective radar of the festival. And heading into 2017, that has changed.
When you send an IPA in for a blind tasting, and it’s chosen as the overall #1 out of 247, as Prison City’s Mass Riot was in our August blind tasting of IPAs, there’s zero chance that’s not a great beer. We’re talking about a beer that first won its initial day of tasting, and then met up with the 24 of the other best IPA finalists in a second tasting, which it also won. That’s a pedigree, right there—undoubtedly worthy of the line of craft beer geeks that snaked down the street the next time Prison City released the beer after it took home the gold medal. And to think, this is a brewery in upstate New York, not in a city like Portland or San Diego that is regarded specifically as a major craft beer destination. As the company expands and they work on opening their first full-on production facility not located in a brewpub, we’re beside ourselves with excitement in theorizing what kinds of beers Prison City will produce when it has the extra tank space to get adventurous. Their future is very, very bright, and we can’t wait to taste it. —Jim Vorel
Fremont Brewing Co.
There are few breweries in the U.S. making barrel-aged beer we’re more excited to sample, in any given tasting, than the stuff from Seattle’s Fremont. As one of the largest craft breweries in Washington at this point, it’s all too probable that their offerings are probably somewhat taken for granted in their home state by some beer geeks eager to support smaller, local companies—which is understandable and natural. But this company deserves massive credit for its unbelievable consistency and overall quality level, which has become so apparent to us over the course of two years of blind style tastings at Paste. If there’s a Fremont entry in one of those tastings, it’s always solid. It may not necessarily be a world-beater, but it’s never anything less than “above average” … that’s their FLOOR, and it’s comparable to other breweries’ ceilings. In 2016 they surprised us with big performances in categories we didn’t necessarily expect, winning our blind tasting of harvest/wet-hop beers with Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale. They produced our #1 Christmas beer in 2015 with the massively rich, exquisitely aged Bourbon Abominable Winter Ale, which nearly just topped the list again: #4 out of 104 beers Christmas beers we blind-tasted for 2016. Every one of their wax-topped, barrel-aged strong ales and stouts are simply at a world-class level—I strongly believe that the exact same beers, if they came from a hyped nanobrewery, would probably be fetching hundreds of dollars in trades online. It’s so rare that a “regional brewery” can consistently produce beer on this level, but Fremont makes it look easy. —Jim Vorel
The Veil Brewing Co.
Richmond, Virgina’s The Veil is certainly one of the very best craft beer success stories of 2016. It’s truly remarkable how fast these guys rose to national prominence and fervent hype after getting their doors open. Better yet is the fact that the hype is justified in this case, because The Veil is making some outlandish, exceptional beer. Whether it’s wild ales or perfect examples of why NE-IPA is undoubtedly 2016’s beer substyle of the year, their 16 oz cans are inspiring some feverish hunting online. We got a good example of their abilities first-hand in the blind IPA tasting, when The Veil’s Master Master Shredder Shredder made the finals, ultimately finishing #14 out of 247 beers. The ascendancy of this brewery took Richmond, which was already a very good beer destination with the likes of Triple Crossing (also an IPA finalist this year) and Hardywood Park, and made it into one of the must-visit beer cities of the East Coast. They make many different IPAs, but you can feel certain that if it’s a hoppy beer style bearing The Veil’s logo, you’re in for a treat. —Jim Vorel
Burial Beer Co.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville’s Burial Beer Co. had a very big 2016, in terms of expanding their profile on a national scale. There’s little doubt that in beer geek circles they’re the “IT brewery” of Asheville, an ever-evolving community where competition is fierce and hype is fleeting. As their beer recently expanded in Georgia, we’ve been able to sample it more often than ever recently, and what really stands out with Burial ends up being the variety. Sure, they make a ridiculous number of IPAs (new ones every month, seemingly), but they’re also making an excellent variety of saisons, Belgian ales, porters and stouts. Most breweries might make one saison and call it a day—not Burial. The sheer variety gets a multiplier bonus for how many of those beers are far, far above average in terms of quality and execution. Every time I open another Burial IPA, I think “This probably won’t be as good as the last one,” and I’m almost always wrong. They’re getting to be one of those breweries where, if you see their tap handle at a bar, you just order that beer without asking what it is or looking up the style or description. And that’s not a plaudit I can give to many other breweries as a general rule. —Jim Vorel
Odd13 Brewing Co.
When discussing the “Napa Valley of Beer,” or the “Colorado Beer Triangle,” the big three cities—Denver, Boulder and Ft. Collins—tend to get most of the attention. But there are plenty of smaller, tucked away destinations removed from the “big city” lights deserving of recognition. One such unheralded stop not far off the route from Denver to Boulder is the town of Lafayette, home to Odd13 Brewing Co. Founded in 2013 by Kristin and Ryan Scott, the brewery specializes in beers with “character.” This translates to beers that are wildly creative and big on flavor with comic book inspired names and packaging. One such character (maybe superhero is more appropriate) that has been rapidly gaining notoriety is Codename: Superfan, a juicy 6.5% New England-style IPA brewed with Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo and Equinox hops. Codename: Superfan isn’t relegated to just one cape, however, and a double IPA (Superduperfan), double dry-hopped and triple IPA (Holidayfan) versions have been similarly sought-after. The OG Superfan, once hard to find, is now available in six-packs at liquor stores across the state. Other year-round offerings include Vincent Van Couch, an American session sour, and Hawaiian Bartender, a dry-hopped sour ale with mango and pineapple. Considering the semi off-the-beaten-path location, Odd13 incentivized making the trek with a series of canned taproom only releases and a tap-list that ranges from Brett fermented IPAs, Oktoberfests and saisons to coffee-infused oatmeal stouts and melon-enhanced quads. And, while not overtly advertised, the brewery uses White Labs Clarity Ferm, that has the side effect of reducing the gluten content of their beers. —Matt Sandy
Monkish Brewing Co.
During several quick work trips to LA over the years, I was often relegated to the downtown area and found it bereft of easily accessible breweries. So I was excited when a friend offered to chauffer me the quick drive (a “quick” car trip in LA being anything less than 45 minutes) down the 110 to the sleepy beach town of Torrance. I had the opportunity to visit Smog City, Strand Brewing Co. and, my personal favorite, Monkish Brewing Co. Founded in 2012 on a 15-barrel system, the brewery has since added foeders, a koelschip and a new canning line. Though their bread and butter has been Belgian-style beers—the brewery even had a tongue-in-cheek “NO IPA” sign up until recently—2016 saw Monkish turn to the hoppy side, producing Off the Record, a pale ale. Soon after, they collaborated with Other Half Brewing on an East Coast-style IPA named First Things First. The “IPA program” was extremely well received and you can now find double dry-hopped IPAs and double IPAs on tap next to stalwarts like Feminist (a tripel with hibiscus) and Shaolin First (dubbel with Sichuan peppercorns). Releases of the canned IPAs and mixed-fermentation bottles have become so popular that the website has a page outlining the procedure and hands out wristbands on certain occasions. Next time you’re in Tinseltown, say goodbye to Hollywood and head south to Torrance. —Matt Sandy
Grimm Artisanal Ales
Brooklyn, New York
No other brewer of hop-forward beer styles has a higher batting average in Paste blind tastings than Grimm … and honestly, it’s not even particularly close. When we blind-tasted 115 DIPAs in 2015, their offerings finished at #4 and #1. In 2016, with the 247 single IPAs, they sent in THREE beers for consideration. Those three finished at #s 26, 9 and 5. It’s as if they’re incapable of making an IPA that isn’t automatically in an elite category; you just assume that these beers are going to be awesome. To think that they’ve done it all while gypsy brewing at several different facilities is a little bit mind-boggling. It’s frightening to think that we’ve never even experienced the full range of what Grimm is all about, either—our knowledge of their sour offerings is fairly limited, and we haven’t had a chance to sample the imperial stout that first won them GABF gold, either. When they have a full facility of their own, and are truly brewing everything to exactly their own specifications, it’s hard to imagine that Grimm Artisanal Ales will be anything other than one of the best breweries in the world. —Jim Vorel
Cellarmaker Brewing Co.
San Francisco, California
“I’m so glad my flight was delayed,” said no one ever except the one person who was subsequently able to use that time to visit Cellarmaker Brewing Co. in San Francisco. Known for their unconventional approach to commercial brewing that eschews flagships in favor of hundreds of experimental, small-batch offerings, Cellarmaker has 300 beers catalogued on Untapped in just over three years of operation (though don’t bypass the original or imperial versions of the stellar Coffee & Cigarettes smoked porter, which is often on the menu). The names—Dank Williams, Are You Afraid Of The Dank? and Rodney Dankerfield—are indicative of the type of hop-driven, high IBU American pale ales, IPAs and DIPAs you can expect to find on tap. The Cellarmaker test kitchen continued its hops and yeast machinations in 2016 developing even more juicy and aromatic brews including the excellent Funk Juice, hopped with Australian and New Zealand varietals, a third batch of Wicked Juicy, unfiltered and fermented with English ale yeast, and African Skies, loaded with Southern Passion and experimental XJA436 hops from South Africa. -Matt Sandy
Voodoo Brewing Company
In 2016, Voodoo reminded us of why they became a cult-like favorite brewery for craft beer drinkers years ago. The year began with the return of Grande Negro Voodoo Papi (GNVP), a spiced stout aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, which we hadn’t seen since 2013 when it was aged in Apple Brandy barrels. As a second act, Voodoo released a number of barrel room collection beers, including the highly anticipated ManBearPig and a new Black Magick aged in Rye Whiskey barrels. Like GNVP, it’s been three years since Voodoo released Black Magick. The barrel releases didn’t end there, as a second batch of GNVP was released later this year, which spent additional time aging in Buffalo Trace barrels. This summer, Voodoo switched their focus to their hoppy offerings, adding both a canning line and crowler machine, to release local favorites like Big Secret Pizza Party (homage to Wet Hot America Summer) and Unrefined, a new hazy hoppy series which features new hops for each batch. With hints at future barrel aged releases such as K13 coming down the line, it looks like Voodoo will continue to please beer lovers for years to come. —Jason Stein
Appalachian Mountain Brewery
Boone, North Carolina
I like a lot of things that Appalachian Mountain Brewery does. I like the fact that they give a bunch of money to various environmental and social causes around the mountains of North Carolina. I like the fact that they help out the local mountain bike club and local skiers. I like the fact that they put their beers in big boy cans, and that they named one of their beers after Daniel Boone (why don’t more breweries name beers after Daniel Boone?). But mostly, I like their beer, which is always consistent and a head above their competition, no matter what style they’re producing. Their blonde is crisp and refreshing, their porter is well rounded with just the right amount of roast…but their IPAs are outstanding. Long Leaf, their flagship, has become my go-to IPA thanks to its malt-forward body and old school resinous hop finish. And their new double IPA, Daniel’s Double, is an out of this world juice bomb coming in at a heavy 9% ABV. It might just be my favorite double IPA right now. And about all that philanthropy—Appalachian has contributed almost $100,000 in the last three years to local charities. Not bad for a small brewery tucked away in the mountains of North Cackalacky. —Graham Averill
Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
St. Louis, Missouri
Many of the same superlatives we just lauded on Fremont Brewing Co. can also be applied to St. Louis’ Urban Chestnut, albeit with a twist to the beer styles. Paste co-founder and current Wild Heaven Beer owner Nick Purdy puts it best: “Urban Chestnut brews the best German beer styles in the U.S.A.” There are certainly some other great brewers of authentic German styles such as hefeweizen, zwickelbier and märzen in this country, but Urban Chestnut’s performances in blind tastings speak for themselves. If it’s any kind of really old-school German style, we simply expect this brewery to excel, if not win the blind tasting outright. That kind of consistency, once again, is a rare thing, and it’s also the kind of virtue that gets overlooked and undervalued by beer geeks. Urban Chestnut is certainly extremely successful in St. Louis—enough so to build a second brewery only a couple of years after opening, and then open another, experimental brewery across the street—but their success from our vantage sometimes looks more populist than “critical acclaim.” Part of that is of course because of the beer styles in question—far fewer beer writers are interested in writing lots of copy on a perfectly executed hefeweizen, like UC’s Schnickelfritz, than the latest and greatest in IPA, barrel-aged beer and American sours. But greatness this satisfying and this consistent demands recognition. There’s no brewery I’d trust more in making the next unfiltered lager I consume. —Jim Vorel