We drank a lot of beer at Paste in 2015. The staff orchestrated 12 massive blind tastings in Paste HQ to determine the best beer in a multitude of style categories, from saison to barrel-aged imperial stout. There were 116 different beers in the American IPA tasting alone. If you add up all the beers from all the tastings this year, we scientifically knocked back 634 beers in pursuit of the best within each category. And an amazing thing happens when you taste these beers blind; you take the brewery and the beer’s reputation out of the formula altogether, so that all there is left to judge is the beer itself. The results from some tastings were downright shocking, with newcomers besting fields of heavy weights, while other results reaffirmed our love for certain style benchmark brews. One thing’s for certain—it was a fun process.
So let’s recap the winners from the year’s 12 different blind tastings in one handy article. Track all of these beers down for what might be the best variety pack ever. —Graham Averill
City: Seattle, WA
Style: American strong ale
The verdict: With a giant, malty, barrel-aged beer, every brewery is essentially trying to fulfill two simultaneous goals. The issue is that those goals—to both create massive flavors and make those flavors approachable and enjoyable—are somewhat in conflict with one another by nature. You know this, as drinkers. You’ve choked down whiskey barrel-aged beers that taste like licking the sour, charred oak on the inside of the barrel, and on the opposite end, “barrel-aged” beer that simply use the gimmick in name without really contributing the heart and soul of the barrel. Finding the balance is everything. It’s the measuring stick by which we judge barrel-aged beer.
Fremont’s Bourbon Abominable Winter Ale, hereafter referred to simply as B-Bomb, in the brewery’s own parlance, is some exceptional barrel-aged beer. It’s hard to say exactly what the base beer is—unlike so many other high-ABV entries on the list it’s not a quad, a Belgian dark strong or an imperial stout. It doesn’t have the hops to be American barleywine. It’s just a huge, malty American strong ale, and not one that falls back on a bunch of holiday spices to prop it up.
The flavors are monolithic in scope. It explodes with dried and fresh fruit flavors, port wine and whiskey booziness and the dark, rich sweetness of sticky molasses, which fades to brandied fruitcake over a finish that literally lasts for minutes. But what kept us coming back over and over was how smooth, how perfectly without rough spots this flavor bomb is. We can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones than by cracking a B-Bomb.
Brewery: Maine Beer Co.
City: Freeport, ME
The verdict: The dominance of Maine Beer Co. in these blind tastings is officially starting to get spooky. We really had no idea what to expect from this particular beer, especially because we’ve never tasted anything from MBC that isn’t hop-forward. They were juggernauts in the 116 IPA blind tasting, but that didn’t give us any indication of what we should be expecting from the same brewery when the beer in question is an oatmeal stout aged on vanilla beans. Could they really be as good at making this style of beer as they are at making hoppy beer?
Long story short: Yes, they’re really that good, although it’s a victory of subtleties rather than some of the flavor bombs also near the top of these rankings. Where the Tree House, Schlafly or Ninkasi beers all bring huge, in-your-face flavors to the table, Maine’s offering is all about balance and the clean presentation of complex flavors. There’s coffee; there’s dark chocolate; there’s a certain nuttiness; there’s a bit of smoke; there’s a perfectly balanced hit of American hops. The vanilla is there as well, but it simply contributes a subtle sweetness that pairs beautifully with the silky texture derived from flaked oats. It feels like a stout that exists between some of the other styles—partially oatmeal stout, partially “American stout,” with vanilla bean as the x-factor. There’s no denying that it’s just a damn good stout.
See the full stout tasting here.
Brewery: Whole Hog
City: Stevens Point, WI
The verdict: In the end, we should admit something: Pumpkin beers are about spices. That’s why we drink them, and ultimately that’s how we judge them. And among these 45 beers, the single best, most authentic, and just plain satisfying bouquet of spices in the nose came from Stevens Point, WI in the form of Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale.
It’s simply heavenly-smelling beer, with a blast of fresh spices that feel authentic, like you just ground them yourself in your mortar and pestle—nutmeg, allspice, and especially cinnamon, which has none of the harshness or astringency you sometimes find in that spice. Rather, it’s sweet, fragrant cinnamon—it’s what every cinnamon-scented product ever made is trying to capture, but it never comes off this well.
On the palate, the beer is sweet-forward but stops before it becomes cloying—tasting it blind, some of us originally thought this might be the Schlafly. I’ve tried to limit the number of times in this ranking that I’ve said something actually tastes like “pumpkin pie,” because I’ve been saving that descriptor for this moment—the best words for this beer truly are “pumpkin pie.” Real pumpkin pie, from the graham crackery malt to the warming cinnamon, to the Werthers Original-like caramel to yes—even pumpkin itself. It’s decadent, and it feels like a guilty pleasure; not “artful,” perhaps, but extremely satisfying. It’s seriously impressive beer, and all the more impressive that it came out of the fifth oldest privately owned brewery in the country. Damn good stuff. This is what we’ll drink while passing out Halloween candy this year.
See the full pumpkin ale tasting results here.
City: Oberpfalz, Germany
The verdict: This is hardly the beer we expected to be the winner of the blind tasting while picking it off the shelf, but it was the one we were most curious to have revealed after tasting the 16 entries. In a word, it tastes like beer. Glorious, clean, gluten-rich beer. Made in Germany, using the “crafted to remove gluten” techniques, it’s clearly an all-malt brew and just a damn fine German-style lager—we’d say it’s similar to a helles or a kellerbier, if you’re looking for a comparison. Cloudy and yeasty, it’s exceedingly clean in its flavors, and also expressive, with lots of breadiness and very light toasted malt. It honestly reminds us of a great German lager in the style that might be brewed by American craft brewers such as Urban Chestnut in St. Louis, Capital in Middleton, WI or Denver’s Prost Brewing.
Most importantly, though, there’s absolutely no way anyone would taste this beer and come to the conclusion that it was gluten-free or gluten-removed. It’s a complete beer, and we’re all the more impressed that it comes from a style where there was no room for failure. You can’t hide anything going wrong in a helles/kellerbier-style German lager. There’s no big hop rate or fruitiness or booze to bolster it. You have to nail it, and Lammsbräu manages to do that. In the future, when our gluten-free friends ask for a recommendation on beer, we’re going to be asking them if they’ve tried Lammsbräu.
See the full gluten free beer tasting results here.
Brewery: Grimm Artisanal Ales
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Here we are—the road of 115 double IPAs led us to this point, and to this revelation: Grimm Artisanal Ales has emerged as the clear “Maine Beer Co.” of this tasting. A brewery that none of us in the room had ever even tasted before produced the #1 and #4 beers in a 115-beer field. That’s absurd. And that doesn’t happen by chance, not in a million years.
Lambo Door, like the earlier Tesseract, is a pretty unabashed hop-bomb, but one that revels in juicy hop deliciousness rather than any sort of intensive bitterness. Its aroma leaps from the bottle when you crack the top like some kind of hop genie desperate to be free. Searching through the score sheets, it’s interesting to see the variety of different fruity hop descriptors people throw at it. “Citrus,” obviously. “Tropical,” certainly. But then it gets more eclectic and specific. Pineapple. Melon. “Red berries.” “White peach.” Everyone finds themselves tasting something different in Lambo Door, and everyone independently agrees that whatever they’re tasting is absolutely delicious.
Grimm Artisanal Ales is currently releasing its beers in the most limited means imaginable, which honestly disappoints us to no end. We want more of this beer, and more of Tesseract. We want an unlimited supply. As is, Grimm is nomadically brewing beers like this once, with no guarantee they’ll ever exist again. And if that’s what comes to pass, it would be a crime. Because this is one of the most purely delicious hoppy beers we’ve ever come across, and far more people will need to experience it before it gets anything close to the acclaim it deserves.
See the full double IPA tasting results here.
Brewery: Wicked Weed
City: Asheville, NC
Key ingredient: A ludicrous amount of apricot
The verdict: To close your eyes and take a sip of Wicked Weed’s Golden Angel, you would think you were biting into the juiciest apricot known to man. Not some apricot that exists in 2015, mind you, culled from the fields of some mundane farm—more like an apricot plucked from the Garden of Eden, so juicy that it might as well be dripping down your chin. And that makes sense when you read that a full 2.5 pounds of fruit are used in this beer per gallon, which would almost seem excessively decadent if it weren’t so delicious. That works out to like, 3 or 4 apricots per 500ml bottle, by the way. The fruit character is absurdly fresh—the beer even LOOKS like liquified apricot.
But underneath the fruit, there’s also a wonderfully well-developed sour beer. Tartness is medium-high and exquisitely integrated—it’s very difficult to say exactly where lactic sourness ends and the fruity acid begins. Funk and oak can be found if you’re really searching on the back end, but what it will really leave you pondering is the juicy flavor of stone fruit, both apricot and peach. Residual sweetness is right where it needs to be—Golden Angel isn’t bone dry; it presents its fruit flavors in the truest way possible. In the course of this tasting, we didn’t taste anything else that put forth a more perfect synthesis of sour beer and fruit. That’s why Wicked Weed is walking away with the crown—between the Golden Angel and Recurrant, they staked a serious claim as one of, if not the best sour brewery in the country.
See the full American sour tasting here.
Brewery: Bear Republic
City: Healdsburg, CA
Key ingredient: A metric ton of lactobacillus
The verdict: One whiff of Tartare is far and away enough to know that you are in for a face-puckering ride—the lactic acid is strong with this one, and it’s easily the most sour beer we had in this entire lineup. Regardless, it’s also an absolutely brilliant beer by any other system of measurement. There’s a blast of all kinds of crisp fruit flavors—green apple, white grape, and an almost salty characteristic that sticks to the lips, although this isn’t a gose. It’s chased by big lemon notes, as your taste buds dance (and possibly beg for mercy, depending on your tolerance for tartness) from overstimulation. If “bright” is ever an appropriate descriptor, this is certainly one of those times, because Bear Republic’s offering tastes like a metaphor for its brilliantly straw-gold, clear complexion—crisp, perfectly clean and vinegar sour. Assuming you have the fortitude to deal with the tart, it’s a summer experience you should go out of your way to seek out.
See the full Berliner Weisse list here.
Brewery: Side Project Brewing
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: Wheat and Chardonnay barrels
The verdict: When this blind tasting started, not a single judge in the room had ever sampled a beer from Side Project Brewing. A few of us had heard of the small, St. Louis nano-brewing project that operates out of the likewise respected Perennial Artisan Ales—the company is literally the “side gig” of Perennial head brewer Cory King. One could call it indicative of the increasing compartmentalization and specialization happening within craft brewing, where even guys with professional brewing jobs want to run separate companies with a laser tight focus on one facet of brewing—in this case, barrel-aged beer and sours. In that sense, Side Project is all about mastery of a chosen art form, and after tasting their two entries, we can’t dispute that their mastery is just about total.
Saison Du Blé is the smaller and slightly more traditional of the two farmhouse ales that Side Project submitted for the tasting, with a portion of wheat in the grist and a bit less sheer tartness than the Saison Du Fermier. There’s certainly no shortage of flavor, however, with a panoply of fruit notes that practically defy description—sour apple, grape juice, pineapple, grapefruit and more, all singing in concert. The tartness enhances fruit flavors but isn’t what one would call “sharp”—rather, it’s velvety smooth and supple, allowing you to get lost in the complexities of flavors.
If there’s anything that makes giving them the #1 spot slightly more difficult, it’s the fact that each batch of Saison Du Ble or Fermier is so individual and small, receiving constant tweaks, that if we ever get to sample it again, it may very well be a noticeably different beer. The flip side of this coin is that even if it is different, it will more than likely still be amazing—perhaps in an entirely new fashion. After tasting what we’ve tasted, we’re inclined to give Side Project the benefit of the doubt.
See the full saison tasting here.
City: Portland, ME
Key ingredient: Traditional Belgian wit yeast
The verdict: I hesitate to say that we took Allagash White for granted, but we totally took Allagash White for granted. It’s a beer we’ve had so many times, and for so many years, that no one looked at the assembled lineup, pointed at it, and said “Oh, that’s going to win for sure.” We thought we had an idea of what Allagash White tasted like by this point. And we were wrong.
This truly is exceptional beer, and it now makes all that much more sense why it’s the preeminent American standard-bearer for the Belgian witbier style. It’s just that good. Drinking it, we were blown away by how unique its aromatics were, even compared to the rest of the witbiers in the field—intensely spicy, with a distinct, peppercorn tingle that was unmistakable. Against all odds, it smells totally unique from anything else on the table.
The flavors, meanwhile, are in perfect balance—there’s a bit of that dry, citrus quality from the curacao orange peel, the aforementioned spice and some doughy, yeasty wheat malt. It’s still the quintessential American wit—a masterpiece. And it’s also our top American wheat.
See the full American wheat beer list here.
Brewery Brew Kettle
City: Strongsville, OH
The verdict: A few weeks before we started tasting IPAs for this challenge, my father texted me from the Cleveland area, saying he was eating dinner at a place called The Brew Kettle while on a business trip. An affirmed hop head, he was drinking their White Rajah IPA, so I looked it up. Seeing its critical praises, I added it to our list of beers to acquire, thinking that perhaps it would be a dark horse candidate.
Fast forward to the day it first appeared in a preliminary heat, and we were utterly blown away. The aromatics on this beer are otherworldly—it is extremely hop-forward, with an intensely resinous, “green” blast of fresh, sticky pine needles, followed up by huge citrus. Malt? This IPA don’t need no stinking malt! It’s close to bone dry—what sweetness is present is almost hop-derived by its intense citrusy qualities. The flavors (and bitterness) are just huge and almost overwhelmingly assertive, but we were drawn in over and over for more. Here’s the note from the one professional brewmaster present at the tastings: “Just perfect.”
We’ve praised a whole lot of balanced beers in the course of making this list, but in the end, when you drink an American IPA, on some level you’re looking to assault your palate with with the best in American hops. That’s what White Rajah represents. It’s an absolutely incredible beer, and although its critical ratings are through the roof, we are amazed that we don’t see its name mentioned more often in lists of the greatest American IPAs. Disagree with us? Conduct your own blind tasting, include White Rajah, and see what happens. It’s the champion of our 116 IPA tasting. Congratulations, Brew Kettle.
See the full American IPA results here.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: A large percentage of chocolate malt
Perfect for: A big slice of birthday cake
The verdict: There were a lot of porters on this table in the same ABV range as Founders Porter, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any of them with such a depth, volume and complexity of flavor. As one taster wrote, “So much flavor for 6.5.” It’s a classic, style-defining take on American robust porter that bombards the taste buds with extremely rich dark chocolate, coffee and a touch of smoke, backed up by lightly floral hops. Drinking it side by side with some of the other ones on the table and comparing it, this beer’s virtues become only more apparent. It’s still one of the best commercial porters that anyone has ever made.
See the full porters list here.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: IT’S BOURBON, DAMNIT, ALRIGHT?
Perfect for: Inspiring a heist to swipe the world KBS supply and hold it for ransom
The verdict: Looking at the lineup, we knew KBS was an early favorite, but thought there might be quite a few that could potentially beat it—this was not the case, after tasting. The volume of flavor is tremendous, but it’s the surprising balance that keeps you coming back. It features hugely caramelized, vanilla bourbon flavors but its most impressive achievement is that the beer underneath manages to be just as memorable and assertive, jam-packed with mouth-watering dark chocolate goodness. Every single taster used the word “balanced” somewhere in their notes, which isn’t really what we expected from something that tastes like the beer equivalent of bourbon chocolate ice cream. But tasting the KBS next to all these other superlative beers, it becomes all the more obvious that the hype is real.
People follow beer trucks to get this stuff for a reason.
See the full barrel-aged imperial stout list here.
Brewery: Good People
City: Birmingham, AL
Key ingredient: More malt than is fit for human consumption
Perfect for: Running your lawnmower if the gas can is empty.
The verdict: Not a single one of us had ever had this beer before, and it’s safe to say it came out of left field and blew us all away. Truth be told, it wasn’t even close. This beer is massive. It’s beyond massive. The flavors are so intense that we immediately thought we’d made a mistake and accidentally included a barrel-aged beer. We seriously called up the brewery the next day just to make sure. The booze hits like a freight train pulling cars filled to the brum with dark fruit, raisin, sherry and even a teensy bit of drying roast. Ultimately, though, El Gordo is extremely rich, beguiling and devastating. Of the 37 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts we were able to get our hands on, it’s the clear winner.
See the full non-barrel-aged imperial stout results here.