Published August 24, 2012
The craft beer resurgence of the 1990s greatly expanded our beer palates and created a thirst for quality suds packed full of flavor and character. While the definition of craft beer originally referred to the limited number of barrels being produced by new and innovative breweries that eschewed the adjunct-laden brews of the macro big boys, the growth of craft brewing pioneers such as Anchor, Gordon Biersch and Sierra Nevada has necessitated a tweak to the craft beer designation. Today's nomenclature refers to any well-made, interesting beer sporting ample flavor and quality ingredients without overuse of adjuncts such as rice and corn. While it's a daunting task to select ten bright stars of the modern craft beer stage, thanks to the tremendous growth of this industry, it's easy to find an abundance of contenders. Click here for complete reviews and photos of all Top 10 Craft Beers
Bourbon Barrel Aged Tripel
Allagash Brewing Company/Portland, Maine
Price: $18 for 750 ml
11 per cent ABV
Allagash Brewing, out of Portland, Maine, is becoming sought out for its Belgian-style creations. Founder Rob Tod originally crafted this barrel-aged tripel by accident. In 2004, when he needed a home for 150 gallons of his tripel that was ready to be bottled, and his bottle shipment was delayed, he was "curious" as to what would happen if he stored it in some Jim Beam bourbon barrels he had recently acquired. The result was a happy accident that has been repeated every year since. Aged for two to three months in bourbon barrels that are stored in the brewery's cold cellars, Allagash Curieux boasts a soft vanilla character, imparted by the oak, with a hint of bourbon added to the flavor. Also evident are some roasted charcoal and coconut notes, and the alcohol presence is masked by a malt-rich body. This dark golden, Belgian-style ale is bottle-conditioned and packaged in a 750 ml bottle with cork and cage. Like many other American craft breweries, Allagash is minimizing its carbon footprint by obtaining 100 per cent of its energy from wind power.
Gordon Biersch IPB-Imperial Pilsner Brau
Gordon Biersch Brewing Company/San Jose, California
Price: $9 for 750 ml
6.5 per cent ABV
The pilsner style is the most popular beer style in the world, but most macro breweries only imitate the style and leave out its most important aspects, the use of Noble hops and an assertive hop character. Gordon Biersch's co-founder Dan Gordon studied brewing engineering at the Technical University of Munich, Weihenstephan, which provided him with the needed expertise to craft German beer styles. His brewery's take on the pilsner style stays true to his authentic, traditional German training and honors the Noble hops by infusing all four — Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt and Saaz — to create an intensely hopped, robust pilsner that is naturally carbonated and unfiltered. At 50 IBUs, this beer has double the hops of GB's standard pilsner, and it's the brewery's first to be packaged in a 750 ml bottle with a traditional German swing-top enclosure. This hop-forward lager will appeal to IPA fans, but is smooth enough to please any beer-loving palate. Gordon Biersch also makes one of our Top 10 Spring Beers
Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere
Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales/Dexter, Michigan
Price: $12 for 25 oz
4.5 per cent ABV
This Belgian-style, artisan Michigan brewery has distinguished itself for its dedication to traditions of old-world craftsmanship — oak aging, bottle conditioning, open fermentation and use of wild yeast, just like they do in Belgium. The brewery's use of oak barrels to age its beers results in naturally occurring microbiological cultures including brettanomyces, which give this beer its earthy farmhouse funk. This golden-hued, naturally cloudy farmhouse ale/saison begins with notes of citrus peels and a fruity aroma that gives way to a slightly sour tartness balanced with spicy malt and a pleasant hop citrus tang. The name and label honor Bam, the brewery's Jack Russell, who survived getting "bammed" by a car. Unlike most Belgian beers, it has a relatively low (4.5 per cent) ABV, which means that you can safely drink one without risking getting run over.
Old Foghorn Ale
Anchor Brewing Company/San Francisco, California
Price: $15 for a six-pack of 12 oz
8.2 per cent ABV
Brewed since 1975, a decade before the craft beer movement was even in its infancy, Old Foghorn barleywine was the first of its kind in modern times to be produced in the U.S. The barleywine style contains no wine, but is so named because the alcohol strength approaches that of wine. Old Foghorn uses three times the malt of most beer styles and attains a balance of malty sweetness and fruitiness. Brewed based on traditional English barleywine methods, it is dry-hopped, naturally carbonated and cellar-aged. It pours a ruby red and is Americanized through its use of a heavy dose of American-grown Cascade hops, which add a citrus element not found in English versions of the style. Its low carbonation, thick texture and warm finish make it ideal for sipping after dinner.
Belgian Pale Ale
Brasserie d'Orval/Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval, Belgium
Price: $5 for 11.2 oz
6.9 per cent ABV
Monks have occupied the site of Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval since 1070 and continue to brew there; it's one of only seven Trappist monasteries in the world which still brew beer today. First produced in 1931, this iconic ale with complex and distinct flavors is produced with three different malts, two types of hops, Belgian candi sugar and multiple semi-wild yeast strains. The yeast contains brettanomyces, which adds to its unique flavor and slightly sour finish. Sunset-orange in color and slightly cloudy, it pours a large, foamy head and offers up a fruity and somewhat acidic bouquet. Unlike most Belgian beers, Orval is dry-hopped and packs a good amount of hop flavor and bitterness. For the ultimate tasting experience, dispense into an Orval glass. Specially designed for Orval, it has a wide mouth rim, and drinking from it opens up the hoppy flavor of the beer. And, be sure not to drink it too cold. As this beer warms, the flavors keep getting better and better. As the beer is bottle-conditioned, its taste can change over the years with ageing, with a mature version exhibiting a more toned-down, gentler hop bitterness, as well as increased sourness from the still growing wild yeasts.
Brasserie Dupont/Tourpes, Belgium
Price: $9 for 750 ml
6.5 per cent ABV
Before the advent of modern refrigeration, the saison style (saison is French for season) was brewed at the end of the cooler weather to last through the warmer summer season. The world's best-known saison comes from a brewery situated in an old farmhouse in Tourpes, Belgium. Since 1844, Brasserie Dupont has been using the farm's spring water and proprietary yeast strains to make this hoppy classic. Its fruity acidity will make you think of an orange, and its dryness and full carbonation is reminiscent of Champagne. The distinctive Dupont house yeast strain generates a complexity of flavors, including semi-tart green apple and banana. This unfiltered, bottle-conditioned straw-hued ale is topped with a Champagne-style cork and cage.
Schneider Weisse Original
G. Schneider & Sohn/ Kelheim, Germany
Price: $3.59 for 16.9 oz
5.40 per cent ABV
The Bavarian hefeweizen is one of the most beloved craft beer styles in the world. It is characterized by overtones of banana and clove, which are derived from distinct yeast strains. It's one of the few ale styles brewed in Germany, and tradition calls for the mixing of at least 50 per cent wheat to barley and minimal bitterness, which allows the sweetness of the malt and the aforementioned yeast by-products to shine. Founded in 1872, this iconic brewery is a true family operation; it's currently run by Georg Schneider VI, the sixth-generation descendant of founder Georg Schneider. Considered by many to be the benchmark of Bavarian wheat beer, it still uses the original recipe and is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law), using only water, barley and wheat malt, hops and yeast. Much darker than most wheat beers, Schneider Weisse comes out of the bottle with an amber hue, and a bubblegum-like flavor mixes with an estery tartness and malty sweetness. Despite its deep color, it's not heavy and has a refreshing dry finish. Although many bartenders seem compelled to add lemon to this style, first try it without to appreciate the true taste the brewers intended.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
American Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company/Chico, California
Price: $8 for six-pack of 12 oz
5.6 per cent ABV
One of the pioneers of modern brewing, Sierra Nevada Brewing set the stage for craft beer when it opened in 1980. Its flagship pale ale set the standard for the style and also introduced the U.S. to West Coast hop strains. The brewery is known for using only fresh, full-cone hops and lots of them. This beer gets its fragrant bouquet and spicy, citrusy flavor burst from generous quantities of Magnum, Perle and Cascade hops. The robust hoppiness of this deep amber-colored brew is matched with a full-bodied maltiness. This best-selling pale ale in the U.S. is considered a common gateway choice for craft beer novices. Perhaps the greenest of all breweries, the company was named Green Business of the Year in 2011 by the EPA, in recognition for its energy generation through solar panel arrays, recovered bio-gas, hydrogen fuel cells, zero-waste policy, recycling, heat recovery, CO2 recovery, energy efficiency and water conservation.
Three Floyds Dark Lord
Russian Imperial Stout
Three Floyds Brewing/Munster, Indiana
Price: $60 for 4-pack of 22 oz (or $15 for 22 oz)
13 per cent ABV
Three Floyds may have one of the most devoted followings of any brewery in the world, and a beer that is made once a year and all sold in one day makes an excellent candidate for cult status. The momentous yearly event is dubbed Dark Lord Day, and is held on the last Saturday of April, at which time all of the once-a-year gargantuan Russian imperial stout is released and sold. To alleviate crowd control problems, 6,000 pre-sold tickets go on sale in mid-March and sell out in less than five minutes. If you have made the trek to the brewery or bought some on the black market (eBay bids are currently around $60 a bottle), you have tasted a rarity that relatively few have enjoyed. The Dark Lord moniker suggests something dark and sinister. Dark it is, and it pours pitch black, like an opaque black hole in your glass, akin to the Dark Lord rising from his primordial beginnings. An intense roasted malt and chocolate flavor dominates and is joined by notes of maraschino cherry, cocoa nibs and coffee, with a thick body and sublime smooth finish. If you are fortunate enough to win a scratch-off golden ticket, you are allowed to purchase a barrel-aged version for $50.
Uinta Detour Double IPA
American Double/Imperial India Pale Ale
Uinta Brewing Company/Salt Lake City, Utah
Price: $8 for 750 ml
9.5 percent ABV
Detour is part of the Uinta's Crooked Line series, so named because they are part of the company's more experimental recipes, brewed "outside the lines" of traditional beer styles. Since all of the beers in the line exceed 9 per cent alcohol, "Detour" may also refer to the possibility that you won't be walking a straight line after finishing one. The brewery hails from Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 9.5 per cent ABV alcohol strength and 74 IBUs of this hop bomb help to destroy the myth that beers made in Utah are wimpy. Hopheads will be happy with the aroma of fresh grapefruit and pine, and a slightly bitter, lingering aftertaste, thanks to the addition of four different hop varieties. Stylishly corked and caged, it pours a copper burnt-orange with an off-white head. As with all of the beers in this line, its label is adorned with artwork of local artists, in this case that of Leia Bell. Uinta is decidedly green, obtaining 100 per cent of its power from solar and wind, and its spent grain from the brewing process is donated to local ranchers to use as feed for cattle, sheep and pigs, reducing waste sent to the landfills. Uinta also makes one of our Top 10 Winter Beers
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