Breweries nearly replaced local bars as community gathering places and watering holes in many towns and neighborhoods across Colorado in 2016 — a trend that isn't likely to slow down any time soon. But what is even more stunning than the number of breweries that currently operate in the state right now — there are upward of 360 brewing licenses — is the depth and breadth of styles offered there.
One style gained particular attention in Colorado in 2016: the so-called New England-style IPA. It's noted for its hazy appearance and juicer, fruitier flavor profile; dozens of brewers tried their hand at it, and many succeeded. In fact, it became one of my favorite styles as well, which is why there are six New England-style IPAs on this list of thirty amazing beers that wowed me in 2016.
As for the rest, they are culled from hundreds of beers that I tasted in 2016. Arranged roughly by category or style, this list isn't comprehensive in any way. Rather, it covers some of my favorite new, newish or new-to-me beers from the past twelve months. Cheers.
Light lagers aren't for everyone. In fact, the craft-beer movement was arguably born in part as a way to get away from the mass-produced light lagers that came to define American beer in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But the duo behind Bierstadt, Bill Eye and Ashleigh Carter, don't mass-produce anything. Rather, they attend to every detail when it comes to their traditional German-style beers, from their Slow-Pour Pils to the Helles, Dunkel and Marzen. Of those, the Helles was my favorite. A delicate malt continues from the aroma through to the flavor. And an easy-drinking smoothness makes it hard not to put away half of a massive stein in one gulp. Thankfully, this brew is only 5 percent ABV.
Raspberry Belgian-Style Pale Ale
Brewed with Trappist yeast and a bit of coriander, Upslope's Belgian Style Pale Ale is one of my favorite seasonal releases each year. In 2016, the beer served as the base for a limited-release version made with raspberry purée. Dangerously smooth and refreshing, it was a 7.5 percent ABV sip of summer.
Station 26 Brewing
One of the fascinating things about Station 26 is how well the brewers are able to produce completely different styles of beers on a regular basis. While some breweries might excel at hops or fruit beers or stouts or malty treats, Station 26 crosses all of those borders with ease. Tangerine Cream, which hit last summer, was an example of that. Based on its popular Colorado cream ale, this version was brewed with vanilla beans and tangerine zest, layering a sweet, summery loveliness on top of a creamy mouthfeel. It is indeed, as the brewery says, like a Creamsicle in a glass.
Dry Dock Brewing
This lovely little treat took me by surprise when I tried it at Hops & Pie, since I was unfamiliar with the style — a stronger version of a dunkel or a hefeweizen. Dry Dock's version was rich and sweet, with a delicate candied-banana nose that faded into a bit of caramel layered onto an almost bready finish.
Pump Action Imperial Pumpkin Ale
4 Noses Brewing
When historians look back upon the rise and fall of the pumpkin-beer empire, they will note with particular interest the year 2016 — because it may have signaled the beginning of the end. Between an alleged pumpkin shortage, a glut of pumpkin beers the year before, a lack of interest in pumpkin beers by some longtime producers, and the fact that Great American Beer Festival judges refused to award a gold in a pumpkin-beer category for the second year in row, the gourds got gored last year. One standout amid the wreckage, however, was 4 Noses Pump Action, which had rich, tasty flavors of pumpkin-pie spice, brown sugar and cinnamon sticks. Oh, and those same judges awarded the beer a gold medal in the other pumpkin-beer category at GABF.
Chardonnay Barrel-Aged Dreamy Thing
Originally brewed for Collaboration Fest with Our Mutual Friend, Dreamy Thing later took home a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the Brettanomyces category. For this version, however, Cerebral took the beer, a 100 percent Brett-fermented farmhouse ale, and aged it for six months in chardonnay barrels. Then the brewers dry-hopped it with Citra, Centennial and Sterling hops. The result was a delicately structured treat for the tastebuds, boasting sweet, estery fruit balanced with funky Brett character and interwoven flavors of chardonnay.
It says a lot when my favorite beer at the Fresh Hop Festival this year turned out to be a wild beer made with peaches. But there was no denying the impact of Colorado Junction, a kettle-soured ale fermented with Brettanomyces, dry-hopped with freshly harvested Chinook hops and aged on 120 pounds of fresh peaches from Ela Family Farms in the Western Slope town of Hotchkiss. Complex and honest at the same time, this beer was equal parts funky, hoppy and sweetly aromatic.
Sour beers often head down a spiraling path that goes beyond the pucker and ends with a nose wrinkle — becoming so overwhelming that it's hard to pick up on flavor nuances no matter how many hundreds of pounds of local apricots or peaches or plums or cherries are added. TRVE's sours, however, have a way of taking you right to that point and then backing away slowly so that you can enjoy the fruits that are the fruit of their labor. Black Celebration is a dark ale aged on 3.2 pounds of Colorado-grown cherries per gallon and fermented in wine barrels. Black in color with a pink head, Celebration packs all the punch of a sour, but with a relaxing sweetness in the finish that helps round it out and make it one to savor.
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Black Project continues to make miracles by capturing and isolating wild yeast strains from its coolship and fermenting a wide variety of beers with them. Last January, the brewery wowed the crowds at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines fest in Vail — and again at a bottle release — with this beer, a brilliant pinkish-red sour blend aged on Tempranillo grape must from the Western Slope. The result was an incredibly complex ride for your tastebuds. With a tartness and a mouthfeel similar to that of a cider, the beer also had subtle tannic notes and an earthiness reminiscent of wine.
I'm drinking this beer right now. No, seriously, there is one sitting on my desk, because I just can't get enough of the crazy, hazy treat. A 10 percent ABV version of its flagship Codename: Superfan, this incredibly lush New England-style triple IPA has everything that lovers of this style crave: a soft mouthfeel, hazy appearance and explosion of juicy, tropical hop flavors and aromas. The can also has a picture of a Menorah — and a Festivus pole — which is rare. Odd 13 churned out many New England-style IPAs in 2016; some of my favorites were Hoperella and Robot Librarian — but this one topped them all.
Fiction Beer Company
One of the first New England-style IPAs to hit big in Denver in early 2016, Cosmic Unity was also one of the best. With a look and feel of orange juice, this double IPA boasted a pillow-like mouthfeel and huge tropical hop flavors, including papaya, mango, guava and pineapple.
East Coast Transplant
New Image Brewing
Like some of the other brewers who kicked off the New England-style IPA trend in Colorado last year, New Image has its roots in Vermont, but the owners are also proud Coloradans, hence the name of this 8.5 percent double IPA brewed with Warrior, Simcoe, Amarillo and Citra hops. New Image says East Coast Transplant "is styled after some of the famous DIPAs of the northeast U.S.," and it shows. Enormously hoppy and hazy, but with a smooth sweetness, it offers heady peach, mango and Meyer lemon flavors.
Ursula also played around with tropical-juice flavors in some of its IPAs last year, the juiciest of which was Lazy Brewer, an 8.2 percent double IPA named as a humorous response to critics of the New England style of beer (who deride the style for its cloudy appearance). Smooth, soft and full of orange and apricot, it was less hazy and finished dryer than some of the others in the category.
One of the rare beers that lived up to all of its hype, Juicy Bits became the king of the New England-style IPAs in 2016, and was difficult to find until later in the year, when Weldwerks was able to up its production and release several variations, including a double-dry hopped version that awed the crowds at the Great American Beer Festival and elsewhere.
Cerebral was also part of the New England-style wave in 2016, but the Colfax Avenue brewery came at it from a different angle in that several of its beers have a hazy look by process and design. But Cerebral's hoppy beers stand out, especially the flagship Rare Trait IPA. The brewery describes the IPA as having "powerful notes of tangerine, mango and candied peach," and I couldn't agree more. And while Rare Trait fit the New England style with its restrained bitterness and fruit-forward focus, it seemed more balanced and nuanced than some of the others. This is what happens when a puppy grows up and becomes a trusted companion rather than an adorable but sometimes overwhelming bundle of energy.
Station 26 Brewing
One of the finest IPAs being brewed in Colorado, Juicy Banger is not an example of a New England-style IPA, something that Station 26 made very clear. The brewery prefers clarity, in its beer and everywhere else; after creating another beer last year called Drunken Tirade, Station 26 noted on its Facebook page that the beer was brewed “for drinking, not for chewing." But Juicy Banger's flavors and aromas have some similarities to the New England style, in particular the up-front tropical notes, sweet orange aromas and stone-fruit flavor. But there is also grapefruit and pine, which is more typical of classic West Coast IPAs. Maybe that's why this beer is so good — because it meets in the middle, right around Colorado.
Peach Juicy Banger
Station 26 Brewing
No, you're not seeing double. Just as big as the trend toward juicy IPAs in 2016 was the penchant of many breweries to infuse big citrus and fruit flavors into their IPAs. Station 26's peach version deserves special mention because it was so damn good. Imagine biting in a juicy Western Slope peach at the height of the harvest season, but instead of getting peach juice running down your chin, you get hop juice flavored with peach. That’s the way that Peach Juicy Banger tastes and feels.
Project Alpha #10
Cannonball Creek Brewing
Deeply complex and bursting with such a wide variety of hop-born flavors and aromas, Project Alpha #10 was hard to nail down. But that's understandable, since Cannonball brewed the beer with ten different hops varieties. This was the tenth in the brewery's acclaimed series of experimental IPAs, and possibly the best.
Fresh Hop Imperial Red
Burly and laden with that dank and resinous hoppy flavor you expect from fresh-hopped beers, Liquid Mechanics' version also benefited from a malty-sweet lushness that made it my favorite fresh-hopped beer of 2016.
It's amazing what can be done with a single hop variety, and Upslope showed that it's a master hops manipulator with Mosaic IPA, which was part of its limited Lee Hill series of beer packaged in 19.2-ounce cans. One of my favorite classic IPAs of the year, this 7.5 percent crowd-pleaser was loaded with sweet, fruity aromas and dank, resinous flavors.
Hyperdrive Double IPA
Big, unctuous and piney, Hyperdrive double IPA also expresses a classic grapefruit nose balanced by an enormous malt bill that holds up the other side of the seesaw. Weighing in at 8.1 percent ABV, this was the kind of beer that that you could sit back with and enjoy slowly, sip by sip.
FROmageddon American-Style Barleywine
Barrels & Bottles
Boozy, hoppy, sweet and sticky, this barleywine from Barrels & Bottles was a blast to drink. Last year I sampled two vintages, 2015 and 2016, each of which had its strong points. Fruity and floral, both versions of the 12 percent ABV beer were defined by up-front hops. Now, get an Uber.
Crustless Imperial PB&J Porter
I hate it when breweries name their beers after cake or chocolate or fudge or cookies, then don't end up tasting like what the name promises. That wasn't the case with the imperial version of Ursula's unique PB&J porter, which tasted exactly like its name. The peanut butter is in there. The jelly is in there (is that strawberry?). Oh, and there's a blast of chocolate to make the whole thing smooth, sweet and delicious.
Cheluna was the first business to open in the new Stanley Marketplace, located on the border of Stapleton and Aurora, and it came out of the box strong. The best of the bunch, though, was Coco-Xoco. Described simply as a "a medium-bodied porter infused with cacao, vanilla and toasted coconut," the 7 percent beer was much more than that — a rich, dessert-like treat that required more than just one, or even two.
Peanut Butter Achromatic
Weldwerks? I had only barely heard of this Weld County brewery a year ago. But then I tried the beers at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in January 2016. Here's what I wrote: "WeldWorks brought the house down with its Chocolate Achromatic, a rich imperial stout brewed with chocolate malt, cacao nibs and vanilla beans – and two variations on it: Mexican Achromatic (made with cinnamon sticks and cayenne), and Medianoche, which was aged in bourbon barrels for seven months. This one was outstanding." What a difference a year makes. Over the past few months, Weldwerks has become a Colorado brewery darling, in part because of its stellar Juicy Bits IPA (see above). But the achromatic series is mind-boggling as well. Although chocolate and Mexican were both amazing, my favorite was Peanut Butter Cup Achromatic, a beer that starts off as an imperial stout, is boiled for six hours and then blended with peanut flour and cacao nibs. The result was a rich, decadent treat.
Bourbon Barrel Coffee Red Quad
Black Shirt Brewing
Black Shirt is known for its complex and elegant hoppy beers, but the single most amazing beer that I tried at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival last January was the Whiskey Barrel-Aged Red Quad. The beer was brewed in 2013, aged for 21 months in whiskey barrels, and then blended with coffee from Huckleberry Roasters. Smooth, rich and complex, it struck a balance somewhere between a coffee cordial, whiskey toffee and vanilla pudding. The brewery has been slowly expanding its barrel-aged program.
Mockery named this Belgian-style quadrupel Commitment Phobe because its brewers couldn't decide whether to age it in whiskey or wine barrels. In the end, they went with both, and it shows. The 11.5 percent ABV beer carries the expected flavors of Belgian candi sugar, raisins and toffee common to quads, along with some of sweet vanilla and whiskey flavors that come from whiskey barrels. But it also had fruity, almost tart notes from the wine barrel that complemented this unusual beer rather than confounded it.
Shirtless Putin Nuzzling With Dolphins
Call to Arms Brewing
Most barrel-aged lagers have a thinness that doesn't work with the flavors of the wood, at least not for me. But Shirtless Putin managed the task beautifully. A Baltic porter (thus the Putin reference), this lager was brewed with Czech Pils yeast and seven different malts before being aged for seven months in Four Roses Bourbon barrels. Then it was aged with coffee. The blend of flavors, the rich mouthfeel and the warming nature made it perfect.
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Rum Barrel-Aged Death by Coconut
Death by Coconut has been one of my favorite beers since Oskar Blues first released it at Collaboration Fest three years ago. Since then, it has been packaged in two kinds of cans and is now available nationwide as a seasonal offering. This year, because of the brewery's major barrel-program expansion, Oskar Blues released a version of Death that was aged in rum barrels — and it was predictably delicious. Although the body of the beer seemed thinner than the original, the rum flavors are a natural fit for the coconut and chocolate in the original beer. It was truly fantastic.
Barrel Aged Hibernation
Great Divide Brewing
I love Great Divide Hibernation, and I love barrel-aged beers, but somehow Barrel Aged Hibernation has always been a slight miss for me. Not this year. Maybe it's the new facility, maybe it's new techniques, but the 2016 version of this winter warmer/strong ale was the best I've had: smooth, balanced, malty and sexy.
Although the whiskey barrel was front and center, it was rounded out by a complex layering of toffee, vanilla, caramel and raisins. Lovely.