The craft-brewing world felt a squeeze at the top this year as the number of breweries across the country soared past 4,000 and the number of bottled and canned offerings grew by the thousands. In Colorado, where there are approximately 360 brewing licenses, competition was as fierce as ever among beer makers who package and sell their heady creations. Two breweries, the Wynkoop and Twisted Pine, stopped packaging altogether, while two dozen or so others entered the market for the first time.
It's not easy to keep up, and I can't physically try them all, no matter how hard I try. To help narrow things down, this list only covers the packaged beers that meet two criteria: They must have been bottled or canned for the first time in 2016, and they had to be relatively easy to find in the Denver/Boulder area, meaning the average person could have walked into a suitable liquor store and pulled one off the shelf. Some of them had been brewed before but never packaged. Others were new variations on old tricks. But all of them were delicious, and some are still available — or will be again next year.
As you can see, they also tilt decidedly toward the heavy, hoppy, barrel-aged variety of styles because, well, this is my list and that's what I like. But there's also a lager on the list, as well as two saisons. Happy new year — and new beer.
’Bout Damn Time
4 Noses Brewing
Standing out as an IPA in a state that is chock-full of them is like a New York City waitress trying to stand out as an actress on Broadway: It’s a long shot. But 4 Noses is making a name for itself, and ’Bout Damn Time is leading the way. West Coast in style, but with less bitterness and a hint of tropical flavors on top of the citrus and pine, the beer is easy to drink, even at 7 percent.
Red Wine Barrel Aged Apis IV
Elevation Beer Company
This was one of the most unusual and interesting beers I tasted in 2016. To create it, Elevation aged its brilliant Belgian-style honey quadrupel in cabernet sauvignon barrels. The end result had distinctly sweet notes of grapes and raisins. But where this punchy, 10 percent ABV beer could have gone over the edge into cloying, rotten-fruit flavors, it managed to hold back, ending with an almost dry finish that balanced the sherry-like flavors and rounded them out.
Skiing in Jeans
Grist Brewing kicked off its limited-edition seasonal can program with Skiing in Jeans, a bock beer with a fantastic name and an unusual and highly satisfying flavor profile. Brewed with Colorado wildflower honey and Texas pecans, this 6.9 percent ABV lager began as a collaboration with No Label Brewing Company in Katy, Texas, but quickly became a favorite at the Highlands Ranch taphouse. It was lighter-bodied, but packed with earthy flavors of roasted pecans and honey that jumped out of the glass.
The Post Brewing Company
The Post specializes in classic styles and easy-drinking, lower-alcohol beers, a methodology that can sometimes make it difficult to get noticed in a state that is always experimenting with new flavors. But this beer caught my attention the first time I tried it — the rye malt shining below the distinctly floral qualities associated with most saisons. The judges at the Great American Beer Festival must have agreed: They gave it a gold medal in the classic-saison category.
Grapefruit Endpoint Triple IPA
Citrus IPAs snowballed into a giant trend in 2016 to the point that it was impossible to keep up, but Renegade took that trend and turned it on its head with Grapefruit Endpoint. The brewery added 100 pounds of grapefruit to its 11 percent ABV triple IPA, creating a smooth, almost creamy citrus IPA that didn’t have any overwhelming tang or bite — but just enough to round out the heavy hops.
It should be no surprise that Trinity Brewing has turned in a saison that is nearly perfect, considering that the brewery has specialized in the Belgian style since its inception. Brewed with barley, oats and rye, this one offers a brilliant mouthfeel that is easy to drink, a gorgeous appearance from the head to the color, and elegantly playful notes of rye and white pepper. The beer is “naked” of fruits or funky yeast strains or more exotic ingredients, so you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in the European countryside a century ago.
One Great City
Making a Belgian-style quadrupel in the United States comes with a little bit of pressure. After all, Belgian monks have been making versions of this beer for centuries — brews that typically land on near the top of lists of the world’s greatest beers. So when a good one comes along, it’s worth noting, and Ratio’s version is a good one. Layered with the fruity yeast esters that quads are known for, along with raisin, fig and caramel-candy notes, One Great City — bottled for the first time year — makes Denver proud.
This beer dropped without fanfare during the Great American Beer Festival and is still quietly sitting on shelves in many liquor stores — something that’s not easy for a 13.3 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stout aged in rum barrels. Packed with the expected flavors of a beer of this style — chocolate, coffee, vanilla, oak and dried fruits — it is deceptively smooth on the palate.
Logic Is Relative Imperial IPA
Fiction Beer Company
Like several other breweries in Colorado, Fiction started the year by experimenting with New England-style IPAs, which are known for their hazy, juice-like appearance as well as a sweeter, juicier hop profile than the more traditionally bitter, piney West Coast style of IPA. The brewery kicked things off with Cosmic Ratio and finished strong with a double IPA called Logic Is Relative. The beer, named for a line from the John Irving novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, is the second can that Fiction has ever produced and can still be found on liquor-store shelves. Brewed with more than four pounds of hops per barrel, it is packed with heady flavors and aromas of fresh-squeezed orange juice, honeydew melon, pineapple and red grapefruit.
Avery confounded longtime fans in 2016, dumping some of its longstanding, high-alcohol gems — like the Beast, Czar, Mephistopheles and the Kaiser — in favor of a new lineup. Luckily, Avery still maintains its one-off Barrel-Aged series of experimental beers. The best of these in 2016 was No. 36 Callipygian, a 17.4 percent ABV stout aged in bourbon barrels with coffee, cocoa, cocoa nibs and vanilla beans. Velvety smooth for a beer of this magnitude, Callipygian was almost the yin to Uncle Jacob’s yang, offering brighter flavors of vanilla cream and sweet roast, as opposed to darker, heavier chocolate and bourbon.
Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy
One of Colorado’s “unicorn” beers, the barrel-aged version of Oskar Blues’s outstanding Ten Fidy Imperial Stout would, in the past, be gone by the time you heard it was on tap. But this year, the brewery greatly expanded its barrel-aging program and packaged a bourbon-barrel-aged version in its 19.2-ounce stovepipe cans. The result was a rich, roasty bourbon ball of a beer with a head thick enough for a host of angels to throw a party.
Odd 13 Brewing
It would be hard to imagine a small brewery having a bigger year than Odd 13 did in 2016 — hard to imagine, impossible to predict and difficult to remember similar success. It began in the winter, when Odd 13’s two head brewers got together with co-owner Ryan Scott and decided to make a hazy, sweeter IPA, a style that was popular in New England but hadn't really stretched westward in any noticeable fashion. The beer became the best seller in the taproom within a week, and once Odd 13 settled on a recipe for its canned version, it discontinued its previous flagship IPA, Eric the Red. Codename: Superfan, as the new beer is called, is brewed with wheat, to contribute to the hazy look, along with Simcoe, Equinox, Citra and Amarillo hops. Over the ensuing months, the brewery made and canned numerous variations of New England-style IPAs, all of them with that tropical, hazy, juicy look and taste. And while some of these, including Robot Librarian, Hoperella and Codename Holidayfan, outshone the original, Codename: Superfan stood up and stood out as a trailblazer in Colorado.