No one ever reads the introductions to lists like this. So I could write just about anything here, and no one will read it. And that's okay — I don't generally read the intros, either. But just in case: Here's how I came up with my list of thirty amazing 2017 beers. First, I am only one man, and I can only try so many beers and breweries each year. I can't sample them all, no matter how hard I try. So this list reflects the beers and breweries that I actually manage to squeeze in. Second, it is a mix of packaged beers and taproom beers. I used to do a list of the best new packaged beers of the year, but that designation no longer has much meaning these days, when any beer can be quickly canned or bottled or Crowlered by even the smallest brewery and shipped out the door. Last, most of these beers are new (but not all of them); generally, though, they made their debut in 2017 or made it into distribution in 2017. Mostly, this list reflects some outstanding examples of the depth and breadth of what Colorado's breweries are doing. Cheers.
BELGIAN, WILD AND SOUR BEERS
Bull & Bush Brewpub
Brewed with Slovenian buckwheat, hops and honey, this 9 percent ABV “Slovenian” pale is actually more of a Belgian golden strong ale, but since it was brewed in, um, honor of First Lady Melania Trump and her husband’s alleged dossier, Bull & Bush gave it a more appropriate recipe and description. Gently sweet, full bodied and with mellow fruity esters, Melania’s Gold had a smooth, easy-drinking quality that made the high alcohol content easy to forget.
Brut La Grande
Just when you think you’ve tasted everything, a brewery comes along with something different. Loaded with always-enigmatic Belgian yeasts, Brut sparkled without being over-carbonated, and it was clean without being drying on the palate. Subtly nuanced with wisps of fruit and spice — as well as a touch of sweetness — Brut La Grande is indeed “similar” to a Champagne, as the brewery says, but this is definitely a beer, having a more solid, almost creamy mouthfeel. It debuted last January, with chocolate, and returned in December.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing
OMF debuted this beer just before Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines in January 2017, and it immediately garnered attention. A saison fermented with twelve different strains of Brettanomyces and dry-hopped with Citra hops, it boasted a gorgeous hazy appearance and heady aromas of citrus and funk. Wild ales aren't often described as being easy-drinking or approachable, but this one managed to do just that, while simultaneously carrying an immense degree of complexity. In October, OMF won a GABF gold medal for a different Brett beer, Saison Trystero, and the brewery is clearly bottling up this niche in weird and wonderful new ways.
It’s sometimes difficult to keep up with all of the different beers that TRVE puts out, but it’s not hard to understand the passion and dedication that go into them. The result is always something fascinating, as was the case with Slow Death, a collaboration with TRVE’s frequent partner, Burial Beer of Asheville, North Carolina. This was a dark sour beer aged in whiskey barrels with lemon peel and cinnamon, and it was both deep and complex and welcoming and approachable. The slight whiskey flavors seemed to lengthen the sweet-and-sour push and pull, while the cinnamon truly made the beer, complementing all of the other flavors.
Black Project Wild & Spontaneous Ales
One of the benefits of being a beer writer is that I sometimes get to taste beers that most people don’t. Which is great for me, but not much help when it comes to putting together an accessible list of great beers. Roswell, released in July, was a difficult beer to try because there was only a small amount, and it sold out quickly. But the brewery did its best to make it available to people who stopped in — on draft, at least — and it’s worth including on this list despite its rarity, because it was outstanding. Roswell is a lambic-style sour beer that was spontaneously fermented and barrel-aged over the course of about nine months; it was then re-fermented in five batches with five different kinds of fruit: apricot, blackberry, cranberry, guava and raspberry. And each one was like a burst of that fruit times ten, with aromas to match and magical simplicity that belied the complexity with which they were concocted. Black Project continues to innovate, and even if you can only catch one special release during the year, it's worth it.
THE PASTRY STOUTS
So-called Pastry Stouts were the beer style of the year in 2017 (not including New England-style IPAs), and there were plenty of good ones from all across the state, but a few rose to the top. Cerebral's Safe Word, a 10.2 percent ABV stout conditioned on Belizean cocoa nibs, cassia bark and coconut, was one of them. Creamy, comforting and with a full, rich taste smacking of vanilla, coconut, coffee and even some hickory or licorice, it was like something that Willy Wonka would make if he made booze instead of candy.
Cookies & Cream Achromatic
This 9.6 percent ABV beer was hard to put down. In fact, I would be drinking it right now if I hadn't already polished off every drop that I managed to find. An obnoxiously decadent variant of Weldwerks' stellar Achromatic imperial stout series of pastry beers, Cookies & Cream was brewed with lactose, cocoa nibs, vanilla beans and, of course, Oreo cookies. And it tasted like melted ice cream in a glass, or like what you would get if you let Oreos dissolve in a milk stout.
THE BARREL-AGED BEERS
Barrel Aged Mountain Standard
This beer shouldn’t have worked, and it shouldn’t have been good — but it was. Perhaps one of the polarizing beers of the year, Barrel Aged Mountain Standard is a 10.6 percent ABV version of Odell’s intensely hoppy Mountain Standard double-black IPA that was aged for more than a year in bourbon barrels. And while hoppy beers don't often work in bourbon barrels, this one did — probably because the hops had almost completely faded away, to be replaced with the sweet bourbon that complemented the roasty malts. The brewery says it picked up notes of sweet chocolate, dried figs, toffee, vanilla and caramel, and I would agree on all fronts.
Rum Single Cask Mr. Sandman
River North Brewery
River North scored a big hit with its Mr. Sandman imperial stout last year, and although that beer is good, the basic version tastes unfinished to me, like a chunk of marble waiting for an artist. Luckily for me, River North excels at barrel-aging beer. I tried several barrel-aged versions of the beer this year, along with some that were infused with coconut, cinnamon and other ingredients, and my favorite was Rum Single Cask Mr. Sandman. Aged in a single rum cask, it tasted like a biscuit that had been dipped in rum and covered in chocolate.
Leave it to Avery to take a decadent concept and turn it up to eleven. As part of its acclaimed Barrel-Aged Series, Avery concocted an imperial stout with peanut flour and then aged it in bourbon barrels with peanuts. It is named in honor of brewer and staff archaeologist Travis Rupp. As usual, the flavors blend perfectly, and the peanut is somewhat subtle, or as subtle as it could be in a 15.2 percent ABV beer. And although the Nuttiest Professor was sweet, like many barrel-aged behemoths, the peanut seemed to smooth it out and mellow it down.
Barrel Aged Ryeciprocal
4 Noses Brewing
Chewy, full and with a satiny mouthfeel, Barrel Aged Ryeciprocal made a few brief appearances at 4 Noses Brewing this year, and even made it into a limited run of bottles. This 10 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stout was aged in a Kentucky rye bourbon barrel and it stood out, as most 4 Noses beers do, as being one of the better-made versions in the state. The rye gave this beer a rich kick reminiscent of s'mores.
Here Be Monsters
A 13 percent ABV Russian imperial stout that was brewed with a huge load of Maris Otter, English chocolate and crystal malts, Here Be Monsters began its voyage into "uncharted" waters as a solid beer. But it was then aged for twelve months in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. Hot in a good way, the beer was also hot with beer fans, who lined up for more than a block to get a bottle. Dripping with chocolate cake, vanilla, toffee and fudge, it was creamy and warming from start to finish.
Medianoche (and all of its variants)
There’s not much more to add when it comes to the glory that has been heaped on Medianoche in 2017 — and for good reason. The beer, an imperial stout aged for more than a year in bourbon barrels, rivals the best barrel-aged stouts in the country, and it caught the attention of beer fans and beer critics nationwide — especially after winning gold at GABF. Striking the perfect balance between a roasty richness and smooth sweetness, it shows off a mature, robust flavor that will make you skip dessert. Although the beer debuted in 2016, it was bottled for the first time this year and gussied up with several variants, including Vanilla Medianoche, which was so sought after that the brewery had to sell it via a lottery. Weldwerks is planning to make more of the stuff in 2018, and to keep it available in the taproom for people who journey to Greeley to try it.
THE CREATIVE ENVELOPE PUSHERS
Pear Elderflower Saison/King of Carrots Flowers Saison
These are two different beers, but they both include elderflower, and one of them was used as source material for the other. Both were stellar, unusual creations, and I hope Ratio continues to experiment with beers like these next year. The Pear Elderflower Saison was brewed specifically for the Beers Made by Walking festival and was inspired by an urban stroll around the brewery’s neighborhood. Ratio had the elderflower on hand because it was working on another saison, King of Carrot Flowers, which it made for EatDenver's Harvest Week.
Hickory Peach Wee Heavy
Intrepid Sojourner Beer Project
Andrew Moore is not afraid. He’s not afraid to use basil and garlic and sage, cinnamon, lavender or hickory bark. And while herbs and spices and other unusual ingredients can be polarizing for beer drinkers, they are part of the mission for Moore, a former archaeologist who is now the head brewer at Intrepid. A standout for me was the Hickory Peach Wee Heavy, which the brewery debuted at Beers Madeby Walking and later poured at the brewery. For starters, you have to like hickory. If you do, then you’ll enjoy its strong flavor, rounded out by a healthy dose of roasted and smoked peaches. “Partially caramelized by hot stones, this beer is a fruit tree in liquid form,” the brewery says.
Makin' Noise: A Pussy Riot Beer — Imperial Strawberry Saison
Gold Spot Brewing
Maybe it’s because I watched the idea for this beer unfold in real time on social media; maybe it’s because I was there when the beer was brewed (even when the mash got stuck); maybe it’s because I admire the fearlessness of the women who were part of this project. Or maybe it’s because this imperial saison made with strawberry purée was just really, really good. Whatever the reason, I loved Gold Spot Brewing’s Makin' Noise: A Pussy Riot beer, version one. It was much smoother than its 8.6 percent ABV would indicate, crisp and with just enough sweetness from the strawberries to balance the saison yeast. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrls rule.
Four Grains in the Membrane
One of the most unusual beers I had in 2017, Four Grains in the Membrane, a 14.9 percent ABV barrel-aged strong ale with Brettanomyces, was a collaboration with Laws Whiskey House. Inspired by Laws Four Grain Bourbon, Baere made a brew with the same grains — barley, rye, wheat and corn — and then aged it in three Laws bourbon barrels. One of the barrels was inoculated with Brettanomyces yeast, and all three were later blended together. The result was just as complex as the description, with earth and funk and spice pinballing off the rye and Brett. Experimental, creative and somehow approachable, it was everything a beer drinker expects from such a complex process.
Jimmy Buffett Problem
Jessup Farm Barrel House
Jessup Farm Barrel House opened in 2015 and has kept a low profile, turning out tiny amounts of creative, unusual and lower-ABV barrel-aged beers. The brewery, which began some limited distribution in the metro area this year, got some attention in October, though, when it won a gold medal at GABF for Fancy Pants, a Brett beer. But my favorite beer of theirs so far is the fantastically named Jimmy Buffett Problem, an IPA that was aged in both rum and bourbon barrels with pineapple purée and shaved coconut. Light, mellow and subtle but also rich and complex, the beer manages to do a masterful job combining all of these things so that no one flavor or characteristic overtakes the other.
Upslope Brewing/Resolute Brewing
Another winner from Collaboration Fest, this was one of two beers that these two breweries made using oak and hefeweizen yeast. The weissenbock was a rich, malty tongue-coater that offered clear notes of banana from the yeast and oak from the first-use barrels, along with some toffee and bubble-gum flavors that rounded it all out.
So thirst-quenching, so satisfying. I’m not sure a beer ever hit the spot more perfectly than Bierstadt’s 8.7 percent Baltic Porter on the cold, gloomy day on which I first tried it. Served in adorable skinny glasses (which are amazing in their ability to highlight the best of a specific beer, like all of Bierstadt’s glasses), the porter tasted like a light, crispy cracker with ever-so-delicate inflections of chocolate, roastiness and California dates. The Polish would be proud — and jealous.
Seedstock Brewing/Halfpenny Brewing
Smoky, tart and low in alcohol, this beer, based on an old German-style wheat beer that is similar to a gose, was one of the most interesting and unusual brews I tried — not just at Collaboration Fest, but over the course of the entire year. Brewed by these two underrated lager specialists with smoked malts and just a little bit of hops, the beer had a sour funk as well as a crispness that was salty, light and complex.
THE HOPPY BEERS
Russell Kelly Pale Ale
This beer is named for Russell Kelly, a well-known kayaker — and friend of Telluride Brewing co-founder Chris Fish — who died in 2004, and the flavor profile was “inspired” by Kelly’s favorite beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But Russell Kelly Pale Ale goes far beyond Sierra Nevada with a higher alcohol content and a luscious hop bill that fits today’s tastes. Brewed almost entirely with Mosaic hops (which are known for their grassy, citrusy notes and a touch of sweetness, almost like chocolate cherries), the beer tastes more like an IPA than a pale ale, but it has a smooth, easy drinking characteristic that comes from the very low bitterness achieved through dry-hopping. This is a beer that should be a staple in every hop-lover's fridge.
To create its first regularly canned IPA, Alpha Bits, Weldwerks Brewing ran through seven different iterations in the taproom, playing with the recipes, the hop profile and the haziness for which the brewery’s beers are famous. Eventually, owner Neil Fisher, working with contract brewery Sleeping Giant, dialed in a perfect combination, and fortunately, the result doesn’t stray too far from Juicy Bits, the brewery’s taproom flagship. Alpha Bits is a huge New England-style juice bomb with notes of "tangerine, candied mangoes, peach, and pineapple," according to the brewery.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
Known for its wild and sour ales, Crooked Stave began making "clean" beers (brewed without funky Brettanomyces yeast or souring bacteria) earlier this year. Three of those hit cans in August: Von Pilsner, IPA and Trellis Buster Double IPA, followed by more later in the year. But the Trellis Buster was a true standout, boasting the soft mouthfeel that lovers of New England-style IPAs have come to expect, but not the flat sweetness that can sometimes inhibit these beers. Dry-hopped with Azacca, Citra, Motuseka and Simcoe, Trellis Buster uses more hops than any other beer Crooked Stave has made, and it shows.
Epic Day Double IPA
In September, I got to judge an IPA contest at the Micro Brew Fest hosted by the Crafty Fox Taphouse & Pizzeria’s Kyle Moyer. The contest was based on simple deliciousness rather than specific style guidelines, so all kinds of IPAs were thrown into the mix. One of them kept rising to the top because of its blend of powerful hop flavors — combining the resinous pine of a West Coast IPA with the tropical blast of a New England-style IPA — and a complex, lip-smacking maltiness. That beer took top honors in a blind tasting, and when the name was revealed, it turned out to be Epic Day, a 10 percent ABV double IPA, which the brewery began canning this year. At the moment, Epic Day is at the center of a trademark lawsuit between Eddyline and Epic Brewing over the rights to the word “epic,” but don’t let that keep you from drinking it. This beer deserves recognition for the right reasons.
Seventh Son of a Thirteenth Son
Odd13 has made dozens of variations on the New England-style IPA over the past two years, and you’d think they would all begin to taste the same. While some people might say that is the case, I would beg to differ. This 8.5 percent ABV double IPA is one of the reasons why. Hopped with Galaxy, Citra, Mosaic and Denali, and brewed with flaked oats, spelt malt, honey malt and rice hulls, it gives new meaning to the term juice bomb and tastes as if a pine tree and pineapple had an adorable hazy baby.
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SHOW ME HOW
Outer Range Brewing
Outer Range opened quietly at the end of 2016 but very quickly garnered a lot of attention statewide for stellar New England-style IPAs (although some good Belgian-style beers are brewed there as well). Corduroy, a hazy, golden-colored 6.7 percent beer, was one of the first Outer Range beers I tried, and it's still my favorite. In fact, it reminds me of some of the beers I’ve had from Brookyn’s Other Half Brewing, which is arguably the best brewer of that the style in the nation. Made with Citra hops, along with some Mosaic and Waimea, Corduroy is simply a pedestal for the tropical, citrusy flavors that these varieties are known for. Smooth and approachable, it is one of the best New England-style IPAs being made in Colorado right now.
Woods Boss Brewing
Here’s a First World problem for you: New breweries always want to stand out, but sometimes they get noticed for things they didn’t intend. Woods Boss, which opened its gorgeous taproom in August, makes a wide and very deep lineup of solid beers, but the one that seemed to get the most attention was its New England-style IPA, a trendy darling in 2017. But the Oswald deserves its glory, because Woods Boss managed to create a stellar example of this style — something that’s not as easy as it sounds. Brewed with ten pounds of rolled oats and five pounds of hops per barrel, the Oswald has a nice look, a tropical flavor and a smooth finish.
Black Shirt Brewing
As I point out almost every year, Black Shirt is one of the finest, most underrated brewers of hoppy beers in Colorado. Many of its beers have an almost magical quality that comes from a longer, meticulous brewing process. Frontmaniac is also magical, but unlike some of Black Shirt's more delicate offerings, this one punches you right in the mouth and then sends you back into the boxing ring for another round. Double dry-hopped with Galaxy, Citra and Mosaic for a luscious, tropical sensation, and brewed with oats, wheat, and "a blend of yeasts for a fuller and softer texture on the palate," the beer is like a rom-com that knows just how to pull your strings, making you cry on cue and making you laugh shortly thereafter.
One of the things that separates Cerebral’s hoppy beers from other breweries that make New England-style IPAs is a backbone and structure that prevents the beers from turning to mush in your mouth. While each one fulfills the promise of sweet, tropical hops, a smooth mouthfeel and a low bitterness that are the hallmarks of the style, they often provide a subtle, surprising kick, as well. Such was the case with Cheat Code, a 7.6 percent ABV double IPA brewed with wheat and flaked oats, and heavily hopped with Galaxy, El Dorado, Mosaic and South African N1/69. Loaded with pineapple, orange and guava flavors, it also offered a gentle bitterness that helped it stand up and stand out.