Our Favorite American Craft Beers of 2016

 Every year we get the chance to drink a lot of really great beers.  We don't assign them numbers or award points for rarity.  Some of those beers stick out to us.  This last year, these were those beers (in no particular order): 

1. Fonta Flora Brewing, Razzmatazz Vol.1:  In my opinion, Fonta Flora is one of the most exciting breweries in the country.  They experiment with local and foraged ingredients, brew killer hoppy beer, but most of all have a portfolio of wonderfully complex and bold flavored and balanced beer.  Razzmatazz Vol. 1 is a beautiful red raspberry wild ale, with an enormous berry bouquet and layer upon layer of raspberry and funk on the palette.  While we could have picked from almost any of the Fonta Flora beers we were lucky enough to have this last year, this one had us from the first smell in the glass.

2. Bissell Brothers Brewing, Lux: We're suckers for Rye. We're suckers for hops.  Marry the two and Lux is as close to perfect as you'll get.  While most people talk about Swish or Reciprocal when they bring up Bissell Brothers, but Lux was a stand out for us given the unique peppery character added by the rye.  Like you've come to expect from Bissell Brothers, huge tropical fruit, citrus, and pine will punch you in the face from the first sip to the last.  We popped the can and could smell the hops from 4 feet away!  We love Bissell Brothers beer and this one is our favorite.

3. Forest & Main Brewing, Paradisaea: This brewery, the people behind it, and the beer are all world class.  Paradisaea is a barrel aged saison with citrus and Mosaic hops.  It's a juicy, just sour enough, beautiful interpretation of the style and is a wonderful representation of what the brewery is capable of.  Part English pub and part barrel aged sour production brewery, F&M is creating some of the most inspiring beer in the country.  Fermenting their sour beers, like this one, on a local forged yeast and bacteria culture, they're able to create an experience unique to their brewery with each offering. Paradisaea is wonderful.  It's fun and playful and really got us thinking about all the subtle flavors we were picking up throughout our time with the beer.  We can't wait to see what's next from F&M.

4. Cellarmaker Brewing, Nelson: We visited the quaint brewery in November while in San Francisco, with our good friend Jesse Friedman (Almanac, founder).  He thought it was a must while in town - and he was absolutely right.  We loved the experience from start to finish.  The taproom is cozy and the beer is fantastic.  Nelson, which features Nelson Sauvin hops (as the name suggests), stood out as our favorite.  Nelson is just one of those juicy, hazy (not juicy because it's hazy), dry, and hop forward beers that has you going back for more.  It's aggressive but soft at the same time.  It's pungent and powerful but subtle and delicate all at the same time. Moral of the story, it's just damn good.

5. Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Nightmare on Brett (Leopold Whiskey Barrels on Cherry): Chad Yakobsen, owner and founder of Crooked Stave is the authority on Brettanomyces fermentation.  He's able to coax unique and interesting character out of his yeast cultures that most breweries only dream of.  This understanding of fermentation also allows Crooked Stave to put out big bold beers like Nightmare on Brett (around 10% abv), which are sour, influenced by fruit, and fermented in whiskey barrels and make them seem delicate and almost wine like.   We love this beer because the dark appearance and whiskey aromatics give way to a complex acidic and fruity character on the palette.  It takes you by surprise and offers a truly unique experience with sour beer as most breweries only use neutral oak or wine barrels for their sour program.  The beer has so much going on but when poured into the glass everything works in harmony.  Nightmare on Brett is a present look to the future for sour beer and for that reason it had to be on our list. 

6. The Tank Brewing, La Finca: It's no surprise that we love saison.  The Tank, which opened earlier this year, decided to make La Finca ("the farm", in Spanish) saison a core year-round offering and we couldn't be happier about it.  It's dry, effervescent, peppery, citrusy, earthy, and incredibly refreshing.  It's brewed with a nod to the traditional saisons and the history of the style, but is modern in approach and choice of ingredient.  La Finca is brewed with an acute attention to detail and purpose that comes across as a mature "we've been doing this for years" offering.  We're excited about this beer and what's to come from this new Miami brewery. 

7. Civil Society Brewing, Fresh: Hops, hops, hops.  Civil Society just celebrated its 1 year anniversary and has already established itself as a hop head's dream in South Florida.  Fresh is the beer that, in our opinion, truly separates the brewery from the rest.  Head brewer, Karl Volstad, has been brewing the beer for years, each time fine tuning the approach to make it into what it has become.  An aggressively hopped, ripe tropical fruit forward,  aromatic, and refreshing IPA that gives you all the hops you could ask for without the astringent bitterness.  You can taste the time and effort the brewery has put in to the beer with every sip.  For even more hops, head to the brewery and try the Double Dry Hopped Fresh. 

8. Side Project Brewing, Derivation (Batch 5):  I know, I know.  Side Project has made its way on to the favorite beers list every year since we started.  What can I say?  Cory is a master at his craft.  This year, we got to spend some time together down in Florida drinking through several Side Project offerings and although all were world class, this batch of Derivation blew us away.  A huge imperial stout: coffee, vanilla, aged in rum barrels for over a year; yet, somehow it came across as soft and delicate.  We still haven't been able to wrap our heads around how such a powerful and flavorful beer could come off so nuanced, subtle, and graceful.  Big body, creamy mouthfeel, and dangerously drinkable.  It's a testament to what Side Project is capable of and quite simply one of the best beers we've ever had the opportunity to try.  

9. Firestone Walker Brewing, Pivo Pils: This beer may be as close to perfect as it gets.  Because it's a pilsner and because it's somewhat readily available it doesn't get all of the the attention in the beer nerd kingdom that it deserves.  But, it is phenomenal.  It is so technically sound, so flavorful, so refreshing, it's almost hard to believe.  Firestone Walker is an industry standard for quality and consistency and Pivo is steering the ship.  It's no surprise that Pivo took Gold at the Great American Beer Festival from 2013 to 2015.  That's blind tasting, by the way!  

10. Casey Brewing & Blending, Oak Theory:  Troy Casey is a superstar in the making, if not already one.  Ask most brewers who they're watching these days, and Casey Brewing is at the top of the list, and it's no surprise.  He's making beautiful funk forward mixed fermentation beers employing old school meets new school fermentation techniques and the results are often times breathtaking.  Funk reminiscent of your favorite cheesy lambic, jammy fruited sours, and just a masterful command over the beers.  Oak Theory is no non-sense Belgian inspired beer fermented in and aged in oak for over a year.  The result is a funky, dry, and incredibly complex beer.  It's one of those beers that really lets you experience the oak and Troy's ability to bring out unique flavors through fermentation.  It's a thing of beauty people!

Craft Beer and Its Place in American Cuisine

America is seeing a rebirth of pre-prohibition, micro culture exhibitions by and through the local beers and spirits being produced by modern day artisans known as brewers. A back to basics approach. This, all while obliterating the idea of simplicity of what is generally associated with the word "traditional".  Alongside the artists, chefs, local bakers, and cheesemakers, brewers are finding ways to express the history of their region, the cultural identity of the people who influence them, and their locale's "terroir" through beer.  Playing on traditional European styles and techniques, ultimately making them bigger, at times more aggressive, and in turn - inherently "American".  After all, nothing is ever big enough for us Americans anyways.  Still, some of the world's most nuanced and food-ready beers are coming out of America these days.  Through the use of local ingredients, local yeast strains, grains, hops, and fruits, the American craft brewer is touching on the essence of the make-up of his or her hometown.  It's a thing of beauty, people.  

Jeffrey Stuffings (far left) Founder of Jester King.  Photo Credit: Jester King Brewery

The ability to understand purpose, time, and place, when putting your nose in a glass, enjoying the view of the liquid in the glass, and finally being overcome by the attack on your palate when it hits your tongue is only becoming more common.  Brewers are not only taking more time with their products but they're showing more restraint (when needed) to ensure the ever important quality of balance.  It's this balance that will continue to elevate the product so many in America are starting to love, appreciate, and enjoy.  What good is an IPA that rips the enamel off of your teeth if it destroys your palate and leaves you unable to enjoy that dinner you paid $50 for?!  The focus on balance and food is becoming more important to the craft brewer and will continue to be a driving force in ensuring the craft beer rebirth is here to stay.  I believe it's craft beer's availability in fine dining restaurants and its ability to be paired more easily with more kinds of foods that will truly bring craft to the forefront and keep it there.  Restaurants will be forced to adapt.  Cicerones will join sommeliers in the ranks at these restaurants and hold positions of respect and prestige. 

Craft beer is a natural fit on the American table.  Don't get me wrong, I love wine.  I love it alone and I love it with food.  It just has its shortcomings at the dinner table - shortcomings that craft beer is ready to and more than capable of filing.  Jeff Stuffings, founder of Jester King Brewery believes "it makes sense for beer to be at the dinner table because, in many ways, it's an extension of cooking.  Brewers strive for balance and depth of flavor through ingredients and technique, much like a chef.  In fact, several of Jester King's beers are inspired riffs on various dishes we've enjoyed.  Through process and ingredients, beer can have all the complexity and pairing potential of wine, despite the fact that grapes naturally have more complexity than grains."  Beer is a blank canvas.  It's subject to more experimentation than wine, more diversity than wine, and in the end can be made to pair with anything.  Yeast, fermentation temperature, hops, grains, oak, all in different proportions make beer the best beverage for the American diner.  Yet, most still don't see it this way.  Soon, they will.  

Cory King, Founder and Brewer at Side Project Brewing.  Photo courtesy of Tim Bottchen and Side Project Brewing.

Jester King Detritivore. A wild ale fermented with wild yeast and bacteria native to the Texas hill country and collected by Jester King.  Fermented on second use cherries (first use of the cherries was on a beer called Montmorency vs. Balaton). 

Cory King, founder and brewmaster at Side Project Brewing and "director of oak" at Perennial Artisan Ales, says he feels "fortunate when the discussion of beer/food vs. wine/food pairings comes up. For beer, there are no restrictions, in the ingredients we can use in the beer and to the diversity of flavors we can develop.  With this, a beer can often hit on notes in a dish that a wine may not be able to achieve.  Moving forward, I believe that many more high end restaurants and more prolific chefs will be adding beer to their pairing repertoires in order to best showcase flavors and pairing to their guests."  And that's just it.  It's not that having craft beer accessible in more lower price-point restaurants is not helping the cause, because it is.  The more that people have the ability to understand the complexity of this diverse product only helps improve its status in the market.  The point is the level of respect for craftsmanship that has accompanied wine for decades has kept it in the forefront of the conversation when talking about food and, in turn, has allowed wine to maintain prominence and grow is its admiration at the fine dining establishments of the world.  This is the stability that craft beer needs.  Brewers like Cory and Jeff are helping it get there.  The day of drinking beer at a tailgate party only need to be days of the past. 

But what about terroir?  What about wine's ability to speak to a time and place?  Its ability to be compatible with other foods associated with a certain region? Craft beer has that covered.  Breweries like Jester King, Side Project, and Plan Bee Farm Brewery are achieving the same level of complexity and character through local and house yeast strains.  Breweries like Cantillon have been doing it for decades.  "It has been suggested that terroir or sense of place in wine comes in large part from the particular microorganisms living on the skins of the grapes in various geographic locales. This is equally as valid for wild or spontaneously fermented beer from different regions.  The microbes unique to a specific location create complexity and a sense of place in beer during fermentation, just as in wine.  Therefore, I believe it's fair to say that wild beer in particular stands up to the complexity of wine when it comes to food pairings," says Jeff.  And it's true.  Put your nose in a glass of his beer and there's just something there, a distinct characteristic that lets you know "this is Jester King." 

Eileen Andrade, Founder and Chef, Finka Table & Tap.

The signs that this transformation is occurring are out there.  NOMA, considered the world's best restaurant by many, partnered with Mikkeller in 2012 to feature world class, creative beers along side it's world class cuisine.  And call it what you will, but Estrella Damm's Inedit, created with the genius of Ferran Adria,  for the purpose of serving at the table alongside food like what was served at El Bulli, was something that certainly helped move this idea of beer and food forward.  

Giorgio Rapicavoli, founder/chef at Eating House Miami and winner of Food Network's Chopped.

I'm not suggesting that beer drinkers need to start drinking with their pinkies out just for beer to survive what many who don't get the upsurge of craft beer call a fad.  The point is, that craft beer is more suited than anything else right now to be served alongside the most variety of tastes and textures.  Better with cheese.  Better with spice. It's the stigma that needs to be broken down.  The idea that American beers are bland.  The idea that craft beer is nothing more than a way for adults to start up a new collection until the next "cool thing" comes around.  It's creating an appreciation for complexity and experimentation with the understanding that the foie gras you just had to order would go great with an imperial stout or maybe even an earthy, yeast driven farmhouse ale.  Eileen Andrade, chef and owner of Finka Table & Tap in Miami, thinks "beer is an incredibly versatile drink.  It pairs so nicely with so many different kinds of foods.  Our restaurant serves food with Caribbean and Asian influence and the craft beers that we order go so well with the heavily seasoned and spiced foods. I like pairing foods with a drink that is similar to the flavor profile of the dish and craft beer is making it easier for us to do that." The possibilities are endless.  Giorgio Rapicavoli, founder and chef at Eating House in Miami, says "beer plays an integral part of the beverage program at Eating House.  In my opinion beer's diversity in flavor and intensity play off our foods better than wine."  Craft beer must continue to work it's way up the chain into these restaurants.  Restaurants that know how to play off the nuances and subtleties of beer and provide their patrons with an enhanced experience.  

At the end of the day, money rules.  The craft beer drinker must demand these beers at the restaurants.  Change the traditional wine-only thought process.  That day will come - you just need to do your part.


Craft Commander




Beer! Food's Best Friend.

When you think about food and drink pairings, society has trained us to think that wine is what should be served at the table.  Yet, the more I travel the world, the more it becomes apparent that the idea that wine is the only table drink is somewhat of an oddity confined to us here in the States.  Beer is served alongside goulash and pork knee in Prague, mussels in Belgium, fresh conch salad in the Bahamas, and the list goes on.  All around the world people have embraced the idea of beer with food for decades.  Why? Because ultimately, it works better with food than wine!  There, I said it. 

The options are endless.  Countless styles multiplied by countless variations of those styles gives you the ability to find a beer that will suit any meal.  Plus, with the wide availability of hops and grain through homebrew stores and online outlets, if you can’t find what you’re after for a certain food item – you can always brew it yourself!  This is a good thing!  What wine pairs with spicy Indian food better than a hoppy IPA?  None.  Wine people – you know it’s true.  I enjoy wine.  A lot.  Still, beer is king when it comes to pairing.  Try Rapp Brewing’s Gose (Seminole, FL) with some fresh Blue Point oysters and tell me it doesn’t change your perception of what beer can do to food and vice-a-versa.  Dessert you ask?  Grab a piece of decadent chocolate cake and pair it with Cigar City’s Marshall Zhukov (Tampa, FL) and tell me a glass of wine would have paired better.  Point is, beer’s ability to pair with and enhance your food are superior to wine.  Period.

Rapp Brewing Co.'s - Gose.  2014  Best Beer Florida Competition Gold/Best of Show winner.  Visit www.rappbrewing.com for more information on this great Florida craft brewery.

Rapp Brewing Co.'s - Gose.  2014  Best Beer Florida Competition Gold/Best of Show winner.  Visit www.rappbrewing.com for more information on this great Florida craft brewery.

Lucky for us, restaurant owners and chefs are starting to understand the importance of a varied menu of quality craft beers in their restaurants.  Even here in Miami, where the still infantile craft beer scene is only now beginning to crawl, restaurants are popping up around town focusing their entire menus on the way the food will play with the beers being offered.  But it’s not only these beer-centric restaurants that are taking note of the beauties of pairing beers with food.  High end restaurants which traditionally only offered wine or spirits have begun to open the door to the American craft beer too.  Restaurants like Route 9, OTC Miami, and Batch Gastropub are taking things one step further and hosting multi course beer dinners to show off just how good the pairings can be.

For a great read on food pairings with your favorite beer styles check out “The Brewmaster’s Table” by Garrett Oliver. 


Craft Commander