The Beer Baron picks his favorite beers of 2017.
The year in beer
I will remember 2017 as a year of turmoil and the year I kicked my IPA habit.
India pale ales had long been my go-to style, with few drinking occasions too long to require something with less than the IPA's 6-7 percent ABV. I like hops — fruity, piney, floral, earthy, cat pee-y — and the IPA was the most reliable vehicle I'd found for them.
But this year, I turned increasingly to pale ales and pilsners — for all occasions, not just extended sessions. Maybe I started listening to my body, which despite my protests turned another year older in 2017, and lightened up the beverage choices.
Or, perhaps, some really great pale ales and pilsners emerged from Wisconsin brewers, making the everyday-drinking choice something to actually think about again.
Who can say, for sure, but let's lead off the 2017 Beers of Year column with a great pale ale and a great pils, shall we?
Motto — Good City Brewing
I said some kind words about Milwaukee-brewed Motto when it first dropped in Madison in January, and as the year wore on, I walked that talk. Motto was unquestionably the beer I drank the most of in 2017, thanks to a gorgeous expression of my favorite hop (Mosaic), a comfortable ABV (5.2 percent) and a nice price point.
But also: Motto led the pack, but pale ale goodness was abundant from Wisconsin brewers this year. Another Milwaukee kinda-newcomer, Third Space Brewing, rewarded trips to that metro area with its excellent Happy Place.
Also worth a mention as underappreciated entries to the style are Wisconsin Brewing's Red Arrow, a tribute to the centennial of Wisconsin's 32nd Infantry Division, and Lakefront Brewery's Warm Front, which recently returned for its second seasonal stint.
- Brewer: Good City Brewing, Milwaukee
- Style: American Pale Ale
- ABV: 5.2%
12 oz. Curl — Ale Asylum
There's a reason yellow, fizzy lager is the most popular beer in the world. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it has more to do with the appeal of the beer than marketing campaigns by multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporations. (Dilly dilly!) When done well, a pilsner — and, to a far lesser degree, the American and European lagers that rose from it — is a masterpiece of flavor, aroma and balance.
American brewers talk about balance a lot, but they have been playing to our palates and pocketbooks by emphasizing big flavors and novelties, and balance is often sacrificed in the name of those extremes. I've been right there, with my wallet and fridge open for much of this crazy stuff.
It's why I was not expecting a pilsner to be my favorite of the many fine beers Ale Asylum released this year. And especially this pilsner — a delicate, subtle work of balance rather than the more assertive American interpretation I'd expect from Ale Asylum or just about any other American brewery releasing a pils in 2017. Curl's hops stood out, sure — Hallertauer Mittelfruh lended a gentle, flowery, herbal-spicy note — but the pilsner malt's bready-cereal sweetness stood shoulder-to-shoulder. I didn't find the second, midsummer batch of the seasonal quite as exceptional, but that won't deter me from making a plea to Ale Asylum to bring Curl back, as a summer seasonal at least.
- Brewer: Ale Asylum, Madison
- Style: German pilsner
- ABV: 5.2%
Oaxacan Stout — Untitled Art
Levi Funk of Funk Factory Geuzeria was bored with the Wisconsin beer market. Where were the hazy IPAs, the adjunct stouts, the heavily fruited Berliner weisses? Funk is a blender, though, not a brewer, so last year he approached Isaac Showaki of Octopi Brewing with an idea: Let's start a new beer label, made at Octopi, that makes the sexy beer styles that are wearing out shelves in other markets, with an emphasis on collaborations with breweries that do those styles really well.
Untitled Art started a little slow out of the gate last December, but for my money (and UA beers were pricey) each of the dozen or so releases was a must-try, and each of the beers that were repeated — Juicy IPA, Hazy IIPA and Florida Weisse — was markedly better the second time around. In sum, Untitled Art became, arguably, the story of the year in Wisconsin beer. Three or four different Untitled Art beers could have cracked beers of the year, with standouts in hoppy beers (Hazy IIPA, Wet Hop IPA) and malt bombs (Coffee Stout, English Barleywine).
But alas, there can be only one here, and in the end it was a tossup between two enormous imperial stouts: Hazelnut Imperial Stout, a collaboration with Chicago's Mikerphone Brewing, and Oaxacan Stout, made with input from 3 Sons Brewing in Florida. Hazelnut is a gorgeous beer, with the adjunct in the name coming through assertively on the aroma, subtly in the flavor and delicately on the finish of an expertly balanced 11 percent ABV milk stout. But Oaxacan gets the nod because it's an excellent interpretation of one of the hottest styles going, the Mexican hot chocolate stout. It's a 13 percent ABV, creamy, cinnamon-chocolate dream with a dry, dark-chocolate finish and a touch of pepper flavor — spice but no heat.
- Brewer: Untitled Art, Waunakee
- Style: Imperial stout
- ABV: 13%
Dare Mighty Things Citra — The Brewing Projekt
Nationally, the beer story of 2017 was the rise of New England/Northeast IPA. The style is defined by its haze — in some cases, straight-up milkshake murk — its full mouthfeel and its subdued bitterness due to brewing techniques that shove its prized juicy hop character more to the aroma.
The style took the express train out of New England this year, with hundreds of breweries hoping to replicate the phenomenon that has fans waiting in line for hours at breweries for releases out East. Some Wisconsin brewers got in on the act — the Great Dane did one of the better NEIPAs I had this year with Vermont Bandwagon — but not many made it to bottle shop shelves, and even fewer came even close to living up to the hype.
The big exception was the Dare Mighty Things series from The Brewing Projekt in Eau Claire. It's probably on the edge of qualifying as a NEIPA, but let's put it in that category due to its moderate haze and over-the-top juicy hop flavor and aroma. This year DMT got the single-hop treatment with Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado and Amarillo — each variety is present in the original version — as well as a fleeting but fabulous wet-hop batch. My favorite was Citra, with orange-pineapple hop character turned up to 11 and barely enough bitterness on the finish to clamp down on the sugary malt sweetness that befalls too many NEIPAs.
- Brewer: The Brewing Projekt, Eau Claire
- Style: IPA
- ABV: 6.4%
As has been the case for quite a few years running now, there was a strong crop of "normal" American IPAs this year. Central Waters updated its year-round IPA with Rift. Lakefront nailed the debut of its single-hop series with SHOP-Centennial, which won the inaugural Wisconsin IPA Festival this summer and is still drinking pretty darn nicely a couple of months after its bottle release. It sets a high bar for the SHOP series, which continues with the just-released Denali IPA and in 2018 with Amarillo, Mosaic (a blonde ale instead of an IPA), Azacca, Saaz (a pilsner) and Galaxy.
And maybe the best Wisconsin-made IPA of the year comes from … Denmark? Lazurite is made under contract at Wisconsin Brewing in Verona for WarPigs Brewing, a collaboration between Three Floyds (Indiana) and Mikkeller (Denmark).
Cherry Meerts — Funk Factory Geuzeria
Many people sipping their first sour beer fall into one of two camps: "Whoa, no no NO WHAT IS THAT?" or "Wow! Why did I not try this sooner?" For them, the die is cast. But for many sour neophytes, it's, "Hmmm, whoa, um, OK… Yeah, I … that's interesting." I was one of those who took some time to adjust to the tart, funky spectrum of flavors unique to sour and wild beers.
These are the people who can be won over by Meerts, the flagship beer from Madison's Funk Factory Geuzeria, which brews exclusively sours, most of them made using Belgian-born techniques known in the United States as Méthode Traditionnelle. Funk Factory captain Levi Funk's fruited lambic-style beers hold their own against the best made here in America, and Meerts is a baby brother of those, using still-traditional techniques that speed the production and produce a less complex beer.
Cherry Meerts is my favorite of the half-dozen or so fruited Meerts variants so far: moderately tart, with just the right amount of fruit, a little funk and some amaretto-esque woodiness. It suggests the complex depths of true lambic but doesn't quite go there.
- Brewer: Funk Factory Geuzeria, Madison
- Style: Fruit lambic
- ABV: 6%
Uber Joe — 3 Sheeps
This was the year Sheboygan's 3 Sheeps Brewing grew up, trading its lighthearted sheep mascot for a more serious, art-meets-science brand with super-cool textured labels and sophisticated designs.
While it was mostly a matter of the branding catching up with the already good-to-great beer, 3 Sheeps this year also brought out some excellent new beers, including Nitra Joe, a nitrogenated stout that should be in any coffee fan's fridge; Fresh Coast, a juicy pale ale, and The Wolf, a big, complex barrel-aged stout that rivals any made in Wisconsin.
As part of the makeover, 3 Sheeps also brought some of its best beers out of bombers and into four-packs. That's where Uber Joe comes in. This imperial stout — made with coffee, cocoa and vanilla, and infused with oak — has been around since early 2016, but it will be overlooked in the bomber section or cellar no longer, as Uber Joe four-packs were part of the makeover this spring. And the beer lives up to every bit of roasty-chocolate-sweet promise you'd hope for.
- Brewer: 3 Sheeps Brewing
- Style: American imperial stout
- ABV: 10%