Craft beer got weird in 2019. Not only did two of America’s most well-known and well-loved breweries get sold — Delaware’s Dogfish Head for $300 million to Boston Beer Co.; New Belgium Brewing to a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin Holdings — but earlier this month, Constellation Brands jettisoned Ballast Point Brewing for a fraction of the $1 billion it paid for it in 2015. The buyer was a largely unknown Chicagoland concern called Kings & Convicts Brewing, whose production was approximately 600 barrels this year (minuscule by any scale) and who had a total of just nine employees.
As head-scratching as this all seems, it’s entirely indicative of an increasingly cutthroat beer market. As with 2018, overall beer consumption this year is projected to be down. But among the vast majority of the 8,000-plus breweries in operation in 2019, production volumes and sales were up, an indication that the big players (namely Anheuser-Busch Cos. and MillerCoors) bore the brunt of the market’s decline. One of the major factors was the summertime explosion of the hard seltzer industry that saw even well-regarded cult breweries such as Monkish and Fonta Flora try to combat White Claw.
Still, innovation continued to flourish among small brewers. Hazy IPAs, fruited sours, and dessert-evoking stouts were de rigueur, but classic styles-grisettes, lagers, mixed-fermentation ales-were back in a big way, and better than ever.
Once again, after sampling hundreds of bottles, cans, drafts, and tasting pours at breweries, bars, restaurants, and festivals throughout the country, we have collected a smattering of our very favorite new American beers released in 2019. Like last year, they cover a wide range of approaches, techniques, and brewing philosophies. Inevitably, many are available only in certain markets in limited batches, but each represents one of the many reasons you can’t keep good craft brewing down.
Fonta Flora Nebo pilsner
Style: Pilsner-style lager, 5.2 percent ABV (alcohol by volume)
Brewery Location: Morganton, North Carolina
I was on a sweltering beach in South Carolina this spring when my friend Alex tossed me an icy can of this crispy little beer. One look at the ice cream cone-adorned label, though, and I balked: “No milkshake IPAs for me, please!” Turns out, rather than an India pale ale brewed with milk sugar and fruit, the ice cream imagery is meant to evoke the pillowy white head of a properly slow-poured pilsner, a style native to the Czech Republic that continues to garner passion among brewers and industry insiders. Still, I was skeptical. What’s a brewery like Fonta Flora, known for its funky wild ales brewed with hyper-regional Appalachian ingredients, doing making a clean, crisp pils? All doubts were gone upon first sip: Snappy, dry, and floral, Nebo is easily one of the most sublime beers I tried this year. Brewed with two types of barley from North Carolina and hops from Germany, it’s a transatlantic marriage of New and Old World ingredients.
Oxbow Sap Haus
Style: Smoked dark lager, 7 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Newcastle, Maine
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Nebo is this dark and smoky lager from Maine’s perennially excellent Oxbow Brewing. The brewery, nestled on a small working farm in rural Newcastle, takes inspiration for Sap Haus from the famed smoked lagers of Bamberg, Germany, and infuses some provincial flavor from locally sourced Maine maple syrup. The result is an intoxicating blend of campfire, caramel, and toffee flavors with an underlying earthiness reminiscent of a stroll through the woods on a bleak fall evening.
Dutchess Ales Ghost beer
Style: Pale ale, 4.8 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Wassaic, New York
It takes guts in 2019 to found an American brewery based solely around a beer style as thoroughly unfashionable as English-style cask ales, but that’s Hudson Valley’s Dutchess Ales for you. Although its beer was previously available only on cask at the very few New York bars still pouring from beer engines, Dutchess took a giant leap forward this year and canned its first beer for wider distribution. A composite style that incorporates equal parts U.K. and West Coast pale ales with a dash of German-style kolsch, Ghost beer is aromatic with biscuity malts and a whiff of grassy British hops. There are no bells and whistles here, just pure, unfussy crushability. (Note that because of a trademark contention, this beer will be known as G.B.)
Half Acre Bodem
Style: American IPA, 6.7 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Chicago
Not so long ago, West Coast brewers were scrambling to outdo one another with the absolute bitterest, most palate-wrecking IPAs in existence. Now New England IPAs-soft, juicy, decidedly low-to-no bitterness-dominate the hop space. Chicago’s Half Acre crafted this hybrid IPA to split the difference. Sharp, moderate bitterness is rounded by a silky soft body and a thoroughly modern hop bill of Idaho 7, Mosaic, and Cashmere for notes of juicy tropical fruit and citrus.
Green Cheek Swim Test
Style: Triple IPA, 10.2 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Orange, California
When I’m feeling particularly jaded about the current state of beer, I lean on breweries like Green Cheek and its “Drink While Smiling” motto to pull me out of the fog. The Orange County, California, upstart embodies everything I love about beer-fun graphic design, immensely crushable brews, a lightheartedness that seems to come naturally-and none of the eye-rolling negativity. I tend to gravitate mostly toward their lagers, but this triple IPA, dry-hopped with Citra and Nelson Sauvin, is incredible. Loaded with soft oats and raw wheat, its pearly white body provides a supple backdrop for layer upon layer of heady papaya, tangelo, and pineapple flavors.
Tired Hands Adaptive Distortion
Style: Table beer, 3.5 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Ardmore, Pennsylvania
Despite the “session beer” designation being all but passé, brewers continue to find innovative ways to pack big flavors into low-alcohol beers. One of the best examples is this pale little table beer (similar in style to a saison or grisette) from Pennsylvania’s esoteric and ever-intriguing Tired Hands. Adaptive Distortion’s king-size complexity stems from a combination of prolonged fermentation in French oak and a lavish dose of fashionable New Zealand hops including Nelson Sauvin (white wine aromas), Motueka (mojitolike lime character), and New Zealand-grown Cascade (grapefruit whispers). The beer smacks of expressive fruity and funky notes but drinks like a crusher.
Off Color Very, Very Far
Style: Mixed-fermentation ale, 6 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Chicago
Chicago’s Off Color seems perfectly happy marching to the beat of its own drum. The brewery famously favors arcane styles over popular ones (when’s the last time you had a kottbusser ale?) and often concocts complex, labor-intensive blends of wood-conditioned wild ales, all while maintaining a zany sense of humor about it all. Fermented with dual yeast strains including Torulaspora delbrueckii, a strain used in winemaking, and hopped with both New Zealand and American hops, this deep golden Belgian-style ale is a prime example of the brewery going the extra mile to craft something peculiar and off-beat. Fruity and spicy, the beer is layered with flavors of peach, plum, and herbaceous grass.
Suarez Family Brewery Crescent
Style: Saison, 4.7 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Livingston, New York
To be frank, nearly any of the two dozen or so new beers Suarez Family released from its Hudson Valley brewery this year could have made this list. Its crisp lagers and so-called country beers (Belgian-inspired saisons, namely) are simply that stupendous. But this beer’s balance of crackling tartness and svelt grace made it stand out. Concocted with European hops and a high proportion of raw emmer wheat, the beer is electric and zippy with restrained aromas of grapefruit, kiwi, and lemon and ends on a gently tannic finish.
Burial Portal Beyond Nonexistence
Style: Imperial stout, 15 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Asheville, North Carolina
I’m skeptical of beers fortified with umpteen ingredients-a dash of nutmeg here, a sprinkle of chipotle there-often assuming the add-ons are meant to hide a flaw or mask a brewery’s ineptitude. That’s not the case with this behemoth of an imperial stout from North Carolinian stalwarts Burial Beer. Sure, it incorporates a litany of ingredients: cocoa nibs from local Asheville chocolatiers French Broad Chocolates, whole vanilla beans from Tahiti, a Vietnamese cinnamon variety, and sea salt smoked over maple. But each adds dimension, depth, and complexity, creating a multifaceted beer that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Jet black in color and weighing in at a swole 15 percent alcohol, it bursts with bold aromas of dark roast coffee and sticky toffee, finishing with just a hint of brackish salinity.
Sierra Nevada Trip In the Woods: Vintage Bigfoot
Style: Barleywine, 12.1 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Chico, California
A friend of mine makes a hobby of scouring old beer and liquor stores for dusty bottles of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barleywine from years past, a beer that just seems to get better with age. (He reportedly recently scored a 2012 six-pack somewhere in rural New Jersey.) For those of us who don’t spend weekends on the hunt for vintage beers but still want the sublime pleasure of drinking it, Sierra Nevada delivered this year with Trip in the Woods, a bottled blend of one-, two-, and three-year-aged barleywine rested, respectively, in Kentucky bourbon barrels then blended together. Heady with notes of dried dark fruits, toasted oak and tobacco, the beer is balanced by a sneaky citrusy note from Pacific Northwest hops.
Allagash Barrel & Bean
Style: Tripel with coffee, 10 percent ABV
Brewery Location: Portland, Maine
In a world of lactose-infused smoothie sours and quadruple hop-charged IPAs, coffee beers might seem a little quaint. But this cold-brew-infused tripel from Allagash got me excited once again for caffeinated brews. The base beer, Allagash’s already excellent tripel, is aged in bourbon barrels for almost two months before it’s blended with Ethiopian cold brew coffee from fellow Mainers Speckled Ax roasters. Ripe with flavors of banana, vanilla, and honey, the beer ends with a soothing, lingering finish.