2016 was the year that my beer nerdery really took off. When I moved back to Pittsburgh last November, I really thought that the opposite would happen, since Pittsburgh is so much smaller than Chicago, I figured the beer scene would be a lot more limited. But it turns out that the opposite is true. Smart Asset named Pittsburgh its #3 best city for beer drinkers this year based on number of microbreweries, number of bars, Yelp reviews, and the average price of a pint. It feels like a new brewery is opening or announced every week.
In Chicago, the city was so big and the beer scene so intense that I often felt kind of isolated. There was just so much that it was hard to keep track of good new breweries or beers. In Pittsburgh, there’s a great community of beer people who aren’t brewers or otherwise in the industry, especially on Facebook. I also got a license and a car, which made getting to out-of-the-way breweries and stores a lot easier.
All this is to say that I drank a lot of beer this year – some great, most good, and a few terrible. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.
Russian River Pliny the Elder – Imperial IPA
I had my first Pliny the Elder in San Francisco in March. I was there for a conference and my coworkers and I stopped into a good beer bar. When I saw it on the menu, I flipped out. A few weeks later, I went back to northern California on a business trip. After my colleague and I wrapped up our meetings, he suggested looking for a place to grab a beer before we had to head back to San Francisco to catch our flights home. I knew Petaluma wasn’t too far, so I considered Lagunitas. But on a hunch I did a search of what was even closer, and Russian River came up. It was five minutes away.I actually may have enjoyed the sours at Russian River even more than their other stuff, but I have to respect Pliny the Elder. It’s the elder statesman in the West Coast hop bomb movement, and for good reason. It’s hoppy without completely destroying your mouth (though I love Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker for that), and it’s just so drinkable. It reminded me a lot of a less sharp version of Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust.
Dancing Gnome Wonka – Dry Stout
Dancing Gnome opened in the totally unlikely locale of Sharpsburg a few months ago, brewing “unapologetically hop pronounced styles.” As a fan of big hoppy beers, I expected to be impressed by their pale ales, and I was. But the best thing I had there and one of my favorite beers this year was Wonka, a dry stout. Chewy and full of chocolate without being overpoweringly sweet, it’s a very unique beer.
Troegs Nimble Giant – Double IPA
This was my first summer back in Pittsburgh, so I know I’m behind in singing the praises of Nimble Giant. I’d had a few Troegs beers on trips back east, but wasn’t very impressed. The deeper I dig into their catalog, though, the more I like their stuff. Nimble Giant is one of their once-a-year beers that comes out only in the summer. And it is perfect for summer – a slightly floral, slightly citrus-y double IPA that is way too easy to drink.
Hitchhiker A Different Animal – Dry Hopped Sour
Hitchhiker is the brewery I’ve been to the most this year – their beers are solid, they’re close by, and they allow dogs, so of course I’m a frequent visitor. A Different Animal is one of the first beers of theirs that I tried, and it’s one that I’ve come back to again and again. I love sours and I will generally try one when I see one, but I find it tough to find sours that are well-balanced – they’re often too sweet, too sour, or trying to do way too much. A Different Animal strikes that perfect balance of being complex with notes of lemon and a touch of hops.
Dogfish Head Beer for Breakfast – Stout
Dogfish Head tries to sell scrapple as a Delaware thing on their website, but Pennsylvanians know it’s ours. A stout brewed with molasses, milk sugars, brown sugar, and scrapple, Beer for Breakfast is dark, smoky, and sweet, without being too syrupy. I bought a twelve pack of this, and it’s rare for me to buy large amounts of the same beer. I’m pretty sure I’ll be sad when it’s gone.
Wicked Weed Montmaretto – American Wild Ale
I’ve heard a lot about Wicked Weed and picked up a few of their large formats on vacation in North Carolina this autumn. This was my favorite. Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?! Combine ale aged in neutral wine barrels, fermented with cherries, and combined with another part aged with almonds. The result is a beer that smells like a toasted almond and tastes like a mix of sour, funky cherries with a light almond finish.
And the worst.. I mean, I drank some MGD this year, so that is obviously the worst. I didn’t really have any craft beers that I outright loathed, but I was disappointed by a few. My biggest disappointments this year were by Evil Twin.
You know that Lewis Black bit about being fooled every year into trying candy corn, and remembering how terrible it is? That’s kind of how I feel about Evil Twin. Every time I see their cans in the store I’m lured in by the pretty packaging. I read the description and I think “huh, that sounds okay,” and buy it expecting to finally enjoy something of theirs. But I never do. It’s not that I find their beers bad.. it just seems uninspired.
They seem to save all of their really interesting ideas for the Biscotti series and other large formats. But even those have been disappointing for me. Michigan Maple Jesus was very good, but it wasn’t a beer I’d hanker for over and over again. I have a bottle of Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break in my fridge right now, so maybe that will change my mind.