A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2016

2016 best beer header

Ask friends and family. Look around the Internet. Talk to a stranger on the street. It seems just about everyone is over 2016.

But it wasn’t all bad, right? We drank some good beer.

With start of a new year, it’s time to reflect on the great ales and lagers we enjoyed in 2016. Just kidding. It’s only IPAs and imperial stouts.

What has become an annual tradition, I’ve compiled a collection of “best” American beer lists as a way to better determine some ground breaking brands found across the country. For all the subjectivity that goes into creating lists to rank our favorite movies, TV shows and more, I try to find some objective consensus to provide a clearer view of what pleased the palate of drinkers.

To do this, I found a collection of 15 “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from social media to prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2016 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation.

That left me with 155 total beers to analyze with several clearly separating themselves as 2016’s best.

Breakdown of Styles

Before we get to individual beers, a look at the range of styles from all the lists. Perhaps expected, IPAs are king. American IPAs were listed 31 times, double IPAs 21 times and IPAs masquerading as pale ales accounted for 11, which included beers we commonly know as “New England IPAs” but are sometimes classified as a pale ale due to ABV.

Sour and wild are lumped together, as those two monikers are used interchangeably among lists.

2016 best beer styles

Among the “others” are a collection of pilsners (eight), Berliner weisse (three), strong ale (three) and others. Of particular note is the disappearance of goses, which had five on 2014’s collection of lists, 12 in 2015 and just one (Westbrook Key Lime Pie Gose) in 2016.

For an idea of how things have changed for the most-cited styles, here’s a breakdown of percentage change among total beers from the last two years:

  2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers Change
IPA 18.1 20  +1.9
Imperial Stout 10.9 14.8  +3.9
DIPA 14 13.5  -0.5
Sour/Wild 11.9 14.2  +2.3
Saison 5.2 7.7  +2.5
Pale Ale 2.6 7.1  +4.5

Make of it what you will about what will be the “new gose,” a style named as a hot trend in craft beer for the last three years in a row. Pale Ale/NE IPA is an easy one to point at – out of the 155 beers, I could easily identify 18 as NE IPA. But that’s a trend we’ve known about for a while.

I’m very interested in the shift in attention to sour/wild and saison as more breweries start barrel programs, small and large.

ABV Insight

An interesting point when tracking the overall ABV of beers included among the best is the consistency of alcohol content. In the last three years, the average of all beers for my compiled lists was 7.6% (2014), 7.5% (2015) and 7.7% (2016).

For this year’s collection of 155, a look at where beers collectively placed:

best beer abv categories

Before we get too crazed about the 5 to 6.9% portion and hail the victory of sessionable beers, know that roughly half of the 67 in that section were Pale Ale/NE IPA and a range of barrel-aged, European styles like sour/wild and saison. What ties all those together is their exclusivity, which may also impact their appearance on “best of” lists. The inclusion of limited or fully one-off beers could be found across all lists.

Preferred Taste of ‘Taste Makers’

Once style and related information was out of the way, I was very curious to find out what flavor profiles were driving interest in some of the best 2016 beers. Aside from “lots of hops,” of course.

Across the full 155 beers, 42 had easily referenced ingredients that supplied the variety of hops used in recipes. Almost all of those were Pale Ale, IPA or DIPA. Eight non-IPA styles were included. Of the 42, the most-used hop was Citra, which may not come as a surprise given its popularity in 2016. Here are the top hops that were cited in at least five recipes:

best beer hop use

It probably makes perfect sense Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe are well represented and given how well they play together, they’re also used as pairings in many of the 42 beers of this data set.

Hop Pairing Number of Beers
Citra/Mosaic 10
Citra/Simcoe 7
Citra/Amarillo 6
Simcoe/Mosaic 5

For as much as IPA plays a large part in best beer lists, imperial stouts, sour/wild and saisons are also gaining more attention, so I pulled information related to adjuncts and additions, when available. Of the 155 beers 72 were included in this set. Because of the flavor and nuance added through barrel-aging, I counted beers that were in a barrel among this group. Out of 72, the most popular adjunct/additions were:

Barrel-aged 43
Coffee 12
Vanilla 9
Berries 6
Honey 4

Imperial stout was the most common style to have used an adjunct with 19 beers and sour/wild was listed 14 times in this group.

Best Beers of 2016

With all this background information, we’ve got some extra context in which we can better understand the best beers of last year. For the sake of understanding, please realize that the normalization process I use for this analysis doesn’t mean these beers are the religious experience, life-altering beers typically mentioned when “best” gets thrown around. Anyone can go out and make a list of wonderfully made WHALEZ, but in this case, I believe consensus is more powerful than originality. For what it’s worth, I lost track of how many times I read the description of “world class” during this process.

All that said, the 2016 Beer of the Year was Firestone Walker’s Luponic Distortion IPA. And it wasn’t even close.

The new beer, based on a seasonal release schedule to showcase a rotating hop profile, was listed in six of the 15 lists I used. Batch Nos. 2 and 3 were most favored, in that order. Luponic Distortion’s six inclusions were the highest number for a single beer in the three years of doing this analysis, although the success of a rotating hop IPA shouldn’t come as surprise.

Two more beers were included on multiple lists that should provide them with attention. Troegs Nimble Giant DIPA (four lists) and Lagunitas’ Born Yesterday Pale Ale (three lists) also got love from rankers.

Firestone Walker doesn’t provide ingredient details for Luponic Distortion, but Nimble Giant and Born Yesterday both have hop profiles that would be kind of 2016’s favorites:

Beer Hops
Nimble GIant Azacca, Mosaic, Simcoe
Born Yesterday Mosaic, Equinox, Citra, Simcoe and Amarillo

In addition to performing well by individual judges who included these beers on their best beer lists, they also earn high marks on rating sites:

RateBeer Beer Advocate
Luponic Distortion 97 89 and up
Nimble GIant 99 94
Born Yesterday 98 89

Along with these beers, four were included twice on lists: Avery Vanilla Bean Stout, Stone Enjoy By Black IPA, Jester King SPON and Tree House Doppelganger.

You may think being named two to six times across 155 beers isn’t impressive or doesn’t qualify as a “best beer,” but consider finding any commonality should be rare in the first place. While we can be subjective about best movies and TV shows, we’re all still watching the same ones. Options are severely limited to what rises to the top. There are literally thousands of choices that could have been applied to these lists instead.

And I should mention this again, because it already came up as I was putting together this list, your opinion of “best beer” is valid and there are all sorts of fantastic beers that were made. Just because these selections aren’t super-rare or one-off or aged in a barrel doesn’t mean they aren’t world class, like so many others I read about.

So before leaving heated comments below, here’s a great qualifier for you.

Best Breweries of 2016

There are two qualifications to make this list: a brewery has to be cited multiple times, like the best beer selections, but it also has to show range in the beers included across this year’s 155. There were five breweries that made the cut, widely representing the non-IPA flavors and styles that are very popular with beer geeks:

Søle Artisan Ales Kushy Clouds Pale Ale
Euro Spliff Pilsner
Simcoe Nerd DIPA
Giant Juicebox DIPA
Side Project Derivation Imperial Stout
Smooth Sour/WIld
Bière du Pays Saison
Pulling Nails Blend 3 Sour/Wild
Suarez Family Crispy Little Wheat
Believe You Me Pale Ale
Palatine Pils Pilsner
Jester King Gin Barrel Nocturn Chrysalis Wild ale
SPON Méthode Gueuze
RU55 Sour/Wild
Stillwater On Fleek Imperial Stout
21st Century Means Saison
Hopvine Bling Berliner

These names certainly represent a level of excitement around beer drinkers these days, so to see them representing multiple style categories speaks to their creative ability and talents. I’ve heard plenty about Suarez in the last few months, for example, and you can find a long backstory about the brewery here. I also feel (obviously fittingly so) Cory King has gotten increased attention in 2016 for Side Project.

One common denominator among all these is that with the exception of Stillwater’s brands, you’re going to have to work to actually get these beers, whether due to rarity or very limited distribution. These may be some of the best beers available in America right now, but you may not actually get to try them.

Hopefully you live in one of the many states where you can find Luponic Distortion.

If you have any questions about this process and outcomes, reach out on Twitter.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

For reference, the lists from which I compiled data:


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