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15 Craft Beers to Try Before You Die

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Photo by David Jensen

The biggest challenge in compiling this list of 15 beers to try before you die: narrowing the selection to a mere 15 beers. The list is by no means complete and it is entirely subjective, but these are the beers that left a lasting impression. In writing this list, I adhered to three simple guidelines. First and foremost, each beer on the list is available at least once a year. You might have to travel to a particular region to get it, but you should be able to find it. This criterion eliminates all anniversary and most collaboration beers. Second, the list reflects a variety of beer styles from various regions, a necessity on any “beers to try before you die” list. Finally, I tried each of these beers prior to writing this article.

In no particular order, here are 15 beers to try before you die.

1. Firestone-Walker Double Jack (California)

This is a world-class double IPA with a bouquet of tangerine and passion fruit, with a touch of pine and basil. Despite the whopping 9.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and loads of hops, Double Jack is a well-balanced beer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite bitter—but the sweetness, while not overpowering, smooths out the flavors nicely. You can actually get a world-class Double IPA without waiting in line for three hours once a year.

2. Elysian Dark O’ the Moon Pumpkin Stout (Washington)

I tried this beer several times at the Great American Beer Festival and couldn’t get enough. Imagine a pumpkin ale combined with a rich, sweet stout. It’s like pumpkin pie with a side pumpkin ice cream all smothered with a stout-chocolate sauce.

3. Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace (New York)

This beer is made with Sorachi Ace, a type of hops grown in Japan and normally used for Japanese beer. The beer style is a saison, which works very well with these hops. The aroma has generous amounts of lemon and lemon zest. Complementing the lemon are notes of coriander, wood and some cloves with just a touch of banana. It’s a refreshing, unique and delicious beer.

4. Struise Black Albert (Belgium)

The best way to describe the style of this beer is by what’s printed on the bottle: Royal Belgian Stout. Replace “Royal” with “Imperial” or “Double” and you start to get the idea. This is a strong beer, 13% ABV with strong flavors, which is well crafted and much too easy and fun to drink. It smells like dark chocolate, molasses and a bit of espresso. The taste is a bit like a barleywine, very sweet and and bitter. With Black Albert, the bitterness is smooth and more like a dark Belgian chocolate than a bitter, hoppy ale.

5. 21st Amendment Bitter American (California)

Just because a craft beer is low in alcohol doesn’t mean it has less flavor, and Bitter American proves that. This beer is loaded with hoppy aromas, bitterness and malty flavors. At the same time, it’s crisp and refreshing. Weighing in at only 4.4% ABV, this would be the perfect year-round session beer—if it were actually available all year. Unfortunately, this is a seasonal release.

6. Hangar 24 Altbier (California)

The flagship of Hangar 24 is their Orange Wheat, but personally, I enjoy their altbier much more. This beer is malty yet dry and crisp. It has the earthy, herbal, resiny aromas of German noble hops. The flavor accentuates the flavor of the malt the hops and even throws in some roasty flavors with a hint of cacao beans . This is another great all-season beer, refreshing in warm weather and roasty and flavorful in the cooler months.

7. Fullsteam Southern Lager (North Carolina)

The style of this beer is like that of Anchor Steam: it’s a California Common, an amber lager fermented at 58ºF. Fullsteam’s version uses 100% Northern Brewer hops, and unlike other versions of this style that I’ve tried, the hops are much more pronounced and have a wonderful earthy, green, resiny and woodsy bouquet. The hops are complemented nicely with a bisquity malt profile. Complex in its simplicity, this is a great everyday session beer.

8. Deschutes Hop in the Dark CDA (Oregon)

CDA stands for Cascadian Dark Ale, which is just another way of describing of a new up-and-coming style of beer often called “black IPA” or, officially, “black ale.” Although this isn’t the original black IPA, it is a great example of the style. This beer perfectly matches dark, roasty and sweet with hoppy, floral, citrus and bitter. It’s hoppy and dark while maintaining a medium body and a crisp IPA quality.

9. Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella (Belgium)

Cantillon makes nothing but excellent sours ales and this is one of their best. This beer is produced every year as a vintage and, as such, it will vary slightly from year to year but should always be a wonderful experience. It also might be a bit difficult to find unless, of course, you visit the brewery in Brussels where they have plenty in stock.

The Grand Cru Bruocsella is quite sour but not puckering and not super dry, like some of their other sour lambic ales . The aroma, like sour apples, wine grapes, and dusty French oak, instantly transported me back to the barrel room at the brewery. The flavor is reminiscent of sour apple and chardonnay with a touch of vinegar or Meyer lemons. A fantastic sour beer.

10. Westvleteren 8 (Belgium)

Westvleteren is one of the seven Trappist monasteries that brew beer and this Trappist brewery in particular is world-renown for one of their other beers, the Westvleteren 12. Some Belgian beer experts, such as Tim Webb, think that 8 is slightly better than 12. The style of Westvleteren 8 is a Belgian strong dark ale. It’s a surprisingly balanced beer that’s like an earthy, roasty apple pie with notes of cooked Granny Smith apples, molasses, cloves, tarragon, dried fruit, roasted malts and a dash of cacao. It is a complex and enjoyable beer. Read more about Westvleteren 8 at Beer 47.

11. Houblon Chouffe (Belgium)

Yes, Belgians make IPAs and they’re quite a unique experience that you must try, especially if you like both IPA and Belgian beer. Brasserie d’Achouffe was one of the first to brew this style. This beer has been crafted to masterfully combine the typical banana, cloves and lemon citrus characteristics of a Belgian strong pale ale with the orange citrus, pine and floral characteristics of an American IPA. It has a nice balance of IPA-style bitterness and Belgian biscuit malty sweetness.

12. Duck Rabbit Milk Stout (North Carolina)

This beer is like drinking bittersweet dark chocolate milk. The aroma, flavor and even the creamy texture of this beer contribute to its flavor profile: it truly is bitter, sweet, roasty and chocolatey. Milk stout is made with lactose, which helps add that creamy sweetness, but not many breweries make this style. If you can’t find Duck-Rabbit milk stout but know of another brewery in your area that makes one, try it!

13. Oskar Blues G’Knight, aka Gordon Beer (Colorado)

This style of this beer is best described as a hoppy imperial red ale. It seems to have a double dose of everything: resinous green hops, sweet malt flavors and alcohol. G’Knight has a wonderful hop and malt bouquet of citrus, pine, fresh-cut flower stems and caramel. This beer is technically very bitter but the sweetness and slightly roasted flavors of the malt smooth out nearly all the bitterness. Here’s my complete review of G’Knight at Beer 47.

14. Moon River Rosemary Swamp Fox IPA (Georgia)

Have you ever had a beer that was a little lemony and herbal? Perhaps you thought it smelled a bit like rosemary? Well, Moon River took that thought to the next level and made this award-winning IPA. Rosemary can be overwhelming, if not used in moderation, and this brewery used the perfect amount in their IPA. The pungent rosemary and lemon aroma meshes masterfully with a perfect balance of sweet and bitter flavors.

15. Cascade Bourbonic Plague (Oregon)

Cascade Brewing gave this beer a frightening name for such a wonderful and interesting beer. This dark, sour wild ale was made by aging porter in oak wine and bourbon barrels, then blending it with a vanilla and cinamon porter, and finally aging it again in a bourbon barrel. This intensive process results in an incredible beer with flavors of bourbon, vanilla, cacao, dried fruit and oak, with a moderate amount of sourness reminiscent of balsamic vinegar.

There you have it, 15 beers to try before you die. This list will certainly evolve over time, but it should give you a good start as you seek out interesting and delicious beers. What other beers would you recommend? Which ones make your list of beers to try before you die?

  • http://twitter.com/NorthsideTony Tony Black

    nice. you should be able to knock these out before your mid-life crisis, even. 

  • http://twitter.com/winebeerWA Wine Beer Washington

    Dick Cantwell at the Elysian is the PUMPKIN KING. Watch this fall for his upcoming pumpkin collaBEERations

  • http://twitter.com/tlkativ leandra ganko

    This is definitely a list compiled by a hop-head. :)  I would contribute the Schneider and Sons Aventinus Eisbock. Delicious!

    • David Jensen

      I’m not so sure about that. :-)

      • David Jensen

        Oops I meant to include more. I hope to have provided a good mix of hoppy and non-hoppy beers. I love hoppy bitter beers, dark sweet beers, and everything in between. 

  • Lorne

    Thomas Creek Conduplico Immundus Monachus

  • http://twitter.com/marisamenuism Marisa Miyasaki

    I’ll make sure to add these to my bucket list! :D

  • Okiurn

    No list can be complete without including Rogue Brewery’s Shakespeare Stout. It’s a conversation stopper!

  • Anom

    If you knew how Rogue runs their company or how they treat their employees I hope you would never drink the beer. John is great and makes great beer, its to bad he works for such horrible people.

    • Anonymous

      Now that is uncalled for and scurillous.

  • Cheesehead

    No New Glarus beers?

    • Anonymous

      New Glarus is easily top five microbrewery in my humble opinion. Hate living in NC and only being able to get it when visiting the GF family.

  • Anonymous

    Tree Brewing Co. Limited Edition Unfiltered Hefeweizen, from Kelowna, B.C., is outstanding!  Dynamic body with incredible orange zest.

  • http://twitter.com/Shakoozie Phil Novara

    I’ve only tried the Cantillon Grand Cru and Houblon Chouffe on this list, better get to work!

  • beerelzebub

    It does seem like the author is laughably ignorant of beers in what he would undoubtedly name “flyover country”, With only one Colorado beer listed, and a full 90% of the Country ignored, he reveals the tremendous paucity of his education. Not only does the world not revolve around his parochial view that includes only the West and East coastal areas, he seems curiously limited in his choice of beer styles. All in all, he disappoints. 

    • Anonymous

      Beerelzebub,

      Your feedback is much appreciated, but we must ask that you please refrain from hostile name-calling when formulating your response. It is our goal to foster a positive environment on Menuism, and while we completely understand that everyone’s opinions may differ, we would like the comments to remain respectful. Keep in mind that David acknowledges up front that the list is subjective and not exhaustive– it’s just a fun exercise to get people excited about beers to try.

      Thank you,

      Marisa

      • Anonymous

        He did not call anyone names; he merely pointed out the parochialism exhibited in the piece. Perhaps one should try these beers if they are offered but the universe from which they are drawn is, indeed, quite finite.

  • Jojigregorio

    Why is it there are no “German beers” mentioned?  Is the writer really a beer drinker?  How about San Miguel Beer (brown/pale of course)?

    • Anonymous

      Jojigregorio,

      We appreciate your feedback. Keep in mind though that David acknowledges up front that the list is subjective and not
      exhaustive– it’s just a fun exercise to get people excited about beers
      to try.

      Thank you,

      Marisa

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pete-Bucci/1138026370 Pete Bucci

    I wish I could find any of those beers where I live. Fortunately, we have a few brewpubs around here, so I can enjoy award-winning beers like Brown’s Whiskey Porter and C.H. Evans Kick-Ass Brown.

  • Jefferson

    You forgot New Orleans hand crafted beer!  You must have a pint (or two) of “Hopitoulas IPA” made by NOLA Brewing before you die. That’s pronounced “hoppi two lass,” which is a play on the famous NOLA street name “Tchoupitoulas.”  Here’s a link to NOLA Brewing.  http://www.nolabrewing.com/2010/brews/hopitoulas/

  • Mikeinfhaz

    this must have been mentioned, but Pliny the Elder should definitely be on this list. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.morris1 Bill Morris

    Wow, you missed the best beer brewers in the country by “hopping” completely over the midwest.  Founders Breakfast Stout in Grand Rapids Michigan is delicious.  It packs a bit of a kick 8.3% ABV but has a rich velvet texture.  Founder’s Imperial Stout is a year-round delight.  I find Michigan has some of the best beer in America.  Also, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from England is chocolatey, rich. The nitro-can and bottle make this a magnificent beer.
     

  • Rsteele

    Left Hand Brewery Milk Stout is unbelievable!!!

  • Otis

    What ever happened to beer flavored Beer?? Some of these almost turned my stomach, other sounded very interesting… All a matter of taste I guess, but some of these?  Please….
    Americans by and large don’t know what real beer is, and this is why there are so many craft beer and home brewers around today. Maybe we can learn if some of these craft brewers can get a foothold, you left out Shmaltz Brewing Co.
    for one, Smaltz actually tastes like the Homebrewed beer I make in my own kitchen.

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David Jensen is based out of San Francisco and is the primary writer and photographer for Beer 47, a blog focused on craft beer, beer events, cooking with beer, and homebrewing. In addition to the blog, you can frequently find David on Twitter as @beer47, tweeting interesting news and sparking up conversations about craft beer while sipping his favorite Double IPA. By day David is a software engineer for a small Internet company.


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