The best (and worst) beer I drank in 2016

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.

What were your best and worst beers this year? Share in the comments!

Beer

Beer. Like lots of other people, I really like it.

This wasn’t always the case. In college, every party I went to had one beer option: the Chicago standard cheap terrible beer, Old Style. I have never and hope to never taste urine, but I can only imagine that Old Style bears a similar flavor profile to it. It is weak, bland, and kind of metallic. So I drank Smirnoff Twisted instead, because it tasted like soda.

Eventually, my college boyfriend introduced me to both Stella Artois and Boddington’s as alternatives. I liked Stella because it at least had some flavor, and it was fairly easy to drink. And I loved Boddington’s because it smelled and tasted (to me) like fresh-cut grass. It was the perfect spring and summer beer.

By late 2008, craft beer was becoming a really big deal, and I was lucky enough to live in a city with a huge craft beer scene. Boddington’s wasn’t great for fall and summer, so I started to try pumpkin beers, stouts, and porters, all of which I loved. I found tons of bars with amazing beer selections and tried as many different beers as I could.

At this point, I would say I’m a beer enthusiast, but not an expert. I’ve never bothered to learn much about the process of making beer. I never waited in long lines for Bourbon County or other limited edition bottles. But I do make it a point to try lots of different types of beer from lots of different breweries, especially when I travel. So since November 2011, I’ve tracked almost every beer I drink using Untappd. I say “almost” because:

  1. Sometimes I end up drinking a beer in a place with bad cell reception and forgot to track it later, and, more likely,
  2. Sometimes I drink so many beers that I.. shall we say.. lose my ability to remember to check in to them.

This week, I finally become an Untappd supporter, which allowed me to do an export of every check-in I’ve ever made on Untappd. That’s 1,498 check-ins, 810 of which were unique beers. So about half of the beer that I drink is new to me, and half is repeats.

Untappd supporters get some cool stats and charts, too. For example:

beer

That spike in February 2016 was the Pittsburgh Beerfest, by the way. And I should probably be concerned about my health if I’m having an average of two beers per day.

But the Untappd stats only scratch the surface. I now have a ton of data about the beer that I drink. So, being a data nerd, I started thinking about how I could use said data. Do I have beer “blind spots” – styles of beer that I haven’t had much of? Are there certain breweries that I drink a lot of beer from, maybe without realizing?

The cool thing about Untappd’s stats is that they break down into two types: unique check-ins vs. total check-ins. Unique check-ins count a beer once, whereas total check-ins count repeats. This allows for an interesting perspective for considering how often I drink a beer, style, etc. vs how many different beer, styles, etc. I’ve tried.

Styles

I love IPAs. I love anything that tastes bitter and makes my tongue hurt. (According to this study, I may be a psychopath.) So I was expecting IPAs to be high on my list in terms of the number of beers that I’ve had of particular styles. But the full breakdown was kind of surprising, especially when you compare unique beers vs. all check-ins:

[table id=6 /]

Unsurprisingly, the top two types of beers that I both try and drink regularly are pale ales. But I apparently also try and regularly drink fruit beers a lot, which I would not have guessed. That said, if I’m at a bar with a good beer selection and I see a fruit beer I’ve never had before, I’ll often try it. Fruit beers are interesting to me because they can vary so widely – I’ve had some that taste sickeningly sweet and others that are totally true to the fruit they’re supposed to represent (New Glarus makes amazing fruit beers, for example). This also true for ciders, which I think is partially due to the fact that ciders tend to be either very widely distributed (think Redd’s) or made by very small meaderies/cideries (like Arsenal here in Pittsburgh), so I like to try different fruit beers because of these differences.

I also try a lot of saisons, but don’t drink them regularly. They’re another type of beer that I’ll try when I’m out, but won’t buy for home. It also makes a lot of sense that I try a lot of American Imperial/Double Stouts, but because of the high alcohol content, I don’t drink them often.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are my friends Radlers and American Amber Lagers. When I lived in Chicago, I would make it a point to drink a lot of Yuengling when I came home to visit, since I couldn’t get it in Chicago. Now that I live in Pittsburgh again, I still drink it often – to me, it’s  a very good very cheap beer. And I’ve had a ton of Stiegl Radlers over the last two summers, since they’re very low alcohol and very refreshing. That said, I don’t stray from those two particular beers, so my “try rate” for those types are low while my consumption is high.

Breweries

So what about different breweries? Do I tend to stick to one or a handful of beers from a brewery, or try lots of different stuff?

[table id=10 /]

* Does not include any brewery checked into five times or fewer.

The data shows a similar trend to what I saw with styles. For certain breweries (generally macro breweries), my “try rate” is very low. For example, 96% of my check-ins to Yuengling beers are for their Traditional Lager. For craft breweries,  my “try rate” tends to be much higher. I’ve repeated beers less than 20% of the time from Pipeworks, Stone, Russian River, and Firestone Walker, for example.

The breweries that I’ve tried the most different beers from are an interesting mix:

  • Revolution – used to live down the street from their brewpub, so I tried lots of different stuff
  • Goose Island – because I lived in Chicago and they are everywhere
  • New Glarus – Wisconsin’s finest, and I begged anyone who went to Wisconsin to bring some back for me
  • Pipeworks – they produce tons of large formats in interesting flavors
  • Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) – say what you will about Sam Adams, but I think their seasonal and variety pack beers are pretty decent, and great to bring to a party in a pinch

This list will be interesting to look back on as I live in Pittsburgh longer, since it’s very Chicago- and midwest-heavy right now.

Most Consumed Beers

I’m not calling these “favorites” because there are a lot of beers that I love but don’t or can’t drink often, either because they’re hard to find or are no longer produced. These would be more aptly called my “go to” beers:

[table id=9 /]

* Does not include any beer checked into five times or fewer.

The next time I hear someone rant about craft beer snobs, I’m going to point them to this list. I obviously drink a lot of craft beer, but Yuengling and MGD are in my top 10 most-consumed list, so…

The thing is, I think if you did this kind of analysis on most craft beer drinkers’ consumption, you would find something similar. Craft beer is much more widespread than it used to be,  but if you go out a lot, you’re going to go to a large number of places that don’t have awesome craft options. Yuengling and MGD are often the cheapest options at a baseball game. In Chicago, Green Line and Anchor Steam were often the only “craft” options at dive bars.

Because such a high percentage of my check-ins are to beers that I’ve never had before, though, this data isn’t terribly exciting.

Lessons Learned

So what I can take away from this analysis, other than the fact that I am a giant nerd?

  1. I haven’t tried a ton of lighter beers like lagers, weizenbocks, hefeweizens, and pilsners. Not surprising to me at all, since I avoid those mightily if I have other options. But I’d like to learn more about those styles so I can appreciate them and try them more often.
  2. I love the fact that I try lots of different beers, but I also kind of wish I had more standbys that I always keep in my fridge. I’m not sure my very easily distracted palate would go for that, though.
  3. I’m counting down the days until my liver fails.

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