I started listing the beers I’ve tried over the years. I hit three hundred and realized I didn’t want to write about that many (who’d read it?) The beers on this list are well known to me – ordered or purchased at least three separate times, my tasting notes verified 30+ days after they were first written.
I like big beers with strong flavors. My favorite style is India Pale Ale (IPA), known for being hoppy. Six of these are IPAs. Three on the list are from Sierra Nevada – I prefer the types of hops they use. I was surprised that two of my favorite beers are now from Saranac/Matt Brewing Company, in Utica, NY. For years, Saranac cranked out dozens of varieties that tasted mostly similar. Lately, they’ve gotten unique and better.
Beer geeks will dispute this list; it doesn’t have many of the holy grail beers (Heady Topper, Pliny the Elder, Kentucky Breakfast Stout). I’ve never tried them, let alone three separate times. (I think I had Kentucky Breakfast Stout mixed with Dogfish Head 120 at The Green Onion’s anniversary breakfast celebration. That concoction was delicious, but it obviously doesn’t qualify here.) Some of my favorite breweries are also absent because of that “10” cutoff. Founders, Stone, Tröegs, Lake Placid, so many others… But 10 it must be.
A few definitions. Beer is made from water, malted cereal grain, and yeast. Most beers have hops; some add spices or other flavors (coffee, pumpkin, etc.) Ales and lagers are both beers – the distinction is the type of yeast. Lager yeast ferments at lower temperatures, requiring constant cooling. Ale yeast ferments very close to standard room temperatures (everything on this list is an ale.) ABV is “alcohol by volume.” As a reference, Budweiser is 5.0% ABV. IBU is “international bitterness units,” a measurement of the concentration of bitter hop acids in the beer. A higher number is generally more bitter, although the number is calculated using a spectrophotometer and can’t be verified by tasting. Very malty beers accommodate more hop bitterness and might not taste as bitter as their number suggests. The beer with the highest IBU on this list is actually quite sweet on the palate. Budweiser measures between 7-12 IBU (Anheuser-Busch doesn’t report the figure, and other sources disagree. In any case, 12 is half the lowest IBU on this list.)
Proper glassware is important. Don’t drink from the bottle – your mother raised you better, and you’re missing a chance to savor the color and aroma. Despite the recommendation that different beers need different glasses (I have a variety in my collection) I prefer brandy-style goblets for just about any style. Rinse with hot water and shake to dry, use dish soap occasionally but only if needed (there are hardcore washing instructions available online if you want to go that far.) Don’t put your beer glasses in the dishwasher – the sheeting agents in the detergent inhibit a good head.
10) Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale (9.6% ABV, 90 IBU)
Barley wine originated in England. It’s brewed like beer, no grapes, so the “wine” part is misleading. Like its name suggests, Bigfoot is huge – malty and distinctively hoppy. It starts bitter then fills your mouth with a forest of flavors, never quite tipping into sweet. This beer can be aged like a wine (most beers should be consumed within a few months of bottling) but mine never lasts.
9) Uinta Dubhe Imperial Black IPA (9.2% ABV, 109 IBU)
Black IPAs are somewhat controversial with beer writers. Some debate whether they should have their own category, and discard the “IPA” part altogether. Others don’t like the mix of flavors – the typically bright hoppiness of an IPA with the dark roasty notes of a porter. Basically, Black IPA just refers to the use of one or more darker malts in the recipe.
“Imperial” is often used to indicate a stronger beer, with higher ABV. To get more alcohol in the finished product, more grain is needed to start, which means richer and more complex.
Dubhe is phenomenal – deep, dark, yet crisp and oh-so bittersweet. It starts dry and fills the palate with rich coffee notes. Strongly bitter but finishes with a touch of sweetness.
8) Saranac Imperial IPA (8.5% ABV, 85 IBU)
Hoppy bitter to start, sweet middle, finishes with a wider, deeper bitterness. One of the most satisfyingly complex beers I’ve tried from Saranac.
7) Good Nature Brewing The Great Chocolate Wreck (10% ABV, 52 IBU)
Good Nature is a New York State farm brewery in Hamilton, NY. They describe this as “an imperial chocolate stout brewed with cocoa nibs & cocoa powder to commemorate the day, in September 1955, that a freight train carrying a load of Nestle chocolate derailed from the Ontario and Western Railroad in Hamilton just yards from our brewery.”
Chocolate and milk stouts are all the rage lately; these are basically stouts (Guinness is the Budweiser of stouts) with sweetening elements. The Great Chocolate Wreck is my favorite of the dozens I’ve tried – very dark and very chocolatey, without crossing that indeterminate line into gimmickry. A dessert or special occasion beer (it’s made more than one ordinary afternoon special for me.)
6) Saranac Immortality Imperial Amber (7.5% ABV, 75 IBU)
The newest beer on this list. I remember trying Saranac’s first beer, an amber lager (with a steam engine on the label), back in the mid-1980s. Immortality is a wonderful beer that recalls those memories and expands them. The company says the “hops [are] sourced locally, just minutes from the brewery… The heirlooms have a slightly citrus and herbal hop character with a firm, resinous bitterness that we matched with a body of Vienna and Carastan malt to lock the hop flavor.” OK, I’ll buy that. My definition of what an amber ale should be.
5) Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2% ABV, 65 IBU)
This is my “everyday go-to beer.” “Extra IPA” seems to mean beyond a normal IPA but not quite “Imperial.” Deep golden color, perfectly aromatic on the nose, like a pine forest. The hop taste is much more resiny than the grapefruit flavors that predominate many Eastern US IPAs. Although I don’t like the term “drinkable,” some have suggested that it refers to the desire to have another as soon as the current glass is empty. By that measure, this is the most drinkable beer I know.
4) Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison Ale (7.7% ABV, 24 IBU)
Brewed in Cooperstown, NY. From the brewery: “This style is a farmhouse ale, and is considered to be in the domain of the Belgian Saisons.” Belgian beers are distinguished by their yeasts and addition of spices.
Pale golden, intensely sparkling… Endless head and Belgian yeast make this a close cousin to Duvel Golden (Duvel owns Ommegang), the main difference being Duvel’s clarity and higher ABV. Hennepin is slightly sweet with floral notes, ginger and orange peel, gentle hop presence. Satisfying on the nose, on the palate, and afterward.
3) Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (15-20% ABV, 120 IBU)
The highest ABV and IBU on this list, and expensive (a single 12-ounce bottle runs $10.) Dogfish Head brews this just three times each year, and it sells out quickly. The Green Onion Pub (Utica, NY) sometimes has it on draught for $6 a glass.
The malty hop aroma hits you first, then intense sweet and bitter as you sip – the two are distinct and dance around in your mouth. As you progress through your glass you’ll pick up citrus and other fruity notes, with a lingering spiciness after. Be careful with this one – so delicious you’ll want another, but it packs a delayed wallop.
2) Bell’s The Oracle Double IPA (10.0% ABV, 110 IBU)
From the brewery: “Our take on the West Coast-style Double India Pale Ale, The Oracle places hop intensity first & foremost, making only the slightest concession to malt & balance.”
Extraordinary – several steps beyond anything else I’ve had from Bell’s. Extremely bitter, balanced by the depth of malt flavor (minimal concession turns out to be ideal). Complex and lasting.
1) Sierra Nevada Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA (10.4% ABV, 100 IBU)
My current favorite. Like SN’s Torpedo, it has a wide and deep hop presence; bitter yet full bodied. Unlike most Imperial IPAs, it’s not particularly sweet. Like wandering a pleasant trail through the woods, sun dappling through the trees.