explains Gregory Hall—the former Goose Island brew master who created what’s considered to be the first whiskey barrel-aged beer and currently the man behind Virtue Cider, an equally forwardthinking Michigan cider brand. “The beer was a hit, but it was DQ’d for being too strong, with notes of barrel and bourbon. Balderdash, I can’t win because it’s too good,” he says. But Hall took a larger lesson from BCBS’s unfortunate first appearance at GABF. “I argued that making a great beer should be the point, rather than following style rules better than the rest,” he says. “Innovation is what makes American craft beer the best in the world. It’s true in every other industry in America.”
Today, it seems like every brewery displays a stack of wooden barrels in its taproom, showing off forthcoming barrel-aged creations. But back in the ‘90s, it was unusual to barrel-age beer. “The first time Goose Island brought Bourbon County Brand Stout to the Great American Beer Festival, we entered as an Imperial Stout, as there were few categories in 1995,”
Today, barrel-aging is so popular that brewers struggle to get their hands on their first choice of bourbon barrels. But despite all the imitators, Hall embraces his legacy. “I’m so glad to see innovation continue, and be celebrated, not only in craft beer, but in cider and in spirits as well,” he says. “Today is the most exciting day in history to be an American drinker, and tomorrow will only get better.”
3. GOOSE ISLAND BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT
2. SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER
The big breweries “spill more beer than I make all year,” Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, famously espoused in early ads for his brand, Samuel Adams. For many drinkers in the 1990s, that imagery of spilled beer was their first occasion to consider the idea of craft brewing, then warmly referred to as microbrewing. But in an ironic twist, it was Samuel Adams’s massive growth that made the brand so important to small brewers everywhere. As the company’s flagship Boston Lager went on to become one of the first independently-made brews to be ubiquitous on beer lists, Samuel Adams put craft beer in front of more non-craft beer drinkers than ever before.
“I’m honored to still be brewing my great-great-great grandfather Louis Koch’s lager recipe today,” says Koch, describing the beer he first brewed in 1984. “During a time when most beer was pale, yellow and fizzy, my goal was to pursue a better beer, one made with high-quality, flavorful ingredients using traditional brewing techniques. Quitting a stable job to brew this beer has changed my life. And, it’s been my lifelong companion over the past thirty years as the craft beer industry has grown and flourished.” Today, the Boston Beer Company is America’s largest modern craft brewery.
1. SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a remarkable beer: Groundbreaking upon its release and still a critical and commercial darling all these years later, the beer’s focus on American hops has established it as the country’s signature pale ale. (Last year, Statista ranked it as the 19th best-selling beer in the U.S.) “When we first brewed our pale ale in 1980, we knew it was a departure from what was available, but as serious home brewers, it was what we and our friends loved to drink,” explains Ken Grossman, founder and owner of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., about his humble homebrewing roots that have resulted in a brand worth an estimated $1 billion. “We honestly had no idea it would have such staying power or such an impact. We’ve continued to brew to our original recipe— using lots of whole-cone Cascade hops and 100 percent two-row malt—and still embrace natural bottle conditioning. We started out with a strong vision for what we wanted pale ale to be, flavor-wise, and stuck to the highest standards without ever compromising on bitterness or hop flavor. I think that even after 35 years, our clear focus still shines through in the beer.”
BEACH AND SAND TOYS The Best of the Bunch
Former Goose Island brew master Gregory Hall agrees with Grossman’s assessment. “More than 35 years in, it’s still a great beer,” he says. “Innovation is great and all, but I admire the discipline Ken Grossman has to keep the flagship the same.” Even on this list, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an unbridled success: It was the only beer to appear on over half of voters’ lists. It’s truly a deserving champion.