The Best Craft Beer in New England
1. Farmhouse Ale/Saison: Jack D’Or
Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, Somerville
Traditional saisons are rustic “farmhouse” beers: unfiltered, dry, and way too easy to drink. While Jack D’Or isn’t meant to be the spitting image of its European counterparts (the brewer calls it a “saison Americain”), with a bright-but-not-bitter hops flavor, crisp mouth feel, and subtle tartness, it captures the spirit of its Belgian predecessors impeccably.
Runner-up: Mystic Brewery Saison
2. Imperial/Strong Ale: Audacity of Hops
Cambridge Brewing Company, Cambridge
With its potent 8 percent alcohol content and generously piney nose (owing to the 10 hop varieties used), this Belgian-style IPA has a name that rings true. At the same time, it’s surprisingly subdued. Bonus: Though CBC has long been draft only, they’re now bottling this ale for sale at other retailers.
Runner-up: Long Trail Brewing Company Double Bag Ale
3. Pale Ale: Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale
Berkshire Brewing Company, South Deerfield
Though mild and light-bodied, it has just a bit more heft than a session ale — in other words, we’re as likely to sip it fireside at a ski lodge as we are to gulp it on a sweaty summer day. With moderate hops, a faint citrus aroma, and a bit of breadiness, it’s a beer you can pair with practically any cuisine.
Runner-up: Maine Beer Company Peeper Ale
4. Porter: Porter Square Porter
The experimental branch of Somerville Brewing Company, Slumbrew teamed up with its neighbors at Taza Chocolate to create this complex porter loaded with coffee and chocolate flavors. (They use Taza cacao nibs in the conditioning process.) Skip dessert and order one of these instead.
Runner-up: Otter Creek Brewing Stovepipe Porter
5. English Pale/Bitter Ale: Old Thumper
Shipyard Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
Fun fact: Bitter was a term used in ye olde England to differentiate pale ales from their sweeter, less-hoppy counterparts, such as mild ales and porters. This beer, originally created by Ringwood Brewery in England (the brewer there mentored Shipyard’s Alan Pugsley), has a malty backbone with a fruity nose.
Runner-up: Redhook ESB
6. Belgian-Style Tripel/Quad: Baby Tree
Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, Somerville
Though Pretty Things stopped using dried plums in its Baby Tree recipe last summer, its burnt-sugar aroma, smooth taste, and notes of sweet, dried fruit on the finish are still hallmarks of this incomparable abbey-style ale. Peppery top notes, a medium body, and a dark, coppery-brown color add to its delightful richness.
Runner-up: Allagash Brewing Company Tripel
7. Brown Ale: Dark Ale
Ipswich Ale Brewery, Ipswich
If you think you don’t like brown ales — or that you can’t drink them in the summer — pick up a sixer of the Dark Ale from Ipswich Ale Brewery, a.k.a. Mercury Brewing Company. Totally smooth with a medium body, it has toffee and dark-fruit flavors that make it the perfect companion to anything char-grilled.
Runner-up: Wolaver’s Organic Brewing Brown Ale
8. Stout: Mean Old Tom
Maine Beer Company, Portland, Maine
A jet-black American stout that’ll knock you off your feet, Mean Old Tom is one of the finest stouts we’ve tasted. Nano-brewery Maine Beer Company (run by two brothers working in a small rented space) ages the beer with vanilla beans, turning out a round, soft brew that’s surprisingly easy drinking despite its 6.5 percent ABV.
Runner-up: Wolaver’s Organic Brewing Oatmeal Stout
9. White/Wheat Beer: White
Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
It’s a classic witbier: cloudy and showing hints of clove, banana, citrus, and ample amounts of visible yeast. But while beers with this many flavor elements can get out of whack fast, Allagash’s version is balanced by its super-smooth, creamy texture, so the last sip is as subtly complex as the first.
Runner-up: Slumbrew Happy Sol
10. Amber Lager: Fisherman’s Brew
Cape Ann Brewing Company, Gloucester
Like most good Bostonians, we drink Sam Adams like it’s water from an endless stream. Cracking this amber lager, then, was a reminder that the style can take many tasty forms. Toasty, malty, and just a bit sweet, Cape Ann’s version is a lovely break from our routine.
Runner-up: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
11. Session Ale: Pamola Xtra Pale Ale
Baxter Brewing Company, Lewiston, Maine
Easy drinkability is paramount in a session ale. This bubbly, crisp brew starts out caramelly and malty, but thanks to the dry finish, it’s refreshing rather than cloying. That makes for a beer that’s almost too easy to throw back in large quantities — and we’d like to consume Baxter’s version by the barrel.
Runner-up: Smuttynose Brewing Company Star Island Single
12. India Pale Ale: IPA
Smuttynose Brewing Company, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
If you avoid beers with bite, this isn’t your brew. But for lovers of IPA — a style defined by the ample use of hops — this version is downright craveable. Five different hop varieties lend it lip-smacking bitterness and a tannic finish, while a lemony, herbal aroma keeps it from being one-dimensional.
Runner-up: Maine Beer Company Lunch IPA
13. Amber Ale: Red Rock Amber
Opa-Opa Brewing Company, Southampton
After drinking far too many amber ales with just a single flavor — malt! — Red Rock was a pleasant departure. It’s nicely balanced, with a good kick of hops to balance out the inherent sweetness. We’d crack one open on a brisk night, just to ward off the cold.
Runner-up: Baxter Brewing Company Amber Road
14. Pilsner/Light Lager: Session Pils
Notch Brewing Company, Ipswich
Bright and crisp with grassy, citrusy notes (and delicious ice cold), this pils is made for drinking on a porch (though a South End stoop will do). Toasty malts keep it from feeling harsh on the palate, and the low alcohol content justifies going back for another…and another.
Runner-up: Narragansett Lager
15. Fruit Beer: #9
Magic Hat Brewing Company, South Burlington, Vermont
Some samples tasted like Jolly Ranchers; others, blueberry muffins. Why do most fruit beers seem designed for 14-year-olds? Then there was #9: a faintly nutty pale amber with a dried-apricot aroma.
It’s beer first, fruit second — the way it should be.
Runner-up: Wachusett Brewing Company Blueberry Ale