Six states make up New England, but as those states all itty bitty, you’d be forgiven for putting the region on the small end of the scale. It’s not, however, a small region in terms of its influence on beer. You might be surprised to hear that at dueling moments in time, two of those six states held a legitimate claim toward the coveted crown of most breweries per capita in the U.S.: Vermont, back in 2016, and Maine, back in 2021. Truth be told, it’s a designation helped by a lower population, but that doesn’t make the titles any less impressive. There’s a brewery in seemingly every New England town that’s a communal spot where locals gather around and, if the word of mouth is good, draws crowds from neighboring towns and even neighboring states. You could spend a month traveling about the region and you’d only experience a fraction of its beer culture.
That’s good, unless you’re an obsessive sort and ranking things is either in your blood or your job description. With this many breweries peppering such a modest stretch of land, singling out the best of the pack comes close to a chore, even accounting for just a year’s worth of new releases. Still, we press on. We drink. We discover our favorite breweries, too, and we discover new favorites, and somewhere in that process we try out beers that surprise and delight us.
A lot of good beer debuted out of New England last year. To determine the best of the best in 2022, I followed a few loose guidelines for making these selections, because a beer must be something other than just “good” to be labeled “best.” Good is the least of what a beer should be. So I looked for brewers that invested fresh ingredients and fresher points of view to make beers that embrace experimentation and fully capture the spirit of the folks responsible for brewing them.
Foam Brewers, Burlington, VT
For You, American Pale Ale, 5.2 percent ABV
Foam Brewers is commonly known as one of Vermont’s best breweries, and it makes a strong case as one of the best in all New England. It’s also known for avoiding repetition. Foam Brewers has made hundreds of different beers in six years of operation, and only recirculate a few dozen handfuls of those recipes on a regular basis. The general guideline is that if people like a beer — “people” being both patrons and Foam employees alike — that beer’s getting brewed again, likely with a few tweaks.
One of the best to come out of that experimentation is For You, a pale ale that has no business being either as juicy or as hop-happy as an IPA, but which drinks like one anyway. In keeping with the custom of involving and spotlighting local artists in the process, For You is as much about its local ingredients (from the grains to the “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you” proprietary hop blend is sourced from around Vermont) as Burlington multidisciplinary artist Viscaya Wagner’s gorgeous can art. Nice pictures aren’t the mark of good beer, but the beer in this can is superb and deserves to be graced by work that complements the pleasure of drinking it. That’s For You.
Brockton Beer Company, Brockton, MA
Yasuke, Black Kölsch, 4.5 percent ABV
Beer is people, culture, and history. Try finding a brewer who disagrees with any one of these points; you’ll be at it for years. But every brewer cultivates their own perspective on what each of these mean — “history” arguably more than either “people” or “culture.” For the team at Brockton Beer Company, “history” includes their histories as friends, their beloved hometown’s history, Africa’s brewing history, and the neglected histories of figures like Yasuke, a man from Mozambique who rose to the status of samurai in feudal Japan.
Brockton Beer put Yasuke’s little known tale into an equally little known beer style, a black Kölsch, and won Silver in the Speciality Beer category at the 2022 Denver International Beer Competition. Black Kölsch is broadly underrepresented in American craft beer, and Yasuke represents it splendidly: Easy drinking, smoother than a master swordsman’s swing, and balanced by a combination of dry character and roast-forward depth.
Barreled Souls Brewing Company, Saco, ME
Tripping Through Maine, American Imperial Stout, 15.1 percent ABV
And now, may we introduce you to: The floor. Barreled Souls brews gentle, low-ABV beers, because no brewery can get away with producing only double-digit beers unless it’s willing to pay their customers’ rideshare fares. But Barreled Souls has, to say the least, a reputation for rolling out hefty beers that’ll drop an incautious drinker on their keister. So it goes with Tripping Through Maine, a monstrous Imperial Stout made in collaboration with the weirdo geniuses of Miami, Florida’s Tripping Animals Brewing.
Maine is frankly more like a state of mind than a state in New England. Even Vermont, where hippie-dippie crunch marries with artisanal finery and homespun charm, doesn’t compare to Maine’s blend of yacht class wealth and working class flintiness. Tripping Through Maine celebrates these contradictions by pairing an Imperial Stout body with blueberry jam and maple syrup, two ingredients that scream “Maine” but not “put us in a dark beer.” But the result works. It’s sticky enough to echo the adjuncts, roasty enough to keep them in harmony, and boozy enough that you’d best drink slowly.
Tilted Barn Brewery, Exeter, RI
Aster, New England IPA, 8.2 percent ABV
2022 was a banner year for Strata, a hop that, while not new, nonetheless enjoyed wider use in funked-up New England IPAs concocted by brewers all around the region. Seems that people caught on to what this little hop can do for the style in 2021 and decided to get in on the action for themselves. It makes sense. If there’s a varietal that’s practically tailor-made for hazy IPAs, it’s Strata. Tilted Barn Brewery’s Aster, entry #9 in its 2022 “flower series,” best expresses Strata’s contrasting qualities of fruity aromatics — strawberry, of all fruits, comes through strongest — and sticky dank cannabis.
But Strata is just one of Aster’s two shining flavor stars. The grain bill, North Star Pilsner Malt, is the second, laying down a crispy, golden base for the hops to play off of. Talk about a contrast: Aster packs bite, pillowy softness, and rich flavors from its trio of Galaxy, Comet, and especially Strata, making this one of 2022’s most memorable additions to the IPA family.
Widowmaker Brewing Co., Braintree, MA
This Place is a Tomb, Baltic Porter, 6.7 percent ABV
Widowmaker had a hell of a 2022 characterized by big swings and bigger ones, which makes the task of picking one beer from the year’s lineup to represent the best of the brand read like punishment. Do you choose the Italian Pilsner? The fruited sour mixing apples, Vietnamese cinnamon, and vanilla? Any one of the phenomenal IPAs, right up to the apocalypse-scale TIPA dropped as the brewery’s 2022 capstone? For me, it’s all about the new Baltic Porter, This Place is a Tomb, a liquid metaphor for everything that makes Widowmaker, well, Widowmaker: Burly ABV matching a burly flavor profile, with heavy metal can art matching the brewers’ heavy metal character.
This Place is a Tomb, a collaboration between Widowmaker brewers and their pals at Cranston, Rhode Island’s Buttonwoods Brewery, rocks a label that looks like a rip straight from an album cover by Jessi Jacobi, Heavy Hand, or Kuba Sokólski. Taste-wise, sweet malty goodness takes center stage, hits of dried plum and bitter chocolate thrash at the edges, and burnt toast notes supply the beer’s foundation, putting the complete package somewhere to the left of “dessert beer.” This is a deceptively complex brew, and one of Widowmaker’s finest to date.