Over the last twelve months I spent a total of six weeks in and around Los Angeles, sampling contemporary American beer whenever I deemed it appropriate to do so. (Nearly always.)
A beer-loving statistician might argue that this is not possibly enough time to get a full perspective on the US craft beer scene and I'd usually be among the first to agree, but by the end of my most recent trip over there, I reckon I've been sufficiently exposed (and sufficiently well advised before any exposure) to feel confident enough to list the best five brews I have come across on American soil.
As a bottled beer themed website, I wanted to limited the list to those beers which can be bought in bottled form, but some of these are either too new or too 'niche' to have made it onto the bottling line, but assurances were given to me that most of these will be both 'on tap' and 'under cap' within the very near future.
And so, in no particular order...
Avery - 'Maharaja' (Imperial IPA)
The undisputed talk of the town in Hollywood and its near neighbours, I first tried this at the marvellous Stout Burgers & Beer on Cahuenga Boulevard shortly after seeing a burst of frenetic activity behind the bar which (it turned out) had been triggered by a fresh consignment of this beer finally being hooked up to a tap. Moments before this excitement began I'd ordered something else entirely, but the bartender brought me Maharaja instead because "This is something you just have to try..."
She was right. With this beer, Avery have probably elevated the IPA to a point beyond which it will simply have to be called something else. Technically an 'Imperial' IPA, which loosely means it's had a multi-stage ramping up of strength, flavour and general awesomeness, and weighing in at a fairly hospitalising 10.4 ABV, this is quite simply the mothership of all other beers wearing those three ubiquitous capital letters. Of all the double, triple, quadruple or bigger India Pale Ale's in the known universe, there is none better than this masterwork of creativity.
Angel City - 'Angelino IPA'
Just arriving in the bars of Los Angeles, this beer is about as enjoyable a drink as I've tasted in recent times. With shades of Thornbridge's sublime 'Kipling' and BrewDog's 'Punk IPA' this is an exquisitely crafted highly hopped beer which is impossibly easy drinking and comes imbued with a sense of freshness which is peerless in my experience. Without doubt, Angel City will be a dominant craft brewery in two years time. No question.
Dogfish '90 Minute IPA'
This brew is already a big fish having recently been voted Best Craft Beer In America (I forget who by, but whoever they are I can't really argue with them). It's another of those US IPA's that can only really be enjoyed in small amounts due to the crazy levels of alcohol they come armed with, but the bewildering array of flavours at work here make that small amount truly memorable. It's not a one-trick-(hop)-pony like some modern IPA's can justifiably be accused of being - there are dynamic spices, funky herbs and all kinds of malt-derived deeper flavours that add up to a mind-bending showcase of brewing ingenuity.
North Coast 'Old Rasputin' (Imperial Stout)
They might not win as many headlines, but it's worth pointing out that the 'dark' beers in the US craft movement are every bit as impressive as the hop bombs. Some of my most pleasant surprises on the Pacific Coast have been in reaction to stouts and porters, many of which could give anything I've ever tried in Dublin or London a decent run for its money. However, I won't try to pretend might that I paid as close attention to the darks on either recent trip - although this is a state of affairs I intend never to repeat! Of the relatively few 'roasty toasty' brews I sampled Old Rasputin was a stand out, and it had me nodding my head sagaciously right from the off. Everything you'd want from a stout with a whole load of elements you never dreamed you'd want. A very clever beer.
Bear Republic - 'Cafe Racer 15' (Double IPA)
Most often found at The Blue Palms Brewhouse on Hollywood Boulevard, this beer is every bit the challenger for Maharaja's reputation as the best Imperial/Double IPA around. What we have here is essentially the big sister to Racer 5 - the much lauded brew which careered around the globe winning the hearts of relentless hop-fiends everywhere. In short, if you enjoyed Racer 5, imagine a beer that's almost exactly three times as good. Nuff said.
Notable others -
Russian River 'Blind Pig' (IPA)
A lower ABV India Pale Ale which sacrifices little in terms of flavour impact but comes with the advantage of being drinkable in amounts greater than two smallish glasses per evening. (A concept still largely ignored by most US craft breweries, who continue to focus almost entirely on high-alcohol brews!)
Stone 'Ruination' (IPA)
A beer which emphasises my previous point rather beautifully!
Famously powerful, and supposedly every bit as rare. Nonsense! It's available in singles or in four packs in Los Angeles if you take a while to find the right supermarket.