Early in the pandemic, there were questions about how the beer industry would react to bar and restaurant closings, and whether people would drink the same at home. Throughout 2021, themes and trends emerged that focused on both tradition and experimentation.

With draft beer slowed for the first half of the year, many breweries used their extra capacity to create or expand lager programs, which need extra time to mature. As breweries strived to draw in customers more accustomed to macro-offerings, lagers became a focus—a style that has been steadily climbing in the craft space for years. Today, American beers in this style rival some of the best traditional European offerings, and Wine Enthusiast awarded two 100-point scores to lagers, a first.

Tradition is alive in Belgian-style tripel, Kölsch, saison, porter and extra special bitter, all styles that were heavily reviewed this year. Time also plays a big role in barrel and wood-aged beers, where brewers let ales sit for months, absorbing spirit and other flavors to create complex brews.

Although IPA remains the dominant category in craft beer, experimentation is fueling innovative pale ale and India pale ale styles. In addition to playing with malt ratios and hopping techniques, brewers are using experimental hop varieties, adding adjuncts like lactose and yeasts like Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus.

From coolship ales fermented with ambient yeast, to sweet and rustic honey beers, to tart, fruited kettle sours, the global beer scene spent the last year pushing forward and building flavor experiences that last. —John Holl

Click here for a downloadable PDF of our Top 50 Beers of 2021.