Craft Beer of the Week

Chow Bella's 10 Best Beers of 2014

In revisiting all the beers I drank and reviewed in this space over the past year, I realized something: we live in a golden age of beer. In 2014, the number of breweries operating in the U.S. topped 3,000 -- a threshold that hasn't been reached since the 1870s. Some of those new spots opened right here in the Valley: Dubina Brewing Co. in Glendale; Mother Bunch Brewing in Phoenix; Peoria Artisan Brewery in Litchfield Park; The Beer Research Institute in Mesa. Established breweries from across the country, recognizing the growing market for craft beer in Arizona, added our state to their distribution networks, allowing many drinkers their first taste of Founders Brewing Co., Mike Hess Brewing Co., Hangar 24 Craft Brewery, Elevation Beer Co., Lakefront Brewery and Southampton Publick House, among others. As consumers in Arizona, we're spoiled with choice. There are more world-class beers available here than ever before.

You would think, then, that choosing favorites from this surfeit of really good beer would be difficult -- and it was. But even among the big-league brews I tend to write about, there were standouts. Some were memorable because they exemplified some aspect of this industry I love; some deftly showcased an exciting new brewery; some simply tasted really, really good. These 10 beers epitomize 2014: the best beer year yet.

The Arizona Beer Week Weizenbock A collaborative effort between Four Peaks Brewing Co., Wanderlust Brewing Co., Mother Road Brewery, Huss Brewing Co., Ten Fifty-Five Brewing and Dragoon Brewing Co., this beer ale exemplified Arizona with additions of locally grown pinon nuts, hops, wheat, orange peel and tepary beans. That it premiered during Arizona Beer Week -- the state's biggest and best celebration of local breweries and their products -- made it taste all the better.

Hangar 24 Pugachev's Cobra Hangar 24 flew in from Redlands, Calif. in March, touching down in a big way with one of their most sought-after beers: Pugachev's Cobra, a bourbon-aged imperial stout. The big, boozy beer immediately became one of my favorite examples of the style.

Bad Water Saison You have to sometimes drink a bad beer to appreciate a good one. Bad Water Saison represents everything wrong with the industry -- brewers attempting a style they're unprepared for, owners valuing eye-catching marketing over a quality product. I include it on this list of favorites because it provides contrast to all the local products created with forethought and care.

Elevation Senorita One of my favorite Colorado-based breweries, Elevation's foray into Arizona began with a beer perfect for the state's cultural mix. Senorita, brewed with cinnamon and vanilla beans, blended dark porter flavors with that of a well-made horchata.

Lagunitas IPA I'd tried Lagunitas' flagship IPA on draft before, of course. But in 2014 I got the opportunity to taste it at the Lagunitas production facility in Petaluma, Calif. The vibrance of the hop flavor in comparison to version's I'd tried before revealed to me a truth: to try the best version of any beer, you have to go to the source.

Dragoon Sarcosuchus Tucson's Dragoon Brewing Co. consistently impressed this year, but their best effort was the re-emergence of Sarcosuchus, an imperial IPA so ferocious in hop character it could only be named after a prehistoric monster-croc.

Old Bisbee Salut Salut will remain atop my personal list of "Oddest Beers Ever" for a good long while. Crystal-clear, subtly funky, gluten-free and brewed with Champagne yeast and Albanian elderflower extract, it's worth traveling down to Bisbee just to attempt to figure it out.

Bell's Mars Brewers often cite music as the inspiration for their beers, but rarely is that music an orchestral suite from the early 1900s and rarely does it result in an entire line of themed brews. Mars, the first in Bell's Planets Series, was an imperial IPA as volcanic as the planet for which it's named.

SunUp White Russian Imperial Stout I'm a sucker for coffee beers, and this one from SunUp is one of the best I've tried -- smooth and bean-forward, creamy and caffeinating. The dude abides.

Arizona Wilderness Futures 10 Futures 10 encompasses everything great about craft beer: it was brewed in collaboration with a band (Jimmy Eat World); it was made with local ingredients (10 of them); sales went to local charities. It was also an incredibly complex, weird, tasty ale, layered with savory and herbal flavors too well-balanced to parse apart. In this, it may have been the beer of 2014, and we can only hope that next year brings more like it.

Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.