30 Most Memorable Beers of 2019
The Year in Beer 2019 featured some well-tread areas – shocking (and some not-so-shocking) brewery sales, cramming your grocery store shopping cart in the mash tun – along with some that we didn’t see or expect, such as hard seltzer becoming a huge thing and not being able to calculate your ABV correctly.
But 2019 still featured familiar occurrences that have been happening for years now. Breweries still keep opening, certain hops are still scarce and expensive, and seemingly everything is getting put into barrels. Beer seems to be getting sweeter and sweeter, while lagers and saisons might be poised for a comeback in 2020 (have they ever really left though?)
We’ve had a lot of great beer on the podcast in 2019, so it was difficult to winnow down the list to my top 30 memorable ones. Unlike previous years’ lists, there was not a clear cut one or two beers that stood head and shoulders above the rest – any one of 15 beers on this list could’ve snagged the top spot this year. The rules for the list are as follows:
- We had to have it on the show or reviewed it for the website; not talk about it, but actually drink it.
- Rankings are based on “memorable beer experiences.” That means yes, beer X might be better in some way than beer Y, but beer Y is higher on the list. Why? It was more memorable to me. That’s it. You’ll have your own list, of course, and feel free to argue, yell, or send us an email saying Craig’s an idiot. It’s all good.
- I will not be listening to anything I said on the episodes about any beers on the list. Nice little way to reinforce the “memorable” aspect.
- Patreon-exclusive Low ABV beers are in-play and not excluded from future listicles! Kind of like September call-ups in baseball that keep their rookie eligibility.
The breakdown this year reflects this balanced state, as only stouts (30% of the list; nine entries) truly dominate, with eight of those nine being barrel-aged. Saisons place four times (13.3%) while all IPAs together show up the same. American Wild Ale and gueuze (or gueuze-inspired) each have three on the list (10% each), with the remainders having one each on the list (seven in total; 23.3%). Stouts surged and “sours” and IPAs waned compared to last year’s list, with saisons holding steady. Illinois breweries increased their list total from last year (12) to 15 this year, making up a whopping 50% of the list. California had four (13.3%), while Belgium, Colorado and Wisconsin placed two each (6.67% each).
Click on the listen at the end of the beer to go to the episode where we reviewed the beer and check my memory!
30. Werktoberfest | Werk Force | Oktoberfest | Plainfield, IL | 5.6% – listen
Seasonal blind shows are the ones I like the best. That way, when either I want one or someone asks for a recommendation, I have a clear and concise answer. So next year, when someone asks me for my Oktoberfest recommendations, I know to answer Werktoberfest. Whereas a majority had little roasty and/or malt character, Werktoberfest smashed the competition, with big bready, malt, and a hint of roast character. The mouthfeel was full and satisfying. The entire experience was smooth and flavorful, and one I would definitely recommend again to anyone wanting a great example of an Oktoberfest.
29. Chapel Visitor | Heirloom Rustic Ales | American Wild Ale | Tulsa, OK | 6.3% – listen
When some of the first words out of your mouth about this beer is a comparison to Jester King, they’re doing something right. An aggressive blend of 15 month wild ale, 3 month wild ale, and a stainless saison, Heirloom nailed it. It’s complex, has a ton of fruits (both light and dark!), features a small bit of funk, and drinks smooth. There’s a dry finish to it, and the balance of the blend – not too much of the probably overly acidic 15 month, and just the right amount of the young, bitter, “green” beer – speaks to Heirloom’s skill in that particular area. I’ll sign on for a trip to Tulsa for more of this.
28. Woven | Sante Adairius Rustic Ales/Half Acre | Belgian Blonde | Capitola, CA | 7.2% – listen
A true collaboration (not on of those “I held the mash paddle” collabs), Sante Adairius and Half Acre both inoculated a Belgian blonde ale with each of their bugs, and Woven was born. Existing closer to a saison as opposed to a Belgian blonde, Woven features a ton of lemon, papaya, guava, and a ton of other fruits all while maintaining a light, fluffy body. It’s tart, but never escalates into full on acidic territory, making enjoying this beer an easy and delightful task. Here’s hoping more breweries of the stature of Sante Adairius and Half Acre collaborate with their house bugs more often, as the results are usually world class. Too bad Half Acre didn’t get any bottles to sell!
27. Medianoche Premiere Vol. 1 | Weldwerks | Blended Barrel-aged imperial stout | Greeley, CO | 15.6% – listen
I’m going to have to get my year end list sponsored by Weldwerks, because if we have a beer from them on the show, there’s a great chance it’ll end up here. Medianoche Premiere takes a different path from some of the other, more adjunct focused Medianoche releases. This one takes the Firestone Walker anniversary beer-blending route, but to an extreme. I won’t list them here, but it’s made up of 9 different barrels and 5 different spirits and all can be tasted in the blend. The base Medianoche and its decadent chocolate, the rum and rye spices, and a hint of sweetness from the brandy barrels. It tastes like a blend, but the components work well together and, in some cases, better than by themselves. A beast of a beer, and one befitting the time and care Weldwerks puts into their products. The Vol. 1 at the end means there will be more on the way – count me in line.
26. Espresso Marshmallow Stout | Untitled Art/Equilibrium | Imperial Stout | Waunakee, WI | 12% – listen
Label scares. I get them sometimes. It usually has maple syrup, marshmallow, or some variation of chocolate on it. I get scared it’ll be too sweet. But then beers comes along that both ease my label scares and, sometimes, but that notion to rest. (But there are other times, many, many, many other times…) So when this landed on the podcast I got those label scares all over again. Then I took a sip, and the marshmallow didn’t absolutely overpower and sweeten the beer beyond my tolerance. The espresso adds a nice roasty character to everything, and it, despite being 12%, wasn’t boozy at all. It was enjoyable and delicious. I was actively on the lookout for another 4-pack but, alas, it was not meant to be. Al least my label scares were assuaged.
25. Tarzan Boy | Cruz Blanca | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with bananas, vanilla and coffee | Chicago, IL | 13% – listen
Maybe these banana beers are catching on finally! The real trick to Tarzan Boy lies in the fact that the beers rested in rum barrels instead of the typical bourbon ones. Bananas and rum spices dominate the nose, while the coffee really comes out on the palate. Balance, like most of the beers on this list, reigns supreme, as all the adjuncts are present and accounted for but none truly domaintes to the exclusion of the others. All components are represented and it doesn’t get too sweet, spicy, roasty, or even banana-y. The alcohol is well-hidden, but the star is the rum barrels, as it supplements the beer in ways that a bourbon barrel cannot, mainly with the spice character. Tarzan Boy comes off as tasting more like a tropical drink as opposed to a barrel-aged stout, and that’s a testament to the skill of the Cruz Blanca brewers.
24. Mr. Shakey Strawberry | Maplewood Brewing and Distillery | Milkshake IPA | Chicago, IL | 7.5% – listen (Patreon exclusive)
I get the idea behind the milkshake IPA, but most of the time I don’t like it. Too many things can go wrong – not enough bitterness, too sweet, or too much fruit to name a few. That’s why when I have one and it doesn’t tick most of those boxes I’m intrigued. Mr. Shakey Strawberry doesn’t have the hop bitterness I’d like in a milkshake IPA (read: some), but everything else about it is spot on. Foremost among them is the fact that it tastes like a strawberry milkshake without being too sweet, supporting multiple pours if I so desire. Both the strawberry and vanilla are there in balance and neither is too cloying, resulting in a fun-to-drink beer, especially during the summer months. Maplewood has some issues early on in the Mr. Shakey series, but from strawberry on they’ve been nailing it. I’ll definitely be getting cans whenever they’re available.
23. Funk Yeah | Beachwood Blendery | Gueuze-inspired | Long Beach, CA | 6.4% – listen
Winner of a GABF gold medal already, Funk Yeah came in to the show with heavy hardware backing it up. And backed it up it did. While, surprisingly, the funk was on the low end (compared to traditional gueuzes), everything else was present and accounted for. Pillowy mouthfeel, big tart lemon flavors, and a dry finish make it one of the closest North American created gueuzes to one brewed in the Pajottenland. Beachwood Blendery is doing great things on the west coast, so it’s hopeful more of their stuff gets out to the midwest.
22. Route 70 Saison | Lanikai Brewing Company | Saison | Kailua, HI | 7% – listen
Can you make a beer that, at least to the drinker, reminds you of a specific place? I think you can, and Lanikai did it remarkably well. With caveat being I’ve never been to Hawai’i, Route 70 Saison is what I’d imagine I would love drinking while there – a light, refreshing beer with a hint of honey sweetness and some tropical tartness from the right amount of hibiscus. The hibiscus also gives it a pink-ish hue, contributing even more to the Hawai’ian-ness of the beer. I would enjoy this beer during a Chicago summer as well if I could, as the overall saison matches perfectly with our hot summer days. But it’s nice to dream of being in Hawai’i….
21. A Wizard Is Never Late | Triptych Brewing | Hazy IPA | Savoy, IL | 8% – listen
Historically (at least on my lists), hazy IPAs haven’t dominated my year-end list. It’s too difficult to fly above the haze (pun intended) and get noticed, especially when every brewery has one and a majority of them aren’t the best. A Wizard is Never Late can take its time, as it’s one of the best hazy IPAs we had on the show this year. Juicy, but not overly sweet. Bitter, but not West Coast IPA bitter. Some greenness, but not too much. Tons of tropical and dank aromas. In effect, it’s right on time. I wish more breweries out there lowered the sweetness and upped the bitterness a bit, but until then, I’ll keep buying this offering from Triptych whenever I’m in the Champaign-Urbana area.
20. Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout (2018) | Goose Island | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with vanilla | Chicago, IL | 14.9% – listen
What sweet revenge (for Goose, that is). Upon tasting it at the preview tasting in October 2018, I put it 6th out of 8 Bourbon County beers released that year. I’m here to eat crow. Somehow, in only 4 months, the super sweet vanilla of the October pour turned into a birthday cake, seamlessly integrating with the chocolatey base Bourbon County stout. The vanilla was balanced, not overly done. The stout was full of chocolate and had a syrupy mouthfeel. It was a quick glow up for this beer. Hopefully I get to try this beer out of the bottle again sometime, so as to see how good it has become after a full year plus in the bottle!
19. Apex Predator | Off Color | Saison | Chicago, IL | 6.5% – listen
For the longest time I wasn’t completely sold on Apex Predator. Sure it was good, but I always preferred Off Color’s Le Predateur to this. But then along came a blind saison tasting. Not only was it the big amounts of citrus and lemon coming off this beer that made it stand out, but also the fullness of body compared to the others in the tasting that made it the hands down winner. And it was going up against some of the best saisons out there. Off Color is known for doing a wide range of expressive and off-the-wall things with their beer, so every once in a while it’s nice to sit back and enjoy what essentially put them on the map – their flagship saison.
18. V.S.O.R. | Revolution Brewing | Barrel-aged Ryewine | Chicago, IL | 14% – listen
Revolution knows they have a winning formula on their hands, so why not apply it to a broad range of styles? V.S.O.R. comes after the smashing success of last year’s V.S.O.J., and the results are predictably the same. Big barrel character, tons of caramel, toffee, raisins and rye spices add up to a must try beer. There’s even a certain cola-like effervescence at times that just adds to its drinkability. Some coffee roast, vanilla, chocolate – I could go on and on, put you get the jist. We’re now to a point where you should want any of the V.S.O. series from Revolution, and with good reason.
17. Biere de Pieces #7 | Afterthought Brewing | Saison | Lombard, IL | 5% – listen
Ah, Afterthought. What has the Chicagoland-area done to deserve you? The beginning of the new wave of saison makers in the city (which now include is/was and Keeping Together), Afterthought’s been an ABV Chicago staple since its first appearance on our show in 2017 and they keep putting out the same consistent quality saisons. Biere de Pieces, their series of blended beers, demonstrates this. #7 features saisons with buckwheat, paw paw and passion fruit, and the result is expectedly delicious. The base saison and yeast cultures are strong enough to carry any Afterthought creation to the finish, but the addition of fruits (and grains!) just adds to its complexity and depth. While you may not be able to pick out all the additions, the sum of the parts add to delightful imbibing experience.
16. Pale Ale | Sierra Nevada | American Pale Ale | Chico, CA | 5.6% – listen
We had this beer on the podcast for the first time this year, so by law it has to be on my year-end list, right? And can I call this beer a throwback even though it’s the original? We won’t worry about those questions now, but Sierra Nevada’s pale ale is a classic and most certainly deserves to be on this list. The right amount of bitterness to keep you going back for more, the piney and resinous notes are a joy to breathe in, and, at 5.6%, you don’t feel too bad when the whole 6-pack is gone in one night. There’s even a little sweetness for those of the pastry persuasion – but it’s from the malt! Blasphemy! You’ll never, ever go wrong with this in your fridge, or at a party, or wherever. Enjoy one as you remember a time before secondary.
15. Oude Geuze | Drie Fonteinen | Beersel, Belgium | Gueuze | 6% – listen
It was my choice of the gueuziest of them all on our Gueuze Cruise and, four years later, I’m happy to say it still holds that title. A funky, complex, fruitful blend of lambic done to perfection by the blenders (and brewers!) over at Drie Fonteinen, their Oude Geuze is one that all other non-Belgium breweries should strive for in a gueuze. There’s a ton of hay and barnyard funk on the nose, followed by some mustiness. Lemon and apple dominate the palate, all while being pillowy soft across the tongue. There’s some tartness there as well, but it’s expertly balanced and restrained so as not to impede your enjoyment of the beer. A forever treasure, and one we’re thankful to now have on shelves.
14. Hazy-Hero | Revolution Brewing | Hazy IPA | Chicago, IL | 7.3% – listen
Maybe I can get Revolution to sponsor this list, as they’re on it the most this year. While their barrel aged beers are grabbing beer nerd headlines, Revolution is doing great things in both the kettle sour (Freedom of series) and hoppy realms. Shortly after collaborating with Hop Butcher and Saint Errant, Hazy-Hero became a regular year-round release, replacing the rotating Hero 6-pack. Make some room Anti-Hero, you’ve got company. The beer is definitely hazy, but not in an unappealing white/dingy dish water gradient sort of way. You get some juiciness from the hops, but nothing approaching Sunny D. The real star is the bitterness, as it’s there and very prevalent. So Revolution managed to take the best aspects of the hazy IPA (the haze and juice) and seamlessly meld it with the hoppiness that I typically like in my IPAs. This is seriously one of the best hazy beers in Chicago, and that’s saying something considering our GABF gold medal hazy pedigree. And you won’t need to follow the beer store’s Instagram feed to get one!
13. Trademark Brut | Middle Brow | Brut IPA | Chicago, IL | 6% – listen
We may have found the standard by which all Brut IPAs henceforth shall be judged against and … wait, which Brut IPAs? What may have been a short lived fad still brought out one of the best beers out of Chicago this year. Hoppy, bitter and, most importantly, a dry finish, Middle Brow has succeeded in making a Brut IPA that (to us) defines the style and sets the benchmark for what a Brut IPA should be. We’re just hopeful they keep making it, as most other sources have dried up. (ZING)
12. Cygnus | Black Project | Methode Traditionelle gueuze with cherries | Denver, CO | 6% – listen
This was almost destined to be on this list, as The Beer Formerly Known As Cherry Oxcart took the top spot in my 2017 GABF recap as my best beer of the fest. It features all the lemon and tartness of the base Oxcart with a copious amount of cherries without making it even more tart/sour. The pillowy mouthfeel testifies to Black Project’s devotion to the Methode Traditionelle way of making a gueuze-inspired fruit beer. The cherries provide a slight jamminess to the beer as well, making this 350 mL bottle not enough for two podcasters doing a show.
11. Imperial Apricot Bu | de Garde | Berliner Weisse with apricot | Tillamook, OR | 5.5% – listen
I was very nervous about having this beer on the show. Years ago when it first came out it was like biting into an apricot – bright, juicy, and slightly acidic. I’ve had de Garde beer that, when aged for a bit, venture off to the land of enamel-removing acidity. While not as bright as when fresh, I’m happy to report that everything else remained. The acidity remained in check, the tartness pushed the limit but then eased back to normal levels, and there was still an insane amount of apricot/stone fruit flavor left. The Bu beers are what made de Garde its name and the imperial versions are even more coveted, which I totally agree with. If only other American breweries (and heck, even de Garde at some points) could maintain this level of flavor without getting too acidic, it could redefine what an American Wild Ale is. But for now, I’ll be spending my time with my bu.
10. Fundamental Observation | Bottle Logic | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with vanilla | Anaheim, CA | 13.2% – listen
How does a barrel-aged vanilla imperial stout stand out today? By tasting as close to brownies with icing as you possibly can. Featured on a great all-around show at the start of the year, Fundamental Observation stood tall. You really can’t taste the alcohol, it’s not cloyingly sweet, and the vanilla doesn’t overshadow the base beer and barrel-aging. The chocolate coming off the beer is absurd, and the vanilla seamlessly integrates with all interested parties involved. One of those, “I can see why it won FoBAB Best in Show,” moments.
9. BA Ultra Violence | Angry Chair | Barrel-aged Imperial Milk Stout | Tampa, FL | 11% – listen
The reward for winning the blind barrel-aged vanilla stout rankings? A spot on this list (heck, even the runner-up in my rankings made it). Angry Chair is known for their chocolate-y stouts, and this one lives up to that billing, with a ton of chocolatey goodness throughout. What really stood out was threefold – the comparatively low sweetness, the restraint of vanilla, and the overall smoothness of the beer. BA Ultra Violence coated the tongue like few other beers have, as if Angry Chair had used some sort of flour (as Hubbard’s Cave El Zacaton did) to achieve this (it didn’t). It still reminded me of marshmallows in brownie batter, but the restraint and balance made this one stand above the rest.
8. Amigovio | Cruz Blanca | American Wild Ale with peaches | Chicago, IL | 6.7% – listen
They started a sour program! From their 2018 series, Amigovio tastes like peaches and creme. Unlike Short’s version from a while ago, this one spent some time in oak and exhibits a nice acidity to round things out while still maintaining its peachiness. The oak imparts some vanilla character as well as some dryness to finish things up. That dryness keeps the acidity in check, allowing you to drink more, meaning that 500 mL bottle they packaged it in won’t be enough. Pick up a bottle if there’s still one available.
7. Barrel Aged Cuppa Cinnamon Coconut | Maplewood Brewing and Distillery | Barrel-aged imperial stout | Chicago, IL | 14% – read
For the longest time, Maplewood didn’t have that “killer” imperial stout; Fat Pug was their biggest, regularly released beer, but that was a milk stout. Then Cuppa came along. A thick, viscous stout that would support heavy adjuncting and, if inclined, barrel aging. So after their fare share of Cuppa varieties, Maplewood went ahead and barrel aged it, and their cinnamon coconut version of it was off the charts good. Smooth, sticky, and not overly sweet, this Cuppa is a joy to drink and enjoy, with all 5 adjuncts factoring in somehow. The coffee roastiness stops it from being too sweet, the cinnamon and coconut are not overly done and play off one another perfectly, and the vanilla and cacao nibs added to what the barrel was contributing. One sip was like a snickerdoodle cookie and another was a Mounds bar, but all were enjoying and satisfying.
6. Cafe Deth | Revolution Brewing | Barrel-aged oatmeal stout with coffee | Chicago, IL | 14.8% – listen
Holy wow. Previous iterations of Cafe Deth have been disappointing (the too fruity first bottling) to serviceable. Maybe it was the Deth’s Tar blend used (also one of the better vintages this year) or the selected coffee, but 2019 Cafe Deth joins the Mount Rushmore of barrel-aged coffee stouts, up there with 2013 Bourbon County Coffee. There’s some barrel booze, but it’s not too much and it just warms you. There’s the chocolate and vanilla imparted by the barrel. There’s the medium roast coffee that blends impeccably with everything, creating a creamed coffee with some alcohol behind it. There’s the fact that you could buy this on the shelf today because they made a ton of it. Seriously, don’t finish reading this list. Go out and buy some right now and drink it. You will not be disappointed.
5. 2 Year Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout | Goose Island Beer Company | Barrel-aged imperial stout | Chicago, IL | 14.9% – listen
No adjuncts. That’s the most impressive thing about 2-year Reserve. It smells like you’ve walked into a pastry store, just waiting for you to roam to a new section. Flour, coconut, chocolate, vanilla, nuts – it’s all there, despite none of the listed actually being there. It’s a bit on the sweet side (but definitely not Proprietor’s 2019), but not boozy at all. It’s a master class in barrel-aging and having the time, space, and resources to be able to accomplish something like this. Money well spent.
4. Dark Lager | Spiteful Brewing | Um, Dark Lager | Chicago, IL | 4.9% – listen
Ever order chocolate milk at a restaurant and everyone at the table makes a comment? Just order Spiteful’s Dark Lager (if it’s available). A light lager body (great for the morning) gives way to so much chocolate and creaminess you’d swear you were drinking some NesQuik. It’s not a challenge to drink, it’s low in alcohol, and it’s delicious. There should be nothing else you look for in an everyday beer.
3. Hommage | Drie Fonteinen | Gueuze with raspberries and cherries | Beersel, Belgium | 6% – listen
Sometimes the hardest to get and most expensive beer is the best. I absolutely hate when that happens, but it does. Chicago recently got Drie Fonteinen (3F) back on shelves (thanks Do Right Distribution!) and which one was the least available and most expensive? Hommage, of course. And it’s totally worth both the hassle and price. While only a hint of the base gueuze comes through, Hommage is all about that jam, with a ton of raspberries and cherries dominating the palate. In true 3F fashion, it’s supremely balanced, the fruit not really causing the beer to become overly tart, bitter, acidic or anything other than enjoyable. That’s a testament to the decades-old blending procedures that 3F uses to achieve a beer with so much flavor while maintaining the delicate balance of the base beer.
2. Cherry Anachronism | Transient Artisan Ales | American Wild Ale | Bridgman, MI | 6% – listen
Another cherry beer? Hell yeah! Featuring the same pillowy softness of Black Project’s Cygnus, Cherry Anachronism ramps up the jamminess, putting it on par with something like New Glarus’ Beligan Red in that department. The cherries make it a bit more tart, but the jamminess negates that at the end; there’s a bit of lemon and funk showing up too.. Transient moved its operation out to Bridgman to get at those sweet, sweet microflora, microfauna and microbes of the wine-specific region around it, and it really seems to be paying off in this beer. Looks like those Michigan inspired ales really know how to party.
1. Rickety Elevator | 1840 Brewing | Saison | Milwaukee, WI | 7% – listen
There comes a certain point while sampling a beer when you know you drinking something special; it’s usually not on the nose, as I’ve had many a beer smell great and then not deliver on the taste. Some happen as you try the beer three to four times, sometimes it happens when it warms up a bit, and some happen on the first sip. Rickety Elevator was one of those first sip beers. The red wine barrels add some earthiness, sweetness, and tannic qualities, while the base saison is full of wheat and citrus notes that it should have. But then comes along that “saison bite.” It’s a flavor sharpness that hits and makes you want to come back for more. The barrels are expertly used to meld with the saison in a way that few others around the country can accomplish. It never gets too acidic or sour; it finishes dry and easy. I know stouts and IPAs pay the bills, but, 1840, could we get some more saisons from you?