30 Most Memorable Beers of 2020
Little did we know.
There aren’t even words to describe 2020, since the last time something like this happened was 102 years ago. Hopefully you and yours were able to stay both safe and sane during this year. I won’t even try to do any more.
But there were beers being produced and sold and we as a podcast quickly pivoted to using Zoom to record our shows. Starting with episode 323 (SIP Hops) everything you hear was recorded remotely (even if it sounds like we’re in the same room). Which means we needed two of everything.
That, combined with not traveling at all leads this list of 30 Most Memorable Beers to be very Illinois-centric. Illinois and Chicago produce amazing beers every year and we definitely highlight them, but we usually have some out of state beers and shows pop up fairly regularly. Outside of some early trips to Wisconsin and some beer sent to us by listeners (or fantasy baseball winnings), Chicago and Illinois were our focus this year. Local breweries and bottle shops needed everyone’s help this year and we did what we could.
Twenty-two of the thirty beers on my list were located in Illinois (73%), with another two either considered Chicago by some or a brewery that started in Illinois. California leads the out-of-state market with three on the list (10%), followed by Wisonsin with two (7%) and New Jersey with one (3%). That’s it.
By style, ten of the thirty beers on the list (33%) were barrel-aged stouts by far the most on the list. IPAs (all styles) finished with six total placings (20%), only one of which was a hazy IPA. Saison had three beers on this list (10%); no other style had more than two.
As for the rules, there were two big new additions. Weekly beer reviews started in June and any beer featured there is eligible for the list. Due to the focus on Chicago/Illinois and wanting to get more breweries on the list, I limited every brewery to a maximum of two entries on the list. Who did this hurt the most? Old Irving, who had at least five beers seriously considered for the Top 30. Good year for them!
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.
- Maximum of two beers per brewery on the list.
Let’s get at it!
30. Son of Shakey | Milkshake IPA | Maplewood Brewing and Distillery | Chicago, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
Yes, I have both a favorite milkshake IPA and milkshake IPA series. Given what 2020 is, that’s not that weird, but it’s still jarring to me. The Shakey series from Maplewood is my favorite milkshake series and Son of Shakey – essentially the base for all their fruited variants – reaffirms this. A smooth and creamy mouthfeel leads to a fair amount of sweetness, but the small amount of bitterness reigns that sweetness in, keeping it from going to far and making a 16oz can something you will gladly finish.
29. Jet Stream | American Pale Wheat | Metropolitan Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.8% ABV – listen
Light, refreshing, flavorful, canned. Metropolitan is known for the first three while the last one is a very new and welcome addition. For being a 5.8% pale wheat, there’s a ton of nose flavors here, featuring flowers, fruit, grass, and, of course, wheat. Drinking it yields very similar results, until you realize that you’ve finished the can. Then you crack another one. Then you’re drunk on your Zoom meeting. Great. Metropolitan will be canning most or all of their beer soon, and that’s a win for the Chicago beer drinker. (Their Stromhaus Helles Radler falls into the same category, but it’s only available at their socially-distant, outdoor, pier-side beautiful taproom: a space, by the way, where I felt safe the whole time and will definitely be back.)
28. Fat Bear | Imperial Stout with peanut butter and chocolate | Hop Butcher | Darien, IL | 10/5% ABV – listen
My winner of the surprisingly varied peanut butter cup stout show, this Hop Butcher beer exhibited everything you’d want in a peanut butter cup stout. Fat Bear featured a thick mouthfeel, tons of peanut butter on the nose (with some chocolate), tons of chocolate on the palate (with some peanut butter), and an overall enjoyable experience. Not too sweet but reminding you of that Reese’s you had at the movies, Hop Butcher absolutely nailed it with this stout.
27. Tropicamo | Hazy IPA | Maplewood Brewing | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen
I love most of what Maplewood makes – pilsners, stouts, sours, milkshake IPAs, you name it. But I’ve never been too fond of their hazy hoppy offerings. To me they all tasted the same. Tropicamo isn’t the same. There’s a fair amount of bitterness and the sweetness is very low. There’s a pillowy soft mouthfeel that hides the alcohol well. And it’s bursting with pineapple, honeydew melon and grapes. Tropicamo pops compared to the rest of their hazy portfolio. So now I’ll be ordering Maplewood hazy beers whenever it’s OK to go back to The Lounge.
26. Neckbeard Nectar (Blanton’s) | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with coffee | Transient Artisan Ales | Bridgman, MI | 14% ABV – listen
There’s still something to be said about a barrel-aged stout with just coffee being added. Too often today breweries will add other things to the coffee and not just let it stand on its own. Transient decided to let the Tugboat coffee used in Neckbeard Nectar stand. While not as coffee forward as some other barrel-aged coffee beers, the coffee still added a lovely roasty quality to the otherwise chocolatey and vanilla proceedings. It helped that the beer and the barrel joined in harmony to create a thick and slick barrel-aged coffee stout that I will not soon forget.
25. Beer for Brunch | Berliner Weisse with orange and chardonnay grape juice | Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
Off Color, can you sponsor us? You can pay us in your easy drinking and sessionable Beer for beers. The heaviest of this core lineup mimics a mimosa and does so convincingly. Tons of orange and a lovely champagne-like effervescence makes me want some blintzes. There’s even some lovely wine notes on the beer itself as well. The Berliner tartness exists on the end and those flavors linger just long enough for you to want to go in again. Masterful, just like all of the Beer for series.
24. Brain Forest | Triple IPA | Hop Butcher for the World | Darien, IL | 10.5% ABV – listen
Triple IPAs are one of two things usually – over-malted messes or very sweet hazies. Brain Forest does neither. Full of bitterness, a modest malt kick and very little sweetness, Hop Butcher shows everyone that they can make a clean triple IPA with the best of them. The ABV hides itself well enough, the malt provides a hint of sweetness, and the bitterness is bold and in charge. While I usually prefer a single or double IPA to a triple, if more breweries do triples like this, I’d change my thinking on it.
23. Arctic Panzer Wolf | Double IPA | Three Floyd’s Brewing | Munster, IN | 9% ABV – listen
I first had this at the Map Room a long time ago, then returned a few nights later to have some more and the “rare” keg of it was gone. I remember it being aggressively hoppy and bitter back then, and I’m happy to report that it’s just as good as I remembered it, if not better. Citrus, pine and tropical notes give way to an aggressive and enjoyable bitterness that will have you longing for the days of the IBU wars. Let’s hope that 3 Floyd’s continues to make this beer and I can have a pint at a (hopefully) new taproom in the future.
22. La Floriditia | Wheat Beer | Cruz Blanca | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen
Also listed as a rosé ale, La Floriditia marries the drinkability and bubbliness of rosé with the craft and simplicity of a wheat beer. The hibiscus imparts some color, while the use of passionfruit is restrained yet still prominent. The mouthfeel is there and gone, causing a four or six pack to vanish in record time. Perfect for brunch, warm weather or just something light while hanging out, Cruz Blanca shows that it can make a rosé-style ale while maintaining balance and flavor. Get some!
21. Beer For Pizza | Malt Beverage with a ton of ingredients| Off Color | Chicago, IL | 4.5% ABV – listen (Patreon Exclusive)
Off Color will soon become the Beer For brewery. (Hey! Beer For Brewers or Beer For Breweries!) While not their best Beer For beer on its own, Beer For Pizza really shines when paired with, you guessed it, pizza. Beer For Pizza mimics soda as best it can, having a cola-like mouthfeel, appearance, and drinkability. It’s thin for a beer (but it’s mimicking a cola, so) but the amount of ingredients used to get the necessary flavor profile shows the dedication of Off Color to getting it exactly right. You can go through a 4-pack very easily, but get yourself some deep dish, thin crust or tavern style (whatever your preference), sit back and enjoy one of the most unique beers to come out of Chicago since, well, the last Off Color beer!
20. Mocha and Cigarettes | Smoked coffee porter with vanilla and cacao nibs | Cellarmaker | San Fransicso, CA | 8.9% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
Porters are always in a tough position. Too light and thin they risk being schwarzbiers; too thick and heavy stouts. So when a porter comes along with a thick mouthfeel while maintaining that delicate porter body, you take notice. Mocha and Cigarettes does this all while properly integrating the vanilla and cacao nibs so as not to be overdone or cloying. While there’s little to no smokiness, everything else going more than makes up for that omission. You’ll finish the can before you know it.
19. Rubied Perspective | Sour aged on cherries and ceylon cinnamon | Odious Cellars | Chicago, IL | 5.6% ABV – read
It seems like sour beers and breweries have taken a back seat. Around the time we started the podcast (2014), they were all the rage and popping up all over the place. That has since slowed, as breweries have shifted towards the more trendier styles, so it was a welcome sight to see Odious Cellars releasing their first beers. Rubied Perspective is a tart, refreshing cherry beer with a hint of heat from the ceylon cinnamon. It’s got just the right amount of tartness and carb to make it enjoyable without making it a puckering nightmare or a chore to finish a 500 mL bottle by yourself. I’ll be trying to get as much as I can from Odious if they continue to make these really balanced spontaneous and mixed-culture barrel-aged beers. It’s definitely worth a try.
18. Pliny for President | DDH Double IPA | Russian River | Santa Rosa, CA | 8% ABV – listen
Rarely do my eyes light up when a brewery announces a new beer, but it happened on this one. Pliny the Elder is a landmark beer – the first DIPA – and Russian River was going to double dry-hop it? I sent an email and thankfully one of our listeners – Mike Rousseau – was able to secure some for us. (Thanks again Mike!) While the original Pliny still reigns supreme, Pliny for President didn’t change all that much, just amped up the aroma and lessened the bitterness ever so slightly. The fact that it didn’t change all that much is amazing (as we proved on the show), so all the piney, resinous, and bitterness you remember from Pliny the Elder is there. Just double dry-hopped. Double down!
17. Anniversary Bourbon County Brand Stout | Barrel-aged imperial stout | Goose Island | Chicago, IL | 15.2% ABV – listen
I’ll say it every year – Goose Island’s Bourbon County stout is best when less adjuncts are involved and more of the barrel takes center stage. The Reserve the last three years has been a highlight every year, and the Rare beers are all timers. So when Goose got some Weller 12-year barrels and put some Bourbon County to rest in them for an extended time (2 years), the results were typically amazing. It fills the nose with chocolate and cocoa powder (with a hint of sherry) while a hint of wine and fruit are added to the base Bourbon County on the taste. Above all else it’s completely smooth. I love it when Goose Island does these 2-year aged versions of their beers as you know it’s going to be one you want to get, and Anniversary is no exception.
16. Quetsche | Lambic-style with plums | Dovetail Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6.5% – listen
Plums are always interesting in beer. I’ve had them in a few beers and they typically do much better in lambic-style and wheat beers and not stouts. Dovetail proves this amazingly. Adding almost 500 lbs of plums to a beer that was fermented in oak for 2 years brings out the best in the plums while still maintaining a tartness usually found in the lambic-style. The fact that Dovetail was able to approach something brewed in the Pajottenland is an accomplishment in and of itself, but that they were able to make it a joy to drink while balancing the tartness and earthiness of the plums puts it on another level.
15. Champurrado Krampus | Barrel-aged Imperial Milk Stout with cacao nibs, vanilla, chiles, and cinnamon | Old Irving | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV – listen
There are many Meixcan Chocolate beers available in the market these days. Invariably they get barrel-aged. The trick is to maintain the balance of all the additions in the beer while keeping a chocolate current going throughout the beer. Superb examples include BA Abraxas, Mexican Medianoche, and this beer. While the beer isn’t as viscous or chocolate-forward as the former two mentioned, the balance of vanilla, chiles and cinnamon make this beer shine. There’s a hint of heat while the cinnamon and vanilla complement the nice chocolatey note coming off the beer.
14. Architects of Harmony | Saison with Illinois black locust honey | Keeping Together | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen (Patreon Exclusive)
Don’t look now, but Chicago is slowly becoming one of the best saison cities in the country and Keeping Together is at the forefront of that movement. Averie Swanson’s second beer deftly follows her first (The Art of Holding Space) in being an extremely delicate, drinkable, and flavorful beer. Architects starts off juicy but finishes dry, with notes of flowers and lemon throughout. Slight notes of sweet honey and spices permeate and a certain balance is maintained throughout. Everything Keeping Together has released this year so far has been exquisite and there’s every reason for that to continue in 2021.
13. Rey Cuvée | Blended barrel-aged imperial stout | Cruz Blanca | Chicago, IL | 12% ABV – listen
Barrels and barrels and barrels! Take the last three years of Cruz Blanca’s barrel-aged stout Rey Gordo, blend them together, and then throw that into barrels. Holy heck. A smooth, layered, nuanced, and thick stout resulted from this insane blend and barrel-aging process, one that picks up a little bit of each part of the Rey Gordo blends while still distinguishing itself as its own beer. I hope this is a yearly occurrence from Cruz Blanca, both with this and possibly other former Luchador beers. Cruz Blanca isn’t flying under the radar anymore.
12. Berliner Messe – Kyrie | Berliner Weisse | The Referend Bier Blendery | Pennington, NJ | 4.8% ABV – listen
The Referend are very careful in their brewing process and it shows in the delicate balance the beer exhibits. It gets close to smelling like Luden’s cherry cough drops, but not quite. It almost gets too sour, but then it pulls back. You’re able to keep drinking it and drinking it, enjoying the tart cherry taste with a hint of cinnamon and a slice of raspberry and then, poof, it’s gone and you’re left wanting more. It’s so easy to drink and full of flavor that it’ll happen before you know it. Always a treat to be able to have The Referend in Chicago.
11. Deth By Cherries | Barrel-aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout with cherries | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 12.5% ABV – listen/read
Wow. In terms of expectations versus reality, this one probably would hit number one. Typically the fruited Deth variants are good to OK, usually camping out near the bottom of any yearly Deep Wood rankings. Not this one. Big tart and sweet cherries shine at the front. The chocolate from the base Deth’s Tar comes in to finish it off. It never gets too sweet, the mouthfeel is spot on, and the booze hides itself so well that you’ll finish the can in no time. It’s like Revolution took some New Glarus Beglian Red and put it in Deth’s Tar. A complete and utter surprise and a delicious beer. I crave this beer.
10. Scentinel | IPA | Old Irving | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen
A West Coast-style IPA using hops typically used in hazy IPAs? Sign me up. The Citra and Mosaic impart the juiciness, citrus and floral notes I love in the hazy IPA, while the Centennial hops are mainly there to impart some piney notes along with some bitterness. It’s not sweet at all and the bitterness balances the juiciness perfectly. I’m hoping this is the upcoming trend in IPAs. I’m always looking for some juiciness with bitterness that’s not too sweet. Always one to look out for when Old Irving releases it.
9. Sea Foam | Fruited Sour | 1840 Brewing | Milwaukee, WI | 5% ABV – listen
We were able to sample this last year while talking to Kyle Vetter last year for our Brew City show and immediately wanted it for a proper show review. Good call us! Tons of pineapple backed with some tart passion fruit and a smooth, lactose- and oat-backed mouthfeel, Sea Foam brought the best of the overfruited slushy craze while still maintaining the Berliner Weisse-like beer qualities. Easy to drink and full of flavor, Sea Foam pairs great with most meals and makes for a great base in a beer cocktail. Oh, and it’s blue/green in color thanks to the blue spirulina. Hello Instagram!
8. Shadowstepper | Milk Stout | Rabid Brewing | Homewood, IL | 7% ABV – listen
There aren’t too many milk stouts on the market. Usually a brewery just decides to brew a stout or, in a rare occasion, a porter. So when one comes through I get excited to try it but usually end up disappointed. Not so with Shadowstepper. Thick mouthfeel (for a milk stout), chocolate balanced by a roasty note, and some lactose to smooth everything out. It’s my new favorite Chicago milk stout. I’ll be buying a four pack whenever I see it. Distribute it a bit more Rabid!
7. Tradition: Double Gin Barrel Aged | Barrel-Aged Saison | Afterthought Brewing | Lombard, IL – read
Sometimes we make mistakes. While Afterthought’s Key Lime Gin Barrel Aged saison was delicious on the Saisonathon at Home show, this Double Gin Barrel Aged saison was something else. The gin, lemon, lime, funk, and oak on the nose and the beautiful color and nucleation on the beer give way to a tart, slightly funky and ultimately enjoyable saison. Balanced and nuanced, essential for a saison lover.
6. Mystic Knot | Barrel-aged Irish Coffee Stout | Third Space | Milwaukee, WI | 10.5% ABV – listen
I’m always wary of Irish coffee stouts. Usually meant to mimic a roastier Bailey’s, they’re the green beer of the craft beer world, typically released around St. Patrick’s Day. Most are well-executed but not very memorable other than its yearly release. Not Mystic Knot. Tons of coffee, a hint of vanilla/cream, a touch of barrel character, a smooth mouthfeel and extremely drinkable. I could easily down a 12oz can of this, failing to realize the 10.5% ABV. Third Space makes a ton of delicious, flavorful beers (Summer Home could’ve easily made this list as well), but the execution of Mystic Knot makes it stand out as not just another barrel-aged coffee stout, but one that I’m very interested in getting every year when it’s released – typically around St. Patrick’s Day.
5. Double Barrel V.S.O.D. | Barrel-aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 17% ABV – listen/read
Never been a fan of V.S.O.D. – until this one hit (seems to be a Deth variant theme this year). Most importantly and dangerously, it drinks nowhere near the 17% it says on the can. You’ll gladly finish the entire 12 ounces and wish there was more (until you stand up, that is.) Smooth, chocolatey, and fruit-forward, DB VSOD shows how well Revolution has improved their barrel-aging game over the past ten years. Complex yet drinkable, DB VSOD definitely shows it took two years to make. I’ll also include Form of the Destructor here as well. That was just a single barrel DB VSOD that was a bit more balanced and fruit-forward than the wide release. Unfortunately that one was VIP crowler only, so try it if you’re able to. DB VSOD, though, is well worth the price of admission.
4. Mehndi (2020) | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout | More Brewing | Villa Park, IL | 14% ABV – listen
Mehndi shows how much you can accomplish with just some barrels and some blending. Waves and waves of chocolate and fudge mingle with the oak, vanilla and caramel notes coming from the barrels. The blending is expert, seamlessly melding the various stouts together into one glorious stout. While More is known for adjunct-heavy and extremely sweet beers, Mehndi is neither. While still sweet, it gets nowhere near some of their other offerings (the Marbles series comes to mind). The fact that cocoa nibs or chocolate aren’t in the beer makes it even more amazing. While there are comparable beers available, there aren’t many. Get this if you can.
3. The Art of Holding Space | Table beer | Keeping Together | Chicago, IL | 3% ABV – listen
Clocking in at the lowest ABV on this list, The Art of Holding Space does some amazing things. The amount of aroma and flavor with respect to the ABV is off the charts. Big lemon, peach and pineapple notes cause you to think you’re drinking at least a pale ale (if not an IPA), but there’s a dry finish that says otherwise. The low ABV makes this the optimal food pairing beer but you’ll definitely want to drink it whenever you can. Keeping Together released a second batch so scoop that up if you can, along with any other available Keeping Together beers. You will most certainly not be disappointed.
2. Beyond Forever | Barrel-aged imperial stout with Ugandan vanilla | Private Press | Santa Cruz, CA | 12.4% ABV – read
If this was anything short of amazing, people would almost assuredly be disappointed. Brad Clark – formerly of Jackie O’s – started Private Press in California to specifically focus on barrel-aged stouts and barleywines. All releases are only for Private Press members. Get on the hype train. Beyond Forever, their first BA stout, delivers on everything, featuring a blend of four different BA stouts and Ugandan vanilla beans. Smooth and full of chocolate and vanilla and some surprise cherries, drinking Beyond Forever was one of those beers that you forget you’re drinking and just sit back and enjoy the ride. The vanilla never gets too sweet and comes off closer to a marshmallow and the chocolate is brownie-like. Unfortunately this one’s very difficult to get, but it’s more than worth the effort.
1. Cherry Brandy Benthic | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon | Half Acre | Chicago, IL | 12% ABV – listen
A barrel-aged imperial stout with coconut, vanilla and cinnamon? Surprised there’s no cocoa nibs! But aged in a cherry brandy barrel? Now you’ve peaked my interest. The barrel provides a lovely cherry burst and some slight brandy notes, but the real stars here are the integration and balance. The barrel melds well with the Benthic stout, complementing each other perfectly. The adjuncts are there, but in limited quantities to let that stout/barrel combo shine. Too much of any one of the adjuncts and it goes off the rails, but you get a little of each (maybe a bit low on the vanilla) while the stout and barrel take you away. This only reaffirms my stance that more brandy barrel-aged beers released – apple and cherry especially. A treat.