30 Most Memorable Beers of 2021
Last year was god-awful. Restrictions, lockdowns, and an unchecked virus led to a very tense and exhausting year. While some of those things happened in 2021 (and may be coming back right now), the vaccine brought about brief moments of normalcy throughout the year.
We were able to return to beer festivals for the first time since, really, 2019. Things started out with modified festivals where you sit down and everything is poured for you already (StoutFest, Smells Like a Beer Fest) which I loved. Gradually, festivals came back as close to normal as you could get, with the Great Taste of the Midwest, Beer Under Glass and FoBAB finishing off the year.
Those brief pockets also provided the ability to travel safely once again. Whereas the 2020 Most Memorable list featured a whopping twenty-two (73%) Illinois breweries, this list features only eighteen (60%). Still a majority but not close to dominating like last year. California (somehow) again has three (10%) of this list, while Maine, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin come in with two each (6.67%). Vermont, Colorado and Connecticut all bring one to the list (3.33 repeating of course%).
While stouts, particularly barrel-aged stouts, still ruled the list with seven entries (23.3%), both saisons and sours contributed five apiece to the list (16.67%). Four IPAs showed up on the list, but it was more of the cycle variety than anything else (an IPA, DIPA, TIPA, and black IPA). Barleywine snuck two entries in (6.67%) while a variety of other styles (griette, English session ale, and bock among them) each threw in one.
I kept the maximum of two beers per brewery for the list from last year in an effort to diversify the breweries on the list. Who did this hurt? Far and away Revolution Brewing, which could have commanded at least a third of the list potentially. Their output this year was dynamic and dynamite and it showed in the quality.
As always, the rules:
- 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.
- 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.
On with the list!
30. Tempus (Blend 13) | Barrel-aged saison | OEC Brewing | Oxford, CT | 5.9% ABV – listen
OEC Brewing does eccentric things. It’s right in their name. Tempus, however, is not that weird. It is an eccentric blend of three different beers, some lambic-inspired and some in red and white wine barrels. While being OEC’s flagship beer, Tempus still changes with each blend. Blend 13 gives you all the tartness and dryness you expect in a sour saison, but then adds some complexity. The lambic-inspired beer brings the funk, while the wine barrels provide some tannins, dryness and a fuller mouthfeel. The tartness does creep up to the edge of enjoyability, but the overall combination makes for an enjoyable and unique experience. Like most all of their beers.
29. Boone’s Farm Related Scar | Cherry Limeade sour with sweet cherry, key lime and vanilla | Young Blood Beer Company | Madison, WI | 5% ABV – listen
The name of this beer, as with most of Young Blood’s, would easily qualify for most memorable alone. So this Boone’s Farm Related Scar (didn’t think I’d ever type that) seems to be in on a recent cherry/lime beer trend I’ve noticed (I know Revolution just released one and I’ve seen others). The vanilla had me worried, but it’s there in moderation. That vanilla also keeps the tartness/sourness of the beer in check, never going beyond a slight pucker and keeping this one very drinkable. The color is also worth a mention, as it really brings that Boone’s Farm vibe home. As with the other beers we had on the show, everything maintained some flavor balance, but the Boone’s Farm Related Scar was just too drinkable and fruity to ignore. I think we’ve all had a Boone’s Farm related scar. Or just Fart Sandwich?
28. Barrel-aged Flipped the Switch | Barrel-aged Imperial Dark Lager | Mikerphone Brewing | Elk Grove Village, IL | 10% – listen
For some reason, Mike Pallen decided to age an imperial Czech dark lager in bourbon barrels. Curiosity reared its head and I ordered it when I went to their taproom. Glad I did. Tons of chocolate, vanilla and roast all supplemented by a light body. The base beer does just enough lifting to compete with the barrel and the alcohol burn never gets to be too much. Extremely flavorful and easy to drink. After finishing half my pour at the taproom, I checked the ABV. This does not drink 10% at all. A rare time that me ordering the weird/not done too often beer actually paid off. If they can get the ABV down to around 8% or so, this would be an absolute beast, As is, get some when it comes out but drink carefully.
27. Soak in Shadow | Apple Brandy BA Milk Stout | Half Acre Brewing/The Veil | Chicago, IL/Richmond, VA | 13.1% ABV – listen
It’s almost like Half Acre was listening to me a year or so before I said it. Getting some Inception vibes over here. After having the absolutely amazing Cherry Brandy Benthic, all I asked for was something in apple brandy barrels. Soak in the Shadow delivers on that apple brandy promise but doesn’t use a stout or barleywine. Going with a milk stout added some mouthfeel heft without adding any sweetness. The apple brandy adds a lovely green apple note and a bit of sweetness. The result is another outstanding entry into Half Acre’s barrel-aged program.
26. Ordinary Stillage | English Session Ale | Old Thunder | Pittsburgh, PA | 3.8% ABV – listen
Starting off with a lager-like profile and finishing with big bread and grassy notes, Ordinary Stillage definitely fits the profile of an English session ale. You get a ton of flavor while the beer remains extremely drinkable and before you know it a full 4-pack of this will be gone. Hopefully Old Thunder follows through and puts this beer on cask at some point because then it would somehow reach a whole new level of awesomeness. Another beer style that I’d love to be brewed more often in Chicago. And more cask beer please Chicago!
25. Sauvyn Blanc | Fruited sour with grape must and passionfruit | Duneyrr Artisan Fermenta Project | Chicago, IL | 5.5% ABV – listen
Within the last year or so I’ve had my fair share of beer with grape must. Usually a medium ABV (7-9%), they drank much higher than that, usually me perceiving it in the double digits. So a fruited sour with that and passion fruit (a fruit that can easily take over if you add too much) initially scared me. Sauvyn Blanc, however, assuaged my fears. The grape must didn’t make the beer drink bigger and added some nice wine-like characteristics to the beer, most notably some dryness. The passion fruit brought some tartness but never dominated the beer. And it drank like a 5.5% beer, meaning you could have multiple if you’d like. Definitely unique, memorable, and something Duneyrr will be doing a lot of.
24. Lucia | Saison (spelt) | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.5% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
A beer with a good historical meaning behind its name and for a good cause is all well and good, but when that beer is actually great that’s even better. Featuring notes of pepper, bubblegum and banana on the nose, Lucia adds to that by being dry-hopped and adding some nice citrus and tropical notes to the action. Lucia excels at displaying classic saisons notes in the flavor while adding some new world hops to the mix. It was so good it should be put in some barrels, preferably wine barrels. Classic, tasteful, and low ABV, Lucia should be on every saison lover’s radar. Revolution made it taproom only for to-go cans this year. Maybe some limited distro next year? And keep the kick ass label art? All I’m saying is they better make this beer again.
23. Wildwood | Grisette | Necromancer | Pittsburgh, PA | 4.5% ABV – listen
A brewery bringing back old styles and giving them a wide release? Hell yeah. Only problem is it isn’t in Chicago. While other such styles on the show like the black IPA and Kentucky Common were also of note, the Wildwood grisette stood out due to its mouthfeel and drinkability. Even while having a hefty, full bodied mouthfeel, the very lemony grisette never drank heavy and was gone before I knew it. And that lemon really starred, giving the beer a Girl Scout lemon cookie note when combined with the biscuity grisette. An outstanding beer and one I’m on the lookout for again.
22. Double Barrel Catch Hell | Barrel-aged stout with vanilla and cinnamon | Half Acre | Chicago, IL | 15.3% ABV – listen
Half Arce’s barrel program has been killing it over the last couple years, rivaling Revolution in terms of quality (but not quantity). Last year’s Cherry Brandy Benthic was my beer of the year and some would say Double Barrel Catch Hell – released earlier this year and selling out in seconds – is the pinnacle of this program. What Half Acre does so well comes in nailing the amount of adjuncts, in this case vanilla and cinnamon. Both are easy to overdo, yet in Half Acre’s hands DB Catch Hell features waves and waves of both, with neither becoming overpowering. The very thick and chewy stout helps things move as well, reminding me of a less sweet cake batter or icing. A treat if you’re able to get one.
21. If You’re a Bird… | Imperial Stout with panela, coconut, and cacao nibs | Phase Three Brewing | Lake Zurich, IL | 12.5% ABV – listen
Holy samoa cookie, beer drinker! Phase Three knows their way around both a thick stout and chocolate, so naturally they decided to throw in some coconut for good measure. The result reminds me of a samoa cookie with big chocolate and coconut notes supported by a nice undercurrent of cinnamon. If You’re a Bird… never becomes cloying sweet either, meaning a 16 ounce can is something you can finish by yourself if necessary. But it’s that absolutely perfect mouthfeel for a stout like this that really drives it home. Unfortunately this one was difficult to come by (as are most Phase Three beers) but it’s definitely worth trading for.
20. Heady Topper | Double IPA | The Alchemist | Stowe, VT | 8% ABV – listen
Heady Topper almost always has to go on a most memorable beer list. Every time you’re able to score one you’ll remember it. While not as earth-shatteringly wild as it was seven or so years ago, Heady still brings it. Tons of dank, bitter, and grassy notes are balanced by lovely citrus and tropical flavors throughout the beer. The bitterness doesn’t relent, bringing waves and waves of it until the sip is finished, only to willingly repeat the process so soon after. It’s on the Mount Rushmore of IPAs for a good reason. Other breweries have caught up, always trying to make Heady Topper clones and some get very close. But for Double IPAs there are few better. I’ll always be ready for a heady.
19. Eleusis | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with vanilla, chocolate, habanero and cinnamon | Around the Bend Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 9% ABV – listen
Seven years ago a beer like this would be in high demand and fly off the shelves. Now, it’s available at the brewery and has been for a minute. (You should buy some.) Eleusis does everything you want and nothing you don’t. The chocolate and vanilla lead the way, with cinnamon right up there with them. The habaneros provide a hint of heat while the barrel adds some body, vanilla and bourbon notes. But the balance is the real star here. The three main adjuncts never fight with each other for dominance and all show up equally (and equally well). As I said one the show, this is Barrel-Aged Abraxas with less chocolate notes. Get yourself over to District Brew Yards, try it on tap, and take some home with you. You will not be disappointed.
18. Westfield | barrel-aged saison | Cellar West Artisan Ales | Lafayette, CO | 6.7% ABV – listen
Having a saison on the show is always a treat. Having an out-of-state saison on the show? Cue the Drake meme. And what a good one to have – a GABF silver medal winner from Cellar West. Lemon, bread, light funk, and full of flavor, Westfield excels at being simple yet complex. Whereas the higher in alcohol Make Hay was just as good, Westfield drinks a bit lighter in mouthfeel and a bit drier in the finish. But all that flavor remains. Refreshing and flavorful with a hint of oak perfectly integrated with the beer. That’s how you win medals and get a place on my year end list.
17. Kadak | Imperial milk stout with chai spices | Azadi Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 8% ABV – listen
We love trying new breweries, but it seems most new breweries today don’t take many chances. Hoppy things, hazy things, overfruited things, barrel-aged stout things. I get it, those beers pay the bills, but it would be nice to see some variety or chances being taken. Azadi takes those chances. A brewery dedicated to making beer inspired by Indian cuisine definitely qualifies as taking a chance. With Kadak, Azadi takes an imperial milk stout and adds some chai spices. Chai spices (or any spices for that matter) can easily be overdone in a beer. Or not there enough. Azadi hits the Goldilocks zone and manages to integrate the chai spices into the milk stout just right. A little zip of the spices gets backed by a full-bodied and smooth base beer, makes Kadak a balanced, delicious, unique beer. Now I just need some Indian food to pair with it!
16. Double Barrel Sleepy Bear | Double barrel-aged imperial stout | Werk Force | Plainfield, IL | 15.75% – listen
I think Werk Force is trying to accomplish what Goose Island wanted to do with Bourbon County – basically a year-round barrel-aged stout. A new Werk Force barrel-aged Sleepy Bear seems to show up every month or two with different adjuncts every time. This one just rested in two different bourbon barrels. Simple right? The chocolate and vanilla shine, both being adjuncts and flavors coming off of the barrel. There’s some oak and depth added with the barrels that round things out and, of course, add some ABV. But seriously this doesn’t drink 15% at all. You start feeling it about halfway through the can but it’s so easy and drinkable you’ll finish it with few problems. A delicious and approachable (double) barrel-aged stout and one that should be acquired for those that love the style. This isn’t the last of Werk Force or Sleepy Bear on this list…
15. The Grace of Maybe | Saison with lemongrass, peaches, and vanilla beans | Keeping Together | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen
Keeping Together doesn’t need to do much to get me interested in one of their saisons, but putting peaches and vanilla in one really piqued my interest. And no surprise – it’s done with a deft hand. The base saison full of bits of funk and lemon remains the main focus, while the peach and vanilla combined together to form an almost peach cobbler on the finish. The amount of balance between all the additions is astounding and the subtlety of the vanilla and the peach on the end is perfectly done. A unique saison and something we’ve come to expect from Keeping Together.
14. There Is A Plot | Gin barrel-aged saison | Supermoon Beer Co. | Milwaukee, WI | 5.9% – listen
The saison movement has made its way to Milwaukee. While being a very small brewery that makes very small batches, Supermoon is doing the saison right and There Is A Plot is a great indication of that. A nice saison base featuring very light funk and must but big on the lemon. The gin barrel is definitely there but it never dominates the base saison and really rounds it off and adds some oaky depth to it. As with all the Supermoon beers I’ve had, There Is A Plot is very dry, but that gin barrel keeps things from going into bone-dry territory. Above all else, it’s light and fluffy across the mouth that, along with those gin botanicals, keeps you going back for more. It’s right up there with some of Afterthought’s and Keeping Together’s best. Just another must stop when you’re in Milwaukee.
13. Intinction – Sauvignon Blanc | American Wild Ale | Russian River Brewing | Santa Rosa, CA | 8.25% ABV – listen
We both had this one at the last Great American Beer Fest in 2019 (sad face) and fell in love with it, so we kind of knew what we were drinking beforehand. It still impressed, possibly even moreso. A pilsner aged in sauvignon blanc barrels with sauvignon blanc juice, Intinction exists as both something very simple and very complex. The clean base pilsener accentuates the sauvignon blanc characteristics perfectly. The sauvignon blanc never gets too sour, dry, or overbearing. In addition to all the sauv, there are some lemon notes and a wonderful tartness that just tickles the right parts of the tongue. I’ll take an IV of this please.
12. Coolship Cerise Estate | Lambic-style with cherries | Allagash Brewing Company | Portland, ME | 5.9% ABV – listen
We started off this show with four small batch, brewery-only, experimental Allagash beers and then threw the ringer on – a small batch, brewery-only, coolship Allgash beer. Guess what won? Featuring cherries grown on Allagash’s property out back behind the brewery, Coolship Cerise Estate does what Resurgam, Red, and even Peche do so well – balance the lemon, funk, tartness and fruit so expertly and elegantly while still remaining drinkable. While not getting the extreme funkiness and mustiness of Belgian lambic, this is about as close as you’ll get here stateside. This, as well as all Allagash Coolship beers, are a must buy for lambic/wild beer lovers.
11. Barn Hex | New England DIPA | Belleflower Brewing | Portland, ME | 8.5% ABV – listen
It really takes something nowadays to stand out as a hazy-style IPA. Barn Hex managed to do just that. A huge amount of fruit aroma greets you, which gives way to a juicy and fruitful taste. But there’s a few other things Barn Hex does that makes it really stand out to me. Some bitterness finishes the beer off and, most importantly, it’s not too sweet. If memory serves, it also features a relatively crisp finish for the style which just makes you want to drink it again. I was wowed by this while at the brewery and it’s a testament to its quality that I was wowed again in a controlled podcast setting. Good things from this new Portland, ME brewery.
10. Barrel-Aged Imperial Smells Like Birthday Suit Spirit | Imperial Stout aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels | Mikerphone Brewing | Elk Grove Village, IL | – listen
It’s a tale as old as time – the festival pour. When having BA Birthday Suit at Mikerphone’s Smells Like a Beer Fest 2021, the adjuncted beers on the menu dominated it. Subsequently, I liked the Super double BA, double adjunct Bean Spirit variant the best. Then I had BA Birthday Suit on the show, away from all the menacing adjuncts and it stole the show. Tons of chocolate and brownie notes and an expertly integrated barrel character led to comparisons with Goose Island’s Bourbon County – but only the Bourbon County’s that are very chocolatey and don’t have a ton of barrel heat out of the gate. That barrel provides some nice vanilla and oak notes and rounds off the base beer nicely, but doesn’t really add any sweetness. It’s long since sold out (only available as part of a 3-pack), but it’s well worth a trade.
9. Pliny the Younger | Triple IPA | Russian River | Santa Cruz, CA | 10% ABV – listen
If every time you got a Heady Topper it was memorable, every time you’re able to taste Pliny the Younger is an extraordinary occasion. That’s usually because it was only available at Russian River, but for the second time in its history Pliny the Younger was bottled. Aggressively bitter and malty, Younger does what Pliny the Elder does and just amps it up. Tons of dank and piney notes fly out of the glass. Prevalent bitterness kept in check by some lovely malty sweetness. Big citrus flavors to go with that piney bitterness. You know you’re drinking a big one, but it never feels like it’s 10%. It’s definitely worth it to try it once because of how balanced it is for a big, hoppy triple IPA. Worth it to either get to Russian River in early February or trading for a bottle of it. You will not be disappointed.
8. V.S.O.J. (2021) | Barrel-aged barleywine | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 15% ABV – listen
You knew this one had to be here. While not as earth shatteringly amazing as the first one, V.S.O.J. 2021 still takes its place as one of the best BA barleywines in the county. While the big chocolate notes from the first release were less present, the smoothness and drinkability were still there. When a can of 15% ABV beer goes down so quickly that you’re amenable to opening another can, that’s saying something about the barrel-aging process at Revolution. Butterscotch, caramel, toffee and vanilla still dominate things, the smoothness can’t be beat, and this sipper just screams for a fire pit in the autumn. Stock up now.
7. Fact or Fiction | Golden sour with coffee, vanilla, and cacao nibs | Odious Cellars | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen
We did a S’more stout show a few years back. Some really brought those s’mores flavors, others didn’t. And here I am in 2021 saying a golden sour had more s’mores notes and flavors coming off of it than any stout on that show. The real crazy thing was that it still maintained its sour characteristics, finishing with a nice tart lemon-like note. Aromatically all three adjuncts featured equally, while the amount of chocolate and vanilla on the flavor is amazing and unparalleled in any sour that I’ve had. That sour finish actually kind of acts like an orange juice to wash everything down. The balance between the adjuncts and the sour beer makes me happy Odious Cellars calls Chicago home and hopefully releases more sour beers in 2022. Beers like this I will never forget and will recommend this to anyone willing to try it.
6. Au Jus | Black IPA | Alarmist | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
Alarmist just had to be a little too funny with this. Missing our Black IPA by a mere month, Alarmist announced Au Jus on April Fool’s Day. Everyone thought it was a joke, until they brewed and released it. Of course we ran out and got it and, let me tell you, it would’ve been at or near the top of the Black IPA show for me. Tons of grassy bitterness from the Simcoe and Chinook hops paired with a copious amount of chocolate malt hit both ends of what I’m looking for in a Black IPA – bitterness and chocolate. The chocolate hits first, then you ride out on the bitterness. It’s delicious and I hope this becomes a year-round – or at the very least yearly – beer.
5. Maravilla | Imperial blonde ale aged in rum and rye whiskey barrels with vanilla | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 12.5% ABV – listen
Historically, the blonde ale Luchadors are too sweet. Maravilla, while still a bit sweet, reigns it in a bit and absolutely knocks it out of the park. Both the aroma and taste remind me heavily of horchata, with waves and waves of vanilla combined with a lovely spice note (I kept getting cinnamon). I would guess the barrels used in the aging contributed both to that spice note and kept it from being too sweet. I ranked this year’s Luchadors solely based on description and put Maravilla 7th (out of 8) fearing sweetness. So yeah, Cruz knocked it out of the park with this one. Definitely one to bring to the bottle share to show everyone else what Cruz Blanca can do with rum barrels.
4. Seipp’s Columbia | Bock | The Conrad Seipp Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen
If this is an example of what people were able to drink in 1893, sign me up for some time travel. Wow. This bock was originally brewed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and was rebrewed by Metropolitan Brewing. A full mouthfeel but drinks lighter than its 6% ABV. Big bready notes with some chocolate and licorice supporting and a hint of bitterness at the end. Assertive flavor but eminently drinkable. We did a bock show and there were so many variations on the style – some drank bigger and weighed you down while others were aggressively hoppy. Seipp’s Columbia was neither and it stood out for it. A classic take on the bock style and one that I hope gets released again this (or next) year. Grab it if you see it.
3. Electric Roads | Double barrel-aged barleywine | Private Press | Santa Cruz, CA | 13.8% – listen
We here in Chicago (and other places where its distributed) are spoiled by Revolution’s Straight Jacket. Any barrel-aged barleywine we try will invariably be compared to it. Most fall short; Electric Roads at worst compares well, at best exceeds it. Extremely complex barrel character gives off varying notes of vanilla, molasses, oak, and dark fruits from the double barrel and barrel-aged blends are something you won’t find in too many other barleywines out there. Electric Roads focus on the darker side of the barleywine, forgoing the usual caramel, toffee and butterscotch to focus more on the molasses and brown sugar notes. It’s like an expertly blended version of Straight Jacket and Ryeway to Heaven (there are some faint caramel notes). A wonderful and complex barleywine that foregrounds the alcohol burn and makes it something that can be sipped on during your daily chores (!). Get some if you can.
2. Cryptomnesia | Violet sour aged with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, orange peels, cinnamon, and mulling spices | Odious Cellars | Chicago, IL | 6.1% ABV – listen
Typically, sours perform best when adding a fruit or two, usually of the stone variety. One with grapes, orange peel, and cinnamon sounds ambitious, but a lot could go wrong. Except when it goes beautifully, beautifully right. Cryptomnesia balances everything perfectly. All the adjuncts stay in the pocket, you pick a little of each of them up, and the violet sour remains tart but wholly drinkable. As evidenced by this beer and Fact of Fiction, Odious Cellars knows how to use adjuncts wisely, expressing exactly what they intended while still remaining a sour. Cryptomnesia also excels as a food-pairing beer (I would know, I’ve had 3 bottles of it paired with various dishes). While the price point might turn some off, it’s definitely worth the $18 to $20 per bottle to try this. There’s nothing else like it in Chicago. Here’s hoping to more sour releases from Odious Cellars (and the opening of their taproom!) in 2022.
1. Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mint Chocolate Chip Sleepy Bear | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with cacao nibs, vanilla and mint | Werk Force Brewing Co. | Plainfield, IL | 11.5% ABV – listen
Mint beers are great when they are successfully pulled off. Too much mint and it ventures into toothpaste-taste territory. Too little mint and then it’s why bother putting it in anyway. I’m always down with having a minted beer so I was very excited to hear this beer was at Goose Island’s StoutFest (right before I drank it, no less). It exceeded my expectations. Big chocolate and mint notes. Bigger barrel character. Smells (and tastes) like they liquefied a Thin Mint or Andes mint. Sweet, but not too sweet. Just a flat out excellent beer. The barrel plays nice with the Sleepy Bear base beer, while the mint and chocolate exist in harmony with each other. There’s a hint of bourbon burn, but I just drank a Thin Mint so I don’t care. Rarely have I ever tried a beer at a festival and thought, “I need to get this now.” The more amazing thing was that I was able to get multiple two-packs because it was widely distributed. This beer was so delicious that we might be doing an entire mint show (if we can pull it off). I’m in for a case of this if it gets released next year without hesitation. Excellent job Werk Force.