It’s the end of the year and time to look back on the… wait a minute, it’s 2018! Between the holidays, getting sick, and drinking, drinking, drinking, this list is unfortunately coming out a little late. Think of it as an etched stone tablet, so future generations will know what 2017 was like in beer. Or don’t and go back to drinking and watching the world crumble! Whatever your preference is, here are the rules of my list:
- We had to have it on the show; 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.
Some interesting stats on the list below. The breakdown was hilariously nice and neat, with IPA/hoppy beers, stouts, and sours each garnering eight spots (26.7% each, making up about 80% of the list), while saisons, barleywines, and lagers/wheat beers each receiving 2 spots apiece (6.7% each, totaling the remaining 20%); of the eight hoppy beers, seven (87.5%) were of the hazy/New England variety. Brewers from Illinois took 50% of the list, with Michigan in second with 10% (3), and Pennsylvania, Belgium, and Colorado third with 6.7% each (2); four (13.33% repeating, of course) were from international breweries. For shelf hounds, half could’ve been picked up off the shelf or at the brewery with ease, while 9 (30%) I would consider rare or difficult to get.
Click on the listen to listen to the episode where we had the beer. Without further ado…
Also, don’t forget to check out Ryan’s list here!
30 | Wake Up Neo | Triptych Brewing | Double IPA | Savoy, IL | 8.2% – listen
…the juicy IPA has you? Whatever it is, Triptych knows what they’re doing with the New England style IPA, and Wake Up Neo is one of their better examples (along with their Meme series of beers). Tons of peach and tropical fruits, and nice creamy, thick mouthfeel that coats the tongue, some bitterness on the end to let you know you’re actually drinking a beer, and a slightly boozy finish to indicate it’s 8.2%. A fine example of the style and one that you should pick up if you see it. Follow the hazy rabbit…
29 | Milkstachio| Hop Butcher For the World/DryHop | Milk Stout | Darien, IL/Chicago, IL | 6% – listen
Hefty enough for the winter, but light enough for you to finish multiple pours, Hop Butcher and DryHop’s milk stout signals, for better or worse, the beginning of the cold season in Chicago. The nose reminds you of a pistachio candy bar – if one exists! – with a ton of chocolate and hints of vanilla and nutiness. The truly impressive part is how much pistachio they get on the taste. Usually relegated to the fringe or, “I think I taste it because the can said they used some,” the pistachio battles, but loses slightly, with the cocoa nibs for palette supremacy in your mouth. The lactoses give it that creamy, candy-like texture, while the vanilla is adds a touch of sweetness to the proceedings. Always a good choice.
28 | Cafe del Bastardo | Nickel Brook | Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout | Ontario, Canada | 14.5% – listen
We’ve done two shows dedicated to Canadian breweries (Bellwoods and Left Field), and this one from Nickel Brook in Ontario that I basically randomly pick up off the shelf is the best beer I had from Canada last year. Tons of bourbon character and some coffee on the nose, this Bastardo reminded me of 2013 and 2016 Bourbon County Coffee – my two favorite years of that variant. It doesn’t go towards the vegetal, peppery, whole bean route; rather, the coffee with some cream added. Adequate mouthfeel, nice barrel presence, tons of coffee, and that creamy note made me forget about how much I really didn’t like this years Bourbon County Coffee. Pick this one up if you like coffee beers.
27 | Triple Barrel Big Bad Baptista | Epic Brewing | Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout | 11.2% – listen
Mounds Bar. Featuring a rum and whiskey barrel-aged Big Bad Baptist (single), barrel-aged coffee (double), and barrel-aged coconut (triple), TB4 is the closest thing to Proprietor’s Bourbon County 2013 that I’ve had. Tons of chocolate and coconut, some roastiness from the coffee, vanilla, oak, and some alcohol heat make this stout one enjoy repeatedly. There’s some sweetness, but not enough to be prohibitive. Definitely a beer to get for that family member who does like things that “taste like beer.” (I found out that meant hoppy.)
26 | Wooden Hell | Flossmoor Station Brewing | Barrel-Aged Barleywine | Flossmoor, IL | 9.5% – listen
A whale if there ever was one, the original Wooden Hell was released in 2006, won a bronze at GABF, and is worth a pretty penny on the secondary market (at least according to Flossmoor Station’s own press release). So in honor of Dark Lord Day (I think), Flossmoor Station decided to bring Matt Van Wyck back and re-brew it. While not the revelation it once was (how many barrel-aged barleywines were there back in 2006?), it’s still a world class barleywine. Caramel, toffee, oak, bourbon, vanilla, and some dark fruits like raisins or cherries welcome you to this hell, along with a slight hoppy bitterness on the end. While not what I usually like in a barleywine, the hoppiness wasn’t too prominent and it means that Wooden Hell will age gracefully over time.
25 | Soursmith Strawberry | Arclight Brewing Co. | American Wild Ale | Watervliet, MI | 8% – listen
I had heard of Arclight before, mostly from winning FoBAB gold for their Soursmith Kriek in 2016. That beer was damn good, so I was excited to try their version with strawberries. Jammy strawberries on the nose gave way to a fairly aggressive sour beer with a ton of jammy strawberries on the tongue; think of it as a strawberry sweet tart. While being aggressive, the acidity never stacks up, making it possible to enjoy a pour or an entire bomber of this with little hesitation. Between this, the Kriek, and the Strawberry Rhubarb, Arclight is quickly, and rightfully, becoming known for their delicious sour beers.
24 | Cloud City | Narrow Gauge Brewing Company | IPA | 7.4% – listen
“You look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.” While Lando Calrissian directed that at Leia, it could also apply here. A combination of Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy (hmmm), and El Dorado, Cloud City is just what the name implies – cloudy. A light milkshake orange color with papaya, pineapple, mango, and orange nose flavors lead to (you guessed it!) a creamy mouthfeel that hangs around a bit, light bitterness, and a certain juiciness that features previously mentioned nose flavors. You can’t go wrong with any of Narrow Gauge’s hoppy offerings.
23 | Incipient Tequila | Speciation Artisan Ales | American Wild Ale | Comstock Park, MI | 7.5% – listen
This beer has interesting written all over it. A golden sour, aged in tequila barrels, with blood orange, pink guava, limes and salt. This could’ve been either be an absolute disaster or a glorious margarita-style beer triumph. Thankfully, it was the latter. The tequila added a bit of heat to the base golden sour, but thankfully it wasn’t overly assertive. The fruits and salt were all balanced and played nice with each other and with each sip you could pick out whichever one you wanted. And, most importantly, the base wasn’t overly sour to start with, making this one you can have on the beach and share with your non-craft beer drinking friends.
22 | SqueezeIt OG | Corridor Brewery and Provisions | Double IPA | Chicago, IL | 8% – listen
Ever since Corridor opened in 2015, their mission was to make “Belgian-inspired beers with an American twist.” Seeing as how people don’t go ape over grisettes and saisons (Corridor’s grisette is awesome, by the way), Corridor began making New England-style IPAs and this was the first one released. Tons of juice, a basket of fruit flavors that would make Carmen Miranda jealous, and that coating thick, creamy mouthfeel made this a winner and invited comparisons to Tree House and Trillium. Good things happen when Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy are combined, and when you try it, you’ll understand why people were leaving with 6 crowlers of it.
21 | The Milk Eyed Mender | Middle Brow Beer Co. | Milk Stout | Chicago, IL | 10.3% – listen
A beer that we somehow forgot to do the first time it was released, Middle Brow quite possibly made it better the second time around. While a milk stout, it never had that thinner mouthfeel that usually accompanies it (probably due to it being 10.3% ABV). Instead, you’re greeted with a full-bodied beer with notes of chocolate, roastiness and some creaminess from the lactose. There are notes of vanilla and cinnamon, but they never overpower the beer or make it too sweet or spicy. The The peppers add a kiss of heat, and the orange peel makes this totally unique by adding a hint of citrus to the proceedings – again, not a ton, but it’s definitely there. Balanced and delicious, it is now available in 4-packs of 12 ounce cans, so there’s really no excuse to not buy it. Just be careful, though, as that alcohol will sneak up on you.
20 | Anachronism | Transient Artisan Ales | Michigan Wild Ale | Bridgman, MI | 6% – listen
Transient Artisan Ales first 100% spontaneous beer made entirely with ingredients from Michigan – a Michigan wild ale – is hopefully the tip of the spontaneous iceberg as to where Transient plans to venture. Tart lemon, some apple, and some stone fruits (apricot, peach) on the nose lures you in, then the pillowy mouthfeel, perfect carbonation, smooth tartness, and bouquet of the aforementioned fruits hits with nary a hint of excessive sourness and all of a sudden the bottle is gone. An outstanding first spontaneous beer of (hopefully) many to come.
19 | Alemerica The Beautiful | Hop Butcher For the World | American Pale Ale | Darien, IL | 5.5% – listen
Few things say America more than the 4th of July, hot dogs and beer. Hop Butcher’s “summer seasonal release” – let’s be honest, it’s their 4th of July beer – is perfect for cookouts and fireworks. Filled with Mosaic hops and coming in at only 5.5%, this American Pale Ale is meant to be consumed by the four pack over the summer months, with tons of bright tropical and citrus notes combined with a nice kick of bitterness at the end. Just don’t blow your fingers off after drinking a case of it.
18 | Dancing Man Wheat | New Glarus Brewing | Hefeweizen | New Glarus, WI | 7.2% – listen
New Glarus is known for taking a style and absolutely nailing it, both to BJCP guidelines and your taste buds. Dancing Man Wheat is no exception. This hefeweizen hits you with banana, clove, bubblegum, and some wheat on the nose and is a balanced attack of banana and clove on the tongue. I even remember the copious amounts of head with its room-filling aroma. If you enjoy refreshing, banana-forward wheat beers, definitely drive to Wisconsin to pick some up. Heck, even if you don’t, you deserve it to yourself to give it a try.
17 | Caractere Rouge | Brouwerij Rodenbach | Flanders Red Ale | Roeselare, Belgium | 5.6% – listen
Of all the beers on my list, Caractere Rouge is the easiest to get. It sits on the shelf, gathering dust, while beer nerds fall over themselves for the next hazy IPA or pastry stout. While on the expensive side, Caractere Rouge should not be overlooked. Featuring a delicate and balanced melange of sour cherries, raspberries, and cranberries along with Rodenbach’s skill with sour beers, this beer screams not to be overlooked. Jammy, but not overly so; sour, but not Warhead puckering sour; and just enough oak and wood to let you know that it spent some time in some kind of barrel. Go to the store, pick up a bottle, and wow your friends at your next bottle share.
16 | Bourbon County Brand Stout 2009 | Goose Island | Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout | Chicago, IL | 14% – listen
I had expected a beer past its prime – oxidized, somewhat flat, not a ton of bourbon character. What I got was glorious brownie batter, all with a full mouthfeel and a fair amount of bourbon character. This was the final (and only) year Goose Island released the regular Bourbon County Brand Stout in 22oz bombers, and it aged extremely well. Hell, it was beating out Bourbon Counties half its age. The chocolate was turned up a notch, the bourbon was still present but integrated exquisitely with the beer and not “hot” at all, and you are reminded of all the things you know and love about the Bourbon County beers that you may have forgotten. I only hope subsequent years age as gracefully as this gem from 2009.
15 | Dun Dun Dun | Hop Butcher For the World | Double IPA | Darien, IL | 7.5% – listen (Patreon exclusive)
Hop Butcher knows its way around hops (duh). This Citra, Galaxy and Amarillo hopped DIPA does everything right – it’s fruity with some bitterness; it’s not a booze bomb; it’s extremely drinkable. Tons of peach and apricot, pineapple and papaya, mango and orange and whatever else you can conjure up, this shows Hop Butcher is now comfortable in their new brewing digs in Darien, IL. This quite possibly be the best hazy IPA Hop Butcher has put out. I just hope it gets released again!
14 | Alexander | Brouwerij Rodenbach | Flanders Red Ale | Roeselare, Belgium | 5.6% – listen
It took them 20 years, but Rodenbach finally decided to brew and release Alexander again. When I heard that places in Chicago had kegs of it, I went to Hopleaf to try it out (at $10 per pour, no less!). I got 4 pours it was so good. Existing somewhere between sour and tart and reeking of cherries, Alexander is a beer brewed by a brewery that has been doing it for over a hundred years. The cherries are tart and jammy, but never abrasively so. It has a certain puckering quality, but not so much that it prevents you from finishing 4 pours of it in a bar. The pillow-y soft mouthfeel rolls across the tongue, and you’re left wanting more and more. A superb beer.
13 | Tepoztecatl | Saint Errant | Imperial Stout | Elk Grove Village, IL | 13.4% – listen
Even among the rest of the beers in our vanilla stout bottle share, Tepoztecatl stood out. An imperial stout brewed with Mexican coffee, vanilla beans, and cinnamon, Saint Errant decided to not overpower the stout with the aforementioned adjuncts. The chocolate notes from the stout shined through, while the coffee,vanilla, and cinnamon supported the beer. Add a full-bodied mouthfeel, and you get a beer that is ripe for some barrel-aging. Its balance also contributed mightily to my drunkenness, as it was damn drinkable that the bottle disappeared soon after it was opened. Beer like this make me excited to see what Saint Errant has planned for next year.
12 | Jammy | Casey Brewing and Blending | Saison | Glenwood Springs, CO | 8% – listen
I had some reservations about Jammy before trying it. Both Casey and Side Project are world class breweries, but both (some Oak Theories from Casey and the fruited wild ales from Side Project) tend to get aggressively sour. This beer, however, was damn good. Jammy (hey!) blackberry on the nose, with some hints of oak. I was worried it would be too sour, but the blackberries were the only sour providers here, as the beer was easy and enjoyable for me to drink. Fruity and refreshing!
11 | General Braddock’s IPA | Brew Gentlemen | Double IPA | Braddock, PA | 8.5% – listen
As a history teacher, it always excites me when beers are named after important historical figures. Named after General Edward Braddock of the British army who died at the Battle of the Monongahela (and subsequently gave his battle sash to a young Colonel George Washington for retrieving his body off the battlefield) and the town where Brew Gentlemen brew, this beer was a fruity, juicy delight. Virtually no bitterness, tons of citrus and tropical fruits, and a creamy mouthfeel (and smell!) make this turbid looking IPA one of the best I’ve had this year. If only it was easier to get.
10 | Virga | Heavy Gem | Saison | Chicago, IL/Ardmore, PA | ? – listen
Around the time of the first Double Daisy Cutter can release in March, Half Acre announced they would be selling beers from Heavy Gem. After some searching and trying to completely forgot what I saw on the Heavy Gem website, I found out it was a collaboration between Half Acre and Tired Hands in Pennsylvania. I was able to get a sample of the Virga at Half Acre and I immediately bought my 2 bottle limit. Wine tannins and funk dominate the beer and, while it may be on the sour side of things, it had a nice dry finish as well as lemon and fruit notes. I’m hoping this is a sign of things to come with Half Acre’s barrel program, with more saisons and sours hopefully coming through the pipeline, as this was an outstanding effort.
9 | American Lager | Riggs Beer Company | Lager | Urbana, IL | 4.9% – listen
After raving about Dovetail on the podcast, we had a listener recommend a brewery in Urbana, Illinois called Riggs. I wound up going down during the summer and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of beers coming out of this brewery. Their flagship American Lager was the real standout though. Using corn grown on their farm right outside the brewery, Riggs’ American Lager is light, crisp, refreshing, but with a healthy dose of corniness (ha!) thrown in. And it’s that corn flavor that really sets this lager apart from most all other lagers I’ve had, both micro and macro. It’s a blast of flavor that you don’t expect to get out of a lager, but it still has all the crucial qualities that make it a lager. I can’t wait to go down to Urbana again to get another pour.
8 | Night Fights | Goose Island Clybourn | Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout | Chicago, IL | 10.5% – listen
I really hate putting beers like this on the list, as chances are few people will ever have it. Using Goose Island Clybourn’s FoBAB silver medal winning barrel-aged Impervious as its base, brewer Jon Naghaki sourced some raspberries to make his self-described “ghost whale.” The star, as it should be, is the Impervious stout, with tons of bourbon, oak, chocolate, vanilla, and roastiness that is impeccably complemented by the addition of raspberries. Those raspberries play a supporting role, not making the beer either too tart or sweet or sour or jammy, but adding a hint of fruit to it, resulting in a delicious chocolate-covered raspberry taste. This is what Clare’s Thirsty Ale from Haymarket was years ago, before it got a little to raspberry sweet for my taste. If it’s on tap or you have a chance to try it, definitely do so.
7 | King Citra | Fieldwork Brewing Co. | Double IPA | Berkeley, CA | 8.7% – listen
I’ve heard a fair amount about Fieldwork and their beers, so I was very much looking forward to finally trying beers from them. Of the three we had, King Citra clearly stood out. A New England style double IPA that features the Citra hop, King Citra lets that hop shine, with tons of fruit and citrus on the nose. Low bitterness, tons of juice notes, and the hiding of the 8.7 % ABV made me wish I had a case of this to just sip on at my leisure. Well worth trading for.
6 | Juice Is Loose | Transient Artisan Ales | Double IPA | Bridgman, MI | 8% – listen
It’s really telling if a beer is able to best other, recently packaged New England style DIPAs in a blind taste test, and Juice Is Loose is that beer. A ton of fruit (pineapple, papaya, mango) on the nose low bitterness and a soft, coating mouthfeel and a juice bomb for the tongue caused this one to rise above the rest of the field on that show. Staying true to the style, the ABV is completely hidden, leaving you with a juicy, fruity beer that you can easily finish a 4-pack of in one night.
5 | Bastard Rye | Garage Project | Belgian Strong Pale Ale | Wellington, New Zealand | 14% – listen
I had both heard of Garage Project (out of New Zealand) and seen their bottles at some shops around town, but never tried anything from them. So when they were listed as pouring at Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp this year, I made it a point to get to their booth first. They were pouring this Bastard Rye out of bottles and it was delicious and the beer of the fest for me. Thankfully I was able to get a bottle of it, as it was just as good on the podcast. Tons of bourbon, vanilla, caramel, oak and spice was present on the nose, thanks to the 3 years spent again in bourbon barrels. It tasted just like it smelled and it was surprisingly smooth for the ABV, warming the cockles and requiring you to gently sip away at it until complete. Definitely worth the 4 years it took to make this beer. The label kicked ass too.
4 | Pruim | pFriem Family Brewers | American Wild Ale | Hood River, OR | 6.3% – listen
Whereas this year (and previous years to be honest) beers were all about in your face, over-the-top aromas and flavors, Prium is different. Subtle barrel character. Subtle plum notes. Simple tartness. Expert craftsmanship. pFriem Family Brewers take time with their barrel-aged sour offerings, and it really shines in Prium. It’s not like biting into a plum, but there’s some plum-like notes present. There are some wine tannins from the French oak used, but nothing overly sour or dry. There’s a hint of funk from the Brettanomyces, but it doesn’t get into the barn too much. Overall, a balanced, thoughtful beer. I wish places took the time and had the space to make beer like this.
3 | El Zacaton | Hubbard’s Cave | Imperial Stout | Niles, IL | 12% – listen
Holy nose bombs! Not only could I smell the cinnamon, chocolate and vanilla in this beer, but so could the entire room. While two types of chiles were added as well, it never made the beer to spicy, but did provide a nice little spicy kick that provided some balance to the sweetness happening. The real star, though, was the almond flour. Never having had that in a beer, to my recollection, it added substantial mouthfeel to the beer and (I assume) made this Imperial Stout taste nowhere near the 12% ABV that it is. This was easily the best “pastry stout” I had on the show this year, and I’m hoping it will be made again and barrel-aged in an appropriate barrel. Do not sleep on this beer when it comes out again.
2 | Le Roar Grrrz Aardbei | Bullfron Brewing | American Wild Ale | Williamsport, PA | 7% – listen
Most beer people are very aware that “kriek” means it contains cherries and “framboise” means raspberries are present. But aardbei? Dutch for strawberries, which Bullfrog Brewing has used to absolute perfection in their Le Roar Grrrz gueuze-style beer. Smelling of fresh strawberries, funk, and some lemon, this beer was a revelation for me on using strawberries (a rarely used berry) in a beer. That pillowy, gueuze-style mouthfeel is there, along with a tartness that didn’t get too acidic or sour, and a nice kick of strawberry sweetness rounded out a superbly crafted American gueuze. More please.
1 | Saison with citrus zest | Aftherthought Brewing | Saison | Lombard, IL | 5% – listen
My first reaction to both smelling and tasting this offering from Afterthought Brewing was, “Hill Farmstead.” Lemony, funky, citrusy, dry, refreshing and extremely enjoyable, this beer seriously surprised me. I didn’t think I could have a saison on this level from a local brewery. I didn’t expect comparing it to Hill Farmstead’s Arthur, with both having a light, pillowy mouthfeel with some tart lemon. And I definitely didn’t expect to put together our Saisonathon event for Chicago Craft Beer Week, but this beer was the impetus behind it. It gives me hope that Chicago can produce world class saisons to add to our proficiency in barrel-aged and hoppy beers. If you ever have the time, make the trek out to the Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn for some Afterthought (the only place to carry their bottles). You will not be disappointed.