Ryan’s 30 Best Beers of 2018
The criteria for the list is simple: these are the best beers that I had this year that were released this year. Most of these were packaged but some were from draft pours or at festivals (if I had multiple experiences with it – not just a single 2-ounce pour.) This list is incredibly tilted towards my personal and proximal biases: many are Chicago-area IPAs and stouts with very little in the way of style differentiation or international offerings. Honestly, some of the beers on this list may not have even “won” the shows they were featured on, but they were more interesting and/or memorable in the long run. My point is, list-making is arbitrary and only a degree removed from “mansplaining,” yet we do it anyway, like making a mix CD for someone who never asked for it. Despite that, we probably do it because it’s fun, and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone. It gives me the chance to signal boost some of the best stuff that has crossed my narrow field of reference this year, and those people deserve another gold star, even if it’s tiny and it’ll fall off in an hour.
30. Continued Clarity | Imperial stout with vanilla, chocolate & hazelnut | Deviate Brewing | Indianapolis, IN
A bit more restrained, but as close to a hazelnut coffee creamer poured into a dark, roasty, and chocolate-forward coffee. Nothing goes quite above the pack to make it obnoxious. (Hear it on Episode 247 – The IN Show)
29. Cinnamon Prost Crunch | White milk stout with cinnamon and vanilla | Old Irving Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL
Cinnamon Prost Crunch, which will absolutely not be called that if it is ever canned, is a white/golden milk stout with Saigon cinnamon and Tahitian vanilla. It smells and tastes like drinking the milk from a freshly-devoured bowl of its suggested namesake, and it does so without being a sugar atrocity. Sure, it has sweetness, but the rich vanilla followed by a kiss of cinnamon spice makes it finish perfectly. The body is as light as its color suggests, but there is still a slightly creamy mouthfeel to it that adds another layer to the experience.
28. Caullier | Imperial Stout brewed w/ roasted peanuts and cacao nibs | Saint Errant Brewing | Chicago, IL
From my StoutFest write-up:
A beer no human is meant to say correctly (Cavalier? Collar? Cauliflower?), this peanut butter chocolate bark in a glass is like reliving your childhood, if your childhood consisted of spooning peanut butter out of the container to spread on Oreo cookies when no one was around, much like mine. (Adulthood, also.) But if all that sounds like too much, it’s not: the peanuts have a dry roasted character to them that balances any residual sugars in the stout, making this a beautiful beer that makes me wonder why there are so many coconut stouts and so few peanut-based ones. (Also heard on Episode 228 – Candy and Cakes)
27. Farmhouse Lager | ??? | The Lost Abbey | San Marcos, CA
For this beer, I found four fairly distinct style classifications for it. The Lost Abbey calls it a “Farmhouse Lager” which is not an actual style by definition. BeerAdvocate calls it a Bière de Garde – likely due to its self-proclaimed status as a “lighter version” of their Avant Garde, which is also a Bière de Garde. Untappd has it listed as an “American Amber/Red Ale”, while RateBeer sees it as a “Zwickel/Keller/Landbier.” So, what the hell is it?
Aromatically, it starts with lightly sweet doughy bread and some subtle fruity but mostly floral hop aromas before a barely-there finish of earth and spice. It’s very clean aromatically, and I’m lead to believe at this point that it’s a lager. But upon tasting it, there are slight notes of sweet toasted bread malt that turn towards an herbal and spicy bitter finish. It’s actually more aggressive than I’d expect from a “farmhouse lager.” But when considered as a “lighter” Bière de Garde, this achieves that in stunning fashion. Persistent small bubbles rush the mouth and tongue to create a crisp effervescence that hide a bit of the fruity yeast and big dark bread malts that I’d associate with a Bière de Garde. But those elements are still brooding in the background, giving this lager a bit of a dark side. Like myself, if you’ve drunk your weight in Two Brothers’ Domaine duPage – a criminally underrated beer and a widely available Bière de Garde, which is amazing when you think about it – you will find this beer much more restrained in its malty sweetness. But I also guarantee you’ll find this stupidly crushable while retaining nuance and dynamic flavor when you stop to savor it.
26. Barrel-aged Super Shake | Barrel-aged chocolate malt-inspired Imperial Stout | Lake Effect Brewing | Chicago, IL
File this under “truth in advertising,” this one hits the mark precisely by tasting like a whiskey-enhanced chocolate malt. It’s all Whoppers, charred oak, caramel, and roasted marshmallows on the nose. The taste oozes with sweet chocolate malt before residing into a bit of a dark roast coffee bitterness, rounded out by a charred oak and caramel bourbon heat. (Hear us taste this with Ryan Tracy of Beer on the Wall on Episode 253 – Beer Gifts.)
25. Dark-N-Curvy | Dunkelweizen | Piece Brewery & Pizzeria | Chicago, IL
Hours before our 4th Anniversary party at Beermiscuous back in February, Craig and I loaded up on delicious pizza and this multiple award-winning dunkelweizen. It was the impetus for an episode (#212: German-style Chicago Reboot) and I had to go back to Piece again with my wife during the summer to take down more pours of this. Aromatically, it’s caramel, creme brûlée, banana bread, light coffee roast, dark brown sugar, and raisin. It’s easy-drinking with a kiss of clove and banana bread, baked apples, molasses, and holiday punch, with a touch heftier mouthfeel and next-to-no sweetness on the end.
24. Homestyle | IPA | Bearded Iris Brewing | Nashville, TN
Thanks to Nashville listener Matt Milam, we’ve been able to try a lot of great Bearded Iris beers, but this one was the best of them. It’s rare to find an IPA that you can’t find a comparable to in the Chicago area, and this one felt original through its oat-enhanced body, pungent savory herbal and fruity aromas, and bitter orange and green grape flavor. It’s a tropical Mosaic cocktail brimming with oranges and tropical fruits, but it remains a herbal and almost spicy IPA in the end. (Hear us drink this and more Bearded Iris on Episode 234 – Bearded Iris.)
23. Batisserie S’mores Stout | Imperial pastry stout w/ graham crackers, marshmallows, cocoa and lactose | Energy City Brewing | Batavia, IL
In a year filled with s’mores stouts, this entry from the “where-did-that-come-from” brewery of the year, Energy City, delivers on every promise. It’s chocolate and marshmallow and honey graham cracker and vanilla, all on a medium body that drinks way under the 10% ABV.
22. Mugwump Brunch | Sour DIPA w/ orange juice | Illuminated Brew Works | Chicago, IL
Illuminated have shown great skill in adapting to the new trends of beer, especially with this year’s brut, milkshake, and sour IPAs mini-trends. This one is the best of what the sour IPA can be, because it tastes exactly like a hoppy mimosa, and most other Sour IPAs I’ve had are over-fruited tart messes. This one smells of green grape skin, musty melon, tropical fruit, lemongrass, and juicy citrus. The taste is a hoppy mimosa: champagne grapes and sweet orange juice with lightly tart and dry finish. Repeated sips bring out the fruity and grassy hops, and the effervescence helps it drink way under 8%. (Listen to us drink more local sour IPAs on Episode 227 – Chicago Sour IPAs.)
21. Classic Saison | Saison/Farmhouse | Blackberry Farm Brewery | Walland, TN
Another “hiding in plain sight” saison that rivals those of bigger-name farm brewers, this is perfection from the start, with a complex aroma of yeasty phenols, bubblegum, lemon, baked pears, cardamon spice, and a touch of creamy vanilla. A plush mouthfeel brings on big sweet lemon bread and spicy herbal hops before a classically dry finish. (Check out us and Mike Thorpe of Afterthought drink through amazing saisons on Episode 223 – The Science of Saison.)
20. Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine | Wheatwine | Goose Island Beer Co. | Chicago, IL
The most “stripped down” version of Bourbon County released this year, employing only two pale malts compared to the malt smorgasbord in BCBS, it’s an homage to bourbon barrels. They want you to taste the 75% blend of 4 to 6-year old Heaven Hill barrels and 25% Buffalo Trace. Hell, they’ve been the most transparent about the barrels and process behind BCBS this year than any year in the past. The aroma is raisins, cherry, toffee, light honey sweetness, and a slight astringency. In the flavor, it’s so smooth with toffee, caramel, and cherry cola that mix with much lighter notes of roasted nuts, vanilla, and coconut from the barrel. Reserve may have been the best of this year’s BCBS lineup, but I chose this one to highlight a bold choice by Goose Island that may represent a bigger risk than they’ve brought to this series in a long time. (Listen to our interview with Mike Siegel from Goose Island about how this, and the whole 2018 lineup, came to be: Episode 251: BCBS 2018.)
19. Brett IPA | Dry-hopped Brettanomyces-Fermented Ale | Allagash Brewing Company | Portland, ME
Everyone knows that you shouldn’t age your IPAs, but here Allagash has made one that doubles the shelf life of any standard IPA through the use of Brettanomyces. I know it’s not necessarily a new style, but it amazes me that it’s not a bigger trend. This could be due to the fact that almost no one handles funky or wild yeasts and bacteria like Allagash. But the magic of a Brett IPA, like this one, is not only how explosively mango and pineapple forward it is when fresh, but how the only thing that mellows as it ages is its moderate bitterness. The label tells you to drink this fresh, but I’d advise stashing one from a four-pack in the back of the fridge as you’ll get a bit more barnyard funk and overripe peach acidity in it over the course of a few months.
18. Spoonful | Hazy IPA | Horse Thief Hollow Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL
I’ve come to love Horse Thief for many of their slightly esoteric offerings, like dunkels and yam beers and bière de gardes. But they handily jump into the hazy IPA ring with this canned offering – one of those rare hazy IPAs that knows those flavors work best in balance. The aroma and flavor are filled with grapefruit, cantaloupe, orange, and papaya, and it leaves just enough resinous bitterness at the finish to cut short any sweetness. (Hear us drink this and other local hazies on Episode 231: Still Hazy After All These Years.)
17. Gray Skies Barrel-Aged Neckbeard Nectar | Imperial Stout aged in Gray Skies Bourbon Barrels with vanilla bean | Transient Artisan Ales | Bridgman, MI
Still the adjunct of choice for stouts, vanilla got even more love than usual this year with barrel-aged beers: the third go-round with a vanilla BCBS; Revolution’s release of Vanilla Deth; and Bottle Logic’s Best in Show at FoBAB for Fundamental Observation. This one is a relatively stripped-down version of the annually-evolving collaboration between Transient and The Beer Cellar: a big stout with vanilla aged in Gray Skies bourbon barrels. It’s a medium-bodied beer with the flavor of chocolate fudge and a thick ribbon of vanilla cream that melds with an incredibly smooth caramel bourbon finish.
16. Rauchbier | Rauchbier | Dovetail Brewery | Chicago, IL
Though it wasn’t my first experience with this beer, when we drank this for the show, it more than confirmed what my earlier sampling had suggested: it’s the most approachable smoked beer I’ve had and made me crave more smoked beers – which is something I never before felt. If you need a gateway to smoke, this is it. On the aroma, it’s fresh fried bacon, smoldering wood chips, roasty chocolate malt, and a light kiss of floral and fruity hop. The flavor is much more subtle with the smoke, as it lingers in the background of an otherwise clean and lightly malty brew. (Listen to use drink other local takes on German styles on Episode 212: German-Style Chicago Reboot.)
15. Saison Avec: Meyer Lemons | Saison | Afterthought Brewing Company | Lombard, IL
Now that you can find Afterthought in more locations for 2019 – depending of course on their very small output and measured approach with releasing new bottles – we hope this brewery can find the audience it deserves. No one locally is making beer quite like this quite this well. This saison is classic with a zesty twist. The aroma is old-world saison lemon curd, bubblegum, clove, and black peppercorn. The flavor hits with a flash of lemon tartness at the beginning before turning into this soft cotton candy mouthfeel that finishes with a little toasted biscuit and pepper.
14. Little Crush | Session IPA | Middle Brow Beer Co. | Chicago, IL
There were many great achievements by the Middle Brow crew this year, not the least of which is readying their bungalow brewpub for opening in 2019. This beer could be a top seller on draft once the joint opens, as it’s so very “crushable” yet full-flavored with a crisp, bitter finish. The aroma and flavor bring watermelon candy, red grapefruit, passionfruit, and pine. It was a hell of a kick-off for their 16-ounce cans, and I can’t wait to see what’s flowing in Logan Square once the doors open on our Most-Anticipated Brewpub of 2019ⓒ™. (Hear us drink this and other “crushers” on Episode 224: New Crush.)
13. Paz Y Piña | Saison refermented with pineapples & aged in Chardonnay barrels | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL
It was great to see many outlets covering the stellar barrel-aged releases from Cruz Blanca this year, as we’ve been eagerly waiting what Jacob and Todd were sitting on. We expected stouts, barleywines, and even bière de gardes aged in a variety of barrels, but an exceptional saison that tastes like pineapple whip topped with a vanilla wafer then upended into a glass of chardonnay? Yeah, this beer is pretty much perfect. It’s wonderfully soft and tongue-coating at first before it leaves with effervescence and a dry white pepper finish. (Hear us drink that on Episode 249 – FoBABlin’ 3)
12. Fellowship of Xul | Barrel-aged dessert stout w/ cocoa nibs, coconut, almonds, vanilla, & peanut butter | Modern Times Beer | San Diego, CA
From my GABF recap:
One of my biggest festival regrets was not spending more time at the double-wide Modern Times booth. This beer is a stunning pastry/dessert stout that is about 100 pounds of flavor in a half pound can. The peanut butter dominates the aroma, but there’s a darker chocolate flavor that comes on and is deepened by hints of almond milk and creamy Jif.
11. Druif | Lambic-inspired ale with Riesling grapes | pFriem Family Brewers | Hood River, OR
From my GABF recap:
Winners of the Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year, pFriem has been our pick for this country’s best brewery since last GABF. We seriously haven’t shut up about this brewery in 12 solid months, and that’s not going to change. This one won a gold in the “Mixed-Culture Brett Beer” category, and that entry choice is a very interesting one. It’s clearly a lambic-style beer that crosses the flavor line into white wine territory. But like every other pFriem lambic-style, the mouthfeel is full and effervescent, and any long-lingering sourness is dried up in the excellent finish.
10. Traveling Scientist | American Pale Ale w/ Citra and Arcane distilled hop oils | Hop Butcher for the World | Chicago, IL
It was not surprising to see Hop Butcher jump at the opportunity to test out hop oils from New York’s Arcane Distilling, as they’ve been blazing the local hazy trail for over two years now. This experiment paid off as the resulting beer is more flavor than is usually crammed into a pale ale. Aromatically, it’s dank and tropical, even showing some aromas of mango and strawberry. The flavor is all those Citra tropical fruits blended with strawberry on a chewy body before ending on a significant resinous bitterness. There were many stellar Hop Butcher beers this year, but this one got me geeked for future experiments in the name of hop. (Hear this one on our Patreon exclusive Low ABV 122 – SciPAs.)
9. Terre Du Sauvage Green | Dry-hopped and oak-aged saison | Wolf’s Ridge Brewing | Columbus, OH
From my GABF recap:
Though medal-less at GABF, this beer won a gold at last year’s FoBAB for Wild/Brett Beer. Earthy and slightly oaky at first, flavors of underripe melon, lime, and pine emerge the deeper you go. I didn’t have a better saison all weekend, and I can’t wait to have this one again.
8. Berliner Messe – Gloria | Berliner Weisse/Lambic-style hybrid aged in oak and dry hopped | The Referend Bier Blendery | Pennington, NJ
From my GABF recap:
James and Melissa Priest not only brought their world-class spontaneous ales to the fest, but they brought their lambic baskets and pitchers as well. It’s a silly thing to focus on, but once you talk to the Priests, you understand their reverence for sour beer as well as biology, art, classical works, literature, etc. We fell in love with their whole lineup of beers, so choosing one is a bit arbitrary. This one is a mix of earthy and oaky vinous notes and a mix of pineapple and lemongrass.
7. Baltic Porter | Traditional Baltic Porter | Kinslahger Brewing Co. | Oak Park, IL
From my StoutFest write-up:
You’d think I have some sort of chocolate quota to hit where if I say chocolate in every review of every beer, I collect some sort of payout from the Chocolate Council. Well, those rumors are entirely untrue. But here I am thinking about how this baltic porter achieves some of the richest chocolate notes of any beer poured at the fest, but then it follows with lovely supporting notes of raisins and coffee. Also I just found out they do a Nitro version of this and I have to go, byeeee. (Edit: this is now canned, and we can confirm that it tastes exceptional.)
6. Veritas Kriek | Wild ale aged in oak w/ cherries | The Lost Abbey | San Marcos, CA
There were two master breweries that I fell in love with all over again this year, and they couldn’t be further away from one another: the first is Allagash, and the second is The Lost Abbey. As I’ve regained my tolerance for sour beers (shout out to my fantastic doctor for the heartburn medication), I’ve realized how much I’ve missed out on some of the most beautiful beers on the planet. This beer absolutely won FoBAB for me – I had no less than five pours. It’s full of tart cherries, lemon zest, clove, and pie crust before finishing with a snappy acidity and mineral dryness.
5. Fresh IIPA: One Hop Citra | IIPA | Hubbard’s Cave | Niles, IL
It glows a perfect goldenrod with a thin opacity – hazy but not milky or chunky. Just pouring into the glass produces a ludicrous amount of tropical fruit aroma into the air: oranges, mango, lychee. When you get a little closer, the smell is heavy on grapefruit and dewy morning grass. The flavor is pure Citra bliss: huge notes of pithy orange, bitter grapefruit, and sweet limes dominate. The finish is more than moderately bitter, mixing a bit of sweet mango with a slightly catty and sharp lemongrass ending. It looks the part of the hazy beer, and the malt character is indeed very low, but the mouthfeel is more large and slightly effervescent and dry.
Let me be clear here. This beer is an absolute triumph. It is everything I love about the Citra hop but done to be a little more trendy while only using the best elements of those trends. But it doesn’t pull punches in its use of Citra, highlighting that hop’s strong tropical fruit presence while also utilizing its more pungent bittering qualities. This is magic stardust liquid that makes me feel like I could eat a skyful of clouds.
4. Café Deth | Imperial Oatmeal Stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ Dark Matter coffee
| Revolution Brewing Company | Chicago, IL
My hands-down favorite of the first five Deep Wood releases, th- *ducks as a #BiL meme sails overhead* this year’s Café Deth also represents the best version of this beer to date. It might have helped that we drank this on the show a day after it was canned, and Revolution made it clear they wanted you to drink it fresh for a reason. The aromatics on this are that of fresh ground coffee full of bitter chocolate, toasted almond, and a touch of spice. The flavor is pure medium roast coffee chocolate with a touch of clover honey. It’s smooth without much lingering bitterness, but it leaves a warming boozy burn. This is as well-rounded as a barrel-aged coffee stout gets. (Listen to our review on Episode 252 – Deep Wood Deep Dive.)
3. Velocity of Light | DDH Oat IPA | Pipeworks Brewing Company | Chicago, IL
In my opinion, watch for Pipeworks to climb the ranks of the best hazy beers in the city. That shouldn’t sound controversial, because they obviously know their hoppy beers. They seemed a little slow to embrace the hazy way, but now that they have released several in their wrapped 16oz. cans, it’s clear (not clear?) that they were simply perfecting their take on it. And this beer is perfect – a Double Dry-Hopped Oat IPA with Galaxy, Mosaic, and Cryo-Mosaic hops – is the perfect mix of juice and bitter. From the pungent citrus and grapefruit aroma, through the fluffy body, and down to the herbal bitter finish – this is about as good as the style has gotten.
2. Taras Boulba | Hoppy Belgian Blonde/Golden | Brasserie de la Senne | Bruxelles, Belgium
Few beers this year felt like I was being ushered into a secret club, but this one did it. Thanks to Mike Thorpe of Afterthought Brewing’s enthusiastic endorsement of this as one of his all-time favorite beers, I took notice. Currently holding down an average of 3.4 bottlecaps on Untappd, Taras Boulba is hiding in plain sight as one of the best Belgian pales/hoppy pseudo-saisons you could ever wish for (depending on those pesky Shelton Brothers drops, of course.) It smells of lemon, light musty funk, grass, and salty sea water. The taste is so light and crisp, with a hint of grassy bitterness, a kiss of lemon tartness, and an absolute bone-dry finish. It’s the ultimate summer beer since the last ultimate summer beer. (Check out us and Mike Thorpe of Afterthought drink through amazing saisons on Episode 223 – The Science of Saison.)
1. Mexican Medianoche | Imperial Stout aged in Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey barrels with Papua New Guinea and Madagascar vanilla beans, Vietnamese cinnamon sticks, and Ghanan cacao nibs | WeldWerks Brewing Co. | Greeley, CO
Laughing in the face of flagships, WeldWerks set out to release 100 different packaged beers this year, and they achieved that by September. More than just a gimmick, it gave Neil Fisher and company the chance to really play with flavors without ever seeing a downtick in demand. Their booth at GABF grew to being one of the most popular stops at the fest, with no less than 12 beers pouring at any one time, including the fantastically weird (and surprisingly good) Spaghetti Gose and the decadent Single Barrel Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche. If you’re a beer fan who scoffs at the trendy adjunct stouts and over-the-top IPAs and sours, then WeldWerks will offend your sensibilities. And that’s okay! There’s room for both traditional styles and crazy experiments in beer – liking the latter doesn’t signal a death knell for the former. Brewers making primarily traditional styles have a dedicated fanbase that aren’t going away – it just might be a little harder to find a good English Mild through all the haze and cake.
But I digress. This beer is a knockout from the start. Aged in Woodford Reserve Rye barrels for 20 months, there’s certainly a lot of barrel presence here: caramel, cigar tobacco, smoked oak, and spice. But that is quickly overtaken by cinnamon sticks, rich cocoa, and a light twinge of vanilla. The flavor follows suit: cinnamon heat and rye whiskey spice combine to dominate at first but are later smoothed out by the chocolate and vanilla in great balance. It’s rich without being syrupy; it’s strong without being hot. It’s the best beer I had this year – or most years for that matter. (Listen to our overwhelmed reactions on Episode 255 – WeldWerks 2.0, and hey, listen to us drink even more from them and talk with head brewer/owner Neil Fisher on Episode 245 – WeldWerks Brewing.)