Ryan’s Top 50 Beers of 2019
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. I undoubtedly left off many other great beers I had this year because I’m not a very good record-keeper and don’t use Untappd. But I hope some of these beers resonate with you, because they stood out to me, and they deserve recognition.
50. Burnt City Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Li’l Sparky | Meyer lemon grisette | 4.5% ABV – listen
An idealistic version of me would like to believe that 2019 was the year of the kveik – and not the year of hard seltzers and the baffling decline of big “craft” breweries. Either way, kveik is having its moment as a versatile strain that can work with the most rustic Nordic farmhouse ales to big roasty stouts, and Burnt City created a fest to show off all the ways kveik gets it done. This refreshing late summer drinker is a lovely tart lemon spritzer, with a soft and effervescent mouthfeel and some hints of soft stone fruit, Belgian esters, and a dry cracked pepper water cracker finish.
49. Bierstadt Lagerhaus (Denver, CO) | Slow Pour Pils | German-style pils | 5.1% ABV – listen
Sure, we did it for the ‘gram. It’s beer tourist tradition during GABF to visit Bierstadt for this pilsner, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get yours within 10 minutes of ordering. But it lives up to the hype in its absolutely gorgeous mouthfeel, soft yet crisp, with just a bit of herbal and floral bitterness. In what might be a shocking twist, the non-slow-poured crowler we took back to the hotel was just as delicious and took far less time to purchase, so take that, science. Also, it’s worth mentioning that I wanted to add their Dunkel to this list as well as it sent us on a real DunkelJagen all weekend, but alas, the ‘gram wins again.
48. Angry Chair Brewing (Tampa, FL) | Rye Barrel Aged Popinski w/ Vanilla | Rye barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout w/ vanilla | 13.9% ABV – listen
Though it’d be easy to dismiss Angry Chair as just another hype-y Florida barrel-aged stout factory, the proof here is in the *ahem* pudding. This is an oily and viscous pour from the beginning with Nesquik head, and aromatically it replicates the Bourbon County Vanilla Rye from a few years back. In the flavor, the vanilla works its way through like a thread interwoven between the spicy rye and dark chocolate with additional notes of coffee roast and leather. There are surprising tiny bubbles in the finish and a kick of rye spice to lighten up an otherwise syrupy richness. It’s dense and full of chocolate and marshmallows.
47. Ørkenoy (Chicago, IL) | Gizmo Windjammer | West Estonian-style raw farmhouse ale w/ juniper branches, myrica gale, and Stranda kveik yeast | 8.2% ABV
From my Kveik Fest writeup:
The newest brewery at the fest, Ørkenoy is set to open in the Kimball Arts Center in Humboldt Park in the somewhat near future. But in the meantime, Ørkenoy is making “Scandinavian-inspired” beers and using a whole lot of kveik yeast in the Pilot Project space. And this fest was the perfect showcase for how weird they want to get. On this beer, the tremendous smoke on the aroma and flavor are courtesy of a Nordic-style malt from Sugar Creek, but the juniper and gale really make you feel like you’re drinking a tea that could kill small insects. I mean that lovingly. This beer is a challenge to drink at first, but its intensity settles down into a peaty herbal cocktail with a little honey lemon Ricola. It’s not even the weirdest thing I drank all day, but it has a flavor that’ll stick with you.
46. Pipeworks Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | Normcore | Brown Ale | 6% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
After half-a-decade of weekly releases of crazy-ass recipes alongside intensely hopped DIPAs, it seems like Pipeworks is spending some of its time settling into its crewneck sweatshirt and Seinfeld-jeans era of being trendily anti-trend. They’ve been releasing Schwarzbiers and pilsners and lagers and – gasp – this absolutely delicious brown ale. It’s a mix of nuts and light roast coffee on the aroma, while the flavor is more hazelnut cream but with almost no sweetness. The bitterness present is slight and mostly floral, serving to accentuate the oily malt character through a prickly finish.
45. Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) | Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (2019) | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ pecans, coconut, vanilla, and cacao nibs | 14.5% ABV – listen
To be completely honest, in a lineup of the full Bourbon County releases for the year, this one was instantly forgettable. Something about the return of so many familiar ingredients made it harder to remember than naming all the members of NKOTB (even though you grew up in the 80s). But upon second tasting, boy did I feel wrong. Aromatically, it’s fresh baked cookies or cake batter or some other pastry delight. It tastes like Cocoa Puffs in milk. There’s a touch of vanilla frosting that never gets exhausting. The mouthfeel is absolutely staggering: it coats the whole palate, but the oiliness of the pecan and coconut make it slide down your tongue in an obscene way. The nuttiness melds well with the vanilla, and that pair is jockeying for position with the coconut and cacao which ultimately round out the flavor.
44. Waikiki Brewing Company (Honolulu, HI) | Hana Hou Hefe | Hefeweizen w/ orange peel and strawberry puree | 5.8% ABV – listen
One of my proudest moments of 2019 came courtesy of Craig’s mom, whose trip to Hawaii netted us our Hawaii State Show in our very slow quest to cover all 50 states (we’re up to 22!) More than anything, it’s exciting to discover a burgeoning beer scene in an area you wouldn’t first associate with beer. This beer is what I wish a Milkshake IPA actually tasted like. The fact that it’s a hefeweizen with some built in esters and banana flavors gives a lactose illusion that mixes with the wonderful additions of orange and fresh strawberry. After this beer disappears way too fast, you’re left wondering why more brewers aren’t cramming their fruit purees into hefeweizens. This is a fruit salad in a glass, and it’s never even a little burdensome. I’ve never had a beer exactly like this.
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Riding out of the weekend with some grilling in the garden and this @hopbutcher Wurlitzer. Light banana cream is up front with a little peachy hop and slight pithy bitterness in the end. Tasting great and feeling great. #laborday #craftbeer #backyardbeers #chicagobeer #hefeweizen #wurlitzer #beerstagram
43. Hop Butcher for the World (Chicago, IL) | Wurlitzer | Hefeweizen | 5% ABV
Whether they’re beholden to their name or that sweet, sweet cash (it’s definitely the cash), Hop Butcher rarely steps outside of their usual heavily dry-hopped cloudy IPAs – which are rightfully-hyped as some of the best in the city. But when they play with more subtle styles like this Hefeweizen, there’s still a tradition-breaking streak of flavor that waves its hand from behind the curtain. This has a soft banana estery start before a cameo from fruity citrus hops comes in to add a slight bitterness in an otherwise smooth-drinking finish.
42. Kinslahger Brewing Company (Oak Park, IL) | Baltic Porter | Baltic porter | 9.4% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
This is one of those beers that could eternally sit on my year-end lists, as it was at #7 last year, and only falls in my rankings a bit this year because I didn’t drink enough of it. (Which really isn’t Kinslahger’s fault.) Rich and smooth, this no-hop porter achieves some roasty bitterness, but the chocolate is still the biggest star. Served on nitro at their taproom, you might as well have cold chocolate fondue in your glass, minus the sweetness and little skewers of marshmallows. This porter out-stouts your stout, and anyone looking for a chocolate-heavy and smooth beer absent of bitter hops or under-attenuated sweetness, look no further. (Their Sauvin Blanc released in cans this year also deserves an honorable mention as a lovely lightly-hopped lager.)
41. Lake Effect Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Chai Masala Barleywine | Barleywine aged in bourbon barrels with lactose and spices added | 11.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
We take whatever opportunity we can to shout from the mountaintops that Lake Effect is one of the most underrated barrel-aging breweries in the city, and they do it so quietly that most people might skip by their offerings in favor of hype. Clint is like an eccentric flavor scientist using odd ingredients and new yeasts in great harmony out of the back of an old costume shop. This collaboration beer with Mango Pickle seeks to imitate its namesake in a – ho hum – bourbon-barrel aged Kveik yeast 11.5% barleywine. It pours a burnt caramel mahogany from the 12-ounce can, and you’re immediately met with aromas of coriander, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg. There’s a distinct creaminess that comes out even more in the flavor, accentuating sweet caramel malt and something like a gingerbread cookie. This beer had me craving ice cream at the end of it.
40. Mikerphone Brewing (Elk Grove Village, IL)/The Bruery (Placentia, CA) | Icky Thump | Imperial Coffee Stout with Portola Sumatra Coffee | 11% ABV – listen
This beer smells like a crossover between Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and a big 750 of Speedway Stout from 2013. It has one of the most aggressive coffee-forward aromas I experienced all year, and the flavor follows suit with an addition of rich dark chocolate and a little light cream. It’s oily and roasty and bitter and big and boozy, and two breweries known for a sometimes too-sweet profile have really held back on this one to let the coffee be the star.
39. Brasserie de la Senne (Brussels, Belgium) | Taras Boulba | Extra Hoppy Ale | 4.5% ABV
This is another beer that will eternally reside on my year-end lists so long as I have a fresh bottle of it. With Do Right Distribution seemingly handling the Shelton Brothers portfolio in Chicagoland now, we may actually have a regular supply of fresh Boulba to reaffirm our lives, at least quarterly. This beer is where soft and crisp and bitter all intersect. It’s Belgian bubblegum and banana esters are showing, while it has a distinct grassy hop bitterness at a manageable level before finishing crisp and dry and peppery. This is my desert island beer. Smeirlap!
38. Scratch Brewing Company (Ava, IL) | Turmeric Tonic | Gruit-style ale brewed w/ turmeric and nettle | 5.8% ABV – listen
Quite possibly the healthiest beer we’ve ever had, this odd little gruit (from one of the country’s best producers of odd little gruits) is loaded with an odd flavor assortment of agave, juniper, papaya, blood orange, sea salt, sage, and lemons. Along with a moderate puckering tartness, there’s a distinct note across the middle that develops that one can imagine is turmeric-related, but I don’t really have the frame of reference with turmeric in beers to really know that. And that’s exactly why we need more gruits in 2020. Hit me with those freaky flavors, please!
37. Lil’ Beaver Brewery (Bloomington, IL) | Lil’ Bit More Wonderful | Chocolate milk stout fermented w/ Hefeweizen yeast, chocolate, coconut, and banana | 6% ABV
This beer took home the Iron Brewer award at the Oak Park Microbrew Review against some pretty stiff competition. Chad and his crew are no strangers to over-the-top flavors, but this one is remarkable, carrying the full flavor of its adjuncts on a lightly chewy body boosted by the hefeweizen yeast, while hitting below 6% alcohol.
36. Brink Brewing Co. (Cincinnati, OH) | Hold the Reins | English Mild Ale | 4.7% ABV
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
I know it seems like “a choice” to put an English Mild so high on this list, but when you have this one, you’ll understand. With a gold this year, a silver in 2018, and another gold in 2017, this beer is exemplary of the dark take on this style while also going a bit bolder in the flavor department. It’s a bit toasty and nutty with just a hint of chocolate, but it is quaalude-mellow on the finish and it dries out considerably. This brewery won its second straight Very Small Brewing Company Award, and they should be on the…oh god…brink of bigger and better things.
35. New Glarus Brewing Company (New Glarus, WI) | Kühler | Lambic-style blonde ale w/ lime juice and tea | 5.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
So few breweries these days earn the “sight unseen” purchase like New Glarus, and when I bought this 4-pack, I had no idea what the hell this beer was. It pours a copper-tinted gold and is totally clear, with a wispy light head rimming the glass. The aroma propels forward with citrus, lime, tea leaves, cherries, and an almost Oud Bruin-like tinniness. The flavor is even more than you expect, with a Gatorade-like supercharged burst of lemon-lime that gets funkier and mustier as you sip further, revealing some white wine-like characters punctuated with honey and very subtle clove. It would fit surprisingly well with the rest of their fruit beer line.
34. Hacienda Beer Co. (Baileys Harbor, WI) | There Is No Other Way | Gin barrel-aged mixed culture saison w/ lime zest, pink peppercorns, and lemongrass | 6.5% ABV
From my Kveik Fest writeup:
I have to give credit to our friend Sarah Rehmer for her praise of this one, because it is a stunning example of how well kveik can play alongside Brett and bacteria. This is a gin and tonic squeezed from a cloud. It has zesty citrus and a stinging bite before yellow Gatorade extinguishes the palate with a tartness that gets a little sticky before going bone dry.
33. WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Greeley, CO) | Double Barrel Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche | Imperial stout aged in 21 months in two different bourbon barrels w/ peanut butter cups and peanut flour added | 16.8% ABV
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
The WeldWerks booth might as well become the place to reunite lost friends at GABF, as there’s a good chance most people at the fest will make multiple trips through their line. We’ve yet to have a less-than-stellar Medianoche variant – every single one slaps harder than a Bootsy Collins bassline. This one is strong on all fronts: flavor, thickness, and booze. But there’s never a misstep or an off note – each sip is a warm and comforting peanut butter hug.
32. Phase Three Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Energetic Mind | DIPA w/ Vic Secret and Citra | 8% ABV – listen
Even though this isn’t the one with the porn-y sounding name, this Phase Three hazy stuck out in a blind tasting thanks to a bit of zippiness. Aromatically, it’s musty melon, passionfruit, and earthy hops clashing with sweet cotton candy. In the mouth, it takes a ride from soft at the outset to a bitter streak that takes over the last one-third of the drink. It’s overall quite creamy, and the deeper you get, the more tart passionfruit and gooseberry come out amongst a bit of a grassy finish. It’s delicious.
31. Off Color Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Miscellanea Vol.2 | Foeder-aged wild ale with a blend of native yeasts | 6.2% ABV
I don’t know if the above style descriptor actually covers what this beer really is, and Off Color hasn’t been a brewery known for being committed to rigid style designations. Including yeasts from Allagash, Side Project, Jester King, and Central State, the resulting beer is a typhoon of fruit aromas, from juicy lemon to lychee to apricot. There are other notes of wine-like oak tannins, earthy funk, and a touch of acetone that add a rustic character. In the flavor, it’s not overly complex to its benefit – a simple tartness in the finish mellows over time. Repeated sips bring out notes of lemon, grapefruit, and apricot with a little bit of fruit syrup that lingers on the tongue after the finish.
30. Pipeworks Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | Eclipse Season | Oat IPA w/ Mosaic hops and apricot puree | 6.5% ABV
Another thing Pipeworks mastered even moreso in 2019 than traditional styles was their hazy Oat IPAs. Variations like Speed of Sound, Velocity of Light, and Absolute Motion have all focused on double dry-hopping and using cryo-hops with excellent results, and this one leans into the more stone fruit character of Mosaic by pairing it with juicy apricot puree. The result is both big on juicy flavor and bitter enough to not wear down your palate with sweetness. The oat-enhanced mouthfeel is more cotton candy than pancake batter, so it’s full at first yet brief and light by the end.
29. Maplewood Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | Coconut Cuppa | Imperial Stout with chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and coffee | 12% ABV
From my StoutFest writeup:
Like a perfect liquid version of a Samoa, this is full of rich chocolate, sweet caramel, and vanilla notes. But all of that is behind the leading and lingering flavors of toasted coconut. This is one of those rare pastry stouts that elicits a few repours without bogging you down with its richness, which is mainly due to a kiss of roast from Metric coffee beans and a decently dry finish.
28. Third Space Brewing (Milwaukee, WI) | Happy Place | American Pale Ale | 5.3% ABV – listen
When we found out from Andy Gehl that they were selling this beer at Miller Park, we were impressed. But then when we drank it and discovered how it’s the perfect blend of new-school aromatic fruit-burst and easy-drinking bitter session pale ale, we were damned jealous. It presents big tropical aromas with grapefruit, pineapple, passionfruit, and guava being a reasonable shot-in-the-dark for what’s really just a wonderful melange. It’s light and refreshing, bitter and zesty. It zips across the palate, leaving a touch of bitterness that lingers without being too abrasive to those that are hop-averse. It’s a wonderful beer, and it’s one that I will actually have to schlep back to Illinois in large quantities the next time I’m up near Milwaukee.
27. Lake Effect Brewing (Chicago, IL) | School of Brett | Mixed 4-pack of saison fermented with three different Brettanomyces strains | 6.2% ABV – listen
Just a bunch of yeast nerds, nerding out over yeast. This mixed 4-pack was so interesting to us, that we hardly hesitated in firing off an e-mail to Clint (from Lake Effect) and Lance (from Omega Yeast) to dive deep into the world of Brettanomyces yeast. The resulting beers are more than just a science experiment, although, I have to recommend them as a whole set and an experience rather than individual favorites. Each Brett strain clearly shows nuances that were not present in the others, and with the inclusion of the base saison as the fourth beer, you can run your own little Cicerone tasting at home (without all the Twitter yelling!) Beer has hardly been this fun and this educational this year, and I’d love to see more breweries package assortments like this for a tasting and learning experience.
26. Beachwood Blendery (Long Beach, CA) | Funk Yeah | Gueuze-inspired blend of 1, 2, and 3-year aged Lambic-style ales | 6.4% ABV – listen
A favorite from our previous trips to GABF, this beer came courtesy of a hot drop with no real guarantee that it’ll come through Chicagoland again. Though this one never throttles it into the musty lockerroom stank of true Belgian gueuzes, it comes awfully close and cheesy aromatically. There’s a kiss of rained-on hay along with some lemon zest and green grape skin. In the flavor, it’s Pinot Grigio barrels with a playful tartness, with a muddled melange of citrus fruit underlying everything.
25. Mikerphone Brewing (Elk Grove Village, IL) | Mikerphone Check 1, 2 | DDH Double IPA w/ Citra hops | 8.5% ABV
Discussions of Mikerphone often revolve around this kind of coy “love ‘em or hate ‘em” to the point that you’d almost suspect people believe Mikerphone is naively unaware of how their hype-stoking Instagram-baiting recipes might look to outsiders. Nope. I can assure you that Mike and his crew know exactly who they want to be. People bemoaning wacky recipes as what is “ruining beer” is about as fun as someone who brags about not listening to any music released after 1979. So what? Chase your own joy and don’t tell others what not to like, 2020. Anyways, this is one of the earliest off the canning line for Mikerphone this year, and it’s probably one of the least weird beers they make. It’s just proof that they’ve been doing the hazy-style DIPAs locally before anyone else, and beers like this remind you that they’ve honed in their process to make something stylistically immaculate.
24. Revolution Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Café Deth | Barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout w/ Dark Matter coffee | 14.8% ABV – listen
Pardon my french and the tackiness of quoting myself, but upon first smelling this beer, I inadvertently uttered, “fucking hell.” For a coffee lover like myself, this is aromatic paradise. Even for a coffee hater like Craig, he found this one pretty good as well. It’s richness is present in both smell and taste, with luscious chocolate melding with a slightly peppery coffee. But the surprising vanilla and roasted nuts from the barrel almost bring a hazelnut creamer flavor to lighten the bitter roast of coffee and chocolate. Sorry PBR, your 5% hard coffee tastes like an old watered down vending machine pour with powdered creamer compared to the fresh ground slow poured flavor bursting from the glass of this beer.
23. Maplewood Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | Mr. Shakey Strawberry | Milkshake IPA w/ strawberries, vanilla beans, and lactose | 7.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
The biggest problem with our listicles on GABF is the glaring omission of Chicago breweries who are making beer as well as anyone in the country, and in some cases, even better. The real reason is that we are beer tourists in Denver, tending to gravitate towards breweries unavailable in our region. So we’re not just leaving out Chicago breweries but also many breweries that distribute here as well (which is…uh…most of them at this point??) But revisiting this milkshake IPA from our friends at Maplewood was an absolute delight. I’ve rattled on about my indifference for this style, but when it’s done as well as this – which is rare – it’s a joy to drink. It’s a bit reminiscent of finishing off the melted remains from a styrofoam cup full of Portillo’s strawberry shake after cramming two servings of cheese fries. You don’t even have to feel dirty about it.
22. Pure Project Brewing (San Diego, CA) | Corylus w/ vanilla | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout w/ hazelnuts, cacao, coffee, and vanilla | 16.5% ABV
One of the best parts of FoBAB is finding the word-of-mouth favorite long before the awards are announced. And though I could’ve certainly included the incredible Best of Show-winning barleywine from Bottle Logic on this list, it got edged out by this crowd favorite. It’s pastry stout at its best, with a load of unsubtle flavors at a high ABV combining to become this luscious high-end dessert that would be totally worth the sticker shock.
21. pFriem Family Brewers (Hood River, OR) | Druif Rouge | Lambic-inspired ale aged in oak barrels with Pinot Noir grapes | 7.3% ABV
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
Still quite likely the best brewery in the country, pFriem did it again this year with a booth featuring their cleaner and lighter beers alongside fruited sours crafted like the Belgian masters. An update on last year’s medal-winning Druif, the grape notes in this express more than wine, with some fruity currant and watermelon curiously peeking through. It carries a little pucker in the middle, but it ends lightly earthy and dry.
20. New Glarus Brewing Company (New Glarus, WI) | Kid Kölsch | Kölsch | 5.5% ABV
I bought this beer under duress. My wife and I took the 3- and 4-year old to an apple orchard in Wisconsin, and the suggestion was made to stop into the (horrendous) Mars Cheese Castle. Both children were tired and crabby, yelling at me about a proper meal (as precocious little ones are wont to do), and I calculated that I wouldn’t have time for a Woodman’s run before having to cross the border. So I did the bad thing that only the worst Illinoisians do. I bought New Glarus beer at the Mars Cheese Castle, and I ended up paying almost double what it costs everywhere else. This is my PSA: DON’T DO THIS. This beer, even at an elevated price, ended up being worth it. It has an almost champagne-like effervescence, showcasing light cracker and floral hop notes. There’s a subtle sweetness that blends in with its aqueousness, gets prickly with some tiny bubbles in the end.
19. Hop Butcher for the World (Chicago, IL) | Normalize the Signal | Mosaic & Sabro hopped DIPA | 7.5% ABV – listen
Hop Butcher has taken no steps back in asserting their dominance over limited-release hazy beers, and this one won our blind tasting with Phase Three. It has that signature opacity, and the aroma surprisingly brings red berry candy, sweet tropical fruit, and a juicy Ruby Red grapefruit. Deeper sniffs reveal passionfruit, raspberry, and some slight onion and pine. Tastewise, there’s a bit of candied cherry sweetness along with orange sherbet, and a touch of that bitter pine.
18. Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, ME) | River Trip | Table beer | 4.8% ABV – listen
Allagash in cans is low-key one of the best things to happen in beer in a long time. We don’t know if it’ll be enough to get the pendulum to swing all the way back to more table beers, but we can hope. This one pours with a thick meringue-like head and shines a beautiful pale yellow. There’s orange zest, banana, and a light spiciness present from the beginning. Deeper in the taste are wet leaves and a kiss of spice. This is another absolute beauty from Allagash, and now you can actually “crush” them.
17. Spiteful Brewing (Chicago, IL) | Dark Lager | Dark lager | 4.9% ABV – listen
It’s always fun for me when I’m writing 7,000 words in a beer listicle when the beer name IS the beer style. Thank god for Spiteful’s stubbornness in not going for hazy IPAs or obvious hype-chasing styles. This is the pinnacle of that stubbornness. Almost no one was asking for a dark lager, yet Spiteful has made one that everyone desperately needs, whether they know it or not. It pours with a decently thick khaki head and smells like chocolate milk. And it’s wild how much it actually does taste like chocolate milk, with an almost nitro-pour level of creaminess. There’s next-to-no bitterness in the finish with a hint of cracked wheat. This is a dark beer for all weathers and all moods.
16. Orpheus Brewing (Atlanta, GA) | a light threatens meekly | Blend of whiskey barrel-aged barleywine, adambier, and stout | 13.7% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
If you were lucky enough to stop by the Orpheus booth last year, you got a good idea of their scope of offerings from a tart plum beer to an aggressively-hopped double IPA to an exquisite gueuze-style ale. But this year, Orpheus went much bigger, bringing exclusively adventurous barrel-aged beers with names that would fit in with the Jade Tree catalog. This blended beer is next level. While it’s certainly whiskey-forward, there’s a cavalcade of complementary flavors like brown sugar, plums, burnt cookies, raisins, and Dr. Pepper. It’s a sipper for sure, but it’s one I’d love to experience open up further in a larger pour.
15. Middle Brow Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) | For You | Wild lager blend | ?? ABV
An extremely late addition to the list, this mysterious little wide-mouth growler showed up on Craig’s doorstep with very little info attached other than “Wild lager blend.” As far as we know, some wild foeder beer was blended with some lager, and the result is this unreal barnyard hay and lemon shortbread cookie with a totally dry and crisp finish. It’s complex enough to satisfy the sour nerd in your life, but gentle enough to appease the casual drinker. It makes an excellent bread pairing beer as well. If you didn’t get to the Bungalow in 2019, you owe it to yourself to get out there and eat Chicago’s #1-ranked pizza and drink these incredibly elegant wilds they are producing. It’s my new favorite place to eat and drink in the city.
14. Sante Adarius Rustic Ales (Capitola, CA) | Saison Bernice | Saison | 6.5% ABV
I’ve heard a few strawmen with the opinion that because SARA is doing hazy IPAs now, nothing is sacred. Frankly, I don’t care if the Westmalle monks start churning out volatile sour fruit bombshake IPAs as long as it helps them continue to make more Tripel. And that’s how I feel about SARA or Rare Barrel or Jester King. You can’t love niche styles like Brett-fermented saisons or fruited sour barrel blends or spontaneous-fermented lambic-styles and then also get mad at those breweries for wanting to afford to make more of them. IPAs keep the lights on for so many breweries, and sure we’d all love to see our favorite farmhouse producer stay true to their original concept and blah blah blah, but the market is just a series of precipices that brewers find themselves navigating weekly. The other alternative is that brewers accept money from elsewhere, which can lead to complete ethical bankruptcy, and we’ve seen enough of that already. Personally, I’d like to see breweries like SARA grow from selling elegantly-made hazies that might usher in a refined approach to the style while still being able to afford making all the incredible saisons they built their brand on because of the sales of said hazies. Also, this beer tastes like what I imagine the concept of heaven tastes like, and I ordered three of them while at Finn’s Manor in Denver.
13. Cruz Blanca Brewery (Chicago, IL) | Tarzan Boy | Imperial stout aged in rum barrels with banana, coffee, & vanilla | 13% ABV – listen
Those who felt like they never had enough time with Goose Island’s Proprietor’s 2017 may now rejoice. Though this is a different beer in many respects, the quest has been fulfilled for a barrel-aged banana’s foster stout that doesn’t taste like melted Runts stirred into Hershey’s chocolate milk. Aromatically, it’s buttery rum and bananas with a kiss of milk chocolate. The flavor is the perfect melding of the main adjuncts and on the heavier side of medium mouthfeel. Every flavor promised is present, and it works even better than you’d expect. If you know about Cruz Blanca, you just know.
12. The Lost Abbey (San Marcos, CA) | Peach Afternoon | French Oak-aged sour with Masumoto Peaches and Peach tea | 6% ABV
Besides being the Runner-Up winner (and the biggest point-earner for my Fantasy FoBAB team), this beer also earned the designation of the beer I by far drank the most of at FoBAB. This beer instantly won the day for me. The seesawing of the giant juicy peach on the outset of the taste with the acidic, bone-dry finish makes for a must revisit. The Lost Abbey is still unquestionably one of the greats in barrel-aging, and they’re still finding ways to one-up themselves. (Also see: every Veritas.)
11. Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) | 2-Year Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout (2019) | Imperial stout aged 24 months in bourbon barrels | 14.9% ABV – listen
To avoid jumping the shark, Bourbon County should lean even harder on their ability to secure some of the most sought-after barrels in the business, and they have the resources to age and blend like no other brewery in the U.S. With Café de Olla and Mon Chéri bottles still widely available for discounted prices in many local grocery stores, Goose and AB have to wonder if the higher-price and more-limited barrel variants are where their money should be spent. This is one of the best Bourbon County variants they’ve ever bottled. The extended aging makes magic in this stout, as it becomes this enormous burnt-edge fudge brownie with walnuts on the flavor. The complexities further unravel with maple syrup, toasted coconut, and chocolate chip pancakes. It’s as close to the beloved Baudoinia variant as we’ll likely ever see.
10. Prison City Pub & Brewery (Auburn, NY) | Elegant Pride | Pale ale w/ lemon zest and mango tea, hopped w/ Mosaic | 6% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
This beer was an exhaustion cure. After a long session of drinking heavy-handed sweet beers, my senses were awakened by the first aromatic blast of mango and lemon, which is eventually lightened by the tea leaf. The flavor follows suit: mango and lemon seesaw in each sip before a grassy bite leads to a dry finish. It’s a wonderful beer when you want something fruity but not overdone; hoppy but not juicy or bracingly bitter; crisp but still flavorful; and dry but not sour. It is all things.
9. Revolution Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | Hazy-Hero | New England-style IPA | 7.3% ABV – listen
This somewhat broke hazy IPAs for me this year. My preferences with hazy have gotten more streamlined over the last few years to the point that I’ve come to really just want something hugely aromatic with a medium mouthfeel and moderate bitterness. This beer does all of that and more without the inflated price tag of the usual haze makers. There are complex aromatics of coconut, pineapple, passion fruit, papaya, and lime. In the taste, it’s an overripe fruit arrangement with a moderate bitterness and a well-attenuated conclusion. Anti-Hero has serious competition for fridge space now.
8. Around the Bend Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) | Proximal | English Barleywine aged in Rye Whiskey barrels | 13% ABV – listen
From my Kveik Fest writeup:
Another beer showing Kveik’s versatility, this English barleywine was aged in freshly-emptied Route 12 rye whiskey barrels for 9 months. It is stunning. Dan Schedler joked that he’s staking his future on whether or not this beer wins an award, and honestly, he’s not wrong. Bound for 16-ounce cans, this beer deserves all the accolades. It’s a huge beer that somehow fights through the booze to finish smooth. It’s full of caramel and spice, with butterscotch toffee and burnt brown sugar and a whiplash of pepper in the middle. It was easily the best beer we had at the fest. (We also had this one on the podcast; hear our gushing reviews here.)
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This beer is as incredible tasting as it is bonkers visually. Thanks #milwaukee for the whirlwind 2-days of drinking and talking about beer and the #brewcity Expect some really cool content to come courtesy of @eagleparkbrewing @1840brewing and @thirdspacebrewing, as well as a full report on our experiences at @haciendabeerco, @vennturebrewco, @goodcitybrewing, @lakefrontbrewery and @wolskistavern. #craftbeer #mke #mkebeer #beerpodcast #sourbeer #beerstagram #nofilter #oklightfilter
7. 1840 Brewing Company (Milwaukee, WI) | Sea Foam | Fruited oat cream sour w/ pineapple, passion fruit, blue spirulina, and lactose | 5% ABV – listen
When Kyle from 1840 pulled out this bottle for us, he had a little giddy reaction to seeing our disbelief once it was poured into our glasses. It’s a weird-ass beer, and it finds a sense of purpose once you realize all of the flavors are perfectly tuned in harmony, while the color of the beer plays tricks on your mind. It has this soft lactose body before big pineapple sweetness and sour passion fruit kick in. Furthermore, there’s a vanilla yogurt creamy finish. It’s completely unique and memorable – no other beer tastes or looks like this.
6. Russian River Brewing Company (Windsor, CA) | Intinction – Sauvignon Blanc | Barrel aged pilsner in sauvignon blanc barrels with sauvignon blanc grape juice and brettanomyces | 8.5% ABV
From my GABF 2019 write-up:
There’s so much to the lore of Russian River, and most people know their origins in the world of wine. This beer comes close to a beautiful sparkling wine with only a slight hint of bretty funk pleasantly spoiling the more austere notes of white wine. A cascade of bubbles works its way across your palate leaving only a light deposit of white grape juice along its way. This is a new classic in their repertoire of sours.
5. Listermann Brewing Company (Cincinnati, OH) | Bourbon Barrel Chickow! | Imperial brown ale with hazelnuts aged in bourbon barrels | 10% ABV – listen
A regular highlight of FoBAB since this beer started winning medals a few year back, BA Chickow! bottles showed up on a few Chicago shelves this year courtesy of a festival hot drop. To have a non-festival pour of this beer is to let it shine beyond what three ounces on a ruined palate can manage. Aromatically, it knocks you straight on your ass with sweet hazelnut cream and charred oak. The flavor pushes the hazelnut further, but more complex notes of burnt brown sugar, roasty chocolate, rich caramel, and vanilla all emerge over time in a beer that is boozy in all the right places.
4. Cerebral Brewing (Denver, CO) | Vanilla Rye Here Be Monsters | Rye barrel-aged stout w/ vanilla beans | 13.5% ABV – listen
This is one of those beers where you took one sip and just knew. We were lucky enough to visit Cerebral upon the release of this beer during GABF, and it absolutely stops you in your tracks. A gold medal winner at FoBAB this year, this massive stout is decadent and full of bold flavor. The barrel and the vanilla-enhanced base stout all integrate in the most complementary way. It’s lightly spicy, but it’s mostly a bourbon-dipped chocolate covered marshmallow, if ever a thing like that existed. It feels sinful in all the right ways.
3. Afterthought Brewing Company (Lombard, IL) | Batch #100 | Citra-hopped saison | 5% ABV – listen
Mike Thorpe and his growing crew of brewers have played with a variety of fruits and flowers to jazz up their already-excellent saisons. But this relatively stripped-down saison with Citra highlights the artful balance found in most of Afterthought’s beers, and it just so happened to touch on all the flavor profiles I like in this style. The big fruit flavors of the Citra hop come through and even provide some bitterness. A lightly acidic tart streak also sneaks in before a crisp cracked pepper finish. In 2019, Afterthought expanded production and distribution (though they’re still only slightly bigger than a homebrew operation) and won a gold medal at FoBAB. We’re about as excited to follow their trajectory into 2020 as any brewery currently going.
2. Revolution Brewing Company (Chicago, IL) | V.S.O.R. (Very Special Old Ryeway) | Rye beer aged for two years in rye whiskey barrels | 14% ABV – listen
Each year, Revolution starts to distance themselves further from their main barrel-aged rivals in the city: Goose Island. Of course, Goose has some advantages in the market and in available resources, but Chicago is Revolution’s city now, and they’ve treated barrel-aged beer fans to an ever-improving annual lineup of winter releases. This might be the finest beer to come out of their Deep Wood series yet. (There’s still two more ridiculous-sounding ones to come in late January, so that declaration might not hold for even a month.) This deep garnet rye ale wafts aromas of caramel, smoky bourbon, brandy, toasted nuts, toffee, and bready malt. Its evolution in the glass is a goddamn autumnal stroll through melted caramel candy, spicy rye, and rich oily nutskins. It’s pleasantly sweet, comfortably warm, and instantly memorable.
1. WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Greeley, Co.) | Medianoche Premier Vol. 1 | Imperial Stout blend aged in nine different barrels | 15.6% ABV – listen
Our love for WeldWerks is well-documented, and they’ve since strengthened their grip on perfectly-crafted hype beers and expertly blended barrel-aged beers. This one is so much the latter of those two, and it’s gaudy in a new way for WeldWerks. They took nine different barrels, representing five different spirits, and aged their Medianoche imperial stout in them for an average of 19 months. You have to appreciate the foresight and commitment of resources alone, if it wasn’t also an extravagantly complex beer that unravels its various components over slow, deliberate sips as it rises to room temperature. The rich base stout has a medium-to-full body with moderate sweetness, coated in chocolate. The various flavors of whiskey, apple brandy, and rum circle your palate like red-hatted Shriners in tiny cars, sometimes synchronous, and sometimes riding free. For 15-plus on the ABV, it finishes warm yet smooth. Every decision seems purposeful and elegant. No beer this year made me shake my head in disbelief like this one did with each sip. Cut this shit out, Neil. We’re only mortal.