Ryan’s Top 50 Beers of 2020
The criteria for the list is simple: these are the best beers that I had this year that were released this year. In the past, I had included festival and draft pours that obviously were not much of an option for this year, so much of what you see here reflects what I was picking up curbside for podcast or personal consumption. 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. (And since we’ve been posting monthly samplers since the start of this year, some of these blurbs are reused from their initial posts.)
50. Pleiadian Play Date | Piquette-inspired malt beverage w/ wine grapes and hibiscus | Illuminated Brew Works | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen
The month of September started with me drinking hard seltzers for the actual first time, and then trying the craft equivalents to some pretty underwhelming results. Admittedly, I have no real desire to leave beer behind as my drink of choice, and seltzer didn’t do much to change that. When I first saw this adorably diminutive can from Illuminated, I thought they were getting into seltzers. This is actually more of a carbonated wine cooler: a Piquette-inspired malt beverage in collaboration with City Winery. It’s like watered-down red wine except for the exquisite bubbles and sweet floral hibiscus bringing it back up. This is a wonderful surprise and one of the most interesting things ever made by a brewery whose whole-ass mission is to be intimidatingly weird. I’m going to buy this again.
49. Rain Sleet or Snow | Imperial oatmeal stout | Icarus Brewing | Lakewood, NJ | 8.2% ABV – listen
An absolute gem from a generous New Jersey-originating shipment from listener Mike Bobal, this one divided Craig and I on the podcast. Craig insisted it was more black IPA than stout, while I commended the bitterness to help round out the complex roasty, chocolatey, and nutty stout. It’s close to espresso-levels of darkness, and dark chocolate pops in before the hops. It starts with this soft and creamy mouthfeel before tightening up into roast and bitter that give it a whole lovely, repeatable progression.
48. Summer Home | Hoppy Blonde Ale | Third Space Brewing | Milwaukee, WI | 4.8% ABV – listen
A crystal clear “crusher” of a beer, this is exactly what I’d want if I was standing around outside watching baseball in the heat of July. Aromatically, even lighter Third Space beers bring all the juicy tropical fruit notes of a much bigger beer. Passion fruit, orange, lemon, grapefruit, onion, and biscuit all emanate from the glass. Those elements from the hops still hang around in the flavor, and there’s a touch of light bitterness, but its focus is on being good and crispy.
47. Catalina Breeze | West Coast IPA | Mile Wide Beer Company | Louisville, KY | 7% ABV – listen
Given to us by our friend Sarah Rehmer, it was nice to do a little travelling without every leaving our houses. We managed to do a few shows dedicated to out-of-state beers, thanks to our listeners, and there were a myriad of highlights amongst them. This year, I really reached peak exhaustion with hazy IPAs – but I still reach for IPA first most of the time when I want a beer. So I’m grateful for the return of malt-friendly and hellishly-bitter IPAs in the West Coast style, but this one straddles between that and a more modern juicy IPA – similar to Half Acre’s Bodem. There’s passion fruit and orange juice but also a resinous pine and herbal character.
46. Hype Moves| Sour vegan gluten-reduced milkshake IPA double dry-hopped w/ Sabro, super-fruited w/ mango & pineapple, and conditioned on vanilla beans and toasted coconut | 1840 Brewing Company & Back Channel Brewing | Milwaukee, WI & Spring Park, MN | 8% ABV – listen
Abandon all preconceived notions you have about sour vegan milkshake gluten-reduced IPAs, because this one truly breaks away from the monotony of that style. If you’re a real stickler about your beer being super beer-y, well, you stopped reading this entry a bit ago. It’s a tropical juice smoothie: upfront with the mango, backed up by the pineapple, finishing with vanilla and coconut. It’s not really beer, but it is a much more interesting experience than any singular overfruited kettle sour or milkshake IPA I’ve had. Somehow, this chaotic medley finds a real flavorful harmony, and I will certainly judge all other sour vegan milkshake gluten-reduced IPAs on this new standard.
45. Resolved Enigma | West Coast-style IPA | Ology Brewing Co. | Tallahassee, FL | 7% ABV – listen
I’m all for a resurgence of West Coast IPAs, and I don’t really care where they come from. About as far from the West Coast as you can get, Tallahassee, Florida’s Ology is a brewery on the verge of building its national profile, even if it doesn’t quite yet have the capacity to be in more than just a few states. This IPA is light on malt but heavy on hop, finding the balance between a “juicy” IPA through some tropical-forward hops while sneaking in a substantial pine and herbal bitterness near the end that really brings it back to the old school. It’s pale and clear, and it’s exactly the kind of beer that would get you in trouble because it’s just so easy to guzzle.
44. Chula | Gose w/ mango and chile spice | More Brewing Company | Huntley, IL | 5.5% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
This collaboration between a bunch of extreme flavor addicts unsurprisingly dumps the mango in with a heavy hand. But as a “juice” beer, it’s remarkably fun to drink, which is enhanced by the slight chile spice. It’s like sprinkling Tajín on a big glass of fresh mango purée, but there’s also a “beer” character to it as well in the form of malt like a tiny wedge of wheat bread. The salinity from the gose and the spice from the chile help keep the sweet finish of pure mangos from lingering very long.
43. Wet Hop Pale Ale | Pale Ale | Noon Whistle Brewing | Lombard, IL | 5.6% ABV
As the first brewery I’ve visited since the start of the pandemic (this was in October, mind you), Noon Whistle eased any hesitance I had from the absolute start. The tables in the open-air tent were spaced beyond 6-feet, and every staff member was actively following and enforcing safety protocols. Beyond the normalcy of drinking at a brewery, this beer stood out for its grassy and tropical wet Citra giving this a real 2015 feel, with even notes of fruit and bitterness on a relatively light body. It is also just above sessionable, meaning you’ll want to drink five, when you should probably just drink two.
42. Shaky Shaky – Strawberry | Milkshake IPA w/ strawberry, lactose, Mosaic hops and vanilla | Riverlands Brewing Company | St. Charles, IL | 7.2% ABV – listen
I’ve grown to appreciate milkshake IPAs, but maybe it’s because I only drink them periodically for the podcast. If I tried every one of them, I’d probably be more disappointed than impressed, because they can be exhausting. This one, however, is scarily drinkable. One finger of whipped cream head tops this burnt orange hazy beer, and the aroma bursts through like strawberry sugar wafers and vanilla ice cream. In the flavor, the strawberry is pronounced but not shouted – it finds a nice harmony with the added vanilla and the berry fruitiness from the Mosaic hops. So many milkshake IPAs become a chore to finish over time, but this one earns every pleasant sip and invites more.
41. Wrenly Rose | Belgian-style Tripel aged in Pinot Noir barrels | Horse Thief Hollow Brewing | Chicago, IL | 10% ABV – listen
When we do rankings on our podcast, we know it’s a self-important and extra-arbitrary tradition that means less-and-less each episode, but it challenges us to taste beers looking for anything that would validate our opinions about it. This is a beer that finished third on the episode it was on, and it’s one of the best beers of the year. There are no flaws on this beer – it just came down to personal preference. And does our opinion matter at all for a beer that won a gold medal at FoBAB this year? Nope. But wow, this is the perfect marriage of style and barrel. The aroma is floral perfume and wine barrel, while the flavor is citrus and apple esters with a tannic phenolic kick in the end. It’s also pillowy soft in the mouthfeel while hiding the alcohol quite well. More Tripels in 2021.
40. Dese, Dem & Dose | Simcoe, Motueka & Belma-hopped India Pale Ale | Hop Butcher for the World | Chicago, IL | 6.75% ABV – listen
Not all Hop Butcher beers have to swing for the fences to be homeruns, as this somewhat straightforward IPA might’ve slipped by some (if it weren’t for the excellent name). It’s not hazy, but not perfectly transparent. The aroma gives an interesting sweet bubble gum note along with IPA fridge poetry: grapefruit skin, orange, lemon-lime, and fresh cut grass. The mouthfeel is a bit softer than expected, but it still has vibrant notes of overripe melon and pithy citrus. There’s a fairly significant pine bitterness in the finish that separates it from the styles they’ve so built their reputation on to harken back to something more West Coast.
39. The Easygoing Drink | Grisette | Garden Path Fermentation | Burlington, WA | 4.4% ABV
Garden Path Fermentation is a relatively new project from Ron Extract and Amber Watts, and I admit I hadn’t heard of them until they showed up on Chicagoland shelves just two months back. And I am sure glad they’re here. Besides having one of the cooler beer-themed names in the industry (along with Levi Funk, Brett Porter, and Ken Stout, to name a few), Extract should sound familiar to those who love esoteric farmhouse ales, as he served as a co-owner and partner at Jester King, where Watts also managed the tasting room and front office. Their location just outside of Burlington, WA gives them access to ample resources from the Skagit Valley for brewing. But perhaps the most important ingredient in their beers is the native yeast and microbes that imbue this otherwise light Grisette with more complex earthy and funky notes. Aromatically, this starts with honey, lemongrass and fresh cut dandelion. On the taste, it starts soft with honey wheat bread and lavender. It quickly shifts to an effervescent body with tart lemon peel and a more noticeable sweet clover honey before finishing with a delicate dryness.
38. Paloma | Grapefruit Saison | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 7.7% ABV – listen
Just saying “Grapefruit Saison” undersells the mixed-culture aspect of this a little bit, because it brings a different depth of flavor than one might expect while still fully leaning into the grapefruit. There’s a good amount of bubblegum and cotton candy on this as well, but it mostly tastes like pure fresh juicy grapefruit sprinkled with sugar. It’s effervescent and dry, and deceptively 7.7%. Even for a brewery that has one of the best barrel programs in the city, I totally get why they release this as an anniversary beer, because it’s certainly something to be proud of.
37. Gose Ale Aged In Port Barrels | Gose Ale aged in California Port barrels | Lake Effect Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.8% ABV – listen
I’ve shouted from the mountaintops about Lake Effect’s barrel-aged beers, but what might be most impressive for a brewery of their size is how purposeful the application of barrels has become. Clint and his crew are using a wide variety of barrels to really go for inspired flavor combinations rather than just making bourbon barrel-aged adjunct stout number 523. Somewhat like the excellent School of Brett series, their barrel-aged gose series also seeks to identify those subtle flavor differences when a variable is changed. (This series also includes a Malort barrel-aged gose, and Ryan is ISO, btw.) The California Port barrels used to age the gose add a lot: a crimson color with bubbles hanging in suspension; light earthy aromas of musty grape and currant. In the flavor, it’s still a tart wheat gose that is slightly accentuated by sweet red grapes and a touch of wine barrel tannin. Rarely do you find a barrel-aged beer that you want to drink an entire 4-pack of, but this delicately barrel-treated gose from Lake Effect is better than any champagne cooler you can throw together for your lonely inflatable poolside hangs in your backyard.
36. Pith | Sabro dry-hopped kolsch w/ pomelo citrus | middle brow beer co. | Chicago, IL | 4% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
In collaboration with Chicago’s Melkbelly to celebrate their well-reviewed 2020 album of the same name, this is another example of one of the things middle brow does best – delicate beers with adventurous flavors presented with restraint. Aromatically, the sweet pomelo comes off like grapefruit candy with a wisp of summer flowers. It’s spritzy and refreshing: an easy-drinking kolsch lightly punctuated with the pomelo and slight bitterness. I hope this will be around again in the warmer months, but if not, middle brow will certainly have something just as good – if not better.
35. Fuzzy Smack | Berliner Weisse w/ peaches | Noon Whistle Brewing | Lombard, IL | 4.6% ABV – listen
There weren’t a lot of breweries locally making Berliner Weisse beers when Noon Whistle debuted their “Smack” series, and years since that time, the style has become synonymous with ridiculous fruit puree additions. This is not that. But you should absolutely buy a six-pack of it because you want a disarmingly refreshing Peach Bellini beer. Aromatically, it’s floral peach perfume and a Solo cup of prosecco. A steady bassline of peach juice moves the beer along while a kiss of citric acidity adds a tart dryness to the finish. This is a beer to get a sunburn to.
34. Pixel Density | IPA | Phase Three Brewing | Lake Zurich, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
Though Phase Three has come out during the new model of “every hazy is a new label,” they have smartly started nailing down a few rebrewed favorites and even – gasp – this year-round flagship IPA. Built around the indomitable Citra hop, this beer holds its own with some of those medal-winning hazy IPAs that Chicago has become known for in the last few years. Juicy tropical fruits and citrus lurch across the palate at first before quickening towards a considerable dank and resinous bitter finish. It’s familiar in many ways, but all the elements – aroma, mouthfeel, flavor, drinkability – are individually good yet collectively outstanding.
33. Every Day Hero | Session IPA | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.3% ABV
This beer is the real quarantine MVP for me. I bought more cases of this than any other beer for a few simple reasons. 1. It’s lower in alcohol, making it reasonable to have three in one sitting and not ruin my next day. 2. It’s cost effective and sold in 15-packs, meaning less trips to the store during a time when I want to go in-person to stores less and less. 3. It’s delightfully tasty, and it feels like the recipe has been tweaked a bit and reigned in since it first came out. Or I just took for granted the lovely balance of fruit hops, slightly-sweet malts, and an easy herbal bitterness.
32. Barrel-Aged Imperial Falling Colors: Karmic | Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Porter w/ Cocoa Nibs, Cinnamon, and Coconut | More Brewing | Villa Park, IL | 14% ABV – listen
This is another one where the brewery name is appropriate in every way: More barrels! More ingredients! More alcohol! More words! Using a combination of four different barrels, this Imperial Porter was a bit of a sneaky release, and it didn’t garner the hype of their Henna releases. I have no idea why, because this beer is outstanding. Maybe the hype stalled on this because no one adjunct takes over – it’s a lovely melding of pastry flavors. Upfront, it’s a fresh-baked cinnamon roll with toasted coconut. But the rich cocoa emerges with each sip, before a light vanilla smoothness from the barrel rounds out the ending. It’s moderately sweet but never obnoxious.
31. Dreadnaught | Imperial IPA | 3 Floyds Brewing Co. | Munster, IN | 9.1% ABV – listen
For a long time, “It’s Not Normal” made a lot of sense with 3 Floyds. Who else was freaking people’s minds with locally-made, fresh hoppy beers in the Chicagoland area like they were for the first two decades of this century? Then, everyone else followed their aggro-model for a while, and then it became “Well, It Used To Be Not Normal” for a time. Somehow, releasing a boozy, bitter, malty imperial IPA is “Not Normal” again, even though this beer is a classic in their lineup. With a label refresh and new packaging in 4-packs of 12 ounce bottles, this one returns to my semi-regular pickup lineup. It’s a big, mean-spirited beer. There’s sweetness like a marmalade biscuit that hits for a second, but the second wave is all muddled citrus fruit. It’s sticky resinous pine bitter finish lingers like an aged sharp cheddar. Alternate between this and 4-pack bottles of Arctic Panzer Wolf, and you’ll be in palate-decimating hop heaven.
30. Pan’s Bread | Bock-style Lager | Soundgrowler Brewing Co. | Tinley Park, IL | 7.8% ABV – listen
Just to get it out of the way in this review: when you can, you should go to Soundgrowler and eat their tacos and listen to doom metal and drink their beers. (Bonus points if you are a little stoned.) It’s one of the first things I’ll do again when it makes sense to do so. This bock is one of the few beers they’ve begun canning and sending to a few local shops, and it almost makes me forget about the tacos. (ALMOST.) Right away, the caramel color and slight ring of head embrace you like an Autumn sweater. It smells of sourdough bread, plum juice, and wet cedar. The strength of the ABV isn’t really hidden but it’s couched in a perfectly balanced malt sweetness reminiscent of a honey and rosemary focaccia loaf. It would go oh so well with tacos. I really like tacos.
29. Saison Auran: Key Lime Gin-Barrel Aged | Saison w/ rose hips, citrus juice and zest aged in gin barrels | Afterthought Brewing | 5% ABV – listen
Afterthought is still one of the most consistent options when it comes to saisons, either simple and rustic, or bold and barrel-aged. Mike and company have been doing great things with gin barrels, and this one shows off the botanical notes alongside a big citrus and lime character. There are even hints of gooseberry that peak out from the tannic oak. It’s another excellent dry finish after a significant wave of flavor at the start.
28. Dæmon | Belgian Golden Strong Ale | Lo Rez Brewing | Chicago, IL | 8.5% ABV
This is entering the pantheon of my favorite beers in the city, as I’ve loved it since back when Dave & Kevin gave us a growler from their as-of-then unopened Pilsen brewery back in – holy shit – 2017. I don’t find that many local brewers are regularly brewing or packaging Belgian Golden Strong Ales. Maybe it’s a taproom experiment for some of the more stylistically diverse breweries, but I don’t know any that are good enough to be a standard. This beer balances between big strong Belgian flavor and a surprisingly easy-drinking body. There are sweet notes of baked pear and bubblegum, with a slightly bitter pepper and floral finish. It’s an 8.5% beer that sneaks up on you, and it’s one you won’t soon forget.
27. Junior Astronaut Juice | Double Dry-Hopped IPA | Illuminated Brew Works | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen
It didn’t register until we actually smelled this beer that the answer was Tang all along. This is probably my favorite discovery on this list, because it’s become essential that I get more of this ASAP. I’ve had some really great Illuminated beers but have passed over them more often than not when considering what I need for my juicy hazy fix. But no more! The marvelous balance of sweet orange drink and moderately piney hops puts this into perpetual drinking motion. The body feels like it shifts from a slightly fuller hazy at the front to an effervescent pale by the finish. It’s about one of the most refreshing and fully satisfying DDH IPA’s I’ve had in some time.
26. Cherry Beer For Pizza | Cherry Cola-inspired malt beverage | Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.5% ABV
This is a very late addition to the list, but when I opened one of these the other day, I just broke down laughing. And it soon became hysterical – almost maniacal – laughter. The initial Beer for Pizza was a fun play on cola and it worked stunningly well, but this cherry version absolutely had me in my head running around the arcade of the Homewood Aurelio’s after a Little League game, greasy fingers on dimpled red hard plastic cups. But the thing about these “Beer For…” beers that makes them a masterstroke is that there’s a part of them that still definitely tastes like beer. Any brewery nowadays can make beers that taste like soda or smoothies or chocolate cereal, but they tend to taste like a slop pile of ingredients in a can that once had beer in it. Yeah, this is cherry soda through a magic combination of spices and botanicals, but there’s an almost bock-like malt lightly in the mix. Just go grab a slice and a four-pack of this, fire up the SNES, and turn on the Beastie Boys, and forget the year you’re living in.
25. Dunkel | Dark Lager | Kinslahger Brewing Company | Oak Park, IL | 5.1% ABV – listen
The resurgence of dunkels and dark lagers is one of the better developments in 2020, but Kinslahger has been serving this up in their Oak Park taproom for years now. Pouring dark brown with a crimson hue, a light khaki-colored head lingers. It’s aromatically roasty, with notes of molasses, pumpernickel bread, and oily mixed nuts. It is a lager first and then a dark beer second, meaning it drinks so delightfully easy while giving some notes of roasted malt, peanuts, and even light chocolate.
24. Easy Keepers | Oatmeal Stout | Pipeworks Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen
Uncomplicated by today’s standards, this one emanates big roasted coffee aromas, with some supporting chocolate and subtle fruit notes. The flavor follows suit and ends with a moderate bitterness that makes it linger far beyond each sip. The body is soft but not thick, and it is firmly 7% – smooth but warming enough to give you a buzz once you realize you’ve already finished half of it. It feels like one of those beers that is actually true to the “We just brew the beers we like to drink” trope, because this is not going to gather any hype. It’s just a damn solid oatmeal stout that’ll make you think of Samuel Smith or Velvet Merlin, and when was the last time you had one of those?
23. Quetsche | Lambic-style with plums | Dovetail Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
There was a time in the early days of Dovetail where we got a tour of the barrel loft and were filled with a sense of excitement about having Chicago-made lambic by some folks who really know what they’re doing. Well friends, that time has come, and it’s still happening, and it’s spectacular. Dovetail released a steady stream of incredible fruited lambics this year without too much fanfare, but they are world-class. This plum lambic is no exception, though it’s likely any number of their other lambics could be in this spot. Once the bottle is open, the room immediately fills with sweet plums, and the beer pours a clear purple and copper. It gets about as acidic and tart as a beer can get without napalming your esophagus, and continued sips settle in to pleasantly tart. The plum is the star of the flavor, but there’s even some cherry limeade sweetness before the dry finish to round out the whole experience.
22. Recreational Chemistry | Galaxy & Mosaic-hopped Hazy IPA | Around the Bend Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 6.7% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
This ultra-turbid beach-scented candle of a beer pours heavy, and immediately explosive aromatics of dreamsicle, peach, lemon zest, and pineapple weed abound. It’s a fruit cocktail of lemon, lime, lychee, orange juice, green grape, and passion fruit that is sweet for only a second. The mouthfeel is full and creamy early before a surprisingly effervescent and dry feel at the end, partially due to a bitterness of orange pith and pine sap taking hold on the finish that lingers well beyond the sip. It does everything I particularly want in this style: it gives you that big chewy haze with outsized tropical and citrus characters but wins me over entirely with its bitter and dry finish. This really is something.
21. Scentinel | IPA | Old Irving Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen
Just when I was feeling the haze fatigue, this beer came along and reminded me why I loved hoppy beers in the first place. Brewed with Citra, Mosaic, and Centennial hops, this beer marries the old with the new, pouring a clear burnt golden orange. While the Centennial is leaning towards the classic West Coast IPAs of yore, the Citra and Mosaic bring out more dynamic tropical, citrus, and berry notes. The noticeable malt sweetness and persistent sticky pine bitterness bring me back to when hoppy beers didn’t shy away from having an extremely long finish. This would absolutely be in my regular rotation if brewed year-round.
20. Savage Oak – Gold | Belgian-style Sour Golden Ale | Imperial Oak Brewing | Willow Springs, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
Winning a silver medal in the Wild Beer Sours (Acidic) category at this year’s FoBAB, this beer deserves all the accolades for a brewery that was long overdue for some hardware. The folx at this Willow Springs (and soon, Brookfield) brewery have been making remarkable barrel-aged sours for years now, and this beer could almost be mistaken for a true Belgian sour. Aromatically, there’s overripe pineapple, rain-soaked hay, funky cheese rind, and a little apple solvent – but not in a bad way. There’s a tart acidity at the beginning that may turn some away at first, but it cleans itself up with a few more sips and never lingers in the esophagus. The flavor is apricots and lemons with a side of aged sharp cheddar.
19. Perkolator – Madeira Barrel Aged | Madeira Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Sumatra Coffee | Lake Effect Brewing | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV – listen
Continuing their stellar track record of barrel-aged beers, Lake Effect worked with Perkolator Coffee just up the road from them to use some of their Sumatra coffee beans in a stout that was aged in two different barrels and released separately. And though this was the year of the blend, I’m grateful we got a bourbon barrel and a madeira barrel version of this beer separately. This one throws massive sweet grape and blackberry juice onto a lighter chocolate stout. The coffee blends in nicely, lending a sharper edge to its own fruity character, and the roast is a bit more present in the finish. It’s deceptively thick and wine-like in the mouthfeel, and some of the tannic wine character keeps it on the dry side in the end.
18. Celebration | Fresh Hop IPA | Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Chico, CA | 6.8% ABV
This is absolutely no surprise to listeners of the show – and certainly not an unpopular opinion – but this is one of my absolute favorite beers in the world and my definite favorite seasonal release. I stalked stores for the later weeks of October once I had heard it was getting sent to distributors, which is the closest I’ll come to beer chasing these days. My heart always flutters a bit at the Costco with the hope that I’ll one day see a shining stack of 24 packs of Celebration again, like in the year of 2017. It has never once suffered from “it was better last year” syndrome – every fresh bottle you open is the best one you’ve ever had. I might retire from beer podcasting if Sierra Nevada simply sent me a Celebration shirt (or hell, one of those 3 liter bottles). This beer starts sweet on the lips then tingles with lemon zest and orange pith before a walloping wave of piney hop bitterness takes over the center of your tongue and stays there. Further sips bring out a bit more of that sticky caramel malt sweetness, but it’s a slight companion to the power of the fresh hops that burst forward with every sensory interaction with this beer. And it’ll still taste good in two months, at least, so I will begin building an ultimate cat fort from empty 12-pack boxes. (Also, I’ll say it right now: if any local brewery makes a beer with Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops, I’m buying a case.)
17. Ghosts in the Forest (Guava) | Oak-aged Wild Ale w/ Guava | The Lost Abbey | San Marcos, CA | 6% ABV – listen
We’ve taken The Lost Abbey for granted. Where there once were many options available from the legacy brewery in Chicagoland, the shelves are thinning – and we better not lose local access to one of our (and famously, Doug Veliky’s) favorite breweries in the world. This beer is yet another example as to why every dollar spent on their beers is pushed beyond its value, as there are few breweries as good with oak and barrels as this one. Gargantuan guava aromatics surge forward from the lightly-burnt golden ale, with toasty notes of oak and tart curdled yogurt add sour complexity to the whole affair. All of that tartness exhausts itself upfront in the flavor, but full flavors of sour guava and tannic grapes keep this one moving towards a dry finish. All hail Tomme.
16. Summer Kings | Double Gose w/ fresh strawberry juice, gray sea salt, coriander, and hibiscus | Dutchbag Brew Co. | Chicago, IL | 6.4% ABV – listen
I still know very little about Dutchbag Brew Co. other than that they have been “staying loose” since 2015 as a homebrew operation and are now producing beer in the Pilot Project space. But after this beer, I need to know so much more. Though this doesn’t clear the bar for those wanting over-fruited sours, this one is full of strawberry and gives big daiquiri or margarita vibes. It pours with a full four fingers of head, then gives off aromas of Strawberry Fanta, salty seawater, tin can, and flowers. It drinks fairly light and refreshing, punctuated by an extremely dry finish thanks to the salt and hibiscus. But there are waves of strawberry juice that ebb and flow through each sip, and even flecks of coriander sneak in from time to time. This could absolutely be enjoyed over ice. Seek this out, at all costs.
15. Unified Field Theory | West Coast Double IPA | Miskatonic Brewing Company & Foreign Exchange | Darien, IL | 8% ABV – listen
I fully embraced hazy IPAs when they first started out in the market, and I still enjoy them from time-to-time. But for my personal preferences, the pendulum has swung all the way back to the kinds of IPAs I fell in with during the earlier part of this century. Aromatically, there’s a decent dose of that “catty” note from Simcoe that might scare off some, but then it’s helped with a good amount of tropical fruit, caramel malt, and pine. It drinks much more like an IPA, hiding its ABV well, and it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to flavor. At first, it expresses the fruitiness of the hop before an easy malt sweetness, moving into a pine-forward resinous bitterness. It’s a perfect tribute to classic West Coast IPAs.
14. Throop | Kolsch | Hop Butcher for the World | Darien, IL | 4.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
When Hop Butcher wants to do crisp, they can do crisp. (Crisp tends to move a liiiiiiitle bit slower, though.) This Riwaka-hopped Kolsch is certainly easy-drinking, but the New Zealand hop addition brings this a little closer to crushable pale ale. Aromatically green with notes of rain-soaked herb garden and vibrant grapefuit, the flavor shifts to lemon zest with an earthy herbal bite. The body is exceptionally easy, despite the ever-present hop influence, and it rides out dry and crisp. The redrinkability-factor on this is through the roof.
13. Black is Beautiful | German dark lager | One Lake Brewing | Oak Park, IL | 5.7% ABV
Oak Park’s One Lake is a great spot for many reasons – the food is outstanding, the rooftop patio is perfectly socially-distanced, and the beer is focused on more approachable traditional styles than the over-flavored crowd-pleasers. Their take on the charity and awareness-focused Black is Beautiful beer initiative is a German dark lager – moderately boozy and endlessly drinkable. There’s a light roasty bitterness like dark chocolate or black coffee, but it evaporates into this crisp and dry finish that lets any hint of its ABV just evaporate and force you to redrink. I’ve had a lot of good beers from this newer brewery, but this one has easily been my favorite. (Proceeds for sales of this beer go to benefit My Block, My Hood, My City.)
12. Seipp’s Extra Pale Pilsner | Pre-Prohibition Pilsner | The Conrad Seipp Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL | 4.5% ABV – listen
Resurrecting a pre-Prohibition pilsner in the time of haze and pastry is awfully gutsy, but it all becomes clear when you pop the cap on a Seipp’s. Though maybe a bit niche these days, the flavors in this beer maximize semi-sweet malts and noble hops that exert earthiness, rust, honey sweetness, wheat bread crust, and floral notes. It fills the mouth at first but absolutely cleans out by the end, with a slight lingering bitterness to remind you that you need another sip – and soon you’ll need another Seipp’s.
11. Cherry Brandy Benthic | Cherry brandy barrel-aged Imperial Stout w/ coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon | Half Acre Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 12% ABV – listen
This was the only Benthic I had a chance to try this year, so there’s a chance that other variants were just as good, if not better. This beer manages to have almost as much cherry as Revolution’s Deth by Cherries, and that’s coming off of brandy barrels. The way this melds with the base stout’s dessert bar-like flavors, the barrel brings out notes of maraschino cherry, and a satisfying – but not overwhelming – booze heat on the finish. It’s the runner-up for most cherry-forward beer without adding cherries. (See #9.)
10. Cinnamon Prost | White Stout w/ Saison Cinnamon, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, and Milk Sugar | Old Irving Brewing | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen
You know how you see a band live and they play some non-album track that doesn’t seem to be recorded anywhere, but it’s your favorite song? And you search for it, wait for it, and try to relive it through bootlegs. But then a few years later, it comes out on an album, and it’s not as good as the raw immediacy from the live performance you remember? Well, this is like that, but if the album track was polished up and made better. We absolutely loved this in 2018 at the Oak Park Microbrew Review, so I was of course ready to be disappointed in the canned version. Nope. It’s the perfect next step of what that beer was and what it should become. Sure, it still tastes like the milk in the bottom of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch bowl, but they’ve managed to up the drinkability without sacrificing any of its sweet appeal. Rarely am I tempted to reach for two cans of the same stout in one sitting, but this one does it for me.
9. Birthday Bourbon County Brand Stout | Imperial stout aged in Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon barrels | Goose Island Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 14.6% ABV – listen
Though we threw a lot of love and attention (and opinions!) at BCBS variants the last few weeks, the thing that always excites me the most is when Goose Island taps their wealth of resources in the bourbon industry and sources unique and rare barrels that no other brewery could. Any one with a barrel can dump a bunch of chocolate or orange zest or whatever the hell into it, but getting barrels that produce absolute liquid gold on their own is something Goose can always flex with if they choose. This is the most delicious fruited variant in a decade that also contains no fruit – it’s all wonderful barrel. At times reminiscent of a bourbon Old Fashioned, this is a touch sweeter and brawnier than the base, sticky with cherry cordial and dark chocolate, but it finishes dry and smooth. It’s worth seeking out – but don’t overpay for it.
8. Ping Pong Banana Yard Games | Fruited Gose w/ banana, passionfruit, and mango | Central Standard Brewing | Wichita, KS | 4.8% ABV – listen
I WASN’T PREPARED. Even though the description of this beer references a “smoothie experience,” it did not accurately say, “this is going to taste like every Jamba Juice order you made in 2005, Ryan.” It’s easy to decry overfruited smoothie beers because they are often not very beer-like. And sure, this one is barely a beer, if only because the finish drops off a little salty and dry, giving just the hint that there’s a gose beneath all the fruit. But the banana is the star here, and it is held up with an even blend of passion fruit and mango. Stop worrying about what is and what isn’t beer for a minute and just enjoy the experience.
7. Pliny For President | Double Dry-hopped Double IPA | Russian River Brewing Company | Windsor, CA | 8% ABV – listen
If you’ve been drinking IPAs for ten years or longer like we have, you likely have had your stupid monocle fall out of your eye TWICE in under a year by Russian River breaking with tradition: bottling Pliny the Younger AND screwin’ with the Pliny the Elder recipe! *Knocks silver platter of champagne flutes to the floor* Let’s get this out of the way: this updated take on the best (and first) Double IPA in the world is not better than the original. It’s not as drinkable, the mouthfeel isn’t quite as wonderfully sharp, and it doesn’t have the benefit of being Pliny the Elder. What’s fantastic about Pliny For President, though, is that it is still undeniably in the Pliny family with the slightly sweet citrus and absolute assault of pine bitterness all over the flavor. And they could’ve easily dry-hopped this with some combination of trendy new hops, layering on unnecessary notes of coconut or blueberry or passion fruit. Instead, it is just attacked with more of the sharp and bitter Pliny hops but enriched with a fuller mouthfeel. They absolutely nailed this.
6. Thoughts Without a Thinker | Mixed culture saison w/ Earl Grey tea, orange juice and zest, and saffron | Keeping Together | Chicago, IL | 5.8% ABV – listen
Even though Averie Swanson’s mixed-culture focused beer project debuted near the end of last year, it’s my favorite “new” local brewery this year. One of the few bright spots of 2020 was the semi-monthly releases from Keeping Together (helped along by an excellent curbside system at Half Acre, so I’m told). Just about any beer from Keeping Together could be on this list, but this one was a standout in a lineup of eight pretty great beers on our Saisonathon at Home podcast. Lightly perfume-like in the aroma, it slips into orange pith and a slight phenolic note. (Can I say, “Smells Rustic”?) The flavor is light at first but opens up more with each sip, offering more of that orange, lemon, biscuit, flowers, and a kiss of tartness to round it out before a perfectly dry finish.
5. Original Reaper | American stout | Half Acre Beer Company | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV – listen
One of a few new regulars to my beer fridge, this was the best non-barrel-aged stout I had all year. It’s one of those beers that you could argue is both simple and complex because on one hand, it’s big on aroma and full of flavor. But it also drinks easier than most stouts you’ve ever had, especially if you like a little bitterness to round out your dark beers. It smells of bitter cocoa nibs with a slight grassy hop character. The flavor is coffee and chocolate roast and slightly bitter herbal hops, with a light-medium mouthfeel. There’s no way you won’t follow your first one with another.
4. Rey Cuvée | Blended barrel-aged imperial stout | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 12% ABV – listen
Come and appreciate the absurdity of Chicago’s second-best barrel program. This is a combination of three beers: 2017 Rey Gordo, a stout aged in whiskey, St. Croix rum, and brandy barrels; 2018 Rey Gordo, a stout aged in Barbados rum barrels; and 2019 Rey Gordo, a stout aged in Basil Hayden bourbon barrels. Then they take all three of those beers and age them in American whiskey-finished Spanish sherry barrels. It’s madness. From the start, the aroma is complex and delivers different notes on each approach, including heavy grain whiskey, chocolate, vanilla, floral rosé, spiced rum, and a touch of soy sauce (but in a good way). The flavor delivers on the complexity as well, but does a magic disappearing act that leaves you feeling warm but not burnt, with a ride that starts sweet and enormous before finishing smooth and dry. It’s one where you can talk yourself into tasting some of the individual barrels because there’s just so much going on in it, but you’re better served just sitting back and sipping on this masterpiece without a care in the world.
3. Beer For Tacos | Gose w/ lime juice, coriander, and pink Himalayan sea salt | Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.8% ABV – listen
This beer rises to the top three because it’s the 4-pack I purchased the most of this year, as it is a perfect expression of a light and drinkable margarita gose that should be a fridge staple for years to come. Yeah, it goes amazingly with tacos. But it also goes with watching a Seinfeld rerun on a Wednesday night, or filing paperwork, or playing Wii bowling, or…need I go on? It’s not the most esoteric thing they’ve done, obviously, but it’s an instant drinkable classic executed immaculately.
2. Mehndi (2020) | Imperial Stout Aged in Bourbon Barrels | More Brewing | Villa Park, IL | 14% ABV – listen
This isn’t the first win for More Brewing at FoBAB, as this one medaled with a silver in the Strong Porter/Stout category. But it might be the most significant one for their future, as the brewery has undergone some pretty massive changes in the last year or so, and seem poised to be able to keep delivering the barrel-aged goods that built much of their initial fanbase. A blend of the three previous years of Mehndi, the impressive mix of barrels going into this beer are responsible for a completely unique complexity and mouthfeel. Both the aroma and flavor absolutely explode up front with huge dark chocolate fudge brownie, walnuts, vanilla, and tamari. It also pulls all that off without feeling too boozy or getting sweet or challenging at any point. It’s a remarkable sipper that rides out easy, smooth, and dry. It’s easily one of my top three beers of the entire year.
1. Double Barrel V.S.O.D. | Barrel-Aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 17% ABV – listen
With the wraparound nature of their Deep Wood series, Revolution started this year with a bang (Ten Year Beer and Cuvée De Grâce were both released in January) and ended with maybe the best stout they’ve ever made. This is a testament to the patience, science, and artistry that composes every Deep Wood beer in its extremes: two years of aging in two different stellar Weller barrels, blended to perfection. (You can hear Marty Scott talk all about it on our Deth Wish episode.) The result is coconut shavings on chocolate mousse, smooth oaky bourbon with hints of pipe tobacco, and just about the smoothest finish on a 17% beer you’ll ever have. And as someone who never trades beers, I am compelled to tell everyone to trade for this beer if you missed out on it. This is my favorite beer of the whole year, and it would be my favorite beer in most other, less-shitty years as well.
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