Ryan’s Top 50 Beers of 2021
The criteria for the list is simple: these are the best beers that I had this year that were released this year. 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, many of these blurbs are reused from their initial posts, in the case you notice the many out-of-season references.)
50. Flor De Jamaica | Gose w/ hibiscus, pink sea salt, and cinnamon | Miel Brewery & Taproom | New Orleans, LA | 6% ABV – listen
Hibiscus beers, in my experience, can be tart and dry spritzers or a mess of rusty flower pot water with very little in-between. This stunningly delicious beer was the clear standout surprise for me on our listener-donated Louisiana show (thanks Andrew!) because it Frankenstein-ed the best parts of every other hibiscus beer I’ve had into this one slightly tart but fully flavorful, floral, and softly effervescent gose that I’m kind of obsessed with now. The way the cinnamon supports the rest of the beer without dominating it might be the most impressive thing, but honestly, the whole dang beer is just a master stroke.
49. Infinite Dawn | Sour blonde ale aged in an oak foeder | Rhinegeist Brewery | Cincinnati, OH | 5.65% ABV – listen
At times, I miss the “old days” of craft beer (which for me is like 14 years ago, so stop laughing if you’re older than me, please!) But when I think about how well American sour beers have progressed in the last decade, we are in a serious feast period. This Foeder sour presents as really straightforward, but that’d be ignoring the tremendous craft that went into ensuring the perfect levels of acidity and funk that do just enough to challenge you while being welcoming the whole time. It has wonderfully bright flavors of lemon, peach, and green apple; then the funk from the lacto and brett adds some vanilla yogurt and fruity esters to the mix. Beers this adeptly mastered are no longer limited to the beer imports section, and that’s fine by me.
48. Crackle & Pop | Winter Ale w/ cacao nibs, vanilla, cinnamon, and coffee | Buckledown Brewing | Lyons, IL | 6% ABV
This was a nice little surprise, because I hadn’t sought this one out and didn’t know it existed until it was before me in the cooler at Riverside Foods. I’ve seen it listed as a Winter Warmer, though the can says brown ale, but it turns out that’s not all that important. The biggest note is cocoa powder by the spoonful, but then it hits with a touch of the vanilla and cinnamon by the end to give it a real spiced hot chocolate with marshmallows finish.
47. Moiré | Saison w/ cucumber and pink peppercorn | Lo Rez Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.2% ABV
I tried to get Craig on our Torture Test V episode by slipping him a blind cucumber sour beer from The Bruery with the hopes that the vegetal notes would take over and spoil his palate. (It ended up being just fine, to my disappointment.) This beer goes a little further with the vegetal cucumber rind, but the crisp snap of the base saison and the peppercorn leave your mouth bone dry and ready for more. Some citrus notes peek through, and there are faint saison esters that cut through the cucumber. This one would’ve also failed the Torture Test.
46. Session Baltic Porter | Baltic Porter | Kinslahger Brewing Company | Oak Park, IL | 8% ABV
Give Kinslahger five comedy points for this one, as they shaved a percent-and-a-half off of their standard Baltic Porter and called this 8% beast of a beer a “session” version. They’re not wrong in the sense that one serving will not be enough once you taste this beer, but they are wrong in assuming one could remain upright in a session with three or more of these 16 ounce cans. It has just about all of the incredible parts of its bigger counterpart: unsweetened chocolate bits, medium roast coffee, molasses on bread, and a kiss of licorice. It largely avoids much bitterness in the finish, and a little dark fruit note lends to its increased drinkability. I’m not sure if it’s better than the original – one of my absolute favorite beers – but I hope this counterpart is a regular in the taproom.
45. Spring Rejuvenation | Maibock | Riverlands Brewing Company | St. Charles, IL | 6.8% ABV – listen
Thanks to the miracle of vaccines I was finally able to make my way to Riverlands’ taproom, and my takeaway is that they are wonderfully good at playing to both big flavors and the more traditional (though one obviously occupies more tap space than the other.) Their banana stout and blueberry crumble sour were as enjoyable as their hefeweizen and kolsch/IPA hybrid. This maibock is a bigger take on the traditional maibock, but it disappears from your glass all the same. It’s aromatically toasted biscuit, wet grass trimmings, and light caramel sweetness. Though this maibock goes a bit hoppier than most, they used more traditional floral and earthy hops rather than jamming it with the new school juicy ones. It’s a fully-flavored and strong take on the maibock that also leaves your palate feeling…rejuvenated. *sunglasses* *guitar*
44. Just Down The Road | Double IPA | Phase Three Brewing Company & Roaring Table Brewing Company | Lake Zurich, IL | 7.5% ABV – listen
These two Lake Zurich-based breweries independently make a great variety of both hazy and West Coast IPAs. So when they come together to make a West Coast-inspired hazy Double IPA, the best of both worlds collide. On the aroma, there’s some stank of onion, aloe plant, muskmelon and sweet watermelon. The flavor centers around this bitterness that comes on steady and increases up to the finish, before drying out and leaving a little citrus zest. There are some more traditional “hazy” fruit flavors like melon, orange, and pineapple before the wave of bitterness kicks in. It’s a delightful mashup.
43. Bière de Garde Ambrée | Bière de Garde | Giant Jones Brewing Company/The Lone Girl Brewing Company | Madison & Waunakee, WI | 7.4% ABV – listen
In my opinion, there are very few beer styles that can outshine a perfect Bière de Garde: a loving combination of caramel and bready malts with some slight fruity yeast esters on top of a serenely drinkable base. This one takes that winning formula and adds some floral and earthy hops along with a bit of prune juice in the aroma. The little kick of sweet malt rides a wave of effervescence and a light body upfront that gets heftier in the end to justify the ABV. There are not enough Bière de Gardes in the world, and there’s not enough of this particular beer in my fridge. This is about as superb of an example of the style I’ve had in ages.
42. Working Woman | American Brown Ale | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.9% ABV
Easily my favorite four-pack purchase this month was the combo of this beer and the Working Man Mild. This spot could’ve been occupied by its partner-beer, but I love how the toastier malt and slightly bigger body of this one brings out roasted nuts and a bit more caramel. There are some earthy hop characters peeking through as well, and the finish totally snaps. I will buy as many 4-packs of this as necessary to make sure it returns, so Rev, DM us and let me know about how many more I need to buy. For real.
41. Java Logic | Pilsner with barrel-aged Hexe coffee | Lo Rez Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.1% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
Okay, it might not be another barrel-aged pilsner, but it’s close enough that I’ll take it. Aromatically, it’s opening a door to a roastery, wet wood chops, and earth. The flavors somewhat clash, but in a way where you can enjoy both elements clearly until you appreciate how they are actually complementing one another. It starts with a wave of fresh roasted coffee, but the finish is mostly a wonderfully easy pilsner with a hint of dark roast. It’s a beer that manages to be strangely unique and comforting at the same time.
40. Whirlycaster – Raspberry, Blackberry, Meyer Lemon, Milk Sugar, Vanilla & Rose Hips | Sour IPA w/ all that stuff in it | Roaring Table Brewing | Lake Zurich, IL | 7% ABV – listen
Maybe we’re seeing the dying days of the Sour IPA, which for the most part, is totally fine by me. It’s a strange designation to begin with, and many takes on it are a total mess. This beer…is kind of a mess. But a beautiful one? Just for a minute, forget all that stuff I said about Sour IPA, and take a sip of this fruit thing. It’s smoothie-light – not terribly heavy or congealed, just a bit chewier than your average IPA. The whole thing otherwise marries those bramble cheesecake notes to the bright lemon and slightly creamy vanilla. It’s a big old mess that transcends its style into a wonderfully fun drink. Maybe one can a night is all I could handle, but it’s a great time in a glass.
39. Wenceslas | Dark Czech Lager | Art History Brewing | Geneva, IL | 6.4% ABV
Art History could be my brewery of 2021. Having never had their beers prior to February, things quickly escalated to two taproom visits (which is a lot for me) and a permanent spot on the Trustworthy Four Pack All-Star Team. (Hell, they’ve been on these samplers for one quarter of the year already.) What makes them unique for me above other newer breweries is their Master Brewer Greg Browne, who has been excelling at brewing classic international styles and lagers for over two decades. Every lager I’ve had from Art History has been extremely enjoyable, and this seasonal might be my new favorite. This was supposed to be one of my Christmas beers, but I drank it all ahead of time. There’s a sweet bready malt upfront that turns slightly toasted in the sip before the floral and spicy Saaz comes in and gives it a little punch. A light lingering roast and a touch more ABV than your average lager do give this an excellent winter warming lager feel, and I already fear I missed out on snatching up a lot more of this for the coming cold months.
38. Au Jus | Black IPA | Alarmist Brewing | Chicago, IL | 7% ABV – listen (Patreon exclusive)
Alarmist is having the most fun with their beer names and labels – this year I’ve repeatedly had to hand-stitch my sides back together after their label posts. (Hurts like hell!) This black IPA came at the tail end of the small local wave of releases, so we just missed having it on our Black IPA episode. This one would’ve run away with the show, as it expertly balances that big resinous hop character with a light roast and chocolate bitterness. We had a 32-ounce crowler of this beer each, and we both finished them independently in surprising speed. I sincerely hope this one returns in 2022, and it wasn’t just a goof.
37. DDH Nelson Wizard | Double IPA | Miskatonic Brewing Company | Darien, IL | 8% ABV – listen
We all know everyone loves “Summer Craig,” but I’ve been workshopping my own identity for 2021 that almost defiantly stands in contrast to the existence of SC but also loves a good beer-drinking adventure: I am Patio Dad, searching the suburbs for the best outdoor brewery spaces to bring two young and unruly children while not upsetting the whole non-breeder set. Yes, my wife and I bring Slurpees and bags of white cheddar popcorn and Goldfish, and hell yes we let our children play dumb games on our cell phones so we can drink in peace for like 20 minutes. We’ve been to Miskatonic twice now, and it’s high on our list amongst the best outdoor seating options with room for our hyperactive kids to do jumping jacks or whatever while not swatting someone else’s IPA flight to the ground. (Maybe the Slurpees have something to do with this – I don’t know.) Anyways, this West Coast-style IPA absolutely rips with the greener parts of Nelson, while also bringing in some of that sweet gooseberry that makes the hop so alluring. Aromatically, it just hurtles itself at your nose like opening a fresh bag of dank marijuana. It’s also pretty massively bitter, as it should be, making you resent that it’s only a 12 ounce can. Also, it tastes pretty good with unattended Goldfish crackers.
36. Kadak | Imperial milk stout with chai spices | Azadi Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 8% ABV – listen
Azadi is high on my list of breweries I look forward to exploring more in 2022, as all of their releases are characterized by Indian-inspired ingredients melding with a large variety of styles. As my first experience with their beers, this one is an absolute hit. The chai spice blend rides a wave throughout each moment of the sip, but it doesn’t obscure the smooth and rich milk stout at the base. This beer returns from time to time (I think it’s out now!), and it’ll get you through many a cold night.
35. Garden Bitter | English-style Bitter | Half Acre Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 4.2% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
I’ve come to accept that I’m at a stage in my life where I chat with a friendly beer store employee until the conversation reaches the conclusion that there are simply not enough ESBs being made locally. (I get invited to ALL of the parties.) Half Acre made a beer that’s a tribute to sitting in their gorgeous Balmoral beer garden, and it is as pleasant to drink as you could imagine. Aromatically, earthy and floral hops lead the way, with a toasted barley note that lends a stone ground tortilla chip note. Flavorwise, there’s much more wheat bread up front with that earthy and grassy hop just barely licking the end to give a slight bite to the finish. I warn you that if you order a pint of this, you might not want to order a different beer for your entire visit to the garden.
34. Riot | Keller Pils | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.8% ABV – listen
Though we may be in the twilight of a Hot Rev Summer, we’re eager to transition into a Rev Festbier Fall before transitioning fully into a Deep Wood Winter. Naturally, people tend to be a bit more excited over an extended-aged barleywine than a Keller Pils when it comes to summer releases, but I hardly encountered a more fulfilling and refreshing beer this summer than Riot. Pouring picturesque and golden clear with a steady stream of nucleation, this plush-bodied pilsner brings a mix of earthy and floral hops to complement the doughy biscuit malt. It all ends crisp while demanding repeated sips, and I hope it’ll continue to be a seasonal release – and not face the same sad fate as their excellent discontinued Kölsch, Ghost Ride. (RIP Ghost Ride.)
33. Grand Crew | Belgian Quad w/ Pilonciillo and Blue Agave | Bold Dog Beer Co./ Casa Humilde Cerveceria/ Beermiscuous | Chicago, IL | 11.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
This is a triumphant beer in terms of what it signifies – and it tastes pretty great, too. Brewed for Beermiscuous Lakeview’s 7th Anniversary and as a, “celebration of…the workers, brewers, bartenders, and everyone between,” this beer represents a joyous moment after an extremely difficult year-plus. Though certainly not the only business to face hardships during the pandemic, Beermiscuous was handed a uniquely frustrating and almost constant barrage of setbacks. The mayor’s confusing and downright malicious shuttering of “taverns” without food shortly after Beermiscuous had gone to tremendous lengths to ensure extremely safe indoor serving was devastating, leaving the beer café to pivot again (and again and again). And never once did they compromise their morals along the way, rebounding to lead the charge on safe indoor drinking and requiring proof of vaccination along with championing many other important causes. So hoisting this strong and flavorful Quad feels victorious – a true celebration of one of the businesses we admire most. And it’s a stellar Quad as well! Aromatically, it retains some of the dark fruits of a Quad while tipping towards mulled wine. It warms you up almost immediately, and the deep notes of plum and raisin rise in the flavor. Open this with your crew.
32. Sebastian | Bock Lager | Alarmist Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6.66% ABV – listen
We are fully here for the Bock Uprising – even though the warmer months threaten its longevity. But for now, bock me like a hurricane, baby. This beer would’ve made the list on label alone, but it so happens to also kick ass as a beer. It pours burnt sienna and slightly cloudy, holding onto a fluffy finger of tan head. On the nose, it’s bready, spicy, sweet; you get notes of dark fruit, rye bread, molasses, and root beer. The flavor follows suit but adds in a significant noble hop grassy and spicy bitterness, adding an extra layer of complexity and another reason why the beer absolutely disappears from the glass. Drink this, wouldst thou like to live deliciously.
31. Coffee Regular Silkshake | Cream ale (?) w/ coffee, milk sugar, and vanilla| Young Blood Beer Co. | Madison, WI | 5.5% ABV – listen
I’m all in on #TeamCream – we need more adjuncted cream ales than milkshake IPAs. Carton out of New Jersey really got me excited about this concept years ago, but Young Blood’s “Silkshake” (which, according to co-owner Tom Dufek, is a type of cream ale) is an excellent indication of how the lightly sweet base and the adjuncts can meld perfectly. Aromatically, it pulls the trick of smelling exactly like its inspiration – a Dunkin Donuts coffee with three creams and three sugars. It also comes remarkably close in the flavor, but it reigns in its sweetness and drinks entirely too easy. Every brewery should be doing something like this.
30. Speakeasy Red Sangria | Red wine barrel-aged gose w/ Concord grape, cranberry, orange, currant, & lemon | Barreled Souls Brewing Company | Saco, ME | 8.5% ABV – listen
Day drinking has never really agreed with me, as it usually ends with me covered in pizza grease and asleep in a reclining chair at 7:45PM. But hand this to me with a brunch plate of fresh ingredients and I’ll need to just hog the whole 4-pack and brace for an early night. This one is right on the line of fruit puree in a glass, as it pours a thick bloody purple with a bright pink head. The aroma immediately meets the expectation set by the name, as it’s a totally enveloping red wine citrus punch. The gose at the center of this is just a conduit for sangria flavor, as it’s barely perceptible but not missed much at all. There’s sweet grape jam that gets pulled back gently due to the tartness from the cranberry, orange, and lemon. The tannic red wine barrel helps add complexity and dryness. This could be canned and sold as an actual sangria, and no one would question it.
29. Coolship Cerise Estate | Lambic-style with cherries | Allagash Brewing Company | Portland, ME | 5.9% ABV – listen
It’s likely that Craig won’t read this, but I have to say it’s pretty rad to have him as a friend. Like, for example, when he’s at Allagash in Portland, ME and just texts you two pictures of their extensive to-go beer list and asks what he should get for a show. Everything he brought back was brewery exclusive and transcendent. But when you have a lambic-style from one of the very first American breweries to adopt that style, you sit up and take notice. This is about as good as a cherry lambic gets, even if the sourness and dryness give you pause at times. Suck it up, pucker up, and power through this thing with light sips that’ll soon turn into greedy gulps because this thing just gets better every moment in the glass. Thanks, Craigy-poo.
28. Poker Face | Black IPA | Necromancer Brewing | Pittsburgh, PA | 6.5% ABV – listen
Well I didn’t expect there to be two Black IPAs on this list, and even with the Alarmist being near perfect, this one leans even harder into the things I love about this style. The hops are so present from aroma to the very bitter finish, providing enough pine and citrus to evoke a West Coast IPA. But big roasty coffee and bitter dark chocolate envelop those hop notes, and despite all of that, this beer is amazingly drinkable.
27. Le Beez | New England-Style IPA | Alarmist Brewing & Old Irving Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6.9% ABV – listen
The folks from Alarmist and Old Irving have been known to share a beer or two together, what with their proximity, friendship, and general affinity for brewing a wide range of styles. So when bringing together their GABF gold-winning hazy IPAs (Alarmist won in 2018, and Old Irving won in 2019), it was certain to be a prestige affair. And once you see that label, you know you’re in for a glass of pure class. (I mean, you see that burger, right??) This beer hits all the right notes when it comes to what I like out of a hazy – juicy tropical fruit notes, a feathery-soft but not heavy body, and an upfront and pleasant bitterness that lingers in a way many hazies shy away from. I could pretend that I taste the best elements of each base recipe, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter. It’s just so damn good.
26. Eleusis | Barrel-aged imperial stout w/ vanilla, chocolate, habanero, and cinnamon | Around the Bend Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 9% ABV – listen
This beer tastes like one you would’ve lined up for in 2014. Despite being “low” in ABV for a barrel-aged imperial stout (I guess?), it’s so full flavored that you quickly forget about that. It’s rich and dessert-like, big hits of cinnamon and chocolate land first. The pepper spice appears in the back half, but it’s also defused a bit from the vanilla. The barrel presence isn’t the strongest element at first, but the work it’s doing on the later sips is really something. Let this warm up and sip on it to achieve the full effect.
25. Westfield | Barrel-aged saison | Cellar West Artisan Ales | Lafayette, CO | 6.7% ABV – listen
There are certain breweries I’ve never been to that I just know for a fact that I’d feel very at-home with if I were able to drink there on the regular. Cellar West is one of those places, with a diverse tap list but clear favoritism with saisons. And their saisons are well-decorated, winning several GABF medals for good reason. This one doesn’t break a ton of new ground, but it absolutely nails everything you want from a cracker-crisp lemony saison dipped in a touch of the wet-hay funk. There are also nice tannic barrel notes that give it a wine-like dry finish.
24. Bourbon County Brand Reserve Blanton’s Stout (2021) | Imperial Stout aged in fancy barrels | Goose Island Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 15.4% ABV – listen
I hate to do this to the white whale of the lineup this year, not that any positive words I share will impact its secondary value at all. But I do feel like each year, there’s one BCBS in the lineup that gives me memories of Baudoinia – a legendary beer in my personal drinking history that can never actually be replicated. This one gives complex fudge and walnut notes, along with the barrel vanillins adding sweet adjunct flavors to this adjunct-free stout. It’s as oily and rich as any of the best Reserve BCBS vintages. (Also, remember that Goose is accused of union-busting before breaking your bank to obtain this. There’s a lot of great beer out there.)
23. Blushing Star | Barrel-aged pilsner w/ Brettanomyces and Maine white peaches | Liquid Riot Bottling Co. | Portland, ME | 6.5% ABV – listen
About every other month these days it seems we have a beer style that pushes us to ask, “Why aren’t more breweries doing this?” That’s true for this barrel-aged “wild” pilsner – and oh how I long for a world of more barrel-aged wild pilsners. The aroma is borderline nail polish remover with its big Brett funk, but it’s also awash in sweet peaches and cream. It still retains its pilsner base in the taste, though the peaches, horsey funk, and tannic wine-like oak battle for attention. This is one of those beers that would enter a smaller FoBAB category and walk away with the Best in Show.
22. Soul Head | Strata-hopped IPA | Hop Butcher for the World (and The Smashing Pumpkins) | Chicago, IL | 6.5% ABV – listen
Though the biggest story involving Hop Butcher is certainly the purchase of the Half Acre Lincoln Ave. taproom and brewery (which you can hear co-owner Jeremiah Zimmer talk about at length with us in this podcast episode), making a beer with some alternative rock legends from Chicago is pretty cool too, I guess. Though you won’t find any mash paddle-photos of Billy Corgan on the Hop Butcher Instagram, this conceptual collaboration combines inspiration from the teas at Billy and his wife Chloe’s shop, a story about a mythical amp, and the deeper meaning the Strata hop holds for Hop Butcher. (Again, listen to our episode to hear about it. We only keep pushing it because we think it’s really good.) The beer itself is a combination of three different lots of the Strata hop, and it’s aromatically propulsive with notes of wet wood, coconut water, passionfruit, honeydew, and musty herbals. It’s both tropical and creamy, but it’s rounded out perfectly by the bitterness and dry finish. This is one of those hazy Hop Butcher beers that actually teaches you the surprising range of a single hop but also makes you want to break out your CD copy of Gish. You know.
21. Barrel-Aged Flipped the Switch | Imperial Czech-style Dark Lager aged in Smoke Wagon bourbon barrels | Mikerphone Brewing | Elk Grove Village, IL | 10% ABV – listen
When we last talked to Mike Pallen (at SLABF 2021), his face absolutely lit up when talking about this particular beer. It’s a combination of something traditional with something Mikerphone – take the traditional dark lager style, crank that shit to 10, and then toss it in some rad barrels for a few months. Aromatically, there’s slight chocolate, char, coffee roast, toasted hazelnut, prunes, and light tobacco – all easy. The flavor is maillard toasted marshmallow, coffee roast bitterness in the end, and even a little hint of grass. As it warms, it almost turns to chocolate milk, yet it retains a bit of its lager drinkability despite the inflated ABV. At times, it’d be easy to confuse this for a Baltic porter. It works cold, and it works warm – it’s never not good.
20. Fact or Fiction | Golden sour aged on whole Ethopian coffee beans, toasted cacao nibs, and vanilla | Odious Cellars | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen
Truthfully, when Craig and I make our monthly lists, we have to sort of “claim” certain beers that we both loved from a particular brewery, as we want our selections to be different. Cryptomnesia is the best beer I’ve had from this brewery so far, but this strange yet endearing s’more sour is more than just unique – it’s well-executed. Right from the aroma, you’re immediately hit with notes you’d more likely associate with a stout: milk chocolate, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and roasty coffee. The flavor mostly follows suit but takes a turn towards an almost plum-like dark sour in the finish. There are plenty of beers you could bring to a bottle share that are “conversation pieces,” but rarely are they done this well. It’s not just weird for the sake of weird – they’ve found a strange harmony amongst the decadent sweet and prickly sour for this.
19. Lucia | Dry-hopped spelt saison | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
This beer was named in honor of a true revolutionary, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, who fought against oppressive labor conditions brought about by the unceasing grind of capitalist institutions, among many other things. Truthfully, I wasn’t familiar with her story until this beer came along, and finding out she is buried in the same town that I live – Forest Park, IL – made me seek out more literature on her life and her incredible will to fight for what is right. Plus, proceeds for this beer go to support Connections for Abused Women and Their Children. So whether or not this beer is even good, it is already successful in my book. But it IS good. Great, in fact. Aromatically, the dry hop brings out a burst of tropical fruit along with a slight spice and bubblegum note. A bit more citrus fruit than a standard saison brings some interesting peaks to an otherwise note-perfect spelt saison with some banana esters, peppercorn, and cotton candy – with a crisp and dry finish.
18. Coolship Lager Black | Czech-style black lager | Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores | Oxford, CT | 5.4% ABV – listen
Known more for their wilds and more esoteric styles, this OEC Brewing black lager is exactly what it says it is. Blind, I would have no idea that this was made in America. I’ve had only a few traditional Czech dark lagers in my lifetime, and I recall that toasty malt character leaning into licorice more than I might be comfortable with. This one also does that, and it cleans up so crisp in the end that the contrast is the key of what makes this an absolute win for me.
17. Soak in Shadow | Apple Brandy BA Milk Stout | Half Acre Brewing/ The Veil Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL/Richmond, VA | 13.1% ABV – listen
You have to admire how Half Acre will just disrupt your whole afternoon randomly through releasing barrel-aged heat like this with short notice on a random Thursday. I’d never though the Apple Brandy of the barrel would play so perfectly with the milk stout, adding a touch more pastry-like sweetness than you might expect. But it all settles down in the end, making sips of this undeniably easy. I also have no comparison for this thing, so I’ll be looking for any beer that can replicate what this one does.
16. Double Barrel Sleepy Bear | Double barrel-aged imperial stout w/ cacao nibs, milk sugar, and vanilla | Werk Force Brewing Co. | Plainfield, IL | 15.75% – listen
Werk Force may be one of the smallest breweries that has an annual double barrel stout lineup, but why would you stop the production train on something this lovely? It has a mouthfeel that can only be described as “luscious” and a flavor that I’d call “just ridiculous.” Take those corner brownie chunks and melt some toasty marshmallows over it. And the barrel does the job of drying this thing up to be dangerously drinkable. It’s no wonder it nabbed the FoBAB Gold Medal this year in the most competitive stout category. This is a beer the whole state should be proud of.
15. Heady Topper | Double IPA | The Alchemist | Stowe, VT | 8% ABV – listen
Long before the boom of IPAs in 16-ounce cans – even before the advent of what we now call Hazy or New England-style IPAs – this was one of only a few highly coveted American Double IPAs with a relatively tiny footprint. (Only Pliny the Elder rivaled it in terms of desirability and legacy, in my opinion.) So, it’s good to know that despite The Alchemist expanding their production significantly over the last decade and the sweeping changes to the beer industry, Heady is still in high demand. Revisiting this beer for the first time in nearly five years, I was still blown away. And the can’s insistence is correct – there is a noticeable drop in flavor and aroma once it is poured in the glass, so keep your Teku out of it. The bitterness moves in waves throughout the sip, lingering in the back to remove any semblance of its ABV and pushing you back to the can for another. It’s as good as it ever was.
14. Vanilla Benthic | Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ coconut and vanilla | Half Acre Beer Company | 13.5% ABV – listen
This is a beer for people who want to drink a barrel-aged stout that tastes like a dessert but it’s in a can with some sort of weird-ass deep sea fish on it. I gotta say I love a beer that classes up the act of me slurping down 500 calories of rich and sticky stout, rather than painting the can with some cartoonish kid shit. Like, this fish is not fucking around – what is that, a three-eyed spider skull with wings glued to a clear shark?!? Half Acre’s Instagram post on this particular creature is all about My Bloody Valentine and Bongripper, so no help there. But yes, this beer smells and tastes like a chocolate cupcake with vanilla icing and toasted coconut flakes. Add a little bourbon chaser to warm up the finish, but otherwise, this is a totally wholesome experience.
13. Vienna-Style Lager | Vienna-Style Lager | Goldfinger Brewing Company | Downers Grove, IL | 5% ABV – listen
I’ve found a tiny new hill to climb on and it’s this one: more beers named after their style, please! There’s a weird assumed proficiency with a beer that just presents itself as what it is and doesn’t need to fall back on a flashy label or pop-culture referencing title. Ok, I’m going to climb off this little hill before I trip over my own two idiot feet. Goldfinger has come to be in both an extremely unfortunate time (you know, 2020) and the exact right time. Thanks to local leaders like Metropolitan and Dovetail especially, appreciation for perfectly-executed traditional lagers has steadily grown as a welcome alternative to the lactose fad. Instead of “double dry hop”, here we are getting excited over “double decoction.” This copper-clear Vienna Lager gives some surprising floral hop and lightly nutty aromas on top of its bready malt base. The slight crisp herbal bitterness from the Czech Saaz adds a snap to the toasted bread and malt-forward flavor with a hint of almost honey-like sweetness. It’s perfect for an early Spring day on the patio.
12. Mehndi Special Reserve 2021 (Batch One) | Imperial Stout Aged in Bourbon Barrels | More Brewing | Villa Park, IL | 12% ABV – listen
From my StoutFest 2021 write-up:
I gave my Stoutly Cup vote to More because this is one of those beers that sets a high bar and then clears it. Barrel-aged More beers are already pretty “special,” and this one outdoes Goose Island at their own game. Though the special barrel-focused Bourbon Counties have been highlights every year since 2017, More is here saying, “check this shit out” and doing something that can stand with – or above – many of those BCBS variants with far fewer resources. This beer imparts a lot of fruit along with its rich chocolate body, but it’s smooth from beginning to end. There are no empty spaces in the flavor – it’s delectably full and complex through and through. I’ve never had a bad Mehndi, and all recent evidence points to them getting even better.
11. Sauvÿn Blanc | Sour Hybrid w/ passion fruit and Sauvignon Blanc grape must | Duneyrr Artisan Fermenta Project | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen
When we spoke with Tyler Davis for the podcast, he detailed a whole bevy of other potential projects, like starting a winery, buying a vineyard, and maybe even distilling. He’s passionate about fermentation beyond simply the difference between an ale and a lager (though he also does those well). The concept of a “Sour Hybrid” might be a hard sell for some, but if you need an example of how exciting that can be, this is the beer you need. A modest amount of passion fruit aromatics mix in with a light white wine character, and sipping brings a bright summer cocktail, all tart and happy. It’s neither a wine-inspired beer, nor a beer-like wine – it melds the flavors and mouthfeel so evenly, you kind of forget you’re drinking either. Experience this for yourself, and go visit Duneyrr’s newly-opened taproom.
10. Oktoberfest | Amber Märzen | Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Chico, CA | 5.5% ABV
As the resident NevHead on the podcast, it is with great authority that I declare this the second-best Sierra Nevada seasonal, behind only the indomitable Celebration. Of course, it changes a bit each year, with the last few being a collaboration with a Bavarian brewer. This fresh batch, packaged in new sleek cans, is going to occupy my fridge until Celebration season. Aromatically, it’s honey wheat bread crusts and barley malt syrup. Lively and immediate in the flavor with lightly sweet caramel malt and a crisp grassy bite. It effervescently snaps in the finish with a little malt and bitterness left behind like a beautiful memory. It’s currently the best Oktoberfest I’ve had this season.
9. Avec Le Guillotine | Blend of doppelbock, calvados foedre-aged Flemish-style with pressed apples, and American Wild Ale aged in wine barrels with Cabernet Franc grape must; all refermented with Balaton cherries and aged in bourbon barrels and Pomegranate Fox Wild Ale barrels | Off Color Brewing/Metropolitan Brewing | Chicago, IL | 7.8% ABV – listen
So that beer descriptor above is my attempt at paraphrasing what’s actually on the bottle, and it’s still some of the wildest shit I’ve seen in print about any beer I’ve ever had. This beer is a Lynchian ride wherein you think you understand what’s going on but then other times you just nod and enjoy the absurdity. Primarily a dry, tannic, and slightly sour affair, repeated sips offer an absolute word salad of flavor descriptors: cranberry fruit leather, sour cherries, tart pomegranate, slight caramel malts mingling with baked apples and mulling spices. It’s propulsively effervescent in the mouth at first, then leans a touch more sour than tart. It’s just a joy to drink and when you hit that dry finish of the last sip with another splash of the tart fruits at the start of a new sip, it’s a cycle that’s so easy to repeat until the bottle is all gone. It’s one of the most unique drinking experiences I’ve had this entire year.
8. V.S.O.J. (2021) | Barrel-aged barleywine | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 15% ABV – listen
It’s so good.
7. Pliny the Younger | Triple IPA | Russian River Brewing Company | Windsor, CA | 10.25% ABV – listen
For about a decade, I knew I wanted Pliny the Younger because it was just that beer you have to want. It was one of the first beers I’d heard of that was also a destination. You didn’t just drink it; – you went to it. When I had my first sip of Pliny the Elder in 2012, it only solidified my singular beer want in Pliny the Younger. As someone who finds seeing movies in the theater “a whole thing,” it’s not surprising that my first experience with this beer was actually in a bottle in my basement. We were incredibly lucky to score this beer and have a proxy to send it to us (Thanks Mike!), and I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint at all. Rather than spend a lot of characters here explaining what it was like, I highly recommend you listen to my first experience with the beer on the episode shared in the link above. Or just know that it was a very good beer.
6. Gravitace | Czech Pale Lager | Art History Brewing | Geneva, IL | 5.1% ABV – listen
While there are some craft lagers that barely elevate themselves above the macros they mimic, there are also these craft lagers that remind you how fully transformative a bottom-fermented beer can be. This pours crystal clear with a half finger of head that never goes away. Aromatically, it’s lemon zest, sweet bubblegum, grassy hop, and corn chips. Each sip is a rush of flavor that peaks with some surprising bitterness on the back end. Pale malts add some almost honey cookie-like sweetness, but the earthy hop flashes near the end and stops just short of adding a resonating bitterness – just enough to keep it crisp. I had a ton of lagers this year, but this one was my favorite.
5. Electric Roads | Double barrel-aged barleywine | Private Press Brewing | Santa Cruz, CA | 13.8% – listen
This beer swooped in at the tail end of the year to jump into my top 5. We had a fair share of amazing barleywines this year, but none floored me as much as this one. It floats along the palate with caramel, horchata, toasted barley, spicy rye, and almond cookies. An ever present warmth from the booze keeps the sip moderate, but you’ll want to just smack that shit around in your mouth like a shameless sommelier. Bring it completely to room temperature and a whole new layer of coconut water comes through. Whatever this costs, it’s probably worth more.
4. Rey Cuvée | 2018 + 2019 + 2020 Rey Gordo stout blended and double barrel-aged in Woodford Reserve barrels | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV – listen
Basically a Stout Gueuze, this blend actually consists of four elements: the three BA Gordos, and some non-barreled Gordo. It’s a genius move, because adding the “fresh” Gordo doesn’t sacrifice the complexity offered by the barrel and extended aging, but instead adds this ribbon of bitter chocolate that effectively balances the sweeter tendencies of the rest of the blend. Layers and layers of oak, tobacco, caramel, cacao, marshmallow, and fruity currant make appearances in this long ride of a beer. The mouthfeel is soft and decadent rather than syrupy and indulgent. This Rey could take any other brewery’s “Reserve” blend to the mat.
3. Beer for Ball Games | Cream Ale | Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.2% ABV – listen
With the brilliant “Beer For” series, Off Color has found a way to continue funding their more esoteric or eccentric releases – without having to make a single IPA. Though the series itself has gotten quite experimental with ingredients or technique (see Pizza, Derbies, Burgers, Cafes, etc.), this one is much more straight-down-the-middle. That being said, making a perfect cream ale is no trot around the bases – they can either disappear into “generic and lager-like” or be slammed full of cake batter-y vanilla notes. This is the perfect amount of light ‘Nilla wafer and corn chips over a clean and gently-hopped ale that finishes like a 1-2-3 ninth inning from your team’s closer. It may have just passed Beer For Tacos as my absolute favorite in this series, but I’ll need approximately 14 more 4-packs to make up my mind. This is Off Color’s bat toss. #TeamCream
2. From the Outer Edge of Inner Space | Bitter saison with Galaxy hops and wildflower honey | Keeping Together | Chicago, IL | 6.7% ABV – listen
A remarkable thing about Keeping Together beers is if you’ve tried a decent amount of the beers, you will likely find one that you’re convinced was made specifically for your tastes – even though Averie Swanson is really just making beers that she thinks will taste good. This tribute to a West Coast IPA in saison form is a drinking experience I had been seeking out for a while. Though there are some stellar dry-hopped saisons out there (ahem, see below), this one hits you with big tropical hops, some sneaky notes of green grape, and then honey adds just a touch of sweetness that is cleared out by the bitter finish. As with all KT beers, the mouthfeel is its own unique work of art – a bit heftier than some of the other saisons but crackling with effervescence before that dry and bitter end. This might be the best saison AND the best West Coast IPA I’ve had this year.
1. Dark Mode | Imperial Milk Stout aged in bourbon barrels | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 13.8% ABV – listen
The absolute standout of this season’s Deep Wood lineup (so far), Dark Mode is deceptively simple on paper. Read the fine print on this milk stout, and you get a better idea about what makes this so special. The primary malt bill is chosen to add rich and roasty chocolate notes without bitterness, and golden oats are in here to give it a smooth and creamy body. The small but mighty addition of applewood smoked malts add another layer that hits just as the bourbon is finishing on your palate, and it’s like a barely-browned and fire-licked marshmallow chaser. It’s a beer you could sip for an hour or finish in ten minutes; it’s complex if you want it to be, but it’s also so smooth going down that you’ll be actively sad as your glass empties.