Top 40 Beers of 2023
The criteria for the list is simple: these are the best beers that I had this year that were (mostly) 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 for most of the year, many of these blurbs are reused from their initial posts, in case you notice the many out-of-season references.) The order of these beers, like all the rankings we do, is arbitrary and based on my personal preferences that can seemingly change from day-to-day. But I feel confident in saying that all these beers are worth seeking out if you’re in a position to do so – I think you’ll like them.
40. Over Fire Island | Smoked Porter | Maplewood Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 6.8% ABV – listen
Just a week ago this December, I was talking to a coworker who is interested in craft beer and Maplewood came up, and he took a beat, snapped his fingers and said, “that Fire Island beer!” We had this beer back in the spring for the podcast, so the fact that my coworker held onto his memory of this particular one-off beer is a pretty good endorsement. It does a fantastic job melding the rich and roasty base porter with the campfire smoke, giving a little s’more-like quality without any sweet vanilla. It’s a warming beer that both warms you up and gets better as it warms.
39. Nitro Night Rye’d | Rye Porter | Company Brewing | Milwaukee, WI | 6.8% ABV
My wife and I visited Milwaukee in October and attempted to visit as many breweries as we could, and this spot was picked solely based on its later hours and menu offering of a large peanut butter cookie. I’m telling you – the cookie was the main draw here. But thank god for that cookie, because we had this incredible silky rye porter on nitro that left thick strips of lacing down my empty glass. It’s all rich dark chocolate syrup and roasted coffee with a hint of spice made thick through the nitro pour. And yes, it paired incredibly well with the peanut butter cookie.
38. Trees and Seas | IPA | Three Blondes Brewing | South Haven, MI | 6.7% ABV
Vacation beers often don’t hold up to scrutiny once vacation is over, but because of this beer’s similarities to Two Hearted, I had to do a side-by-side tasting upon returning home. What this beer shares with that quintessential Michigan IPA is the sole focus on Centennial hops and a very similar appearance. Otherwise, it doesn’t quite hit the mouthfeel of that be-fished beer, but it certainly does make for a surprisingly great IPA of its own. It pours a burnt golden, almost copper but entirely clear with a big head. On the aroma, it’s equal parts orange peel and sticky pine with a little doughy malt character. Tasting the beer, it starts with soft citrus on the tongue that leads to a bitter pine that is boldly unforgiving (for a vacation town beer). It finishes on the drier side of an IPA and the bitterness is present well beyond the sip. It’s also relatively light on the body, and any malt sweetness is very low. This is a solid and straightforward IPA that any brewery would be proud to showcase as one of its flagships.
37. Citrus Surfer | Citrus Wheat Ale | Big Grove Brewery | Iowa City, IA | 4.8% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
As a Hawkeye alum that graduated in 2005, the best beers available in town at that time were import bottles from Dirty John’s Grocery or a tall Boulevard Wheat with an orange slice to wash down a Quinton’s sandwich. Had the Big Grove location been around back then, I can hardly imagine wanting to drink elsewhere (other than the occasional shot-and-a-beer at the Deadwood or Dublin). This beer was made to crush on their football field-sized patio in the summer. Aromatically, it’s waxy orange peels, pink lemonade, and soft wheat bread. On the drink, the citrus remains present throughout the entirety of the sip, never fully taking over, just lending a kiss of zest to increase drinkability. There’s still a soft and easy wheat ale at the base, and the crisp finish really makes this a 12-pack beer to pair with outdoor sporting events or parking lot cornhole.
36. 7th Anniversary Imperial Stout | Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ chocolate, coconut, caramel, and peanuts | The Old Bakery Beer Company | Alton, IL | 8.8% ABV – listen
Though we hadn’t known them before Don Kasak gave us this beer for the podcast, we’re glad this one lives up to the “bakery” promise as it’s a bit reminiscent of a delicious dessert pie. But where this beer really wins is in its restraint. At the core there’s a solid chocolate malt, roast, and anise base that reminds me of big stouts from two decades ago. The adjuncts and barrel here are more present as the beer warms, but none of them take the reins away from the perfectly-crafted base. It’s not an over-the-top dessert beer; rather, it’s a beer that you can drink while enjoying your dessert.
35. Barrel-Aged Migration | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout w/ toasted coconut, vanilla, and Ecuadorian cocoa nibs | Old Irving Brewing Co. & Phase Three Brewing | Chicago & Lake Zurich, IL | 13% ABV – listen
It’s absolutely no surprise that a collaboration barrel-aged adjunct stout from Old Irving and Phase Three would be a hit, but the surprising standout of this beer is its balance. Each adjunct is present in pretty even amounts – the chocolate, coconut, and vanilla each play in harmony without one ever attempting a solo. Aromatically, there’s a significant bakery shop coconut presence before melting into chocolate, caramel, and vanilla. The bourbon barrel adds some char and butterscotch notes in the flavor, but it’s a bourbon caramel-drizzled brownie corner that ends smooth and light on sweet. Expect this one to be a reoccurring annual release, and budget accordingly.
34. Watcher in the Woods | Dunkel Lager | Miskatonic Brewing Co. | Darien, IL | 5.3% ABV
The brief preview of summer weather in April brought out a pupal-stage Patio Dad with a box of carry-out sandwiches, magnetic travel games, and two kids that were more than happy to dance on the lawn off of the Miskatonic patio. Influenced by the lucky weather, Miskatonic put a keg of this note-perfect Dunkel on to serve in their big dimpled steins. It carries some caramel malt sweetness and oily nut richness in the early part of the sip before a slight earthy bitterness comes in to help dry it all out and show off its easy lager finish. Patio Dad will be making many summer returns to Miskatonic with their impressive takes on traditional German styles and immaculate West Coast IPAs, and you should too.
33. Catch Hell (2023) | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ Madagascar vanilla and cinnamon | Half Acre Beer Company | Chicago, IL | 14% ABV – listen
Here’s to hoping this becomes a regular barrel-aged release from Half Acre, as we were lucky to try both the Double and Triple Barrel versions of this in the past. Truthfully, it’s clear now how valuable the excellent base beer and adjuncts are without all the extra barreling, because this beer hardly loses a step despite it’s pffffft paltry single barrel treatment. *Reaches for monocle, falls off into a bowl of CTC.* But really, the cinnamon and the decadent base stout play the star, as it gives off aromas of Big Red gum but devilishly dances across the tongue like a snickerdoodle cookie. The thick stout is teeming with dark chocolate and a bit of fruit and coffee roast, while the vanilla is content to just lighten things up a little bit. It’s more comforting warmth than burning hellfire, trust me.
32. Sticke | Altbier | Dovetail Brewery | Chicago, IL | 6.1% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
Not sure if it’s Dovetail or Binny’s that gets the credit for this idea, but making this “collaboration” beer in the style of the somewhat obscure Sticke Altbier is a cool move for those of us who get all excited by the words “double decoction.” This beer hits with a surprising amount of earthy hops in the end, and the sweet dark bready malts in the middle give it some heft. There’s also notes of dark fruit like plum or raisin along with a rye-like spice. It marries bigger complex flavors to Dovetail’s signature drinkability, and I’m certainly not mad about that.
31. The Malt Slayer | Russian Imperial Stout | Hailstorm Brewing Co. | Tinley Park, IL | 10.2% ABV
We here at ABV Chicago are all for the return to big, unforgiving, adjunct-free stouts. The Malt Slayer is here to not only eradicate bitter dark malts, but it’s coming next for the beloved pastry stout. Ok, I’m being dramatic because the demonic character on the can has gotten in my head a bit, but this beer is a satisfying throwback to the malt monsters of old. It’s thick and chewy, bitter and anise-forward, full of dark chocolate with almost no hint of sweetness. The finish is never-ending – challenging and rewarding at the same time while keeping the ABV relatively hidden. Fans of dark roast black coffee or ashy bitter dark chocolate will love this beer.
30. What the Night Brings | Imperial stout aged in cognac and bourbon barrels 2 years w/ figs and dates | Short Fuse Brewing Company | 12% ABV – listen
This one showed up on our radar due to it taking a bronze medal at FoBAB 2022 in the Specialty Strong Porter/Stout category – one of the most contested in the whole competition. This beer pours with a deep dark brown head that dissipates quickly, black as night and impenetrable by light. On the aroma, it reminds of a traditional old stout with bitter and dusty dark chocolate, an umami and soy sauce character, and a spike of licorice. Focused sniffs bring more rich and savory notes with some light fig and sweet Cognac at the end. It tastes of cooked steak, brown sugar melanoidins, honey-drizzled dates, and unsweetened cocoa powder. There is some bitterness on the finish, and the bourbon adds smoothness to the end. It becomes stupidly easy to drink after the fifth sip, so stick with this beer and savor the rewards.
29. Cold Sweat | Strawberry banana Hefeweizen | Funkytown Brewery & Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.3% ABV
Funkytown has really emerged as a breakout brewery this year, and I think more people will be catching on to how great their beers are in 2024. This absolute summer crusher of a beer leans into the natural banana notes you’d associate with a Hefweizen and amplifies them through the addition of banana and the always perfect pairing of strawberry. It’s satisfying without being sweet – it never goes towards an overfruited-style beer but instead retains its Hefe-ness. It’s a perfect summer porch beer and one that I hope returns for the season.
28. Echoes & Locations | Thiolized Cream Ale | Pipeworks Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL | 4.7% ABV
Thanks to some grade-A brewer nerds like Dan from Around the Bend, I had heard of biotransformation and the release of thiols in hazy hoppy beers before. So when I saw this on the shelf at my local Trader Joe’s, I admittedly had no idea what to expect. This one pours like a classic cream ale: light golden, steady finger of head, and slight amount of haze. Poured into a glass, it has big notes of passion fruit, creamy tangerine, and an almost cracked wheat-like grist aroma. Passion fruit is upfront on the flavor but with none of the tartness you’d associate with actual juice. Some zesty citrus kicks up in the middle before a very light pale malt finish. There’s even a bit of that softness characteristic of a cream ale, reminiscent of Spotted Cow. This beer achieves so much fruit flavor with minimal hopping – just the magic of yeast and biotransformation of the malt which Omega Yeast explains in detail here. It’s absolutely nerd shit, but it’s actually a refreshingly unique take on a cream ale. If I were a brewer, this would get me very excited about working it into similar light styles.
27. Norm is a Son of a Bitch | Roggenbier | Spiteful Brewing | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV
Truthfully, we had this beer on the podcast in March of 2014 for Episode 7 – German-Style Chicago, and it placed dead last in both of our rankings. Sure, the competition was a bit stacked, but we also weren’t necessarily familiar with the flavor profile of this obscure style that essentially replaces the wheat in a dunkelweizen with rye. In 2014, I doubt we’d had more than a few dunkels or weizens or rye beers – so I’m glad I get to drink this again in 2023. The aroma is oatmeal cookie with dark brown sugar, banana bread, allspice, and pepper – it’s utterly lovely on its own. Poured cold, there’s light banana, clove, and honey wheat bread. As it warms, there’s a nuttiness like the toasted topping of a breakfast muffin, and the kiss of rye spice on the finish gives it a sharpness to facilitate more drinking. We were so, so wrong about this one. Bless you, Norm, you old S.O.B.
26. Vesper | Pistachio cream ale w/ pumpkin spices | Around the Bend Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
The base of this beer, Vera, is – in our humble opinion – one of the best original Chicago craft beers of the last decade. It has a unique and addictive flavor profile that no other beer locally approaches, and its overall lightness makes it an excellent base for experimentation. We’ve had versions of Vera with lemons, peaches, and cinnamon that have all exceeded expectations. Even with that, we were skeptical this one could work. Well grab your corded sweaters, oversized scarves, and knee-high boots because this thing absolutely nails pumpkin spice without the heavy-handed Yankee Candle notes of some pumpkin beers. It ultimately retains what makes Vera work so well on its own, and the subtle addition of clove, allspice, and cinnamon enhance the beer instead of dominating it. It’s my new favorite pumpkin-ish beer of the season.
25. No Ice | Schwarzbier | Soundgrowler Brewing Co. | Tinley Park, IL | 5% ABV – listen
I’ve spent so much time thinking about the Vegetarian Burrito at Soundgrowler. I’ve probably eaten it close to 10 times at this point, and each time I’m mystified at what makes it something I actually have dreams about. Yeah, there are french fries in it which RULES – but it’s whatever spice and sauce combination they cook the diced potatoes, peppers, and onions in that is just to die for. It’s probably all the better because of the quality of beer you get to wash it down with, and this Schwarzbier is another example of Soundgrowler’s technical proficiency. This beer is easy-drinking enough to be a great food pairing, but I’ve now brought home 8 cans of this beer and can attest that it also has a roasty complexity that you might otherwise lose in the post-burrito ecstasy. It’s also got a fair amount of green hop character that enhances the bitter dark chocolate coming from the malt. (And hey, Soundgrowler, if you DM me burrito secrets, I promise I won’t share them with the rest of the world.)
24. Indy Haná | Czech-Style Pale Lager | Triptych Brewing | Savoy, IL | 5% ABV
It’s not often I see Triptych beers in the western suburbs, so when I happened upon this $10 4-pack I couldn’t have snatched it up faster. Triptych may be known for their Dank Meme hazy to many, but they’ve been making a wide variety of lagers that pay homage to very classic styles in their Heirloom Lager series. This is very close to a traditional Czech-style pilsner, utilizing the Haná malt (grown in Indiana!) which produced some of the earliest versions of the style. From the nose, it’s all fresh-baked bread and a little lemongrass. If it were a scented candle, it would be the most comforting thing of all time. The taste accentuates that bread note with a more herbal Saaz touch that lends just the slightest bitterness. It’s on the level of beers we regularly praise from Art History, Goldfinger, or Dovetail – and I hope more Triptych lagers find their way up to the area. (Especially at that price point, hot damn!)
23. Subnivean | White India Pale Ale | More Brewing Company | VIlla Park & Huntley, IL | 6.6% ABV
The name of this beer evokes layers of snow on the ground, beneath which fuzzy little mammals huddle for warmth and stored rations. But I drank this standing in a driveway when it was 75 degrees, and I have to ask why we don’t have more Belgian-influenced IPAs in the market for warmer months. This beer pours a soft golden with a huge white fluffy head. The aroma is citrus and pine mixed with bubblegum and banana-like esters, Dole whip, and the lightest note of a black peppercorn on the end. Your sip is met with a soft and full mouthfeel, a decent lingering bitterness, and a very dry finish. It tastes like orange pith and resinous pine, with a kiss of sweet pineapple candy. Some of those ester-y and phenolic characters reminiscent of Belgian yeast peek out from behind the IPA at times, which messes with your more haze-attuned sensibilities. This beer deserves its own season.
22. ESB | Extra Special Bitter | Art History Brewing | Geneva, IL | 5.3% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
With a new production brewery that is currently helping pump up the volume on their traditional styles and lagers, Art History is doing yeoman’s work in bringing more clean and drinkable beers to the greater Chicagoland area. Rumor has it that the Geneva Lager Works location will also serve as a contract or alt-prop hub, similar to Great Central, for brewers that want to offer more lagers but couldn’t squeeze a single horizontal tank into their taprooms. There were four beers from Art History in the running for me this month, but this ESB stands tall as it even outshone some stellar ones we had in March. Aromatically, this one gives off a complex variety including wheat bread crust, sweet dough, earthy hops, pear, apple skins, and fig. That bread crust carries through in the flavor, supported by some caramel-malt sweetness and a decently bitter and grassy finish. The mouthfeel is on the softer side, and it would lend itself beautifully to a cask pour.
21. Repo Man | Rye Stout | Revolution Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 6.4% ABV
During the same month that we had the last five Deep Wood beers of the series – all just absolute showstoppers – I managed to find a Rev beer that I somehow like even better. The perfectly-timed return of this straightforward rye stout does signal the canning end of their Belgian Pale, A Little Crazy, but the move makes sense given the growing interest in the drinkable dark beer category. The aromas on this are bitter baker’s chocolate and coffee grounds with a tiny bit of anise spice that kicks up as it warms. The sip is fuller and creamier than you’d expect from a 6% stout, and the dark chocolate roast and bitter back half absolutely coat every inch of your mouth. The finish has a touch of that rye and even a little hop, giving it the perfect amount of bitter dryness that makes this whole beer such an easy one to fall in love with. Rev has topped my year-end list for thelastthree, and though this year didn’t get them a fourth, they’re all over this list for a reason. This past year may have been their best yet, overall. (See below.)
20. Tmavé 14º | Dark Lager | Cohesion Brewing Co. | Denver, CO | 5.1% ABV
From my Top 40 beers of GABF 2023 list…
Good Lord. Seeing as I hadn’t been in Denver since 2019, this brewery was completely new to me since they only opened in 2021. I’ve never been to a brewery dedicated to traditional Czech-style beers, and now I want to know why there isn’t one within driving distance from my house. This place was an absolute revelation – I could’ve stayed to drink the entire taplist. But this dark lager does everything perfectly, balancing some dark chocolate notes with a little sweet kiss of toffee and a good creamy body before an easy-drinking finish. Taste the decoction!
19. Axis: As Bold As Beer | American brown ale | Werk Force Brewing Company | Plainfield, IL | 6.3% ABV – listen
We all see the dark lager wave coming in the lager tsunami, but we haven’t even considered a brown ale supercluster filling in the remaining areas. I’ve run out of metaphor for the rest of this review, but I want to say that I hope we embrace brown ales and drink them with such frequency to demand regular tap placement. Werk Force’s take goes a little darker than other browns, giving off a mix of chocolate, roasted nut, and piney Cascade hops. The taste is also rich and nutty, somewhat bitter from roast with a grassy hop touch in the end. It’s a bigger flavor for a brown ale, and it’s certainly the best example of the style I had this year.
18. Double Saaz | Italian-Style Pilsner | Hop Butcher for the World | Chicago, IL | 5% ABV – listen
Hop Butcher has undeniably earned the crown of Chicago’s Most Wanted Haze brewery, and now they’re coming for you, pilsner-makers! Well, they likely won’t be churning out 50 new SKUs of pilsner a year, nor do they need to if they just rebrew this and Supreme Being every chance they get. But this is about as good of a locally-made Italian-style Pilsner I’ve had thus far. This is not some over-hopped or amped up take on a pils; this is a crisp, somewhat earthy and grassy, lightly bitter crusher of a pilsner. It smells like a pale malt mash-in happening in the glass with some of the greener Saaz notes giving it aromas of lawnmower clippings and rolling countrysides. It dashes across the palate and ends with a snap. This could be a taproom staple that would please any beer drinker.
17. Sī Fáng | Pale Lager w/ Osmanthus flowers and black tea | Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL | 4.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
Made in collaboration with the QXY dumpling shop, I haven’t yet been lucky enough to give this beer its proper pairing. And apparently when they hold joint events at Off Color, getting those dumplings is fleeting and liable to sell out. But even with no dumplings, this beer absolutely shines and impresses in the way that only Off Color can – by using ingredients you’ve likely never had in a beer. Aromatically, it’s got an aggressively fragrant lemon and apricot note with some Earthier elements like sea salt and a big old pile of dried leaves. Much of the flavor on this is upfront with the citrus and stone fruits giving off a juicy start, but then the flowers and tea leaves take this beer to an extremely dry finish. It’s ultimately a light and drinkable beer, but it’s doing a lot more than that simple descriptor. You’ve got to try this one, and hopefully you get your hands on some dumplings for the pairing.
16. Alt 140 | Altbier | Sew Hop’d Brewery | Huntley, IL | 4.8% ABV – listen
Two months in a row I featured Sew Hop’d beers on my monthly best-of list, and I’d imagine that’s almost as big of an honor as this beer winning its second GABF medal and first gold. (Kidding, of course.) The Altbier is one of those German styles that hasn’t caught a ride on the traditional beer wave that has begun to gather momentum, but I guarantee if more brewers tried this beer, they’d want to make one of their own. Aromatically, it’s roasted walnuts and fresh baked wheat bread. On the flavor, the nuttiness is up front and the flavor hangs around but it still finishes easy. Grab cans of this from Huntley before they have to slap another medal on the next label run.
15. Amberana | Amber ale conditioned on Amburana wood | Maplewood Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 5.6% ABV – listen
We’re predicting that Amburana wood and barrels will become a trendier “premium” treatment for barrel-aged beers in 2024 (and rightfully so because it’s super delicious), so to see Maplewood experiment with a style like this makes me hope more brewers will think of other ways to maximize the unique characters of that particular wood. This beer pours a reddish brown, a bit darker than other ambers with a creamy head that sticks around. Aromatically, it’s woody and smokey, with some cinnamon notes and a tiny bit of caramel sweetness. The first “wow” moment is when you realize how truly drinkable it is for something with such big flavor. It’s a little bit fuller in the mouth and honestly kind of weird at first. The campfire-smoked cinnamon takes over the caramel malt a bit but they work ultimately together to make one of the most lowkey interesting beers of the year.
14. Super Zero | Sparkling hop water w/ Sabro & Nectaron hops | Revolution Brewing | 0.0% ABV – listen
We hope that hop waters are more than a trend and become a viable NA alternative marketed to the craft beer drinker that will blow non-alcoholic beers out of the water. As where most NA beers feel like an imitation, hop water is a playfully unique way of utilizing beer’s best ingredient (controversial take). Revolution leans into two big flavor newer hop varietals in Sabro and Nectaron to provide big hits of citrus, grass, peach, and coconut. It’s very effervescent in the mouth and finishes extremely dry, but a bit of resinous hop character hangs around. The fuller flavor comes from the citrus punch, and this one impresses in its consistency. We even tried blending this with an overly sweet hazy double IPA, and it absolutely salvaged the beer. As someone who has cut out beer consumption during the week and sometimes battles chronic stomach issues, I can’t tell you how satisfying the occasional Super Zero can be when you want something more interesting than water without adding any sugar or calories to the whole ordeal. I’m so grateful this exists.
13. Dark and Down | Schwarzbier | Mickey Finn’s Brewery & Pub | Libertyville, IL | 6% ABV – listen
Mickey Finn’s is Chicagoland’s oldest brewpub, and it has a long history of making award-winning beers. This Schwarzbier won a silver medal at GABF in 2021, and I’m surprised it didn’t repeat the last two years. I drink a lot of schwarzbier and dark lager, and this is a remarkable standout amongst so many others. It pours a deep dark brown with reddish highlights and a tan half-finger of head. In the aroma, it’s roasty coffee, chocolate, and rye caraway seed bread. The flavor highlights the roast coffee with slight bitterness that lingers in the end. The rye almost disappears in the base, but it’s dry, kind of creamy and porter-like up front while finishing like a lager.
12. Third Press | Blend of barrel-aged stout, barleywine, and honey Munichwine | Private Press Brewing | Santa Cruz, CA | 15% ABV – listen
I’m a wife guy for my podcast partner, as I really just warm up with appreciation when I think about all the luxuries Craig has laid at my manicured feet on account of this podcast. For example, we each drank four bottles of beer from the members-only Private Press helmed by barrel-genius Brad Clark, and each beer was more stunning than the last. This crazy 3rd anniversary blend smells of nuttiness with bourbon richness. It’s full of dark chocolate, molasses, cherries, fig, raisins, brown sugar, caramel, tobacco, vanilla and anise. In the flavor, it hits a peak with notes of cola, malted milk balls, and cherry juice. Then it catches a second wave of bourbon and vanilla and stops just short of being sweet. I don’t deserve you, Craig!
11. El Petito | Double barrel blonde barleywine aged in rye whiskey and French apricot brandy barrels | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 14% ABV – listen
Even though it was pretty special to begin with, this beer grew on me. Having a second can a month after the first, I re-evaluated my overall Luchador rankings and would put this one on top. The aroma is summer brandy cocktail, sweet stonefruit, red grapes, and toasted oak. In the flavor, it still has that caramel barleywine character up front before it turns towards sweeter cranberry, apricot, and lambrusco. It’s a barleywine but also a summer sangria cocktail? Whichever – it’s absolutely addicting to sip on, and I don’t think I finished a can of barrel-aged beer as fast as this one all year. There were so many stars in this year’s Luchador lineup (as per usual), but I think this is the one I’ll be hoping to see return most.
10. Inkhorn | Oak-lagered Munichwine | Supermoon Beer Company & Eagle Park Brewing Company | Milwaukee, WI | 10.6% ABV
Not to namedrop in another brewery’s review, but Craig talked with Brad Clark from Private Press this year, and it was my introduction to the Munichwine style. As far as we know, Brad dreamed up a Munich malt-led take on a barleywine while on a run with his dog, and now a few other breweries have caught on to make their own version. Enter the absolute geniuses at Supermoon who have been making incredible oak saisons out of their Milwaukee house brewery for a couple of years now. This take on a Munichwine, made with their local friends from Eagle Park, is a love letter to the caramel and bread crust-forward malt hit with a bit of soft molasses and oak char. It’s a stunning beer to sip and hopefully the first of many Munichwines to come.
9. Rascal King | English Pub Ale | Flipside Brewing | Tinley Park, IL | 4.8% ABV
This relatively-new suburban brewpub is headed up by craft beer industry veteran Erik Pizer, who in the last decade has made great beer at 350, Rock Bottom, and Milk Money – just to name a few. From my experience, he can brew just about any style well, but he has a passion for making some of the more drinkable ales and lagers traditional to Europe. This Pub Ale (or ESB?) is fresh wheat bread, light caramel, and flower petals. If he ever invests in a cask engine, he’s going to need two, because this beer deserves a permanent spot on the hand pump.
8. Medianoche: Amburana Vanilla Luar | Imperial stout aged in Old Rip and Amburana barrels w/ vanilla | WeldWerks Brewing Co. | 13.7% ABV – listen
The Medianoche series is the model of thick dark decadence, each variant adding layers of sweet adjunct to an already almost syrupy blended barrel-aged base stout. Somehow this one is a bit different, and it feels as if it was constructed to be both more pronounced and more balanced than other variants in the series. Aromatically, it’s smokey up front with some campfire notes and s’mores-like character accentuated by some spicy cinnamon, and burnt marshmallow. It comes together immediately in the flavor with bitter dark chocolate up front, a middle of sweet vanilla marshmallows followed by a dusting of cinnamon and ending with a little bit of smoke, caramel, tobacco, and leathery oak bourbon barrel.
7. Goofy Boots | Hazy IPA | Penrose Brewing Company | Geneva, IL | 7% ABV – listen
This year, we blind-tasted our way through about 25 “flagship” Hazy IPAs from local brewers. It helped us better understand what we look for in an exemplar of this style and further appreciate when done extremely well. Goofy Boots is a multiple GABF medal-winning beer, and that’s not all that surprising when you get a chance to taste it blind like we did. The aroma is big on citrus, tropical fruits, and grass. The flavor brings out the pithiness of the orange, and the tropical fruits give off something like passionfruit. It’s still a bit bitter and dry in the end, keeping this beer from ever getting sweet. It came out on top in our whole flagship hazy IPA blind championship, so it deserves its spot as the best hazy IPA I had this year.
6. Magnetron | Schwarzbier | Metropolitan Brewing | Chicago, IL | 5.2% ABV
From our November Monthly Sampler:
We can’t possibly overstate Metropolitan’s influence on Chicago beer. 15 years ago, you could ostensibly sample a beer from each Chicago craft brewery in one sitting and still be sober enough to play a full seven innings of 16-inch softball. Thanks to the fearless folks at Metropolitan, who have stubbornly championed lagers and traditional German styles since their inception, a whole generation of homebrewers took their inspiration to the professional level, leading to the founding of hundreds of Chicagoland breweries. The sad reality is that number is now shrinking due to a whole mess of unforeseen (and some foreseen) circumstances, and Metropolitan’s closing announcement devastated every experienced Chicago craft enthusiast. This Schwarzbier is one of the best around, simply put, as is just about anything else brewed by Metropolitan. We celebrate the memory of Metropolitan while also acknowledging the profound sense of loss we feel around the closing of a true Chicago beer institution. We wish them all the best in the coming year and beyond.
5. Oaked Val D’Or | Oak Fermented Belgian-Style Pale Ale | Hidden Hand/Solemn Oath Brewery | Naperville, IL | 6.9 % ABV – listen
There will always be a contingent of FoBAB attendees that will scoff at anything other than a stout or barleywine winning Best of Show. And in no way is this a pretentious indictment of “the state of craft beer” – I think it’s simply a lot harder to adjust your palate from chocolate and peanut butter stout to appreciating a more nuanced and funky wild when you’re bouncing from table to table, three-ounce glass to three-ounce glass. Removing this beer from the context of FoBAB (which is still an absolutely wonderful event, in our opinion) brought tremendous clarity to the reasons for its big win. There have been many Orval tribute beers, but this one nails the fruity esters, peppery phenols, and funky wet hay while layering on some tannic barrel oak resulting in notes of gooseberry before a perfectly dry finish. It’s a stunning accomplishment of a beer and one that deserves its place in FoBAB lore.
4. Sweet Drams | Double mash imperial stout aged in Pappy 15 bourbon barrels | Mikerphone Brewing | Elk Grove Village, IL | 18.89% ABV – listen
It’s no secret that Mikerphone is making some of the best beer around, but the way they’ve upped their straight barrel-aged beer game is extremely promising for 2024. Their Slappa Da Base and “Pick of Destiny” beers are other examples, but this beer in particular did everything I look for in a straight barrel-aged stout. The emphasis here is on the special barrel, and the aroma gives a heavenly combination of fresh-baked snickerdoodle, chocolate cake, and coconut aminos. In the flavor, there’s a surprising amount of dark fruits with cherry and blackberry up front. Surprisingly, there’s almost no sweetness – it’s smooth oaky vanilla, leather, and caramel. There’s some burn at first that smooths out with each sip, touched by a bit of baking spices and a little bitter dark chocolate. This is stunning bourbon stout perfection in a bottle.
3. Double Barrel V.S.O.D. | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 17.9% ABV – listen
The Deep Wood series continues to be the most consistent lineup of barrel-aged beers around, and you can count on each year’s Double Barrel variant to be the biggest flex of them all. This robust and deeply rich stout bursts forth with aromas of chocolate, caramel, dark fruits, wine grapes, coconut aminos, and a little spicy bourbon barrel. In the taste, it is boozy up front with fudge cake brownie sweetness at the start. It smooths out to a rich and silky end, with lingering notes of chocolate buttercream, black cherry, plum, pipe tobacco, and vanilla bean. This is another brilliant example of Revolution knowing their barrels and showing great patience to ensure a complex blend that marries rich flavor with remarkable smoothness.
2. 30th Anniversary Quadruple | Belgian Quadrupel | New Glarus Brewing Co. | New Glarus, WI | 10.5% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
There are few breweries that can confidently make a Quad on par with the Belgian masters, and New Glarus is certainly one of them. This celebratory beer is a testament to the Careys and their decades of masterful craft with German, Belgian, and American styles – and it serves as a reminder that there’s really no other brewery like New Glarus in the whole country. This pours from the can with a large, creamy head, translucent garnet red and brown colors in the glass. Aromatically, it is reminiscent of Christmas punch with cranberry, citrus, baked pears, apples, currants, banana, allspice, peppercorn, rye bread, and vanilla extract. The full mouthfeel is almost creamy in texture, and the flavor carries all the way through the sip. There’s a bit of booze in the finish that you don’t feel after the third sip, and the flavor gives off more notes of banana, berries, cloves, brandy, and raisins. This is truly a stunning example of a Quad – one of the best American examples I’ve ever had.
1. Vienna-Style Lager | Vienna Lager | Goldfinger Brewing Company | Downers Grove, IL | 5.5% ABV – listen
Sometimes the beer you love most has been there in front of you, all along. In no less than five visits to the taproom and patio this year, I started with this beer – and in some cases, I just kept re-ordering it. In just a few years, Goldfinger has established themselves as maybe the steadiest hand in lager locally. They don’t make a ton of different beers, but I’m always impressed with how many different specific or experimental takes on lagers they manage to bring to life. I’ve enjoyed every single beer of theirs I’ve had, but I am a sucker for a malt-forward traditional lager. This one is exactly that with toasted wafer, wheat bread crust, crushed flower petals, and a little herbal bite on an absolutely living mouthfeel. The canned version is a surprisingly good translation of how it tastes on tap, but if you can get to the taproom for a pour, get ready to ask for another.