2018 was a great year for sampling beer. There were plenty of highlights, but here are the best beers that were new to me last year.
1) Revolution Brewing, Chicago
Vanilla Deth Barrel-Aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout
My favorite beer of 2018. Revolution nailed the barrel-aged coffee stout this year with Café Deth, a perfect balance of big coffee, booze and a hint of vanilla. But Vanilla Deth took it up a notch. Hand-split vanilla beans provide a flavor that’s prevalent but not cloying — there’s no odd or oily vanilla extract flavor here — and oats lend a pleasant smoothness to the stout. Revolution has clearly upped the ante when it comes to barrel aging. If you want the chance to try Vanilla Deth, head to The Brass Tap (7808 W. Layton Ave.) on Friday, Jan. 18. The bar will be pouring some (along with quite a few other rarities) during its fourth anniversary party.
2) Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, MI
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Expedition Russian Imperial Stout
Expedition is a pretty amazing beer before it’s aged in bourbon barrels for a year. The barrel adds a perfect hint of booze to the rich stout that has plenty of dark chocolate flavor and a more dark fruit than I expect from an imperial stout. I’m curious how this will age, but I’m having a hard time not finishing the four-pack I bought in the fall.
3) Goose Island Brewing, Chicago
Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout
Initially, this Bourbon County variant sounded like a bad idea to me. Who knew that adding orange zest to a barrel-aged stout would work so well? The dark chocolate flavor of the stout plays nicely with the orange flavor. Cheers to the brewers at Goose Island for taking the gamble.
4) Hop Butcher for the World, Darien, IL
Old School Hawaii Vibes IPA
I know, the milkshake IPA is an easy target for craft beer aficionados who find the style gimmicky. I don’t always like their richness, but this one included a ton of deliciousness. The addition of pineapple, coconut, vanilla and lactose to this one makes it a tasty sipper. Hop Butcher is making too many great IPAs to list but this one stood out.
5) Horus Aged Ales, Oceanside, CA
Deepest Shade Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
My favorite at the Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers was an amazingly creamy stout. It combined subtle sweetness with hints of chocolate and coffee. It stood out in a crowd of barrel-aged brews at the fest.
6) Maplewood Brewery, Chicago
Moonfruit American IIPA
Chicago brewers have established themselves as pretty adept when crafting hazy IPAs. Maplewood has mastered the juicier styles, and Moonfruit is a prime example. It’s made with Galaxy, Simcoe and Citra hops and trades bitterness for big fruit flavor. The beer is a dangerous easy drinker and hides its 8.2% ABV pretty well.
7) Tree House Brewing Company, Charlton, MA
Doppelgänger Imperial IPA
I ended 2018 with a trip to Boston and a trip through my brother’s well-stocked beer fridge. There were plenty of amazing Tree House options to choose from but Doppelgänger was my favorite. It was big on juicy fruit flavor, but it was perfectly balanced so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the haze.
8) Trillium Brewing Company, Boston
Double Raspberry Lineage Wheat American Wild Saison
Trillium may be known as one of the best in the business when it comes to hazy IPAs. But this limited beauty, aged in oak barrels, shows they’re no one-trick pony. The brew has just raspberry and the oak aging mellows the tartness some. It’s an extremely well-made wild saison.
Full disclosure, it’s become much more difficult to try every local beer release. Because of that, I didn’t get a chance to sample brews like Good City Density Barrel-Aged Stout, Sprecher XII Dragons Barrel-Aged Quad, a few of the 1840 Brewing releases, barrel-aged creations from Raised Grain or some other well-crafted local beers that may have made the list. Local breweries are making plenty of really good beers, and that’s a trend that I’m happy to see.
Down the Road Apiece IPA with Strawberry and Pineapple
My introduction to Component Brewing was a good one. The new brewery does several styles very well, but this one was a standout. I’m sure this hazy IPA is good enough on its own, but the fruity additions add complexity, and not necessarily sweetness, to the beer. The hint of strawberry (I got more of that flavor than pineapple) is refreshing but not overwhelming. I could see drinking a few of these on a warm day.
Goon Juice IPA
Eagle Park has proven itself to be the best brewer of hazy IPAs in Milwaukee (Tony Had Hair in the 90s was a close second to Goon Juice as my favorite local hazy IPA in 2018). I liked the fact that Goon Juice is big on juicy New England IPA flavor, but finishes with a touch of resinous hops. Eagle Park deserves credit for that.
TEOTWAWKI Barrel-Aged Brown Ale
Brewer Matt Hofmann’s creation — made with sweet potatoes, molasses and pecans — took home a silver medal in the experimental category at FoBAB. The dark amber brew earned it. It’s a smooth pour with a hint of vanilla sweetness and just the right amount of booze. Keep an eye on Hofmann, who has plans to open Sahale Ale Works in Grafton this summer.
Mystic Knot Barrel-Aged Irish Coffee Stout
The creamy coffee flavor of this whiskey barrel-aged stout made it a stand out among Third Space’s well-crafted barrel-aged brews. Mystic Knot, along with the outstanding Nexpresso Russian Imperial Stout, makes it clear that Third Space creates barrel-aged coffee stouts better than anyone in the area.