Top 10 Beers of 2018 from Beer Critic GT Wharton
This year’s list is limited to all-new recipes that debuted from November 2017 to November 2018. Enjoy!
10. Firestone Walker Lager
This year, Firestone Walker (Paso Robles, CA) resurrected their pale lager from 2000 that was discontinued in 2007. This year’s reincarnation is an updated recipe, though, and really impressed in the details. Firestone Lager has a “beautiful aroma of frosted lemon pound cake and orange blossom honey. Digging in, flavors center on white bread and cereal grains with balancing saltwater.” “FW Lager still shines in the mouthfeel department with a super light body, lively carbonation, and touches of sourdough acidity in the back end, all which give this a clean, crisp, refreshing quality.” But more important than the beer itself was the signaling from a nationally distributed brand that American craft beer consumers may be ready to welcome pale lager back into their vocabulary. Read my full review here.
9. Revolution Café Deth
Revolution (Chicago, IL) released several strong ales this year in 4-packs of 12oz cans. These Deep Woods Series beers would normally warrant $40 per single 750mL bottle dipped in hot wax. Revolution has done a public service to the craft beer world by throwing that convention out the window and making these accessible in a smaller, realistic format. I was a big fan of every single Deep Woods Series beer I tried this year and did formal write-ups for V.S.O.J. and Code Switch. But Café Deth was my favorite. This is a barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout with freshly roasted whole bean coffee from Dark Matter Coffee Roasters. From my review, “The coffee version just explodes with blueberry, black cherry, dark rum, and chocolate chip cookie dough. There’s incredible depth with a zillion other aromas.” “I’m about halfway through the glass, and this beer is just crazy intense. Between the mega dose of caffeine and nearly 15% ABV, it’s like the chocolate dessert version of a vodka Redbull. Something so potent shouldn’t taste this delicious.” Read my full review here.
8. Stone I’m Peach Double IPA
Stone (Escondido, CA) debuted several new IPAs this year including an entire series, the Hop Worship Series. These were solid, but too predictable and fell into a rut. Fruit IPAs seem to Stone’s specialty of late with Tangerine Express being the best one in my opinion. Political innuendo aside, I’m Peach was seriously delicious. “[The aroma is] sweeter and richer than expected with peach cobbler, pie crust, vanilla, and brings a thick scoop of dried apricot and golden raisin. As it warms, beautiful grain comes through like brown sugar oatmeal coupled with fumy white alcohol that builds to something similar to white rum.” “Leathery dried apricot, golden raisins, and sweeter canned peach dominate the front of the palate while silky smooth oatmeal and Hawaiian rolls take over for the mid-palate and finish. It’s incredibly drinkable for an 8.8% Double IPA.” Read my full review here.
7. Moksa Brewing The Lush
Moksa Brewing (Rocklin, CA) itself is all-new for 2018, Derek Gallanosa’s newest project after leaving Abnormal Beer Co. in San Diego. The Lush is their imperial stout with vanilla beans, pecan, and cacao nibs. Well, let me elaborate. From the official description, “After fermentation, we hand toasted 6 lbs/bbl worth of pecans and ran the beer through it alongside a couple hundred vanilla beans and 2 lbs/bbl of cacao nibs for multiple days.” From my review, “Initially, the aroma is muted with black olive, tar, and semisweet chocolate poking through. But as this beer opens up, you get blackberries, graham cracker, toasted marshmallow, and fresh cinnamon roll with vanilla frosting. It’s inviting and multidimensional.” “Hefty background bitterness is perhaps bolstered by the cacao nibs and pecans addition, which gives the beer a tannic structure similar to Cabernet wine. Add dark berry flavors into the mix like blueberry and blackberry, and you have this wonderful symphony that seems to side skirt the typical flavor profile of these ‘pastry stouts’ such as chocolate chip cookie or pecan pie. Waxy 80% cacao dark chocolate bar dominates throughout and only once the beer has reached room temperature do you finally get some pecan brownie flavors.” Read my full review here.
6. Gänstaller Bräu Kellerbier Traditionell
Gänstaller Bräu makes some of Germany’s best traditional lagers. Located in Hallerndorf in the Franconia region of Germany (north of Bavaria and directly west of Pilsen, Czech Republic), Gänstaller has consistently wowed pale lager enthusiasts including Michael James and Manuele Colonna, the owner and manager of Italy’s top craft beer bar, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’. The two collaborated on a book, Birra in Franconia, on the subject matter. Manuele even organizes a Franconian beer festival in Rome each year, FrankenBierFest. Through these two, I’ve grown to appreciate Franconian lagers. Currently, pilsners and their Kellerbier and Zwicklbier siblings are my favorite styles of beer.
During a trip to Rome this year, I stopped into Ma Che several times to try different lagers on tap sourced from Franconia. Two excellent lagers from Elch-Bräu couldn’t make the list as they were not new recipes for 2018. Luckily, Gänstaller modified their 2018 recipe for their Kellerbier, which is a pilsner-like pale lager that is usually unfiltered, unpasteurized, and traditionally wooden cask cellared. This year’s version ditches previous years’ Mandarina Bavaria aroma hops and uses solely Hallertauer Tradition hops, thus the name. This Kellerbier was outrageously hoppy with potent, grassy bitterness and a ridiculous quenching ability like Gatorade. It was perhaps the “cleanest” beer I’ve ever tried with an evaporative quality in the nanosecond-long aftertaste. Imagine getting your hop fix but not having to deal with the chewy, heavy base beer and lingering aftertaste that define American hoppy beers? This Kellerbier was the best I’ve had to date.
5. Other Half We’ve Been Out There in Orbit w/ Almonds, Cinnamon & Vanilla
Just for the sake of your eyes, I will call this “Orbit” from now on. There are many versions of Orbit out there, this was just my favorite version of the ones I was able to try this year while visiting Other Half in Brooklyn, NY. Even though Other Half is famous for their hazy IPAs, I’m officially over them for 2018. This style has fallen into a rut with 9 out of 10 tasting nearly identical to each other. It’s impossible for me at this stage to pick apart the magic of, say, Other Half’s hazy IPAs vs. relatively unknown breweries in my area that excel at the style like Boomtown, Highland Park, Burgeon, Pure Project, and dozens of others. I had more fun with Other Half’s fruited Berliner Weisses this year. But their imperial stouts impressed me the most. From my review, the aroma is an “interesting mix of marzipan, dark chocolate orange, and Belgian praline.” “[Orbit] glides around in the mouth with no alcohol sting or sticky sweetness despite this being a “triple” stout at 14.5%. Flavors of Ferrero Rocher blend with hefty vanilla bean, though this vanilla addition is well-integrated and doesn’t cloy in the way vanilla seems to do with most other beers I encounter.” The base stout for Orbit is exquisite with a whipped, mousse-like texture. It may be the greatest mouthfeel I’ve ever experienced in any beer period. Here’s my full review.
Deschutes (Bend, OR) has struggled for a long time with IPAs. Even some new releases have resorted to outdated amber IPA recipes loaded with aggressive walnut and citrus peel-centered bitterness. Some have even been brown-colored! Chasin’ Freshies does a 180 from those. This year’s version uses freshly-harvested Strata hops, which I had never experienced before. For the grain bill, it’s pilsner malt and flaked oats only. The aroma is “bright and well-integrated with pink lemonade, pomelo, freshly-cut grass, and wet sourdough with a big yeasty character. If I didn’t know this was a fresh hop IPA, I would maybe think I was smelling a hoppy Belgian blonde ale like De Ranke XX Bitter.” “This beer has almost a lager-like cleanliness to the mouthfeel. There’s ample sugar left in this beer to nicely balance out some spicy, resinous hop oils that give the beer some powerful but not overbearing bitterness.” “White crystalline sugar, white grapefruit sections, lemongrass, and frosted pound cake round out the primary flavors. You get a rich, coating mouthfeel throughout the experience thanks to ample oils from the fresh hops used plus the oats addition.” This is tied with Pacific Wonderland Lager for my favorite beer ever from Deschutes. Read my full review here.
3. Horus Aged Ales Goshawk’s Grasp
Among beer nerds, Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside, CA) may be the most hyped “brewery” of 2018. I say that in quotes because Horus is more like a proto-brewery and passion project of one person, Kyle Harrop. I have only had one beer from Horus to date, and it was the hands-down winner of our blind tasting earlier this year. Goshawk’s Grasp utilizes three pounds of roasted hazelnuts per gallon and a pound of ultra high-end Geisha coffee per BBL. The aroma brings you a “symphony of German chocolate cake. There’s ample toasted coconut, dark chocolate, and also a sweeter and buttery ganache frosting.” “As it warms up to room temperature, dark alcohol fumes penetrate to produce something like Bailey’s Irish Cream, amaretto, and Godiva liquor.” “Burnt sugars dominate the front of the palate moving on to waxy dark chocolate block with sweet fudge and vanilla.” Read the full review here.
2. New Belgium Brut IPA
This was the biggest surprise of 2018 for me. Not only have I been dubious about Brut IPA from the beginning, but I also haven’t had a showstopping beer from New Belgium for several years. NB’s Brut IPA nails the modern, clear IPA in every sense. It has a simplified grain bill of just pale 2-row and pilsner malt. It then utilizes some of the best hop varietals available today: Nelson Sauvin, Citra, Hüll Melon, and Azacca. “there’s an immediate wallop of intense aromatic hops that screams Citra to me. It’s seriously impressive with some of the best hop notes you can ask for: lemon balm, candied lime, ripe papaya, gooseberry, white grape…it’s phenomenal.” “It’s bright, super clean, utilizes zero specialty malt, and produces such a quenching, vibrant beer that seems to have been materialized from a dream of mine. Pale and pilsner malt only generate this fresh, fluffy biscuit base flavor. Carbonation is powerful providing an aerated mouthfeel. There’s also some saltiness to the beer that gives it buoyancy and bolsters its refreshing nature.” Apart from their sours, this is the best beer I’ve had from New Belgium. Read the full review here.
1. Jester King SPON Muscat 2017
Hold up, a 2017 beer in this list!? Exactly. Jester King’s (Austin, TX) spontaneously fermented sour ale with muscat grapes debuted in late December 2017, which qualifies for this list. Realistically, most sour beer lovers didn’t get to taste this beer until 2018. I wanted to put two sour beers from Jester King on my Top 10 list, but I wanted to diversify the group a bit more. Their collaboration with Bruery Terreux called Sacred Vessel was another favorite beer of mine this year. It was odd, cutting edge, and tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. But SPON Muscat was easily my favorite beer of 2018. This is a “blend of one-year-old 100% spontaneously fermented beer refermented with Muscat grapes.” After being inoculated with native microflora in a coolship, the beer is left to spontaneously ferment in oak barrels. It’s the same process as authentic Belgian lambic. “The aroma gives you a vibrant mix of white grapefruit, pineapple, nectarine, starfruit, and dripping ripe strawberry. Saltwater, wet dough, and lime blossom honey couple with the fruit juices to give you an incredibly complex mix that I can’t do justice in words. There’s also a touch of savoriness to the aroma that I can’t quite describe. It’s slightly smokey and definitely salty with a phenolic note and almost tennis ball aroma you get with Reisling grapes.” “SPON Muscat takes a world classic like Cantillon Vigneronne and has somehow softened up the edges and redirected the focus from acid to tannin. Overall acidity is shockingly low, 4/10 overall, which allows you to really enjoy the beer in large gulps with no trepidation.” “To call it world-class is an understatement. This is world-beating and should be on the must-try list for any sour ale enthusiast. I confidently place this is my personal Top 50 list.” Here’s my full review.
The Full Pint is a fully independent website dedicated to bringing you the highest quality reviews of today’s craft beer. Our team has no financial conflicts of interest with the beer industry in order to give you the least biased information out there in today’s craft beer world. Please use the comment section below for general comments about this beer and/or our review. If you would like to see a specific beer reviewed or have general comments on reviews, please email info(at)thefullpint.com. For more information on how we review beer read here.