No one ever reads the introductions to lists like this, which is why I am writing the exact same thing that I wrote last year
— because no one will notice. And that's okay — I don't generally read the intros, either. But just in case: Here's how I came up with my list of thirty amazing 2018 beers. First, I am only one man, and I can only try so many beers and breweries each year. I can't sample them all, no matter how hard I try. So this list reflects the beers and breweries that I actually managed to squeeze in. Second, it's a mix of packaged beers and taproom beers. I used to do a list of the best new packaged beers of the year, but that designation no longer has much meaning these days, when any beer can be quickly canned or bottled or Crowlered by even the smallest brewery and shipped out the door. Last, while many of these beers are new — either making their debut in 2018 or making it into distribution for the first time in 2018 — others are simply new to me. Mostly, this list reflects some outstanding examples of the depth and breadth of what Colorado's breweries are doing. Cheers.
The Light and Bright
Try one or try them all at Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers.
Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers
There's no way to truly explain the joys of Alex Liberati's wine/beer hybrids — which he calls oenobeers — without tasting them. They are just that confoundingly unusual and refreshingly surprising. I got a chance to try more than fifteen of them before and after the brewery opened, and my favorite was Ipse Dixit, an imperial saison brewed with 44 percent Chardonnay grapes. Bursting with fresh flowers, some spiciness and an effervescent freshness, it was like nothing I have ever tasted.
Cerveceria Colorado (Denver Beer Co.)
Cerveceria Colorado burst out of the gates this year as one of the most interesting concepts to hit the Denver beer scene. It's an offshoot of Denver Beer Co. (located next door) that serves beers made with Mexican ingredients (most brewed in collaboration with Mexican breweries) and a healthy dose of inclusive attitudes to counter the wall-building attitude of the White House. And while there are going to be undertones of cultural appropriation with a concept like this, the earnestness of the owners is clear — and the beers are great. My favorite so far was Horchata Blonde (done in collaboration with Cerveceria San Pascual Baylon in Cholula, Mexico). It's a creamy, easy-drinking beer brewed with rice, lactose sugar, flaked wheat, cinnamon and vanilla, which mimic the flavors in a classic Mexican horchata.
Bull & Bush Brewery
A blonde ale that drinks more like a cream ale, Temporary Paradise is just that — a vacation for your tastebuds. Smooth and balanced, it has a light, creamy mouthfeel, but with a gentle pop. It's loaded with coconut, but not in a cloying or artificial way. Rather, it's like closing your eyes and letting a tropical breeze wash over you.
The Tart and Funky
Divide Ethos Coolship #001
Paradox Beer Company
I haven't had as many Paradox beers as I probably should have, but I got to try this one at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, and it blew me away. Brewed with malted barley, raw wheat and aged hops, the beer was then transferred into an open-topped vessel called a coolship, where naturally occurring yeast and microbes were allowed to inoculate the liquid as it cooled overnight. The result was a beer that managed to be light, drinkable and straightforward while boasting an underlying subtle complexity full of oak and fruit flavors.
Friends of Friends of Friends
Primitive Beer Company
In Belgium, certain breweries sometimes transfer sour lambic beers straight from wooden aging vessels to tanks and then directly into kegs or even plastic bags. The beers are served flat, fresh and cheap. They're a drink for the masses rather than just the educated few — and Primitive Beers in Longmont brought the idea to Colorado in 2018 as one of the most novel breweries in the state. Early on, I got a chance to enjoy a couple of these, specifically Friends of Friends of Friends, a spontaneously fermented flat sour beer aged with peaches.
Briar Common Brewery + Eatery
This beer shouldn't have worked, couldn't have worked. But somehow it captivated me with its unusual blend of rich chocolate and almost coffee-like notes and tart fruit flavors. A wild-yeast stout, it fooled the palate but also came together smoothly, like a chocolate bar with tart passion fruit cream in the middle.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing
Our Mutual Friend never rests when it comes to experimentation and toying with yeast and ingredients. This beer, brewed in honor of OMF's anniversary, was aged with peaches and brettanomyces yeast and combines a variety of flavors and aromas that come together seamlessly. Sweet peach juice plays off the funky brett to create a lovely, flowery drinkability. Gratitude Five was an almost gentle beer that seemed like it was going to be hard to get to know but turned out to be like a long-lost friend.
Cellar West Artisan Ales
Cellar West burst onto the scene in 2017 with some lovely and unusual beers. And Colorado took notice: The brewery moved from Boulder to much larger digs in Lafayette just a few weeks ago. Aquarius was probably my favorite of the saisons I tried there, possibly because I'm a sucker for hoppy Brett beers. This one was brewed with pilsner and Munich malt, flaked oats and spelt, which helped smooth out and balance the lovely doses of El Dorado and Huell Melon hops. Barrel aging with wild yeast lent the funky finishing touches.
Funk Yo Couch
Wiley Roots Brewing
Wiley Roots does many things well. But it has gotten special attention for its mixed-culture program, a lineup of beers using wild yeast and bacteria and then aged in oak or stainless steel. The pinnacle of this program is Funk Yo Couch, a series of wild saisons, each made with a different hop variety. I got to try the Galaxy hop variety — and it was outstanding, bringing together luscious, tropical hops with a citrusy tang and enough sour funk to stimulate the salivary glands without overloading them.
Oktoberfest German-Style Lager
It’s a rare feat for a brewery to enter an already crowded market for a beer style and immediately crush it. But that’s what Ska Brewing did with its Oktoberfest, which was canned and distributed for the first time in 2018. Not only did this malty brew — nutty, clean and with a just a touch of rounded sweetness — manage to set itself apart in a category that already includes a wide variety of stellar examples of Vienna-style lagers, especially in Colorado, but it won gold at the Great American Beer Festival.
Netflix and Pils
Cannonball Creek Brewing
With a great name and crystal-clear appearance, Netflix and Pils shook things up at the Great American Beer Festival in 2018 by taking home a gold medal in the Bohemian-style pilsner category. Notable more for its white spaces that what has been filled in, the beer is obviously light and delicate while being refreshingly easy to drink. Clean and gently spicy, it wowed the crowds again at the Shelton Brothers Festival.
A Czech-style keller pils, Cold starts with a dry cracker-crust flavor that gives way to a flowery, almost fruity interior that dances off the tongue before disappearing. Clear and golden and much more flavorful than some other beers of its style, it drinks so quickly that it will be gone before you've had a chance to nod to the bartender.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
Like TRVE's Cold, Von Pilsner isn't a new beer, but it was new to me, and it was a revelation. Grassy, crisp and aromatic, this unfiltered keller pils was brewed with "super-soft water, traditional floor-malted barley and... German hops," the brewery says, and it was a crushable time machine into what I imagine it would have been like to enjoy these beers in Eastern Europe a century ago.
The Dark Stuff
Hisolda Irish Coffee Cream Stout
Woods Boss Brewing
I take my coffee with cream and sugar, which is probably why I find that the vast majority of coffee beers taste like I’m chewing on a couple of bitter beans. Hisolda Irish Cream Stout, on the other hand, is a coffee beer with cream and sugar, and was the perfect combination. Brewed with roasted malts and Irish coffee beans, that bitterness was offset by lactose sugar, giving the beer a creamy, almost dessert-like quality and a velvety softness on the palate.
Quadruple Barrel Big Bad Baptist
Epic's line of Big Bad Baptist beers have been, in my opinion, underrated and overlooked in recent years as some sexier big beers have taken the spotlight. But it has been outstanding in all of its iterations, and the recent, most over-the-top version, Quadruple Barrel Big Bad Baptist, is no exception. Brewed with coconut, almonds and coffee beans (all of which were aged in whiskey barrels), the base beer, a coffee imperial stout, was also aged in rum and whiskey barrels. All of these flavors come together like a perfectly baked brownie, with some distinctively sweet flavors and a nuttiness that rounds it out. Although the whiskey is stronger here than in some of Epic's other Baptist beers, it isn't overwhelming by any means, giving just enough to warm you up.
It was hard to pick my favorite from among Cerebral's always stellar series of rich pastry stouts. Under the Stars was a lovely s'mores beer, while Boss Fight was rich and complex, and barrel-aged Ancient Ruins was good beyond words (but so limited that it wouldn't be fair to include). But the standout for me this year was Personal Day, an absolutely luscious, dream-like liquid. The beer begins life as Work from Home, Cerebral's maple-coffee porter. It is then aged for twelve months in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels and conditioned on more coffee, along with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans and cassia bark. The results were magical.
Snowed In Coconut
Copper Kettle Brewing
It's very simple. This amazing brew was like a truffle dipped in light coconut milk and then dusted in hot chocolate powder. Velvety sweet at 12 percent ABV, Snowed In is an imperial oatmeal stout aged in Breckenridge Bourbon barrels with coffee. And no chocolate, surprisingly: Instead, the brewer roasted 300 pounds of raw coconut flakes at a friend's pizza shop prior to adding them to the beer.
Some beers are desert-island beers, and some are dessert
-island beers. Twenty-Five from Avery might fit into both categories. Brewed in honor of Avery's 25th anniversary, this Belgian-style oak-aged dark ale was packed with honey, dates and raisins — and it harked back to Avery's bygone days, when it would make crazy-big spins on already over-the-top Belgian-style beers. I tried to save a bottle, but there was no chance.
Smooth and silky, Coconut Medianoche hits your tastebuds as if that’s what hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution were designed to enjoy — an almost perfect flavor. WeldWerks has had trouble getting its bottled batches right every time, but the versions that worked were pure enchantment. Beer experts have written many words about WeldWerks Brewing this year, and this beer truly deserves the praise.
Styles come and go, but few have caught on as quickly as the enigmatic Brut IPA. A difficult style to capture, the worst versions I had this year were overly dry and tasteless, like a stale biscuit. The best, like Ska’s style-defining Moral Panic, were less dry, well-hopped and carried just a hint of effervescent sweetness.
Wit’s End Brewing/Strange Craft
Close your eyes. Now, reach (carefully) for your glass. What do you taste? Bursts of citrusy sweetness, tropical, juicy notes, a softness around the edges. Must be a New England-style IPA, right? Now open your eyes. Uh-oh. That beer is clear. Tyler Bies, the brewer for both Strange Craft and Wit’s End, has created a beer that managed to capture the smooth body, low bitterness and juicy flavors of a NEIPA with a clear look. Brewed with oats, Citra and Amarillo hops, Scrumtrulescent is a "Modern IPA," Wit's End says, that could set a new benchmark.
Novel Strand Brewing
Balanced and elegant, with an easy likability, Tamir Danon’s beers are like finding out that the star high school quarterback is actually a really cool, really woke guy — and he wants to hang out with you. Green Showers, the new brewery's house IPA, doesn’t try to be too much, and in doing so, it is more than enough. The beer is brewed with Amarillo, Idaho 7, Huell Melon and Mosaic hops, and you could put down three of them without realizing just how smooth and delicious it tastes.
There's nothing subtle about a burner phone. You use it for a very specific purpose. And there's nothing subtle about Cerebral's 8 percent ABV Burner Phone Double IPA, either. Brewed with "an exceedingly simple malt bill," the brewery says, it is used to pack as much hops into your face as possible — and quickly. Which is why I loved it. Loaded with Galaxy and Mosaic, this beer was a show of force by a brewery that knows its hops.
Pay It Forward
New Image Brewing
For whatever reason, Pay It Forward didn't get as much attention of some of New Image's other beers this year, but it was my favorite IPA from the brewery. The version I had was double dry hopped with Citra, Eukanot and Columbus, and it boasted huge juicy flavor and a burly balance. For every four-pack, New Image donated $1 to Project Helping, a nonprofit organization "that employs the power of purpose and volunteering to facilitate well-being and mental wellness," the brewery says.
River North Brewery
River North Brewery has remade itself from a purveyor of fantastic Belgian-style beers and barrel-aged novelties into a brewery that does all of that — plus is one of the best brewers of New England-style IPAs in Colorado. Last year they debuted a fun series of Sunday one-off hazies. My favorite of those I tried was this big double IPA brewed with oats, wheat and lactose, and hopped with Mosaic, Simcoe and Idaho 7. It was absolutely stellar.
Great Divide Brewing
Great Divide knocked it out of the park with this beer — and it was a much-needed score for a brewery that has been looking to hoist itself into the modern era, both with its styles and its packaging. Loaded with nearly six pounds per barrel of Citra, Mosaic and El Dorado hops, Hazy IPA rivals the best New England-style IPAs from some of Colorado's smaller, trendier producers when it comes to flavor, aroma and mouthfeel. But it also has a slightly lighter feel that makes it easier to drink a couple. A small-batch offering in 2018, Great Divide is going to brew and package much more of this beer in 2019, as well its larger cans here and in other states.
Confluence Double IPA
WeldWerks produced a jaw-dropping 130-plus beers in 2018 — and at least a quarter of those were New England-style IPAs, the brewery's specialty. Of those hazy creations, many were similar riffs on a great song, while others brought in new notes. But of those I tasted, Confluence, an 8.4 percent ABV double IPA brewed with Mosaic and Amarillo hops, stood out from the rest. Why? Soft on the tongue, but with just enough bite to give it some structure and character, Confluence was bursting with tropical flavors and a soothing dynamic.
In the Deep Steep (DDH Wai'iti & Nelson)
Outer Range Brewing
The gorgeous aroma hits you first. Like sitting in a patch of blossoming lemon trees during a sunset in the South Pacific, the hazy, almost milky appearance that defines many of Outer Range's beers follows. You can't ignore that fluffy mouthfeel and seductive softness that come once the beer touches your tongue. And finally, the flavors hit, bursting with lemon, orange juice, lemon meringue and green grapes. There's a also a nice touch of bitterness at the end that reminds you that you're drinking an IPA.
Intergalactic Juice Hunter
From the very first time I tried version one of this New England-style IPA, it was clear that it would be a winner — everything that lovers of the style want to see in their haze. Brewed with Galaxy, Amarillo and Simcoe hops, along with creamy lactose, it's soft on the palate, smooth and a little boozy (at 8 percent ABV). It's also stuffed with tropical fruit flavors, juicy richness and an out-of-this world aroma.
Pineapple Velvet Milkshake IPA
4 Noses Brewing
Stunningly smooth and with a balance that is sometimes difficult to achieve in sweeter milkshake IPAs, Pineapple Velvet was packed with cake-like flavors coming from the vanilla beans, the lactose and the combination of Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo and Jarrylo hops. Hazy, creamy and oh-so luscious, this beer began its life as an experimental offering in cans and was then re-brewed a couple of times because of its popularity.