This is the time of year when, as well as getting excited about what the new year and new decade have to offer, we’re reflecting on the particularly special brews we tried in 2019, the ones we really remember and would, in some cases, part with large amounts of cash/a limb/a family member to get more of. Or is that just me? Anyway, while reading through 2019’s end-of-year roundups, I noticed that a few names tend to pop up fairly consistently, which is obviously great if you’re making these beers and a no-brainer if you’re loving drinking them. However, looking over my own list of top brews, I noticed that most of them are locally produced and distributed and simply don’t have the physical reach to gain wider attention or popularity. Of course, some of these breweries like it that way (sorry!), but it got me to thinking about how best to sum up my 2019 in beer, so here are 15 beers I rated as perfect or nearly-perfect that you may not have heard of.
Obviously if you’re local to any of these breweries you may be super-familiar with some of these beery gems, but I’ve limited myself to brews with fewer than 1,000 total Untappd check-ins at the time of writing (some sort of measurement was required!), although most are much more small-scale than that (and all these brews were rated 5 or 4.75 by my good self, should you care about such things). There are so many incredible beers and breweries I wasn’t able to fit onto this list, all of whom I apologise to as someone who prizes drinking local and wants to champion every brilliant small-scale brewery I have the privilege of drinking in.
While most are from my Central Texas stamping ground, there are a few highlights from last year’s pretty extensive beertravels, and a breadth of styles that happily confirms my love of all beers when made well. A few of the beers listed here were brewed before 2019, but I consider the aging process to be fully relevant to my enjoyment of drinking them last year, and have labelled them accordingly. So here goes, 15 under-the-radar beers that rocked my 2019!
Chocolate Dapper Devil, Blue Owl Brewing, Austin TX (February 2019)
This astonishingly beautiful small-batch version of Blue Owl’s classic Dapper Devil Sour Belgian Strong Ale absolutely made our Valentine’s Day! Brilliant Head Brewer Meike Rossman excelled herself with this sophisticated blend of feather-light high-quality dark cacao and juicy fresh raspberry that positively melted in the mouth. Better than chocolates or flowers, this beer is the perfect Valentines accompaniment (although tbh I could have it every day) and we are keeping fingers crossed for a re-run this February!
Hey, Fun Guy, Hold Out Brewing, Austin TX (February 2019)
We had the opportunity to try a few of Hold Out’s beers at one of their preview events last February, and were excited by their imaginative, offbeat flavour combinations. Although their taproom, next to chic cocktail bar Better Half with whom they are partnered, has yet to open, they have been flexing their beery muscles with high quality limited releases and collabs round the city, but it was this wonderful shitake mushroom Dark Lager that particularly blew me away. The combination of soft, subtle, earthy umami mushroom on the smooth warmth of a dark lager was perfectly executed, and I’m hoping this will be a regular feature once they are open full time.
Somethin’ Sexy, Prairie Artisan Ales, Oklahoma City OK (March 2019)
We arrived at Prairie’s OKC taproom late, tired, but brimming with expectation (of course) and were thoroughly rewarded for our efforts, particularly by this taproom-only delight of an Impy Stout. With my usual aversion to all things oversweet, I must thank JB for insisting that we order a PB&J Stout, as the result was nothing like the icky gooey-children’s-sandwich-beer it might have become in less capable hands. Instead, we were treated to a glorious cleverly-layered subtle connivance of bright raspberry and creamy peanut butter that hit the sweet-savoury balance to perfection. What a treat at the end of a very long drive!
Camp Fire Scotch Whiskey Aged Black Lager, Confluence Brewing Company, Des Moines IA (March 2019)
Yes, you heard this right folks – a black lager aged in Scotch whiskey barrels! It gets pretty darn cold up in the Mid-West so warming up a lager with a stint in some boozy peat-smoke barrels makes absolute perfect sense, to me at least, and Confluence did an absolute crackin job with this. Being a lager, this beer was able to fully absorb the earthy, smoky essence of Hebridean Islay whiskey in a way that heftier beers might not, making it a Scotch-lover’s dream to drink.
Poltergeist IPA, Great River Brewery, Davenport IA (March 2019)
We had a brilliant time at Great River, where the lovely folks of Davenport made us feel so completely at home that we did not want to leave. This is the best kind of local taproom, where everyone really does know everyone but they want to know you as well, and this outstanding brew was the icing on the cake of our fab Great River experience. A super-hoppy IPA served on cask (yes, cask beer in small-town Iowa!), brewed with enough Ghost Pepper to wake the dead, I kid you not. The combination of hopped up spice is so up my street that multiple servings were required. We got to our next destination horribly late but it was totally worth it.
Cosmic Dancer, New Braunfels Brewing Company, New Braunfels TX (June 2019)
This particular dark-sour-extraordinaire is a particularly unusual barrel-aged Weizenbock by sour-masters NBBC. Visiting the NBBC taproom is always an absolute delight as their range of spontaneous-ferment brews never disappoints, and I’m a huge fan of their superb PKL FKR beers made with sour pickle juice, the original Texan pickle beer. Last year, however, this remarkable blend of traditional Central Texas German-style brewing and NBBC’s signature wild-yeast-ferment has to be my top pick. This sweet, malty, funky melt-in-the-mouth brew is beery fusion at its sophisticated best.
Emilio, Pinthouse Pizza, Austin TX (collab with Green Cheek Beer Company, Orange CA) (June 2019)
Pinthouse are famous in the ATX area for their enormous range of high quality hoppy IPAs, with staples like the Electric Jellyfish, Green Battles and Training Bines available around the city, as well as winning awards on the national beer-stage. While they knocked out a whole host of killer brews last year, I fell in love with the Emilio, a majority-Citra-hop IIPA with sprinklings of Galaxy and Simcoe that totalled over 10lbs of hops per barrel! Seriously. While this could have ended up an oversweet mess, Pinthouse and Green Cheek tempered the juice with a complex malt blend that brought out a luscious, rich honeyed taste on full, chewy hops. What a winner.
Dark Mesa (2018), Bow & Arrow Brewing Co, Albuquerque NM (August 2019)
I was overjoyed to find brews from the awesome Bow & Arrow ladies at this year’s GBBF, as they were one of the top New Mexico breweries that we visited on our 2018 road trip across the state. Yes, I’m a bit obsessed with sour dark beers, and this divine Sour Belgian Quad was fermented for four months in red wine barrels with Brettanomyces, giving it incredibly rich, deep flavours of boozy Christmas pudding, all that dried fruit, caramelly malt and wine to boot. Drinking this on cask made it an even more special experience.
Smoaktoberfest 2019, Live Oak Brewing Company, Austin TX (September 2019)
I am a total sucker for a good smoked beer, and Live Oak, being our finest purveyors of traditional German-style brews, are pretty great at these, but even for them this year’s Smoaktoberfest was exceptional. We tried this beer at Live Oak’s Oktoberfest party (held in September, which is a thing here), and were fortunate enough to grab the last couple of pours that were being served fresh from the barrel – delicious! The rich, sweet smoke on this brew is Rauchbier at its finest, making you feel like you’re actually drinking a German sausage, which can only ever be a good thing if you’re me. I’m going to do this beer the ultimate honour of comparing it to Schlenkerla – nuff said.
Space Case Highboy IIPA, Independence Brewing Co, Austin TX (September-October 2019)
From our first taste of the Space Case, we were both totally hooked. We now buy it everywhere we see it as it is such a favourite. For me, the Space Case is leading the charge to right all the IPA wrongs of the past few years – no lactose, no excess sugar, no extreme fruit going on here. This is a piney-bitter-smack-you-in-the-mouth-its-so-hoppy badass boozy dream. It’s almost beyond West Coast as it’s so full and strong (and coming in 16oz cans at 9% I would advise caution in that department), but for those of us who are leaving the haze behind, this is the absolute shit.
Scots Gone Wild 2016 (Mysterium Verum Series), Real Ale Brewing Company, Blanco TX (October 2019)
Yep, it’s another dark sour beer but this one is a soured Scotch Ale by legendary Central Texan brewing-gods Real Ale. Their Mysterium Verum series knocks it out of the park every time, as they play around with their immense brewing expertise to create mind-blowing, palate-dazzling experimental small-batch beers that have been guided and grown with incredible care and attention. While I could have included most of the beers from this series on this list, it seemed appropriate to add Scots Gone Wild, which was the first dark sour from the series and stunned me with its tart-n-sweet vinious tang and oakey aroma. While it’s a shame for the rest of y’all that these beers don’t leave Texas, it does mean that there are more for me!
La Muerta Whiskey Port Cask Finished Imperial Stout 2017, Freetail Brewing Co, San Antonio TX (November 2019)
Not only has this mighty brew been aged in whiskey and port casks, an additional two years of sitting have intensified the flavours into a rich complexity that you want to savour on the tongue so that it lasts longer but can’t resist the next sip, and then the next until you feel like a kid who ate their pudding too fast. I love the intense, blended textures and tastes that come from doubling-up the aging process with different types of barrel, and the port-whiskey combo has to be one of the best. Freetail’s seasonal La Muerta series is uniformly excellent, and I have been utterly indulging myself with this year’s batch, but sampling this one from the archives was a special rare treat, especially for Thanksgiving.
BA Aceite Crudo Russian Imperial Stout, Spindletap Brewery, Houston TX (November 2019)
This taproom-only beast of an RIS is barrel-aged to roasty, smoky, tobaccoy, stand-a-spoon-up-in-me boozy perfection. It was actually rich enough that even I had to sip it, which is saying something. We had an amazing visit to the Spindetap taproom, of which this stupendous brew was the pinnacle, managing to outshine their incredibly impressive array of IPAs and DIPAs – a must for any HTX visit. Although it’s brewed in one of the hottest cities in Texas, I reckon this beer could keep you warm in a Russian winter.
Sam Maverick Nashville Hot Chicken Ale, Maverick Whiskey, San Antonio TX (December 2019)
Maverick are San Antonio’s newest (at the time of writing) kids on the beer-block, and are also (hence the name) a distillery and restaurant. Located in the heart of downtown SA with modern-saloon décor, I made it to Maverick a couple of weeks after they opened and the last thing I was expecting was to find a beer brewed with actual spicy roast chicken. When the very friendly and helpful bartender informed me that there was chicken in the beer, I must confess I assumed she thought I was a gullible tourist and was pulling my leg. A few minutes later, on checking the ingredients and tasting the beer, I was positively jumping up and down with excitement! The roast chicken is marinated with Nashville hot spices and wine before being added to an English Mild base and result is absolutely mouthwatering, like drinking beery spicy chicken gravy. I could have this every day.
Le Pact Des Loups, Oddwood Ales, Austin TX (December 2019)
I had a bit of a nightmare deciding which of my 2019 Oddwood faves to include on this list, as their small-batch blink-and-you’ll-miss-em brews are of such a consistently high quality that there were several which qualified. Although Oddwood primarily brew IPAs and American Wild Ales, both of which they thoroughly excel at, it was this wonderfully beautiful French Pilsner which made the cut. We don’t see many French Pilsners in Texas, with our historic bias towards the German and Czech varieties, which makes this perfectly firm, full-bodied, smooth and creamy delight even more special. I was practically speechless when I tasted it (obviously I am never actually speechless). This may be one of my favourite Pilsners ever, and I may have to hoof over there asap to get some more before it is all gone!
And there you have it folks, 15 under-the-radar beers that set my world alight last year. I’d like to give special mentions to Real Ales and Oddwood, who both could have made it onto this list multiple times – I salute your consistent, persistent awesomeness. Also to Austin Beerworks, who have had one heck of a year and continue to put out some of my favourite local brews across more styles than you can shake a stick at, as well as being utterly adorable folks. And one last shout-out, to the amazing Burly Oak Brewing in Berlin MD, whose 8th anniversary party was one of my best beery experiences of the year, and whose brews are so bloody brilliant I want to pick y’all up and drop you down in Texas!
That’s all folks, keep drinking local, and onwards and upwards to 2020!