As we look back on the year behind us, some beers stand out more than the others. Whether they’re complex and creative or balanced and refined, it’s hard to forget those brews that shine. Here are some of our favorites.
Speciation Artisan Ales
Fruited Sour / 7.6% ABV
With a 2018 lineup strong enough to give any sour freak jelly knees, it wasn’t easy selecting only one Speciation release this year. Still, one did rise above the pack. Building off a blend released in 2017, Magic Trait is a fruited sour with blackberries, black currant and blueberries. It represents both an evolution and perfection of an acclaimed recipe. Visually, it’s goopy as primordial ooze with a flavor like blackberry smoothie zapped by an electric eel. It’s arresting and a sure sign of more fantastic beer to come from this brewery on the rise.
Dragon’s Milk Reserve Banana Coconut
New Holland Brewing Company
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout / 11% ABV
I get the feeling this addition to the Dragon’s Milk catalog was inspired by a tale of Curious George gone wrong — George raids the Man in the Yellow Hat’s liquor cabinet, spikes a banana split, then battles a tummy ache for 20 pages. Fortunately for us apes of age, this beer makes for an excellent dessert. The bourbon warmth hits a familiar note, but really, this is banana’s time to shine. Banana runt on the nose, banana bread on the tongue, banana love on the mind.
Watermark Brewing Company
Imperial IPA / 8% ABV
In a year saturated by more New England styles than you can shuck an oyster at, bucking the trend seems to be the best way to stick out. Enter Moon Boots, an IPA from Watermark that isn’t shy about its bitterness. Fresh grass aromatics plus hints of grapefruit rind and pine reminded my palate of Heady Topper more so than most of the hazy simulacra clogging the market. While imitation is flattering, Moon Boots shows that Michigan can do better than copy Boston’s homework.
Barrel + Beam
Golden Strong Ale / 7.5% ABV
Without even a year under its belt, Barrel + Beam impresses. Effervescent, pillowy, with a splash of funk, Golden Partager exemplifies the remarkable liquid coming from this Yooper brewery. Scents of ripe pear and grain leak out the glass while the brett and oak-aging add a rustic nuance. This farmhouse ale harkens back to Belgian method. The flavors aren’t brash, but delicate, proving that the loudest voices in the room aren’t always the best. These new kids on the peninsula are quietly and quickly growing their reputation.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Neapolitan Milk Stout
Saugatuck Brewing Company
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Milk Stout / 10.5% ABV
Like the namesake ice cream, BBA Neopolitan manages to pack several distinct flavors in one bottle. Sips alternate between flavors of bourbon-macerated strawberries, dark chocolate and vanilla bean. If Ben and Jerry ever went on a craft beer bender, this would be their downfall.
Curmudgeon's Better Half
Founders Brewing Company
Maple Syrup Barrel-Aged Old Ale / 12.7% ABV
They say behind every successful man is a strong woman. In Curmudgeon’s case, the feminine touch comes from maple bourbon barrels and molasses. Back by popular demand after hibernating in the Grand Rapids gypsum mines, this resurrection is a blessing to taste. Better Half drips with enough sweetness to woo Aunt Jemima. Sure, it’s sticky, but in a messy s’mores way: half the fun’s in licking up the residue.
City Built Brewing Company
Red IPA / 7.1% ABV
It looks like first time’s the charm for City Built Brewing Company, coming out of the canning gates with this Red IPA. Bipartisanship in a glass, Melisandre reaches across the aisle between hop and malt camps. The caramel malt throws a biscuit to amber fans and the Mackinac hops scratch that bitter itch. Everybody walks away happy. If only Congress could accomplish as much.
Bees Don’t Care What You Think is Impossible
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Honey Ale / 8.9% ABV
When a queen bee dies, the hive must go on. Drones anoint a new larvae to the throne and then pump it full of royal jelly, a high-protein goo that readies the pupa for the crown. Vivant’s Contemplation underwent similar treatment in bourbon barrels, resulting in an equally regal beer. A concentrated blast of sugar, Bees Don’t Care tastes like sucking on a bar of honeycomb. It’s smooth as mead, almost too easy to toss back. Hopefully the bees don’t go extinct any time soon.
Prickly Pear Cactus Pineapple Fruitsicle
Odd Side Ales
Fruit Beer / 4.5% ABV
Odd Side Ales, the Wonka Factory of Michigan breweries, dominated last summer with its fruitsicle series. While each variation showed no shortage of imagination, we ruled in favor of Prickly Pear Cactus Pineapple for its evocative take on a poolside marg. In color, it looks a little like a Gobstopper — its sweetness isn’t too far off from candy either — but the lactose and hop additions add depth. Garnish with cocktail umbrella and curly straw for full tropical effect.