Okay, first a disclaimer: your favorite brewery probably isn’t on this list. Last time we counted, there are something like one million breweries in operation in the United States. There are so many breweries that, if you’re reading this, and of drinking age, there’s a good chance that you own a brewery yourself. And we have no doubt that it’s absolutely amazing. Kudos to you. But is it “the best?” And what does “the best” even mean, really? It’s a completely subjective idea—one man’s garbage is another man’s gose. So, for this list, we ran all one million breweries through a scientific algorithm developed by NASA dropouts that gave a certain amount of points to winners of our monthly blind tastings where we rank specific styles of beer, and a certain amount of points to medal winners at major beer competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup, and a certain amount of points to breweries who did really cool things in 2018. Then we looked at the results of that algorithm and carried the one because the NASA dropouts forgot to do that, and then we got really nervous about the list because if they forgot to carry the one, then what else did these failed rocket scientists forget to do? So we double checked all of the breweries on that list with our Magic 8 Ball. In the end, we came up with this: the seven best breweries in 2018. Read it, laugh and cry, get angry, high five each other and debate amongst yourselves.
Monday Night Brewing
The initial concept behind Monday Night Brewing was to brew beers for the weeknight. Easy drinking, balanced beers meant to be enjoyed with food. So, it makes sense that Monday Night would eventually create a beer that would win our Best Pale Ales. After several years brewing fan favorites like Slap Fight IPA and Draft Kilt scotch ale, Monday Night beat out big hitters in the pale ale category (Maine Beer, Cigar City, Toppling Goliath…) to earn top honors in what is one of the most competitive beer styles in the country. And here’s the thing: Han Brolo is kind of weird. It’s not your typical pale because it’s brewed with lactose and comes out hazy and hoppy as hell. It’s only 4.7%, but you could easily slip this beer into an IPA tasting and nobody would second guess your decision. Although there’s no need for subterfuge because Monday Night landed a beer in the top 10 spot for our Best IPAs blind tasting too. Their blind tasting success in 2018 just proves that winners keep winning; Monday Night had a hell of a 2017, winning two medals at GABF and opening a second brewery in Atlanta to handle the demand for barrel aged beers. So, 2018 basically saw more of Monday Night. More of their standards like Han Brolo, more of their seasonals (they brought back Dust Bunny, their hazy IPA and put Drafty Kilt on nitro) and more of their limited release Black Tie and Garage series, most notably releasing three variants of Bourbon Barrel Aged Drafty Kit recently. Oh, and Monday Night is even into whiskey now; they’ve partnered with ASW Distillery to release a single malt. And it’s good. But you probably guessed that already.
Austin Beer Garden Brewing
I know Austin Beer Garden Brewing wasn’t the first American craft brewery to rediscover the pilsner, but I feel like they were the first to truly perfect the style. Actually, let’s broaden that statement: Austin Beer Garden Brewing is nailing not just pilsners, but lagers in general. The Texas-based brewery has dominated the pilsner and lager category at GABF in the last few years, and this year was no different. They won two golds at GABF, one for Hell Yes (a Munich-style Helles) and one for their pilsner, Rocket 100. They also pulled home the big cheese by being named the Large Brewpub of the Year at GABF. That’s a pretty big deal and it’s kind of mind blowing when you consider the general landscape of American craft beer has been dominated by pales and IPAs since like, forever, and ABGB is all about the lagers. They probably didn’t need the extra accolades after being crowned kings at GABF this year, but ABGB also won first in our blind tasting of 134 pilsners this year with their Industry Pilsner. We decided it was “simply the best American-made version of a classical German pilsner that you’re going to find in the world today.” So the takeaway here: Find anything that ABGB is making, and drink it.
Washington-based Fremont Brewing had an incredible year, at least if you’re going by the massive blind tastings that we undertook in 2018. Their beautifully-canned Pride took top honors in our kolsch blind tasting in July because the low-ABV beer was packed with character—spicy, fruity, woodsy—and so damn easy to drink we contemplated stocking our entire fridge of it. Earlier in the year, they won our barleywine blind tasting with their first anniversary beer, Batch 1,000, which had been chilling in a cellar since 2014. They also cracked the top 5 of that same list with another anniversary beer, Batch 2,000. Oh, and they climbed into the 21st spot of the best IPA tasting this year too (out of 324 IPAs). And to be honest, I really dig how Freemont makes beer. They’re big into renewable energy, even going so far as to use on-site steam to power some of their facility, and use predominantly local ingredients. The brewery also helped launch Cascadia Grains Conference, an organization dedicated to reviving the local farming community. This summer, they opened a barrel-aged and sour facility and taproom, because Fremont truly knows how to barrel age a beer. Beyond the barleywines that blew us away in our tasting this year, we’re dying to get our hands on the barrel-aged version of their imperial oatmeal stout, Dark Star.
Great Notion Brewing
Great Notion has been one of the most hyped breweries ever since they won serious hardware at GABF and RateBeer Best Festival in 2016, and they’ve managed to not only live up to the hype, but exceed expectations. To put it bluntly, Great Notion is a brewery that can do absolutely any style. Their Double Stack Imperial Stout continues to wow (and won gold at the World Beer Cup in 2018) and then their super limited release of Bourbon Barrel Double Stack turned out to be even better. And stouts aren’t even what Great Notion does best. They’re really an IPA powerhouse. This year, Great Notion won our IPA blind tasting with Ripe IPA, besting 323 other stellar IPAs on their journey to victory. The IPA is the most competitive blind tasting we organize and arguably the most cherished style in American craft beer. Great Notion obviously knows what they’re doing with hops, because not only did they win the category with Ripe IPA, they had a second beer, Space Invader, that landed on the 13 spot of that same tasting. And this success seems to be the status quo for the Portland-based brewery. We named them as one of our favorite up and coming breweries in 2016, and then they scored high on our list of best IPAs and imperial stouts in 2017. It makes us excited to see what will come out of the brewery in 2019.
Green Cheek Beer Co.
File Green Cheek “the brewery that gets us most excited about the future.” Orange, California-based Green Cheek is barely a year old, but they managed to woo our beer writer, Jim Vorel, during his most recent visit to the Firewalker Invitational. Jim dug what they were laying down out there in San robles, and it makes perfect sense: Green Cheek is the brainchild of the former brewmaster and CFO of Noble Ale Works. The dynamic duo teamed up after leaving Noble Ale Works to do what they do best: brew West Coast IPAs. Their flagship, Radiant Beauty, didn’t win our massive IPA blind tasting, but it came pretty damn close landing the number three spot. That same beer won the silver medal at the World Beer Cup this year, too. And did we mention Green Cheek is barely a year old? We’re predicting big things from this fledgling brewery. Big.
You probably don’t think of Tennessee as a destination for IPAs—Maine and Vermont, sure, California and Oregon, definitely, but Tennessee? Whiskey, moonshine, sweet tea…all sure bets in the Volunteer State. But a hop monster not so much. But Bearded Iris, a small brewpub out of Nashville, is single-handedly changing that thought process. They’ve quickly established a reputation for making top-notch hazy IPAs, and their flagship, Homestyle, has made it on all kinds of best of 2018 lists. It’s brewed with oats and Mosaic hops and is creamy and elegant and delicious as hell. Bearded Iris is no one-trick-pony, though. The young brewery proved they can succeed in more subtle styles when they collaborated with Threes Brewing this year to make a pilsner, Dreams of Yesterday, that made it into the top 25 of our pilsner blind tasting. And they’re not scared to get weird with it either, as evidenced by their double dry-hopped Festbier. ‘Cause why not. Chalk Bearded Iris up to another brewery with a bright future as they’re only a couple years old. I haven’t been there yet, but word on the street is their taproom is pretty dope too.
Honorable Mention: Sierra Nevada Brewing
Yes, Sierra Nevada made some great beer in 2018. And they could earn a spot on lists like this based on their flagship Pale Ale as far as I’m concerned. But I’m giving them an honorable mention this year because they brewed a beer for good (not evil) and proved the craft beer world has a really big heart. Northern California’s Camp Fire was the most devastating fire in California history, and Sierra Nevada stepped up big time during the tragedy. In addition to feeding first responders and helping displaced residents, Sierra Nevada hatched a scheme to brew a special beer, Resilience IPA, and donate all the proceeds to the Camp Fire Relief Fund. Then they worked with malt, hop and yeast suppliers to donate the raw ingredients necessary for other breweries to brew that beer, and asked other brewers to whip up batches of Resilience IPA and donate 100% of their sales to the fund. More than a thousand breweries answered the call creating one of the best feel good stories of 2018. Sierra Nevada has proven they have a knack for large scale collaborations with their Beer Camp project, but Resilience IPA might be the largest beer collaboration in American craft beer history. More important, Resilience IPA could set the standard for social projects moving forward.