Every year I kick this list off with a summary that ties my year of beer drinking together. Depending on how heavy your NEIPA consumption is, it may track your year as well. (For the historians out there, here’s the 2017 list, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. Things have really changed since 2012).
In 2015 we began to see what I had coined the Northeast-Style India Pale Ale start to really take off. In 2016, the NEIPA — which by then most style-watchers started using as shorthand for New England-Style IPA instead of Northeast — asserted its dominance as the go-to beer for lupulin lunatics, but availability of the best-in-class iterations was still limited to specific regions of the country. 2017 marked the style only continuing to grow in popularity, but also marked the onset of local Houston breweries not only finally brewing the hazy IPA, but in many cases making juice bombs that could hang with the titans of the genre.
Then 2018 happened. And everything you and I thought we knew about NEIPA got upended even further, with triple/quadruple/quintuple dry-hopped DIPAs utilizing 8-plus pounds of hops per barrel becoming the norm and a whole host of substyles turning heads and taking names (for the record, I remain an NEIPA purist — while I have no problem with the existence of milkshakes/lactose IPAs, I do not care for them).
But perhaps the most fascinating storyline of 2018 is that the second-wave of NEIPA brewers — which I would include anyone locally in Houston and really throughout the southern U.S. doing the style — are now brewing the most flavorful beers in the genre, outstripping the best-known names in the game. I’ll put SpindleTap’s DIPAs up against literally anyone else’s in the country, and that includes Tree House, Other Half, Trillium and Monkish. Same with anything hazy coming out of Parish. These beers aren’t just “good for being from Texas/Louisiana.” They’re now the ones to beat — find me a tastier all-Citra DIPA than Heavy Hands. I’ll wait. (Updated to add that as my friend and fellow Houston beer lover and scene evangelist Sylvia Benavidez reminded me, another critical component of the hazies being released by Spindle and Parish is their impressive shelf lives. Many of us have been conditioned to expect NEIPAs to completely fall off after a month; but in my experience many of these two breweries’ beers still hold up even two months out from canning, which many others cannot lay claim to.).
In conversations with friends, we’ve been trying to pin down what exactly it is about Spindle/Parish/B52/Baa Baa juice bombs that is making us want to drink them over the plethora of releases from the style standard-bearers. I think part of it is palate fatigue from some of the bigger players — I’ve long been an Other Half fanboy, but at this point can anyone really tell the difference between the 5 new cans they release every week? Another contributing factor — and this is more speculation on my part than any inside knowledge — is perhaps due to the fact that the second wave knew that in order to grab the attention of devoted lovers of the style, they’d have to utilize more hops per barrel than anyone had previously considered. Everyone knows the old saw “Bigger in Texas,” and, well, local breweries have certainly proven that to be true with their bold approach to pummeling their hazies with heretofore-unseen levels of dry-hop poundage. And local beer drinkers are richer for it.
And a third reason for the ascension of the second-wave — at least in some cases — is a decline in quality from the style originators. I hate to devolve too deeply into the negative, but 2018 has been a bafflingly odd year for my one-time favorite brewery, Trillium. Beginning with the very public announcement this past spring that they would be “changing their fermentation profile,” Trillium has basically ruined its entire catalog of existing beers while churning out borderline undrinkable ones under its recently introduced Harbor Island series and Lighthouse series.
And this is far from one man’s opinion — a quick review of Trillium’s top-ranked beers on Untappd reveals that the masses also agree that the brewery has lost a step or two, with the aggregate ratings of most of the newer offerings coming in quite a bit lower than the brewery’s stalwart beers. To wit, the brewery’s highest-rated “new ferm profile” beer is Permutation 58, and it checks in at #10 overall among all Trill beers. The next new-ferm beer is Permutation 62, at 24th-highest rated. I’ll grant that it’s admittedly a smaller sample size, but all told, only five of Trillium’s “new ferm profile” beers rank among its 70-highest-rated beers on Untappd. Personally, Trillium went from having 2 beers in my Top 2015 list, to 9(!) of the 19 on my 2016 list, to 4 last year, down to just one on this year’s list, and it was a collab, to boot (see below).
Why a brewery would actively choose to make the product that directly led to its runaway success tangibly worse is utterly mystifying, and defies explanation. Not to mention the fact that Trillium-watchers have noticed that they also seem to be releasing beers in their acclaimed DDH Street series with far less frequency, as speculation mounts that these expensive-to-brew beers are perhaps part of a larger production-cost-cutting initiative underway at the brewery (this may also explain the “new ferm profile,” which appears to be more reliant on fruity yeast esters for flavor than hops).
Ultimately none of this likely matters much revenue-wise for the brewery, whose majority of customers may not care as deeply as the small but outspoken few who have been drinking Trillium IPAs for years, but in this NEIPA obsessive’s eyes, to say Trillium’s star has dimmed would be a pretty dramatic understatement.
Less on the quality-decline tip and more in the “what the hell are they doing?” vein, I also found myself enjoying the various new offerings I had in 2018 from Other Half — another longtime NEIPA fave — less than I have in years past. Though it seems this is moreso due to the fact that 50% of their new releases are now lactose NEIPAs, which, just, stop it. I’m still waiting for the return of literally any of the single-hop IPA series.
Cool beer-related stuff that happened to me this year included getting to brew my second NEIPA collaboration with one of my favorite local breweries, Baa Baa Brewhouse, and my homebrewer buddy Chris, who brews as Laser Brewing. We unleashed Group High 5, a quintuple-dry-hopped hazy AF NEIPA with Citra, Galaxy and Motueka, on the masses, and it remains the highest-rated beer on Untappd that Baa has released. I also got to help tell “The Story of How Houston Became ‘Juiceton,’” bringing some love to our local scene on the national front.
And with that, here are my Top Beers I Drank For the First Time in 2018, in no particular order:
Root + Branch | Dead Men on Holiday
I’d been tracking the excitement around Root + Branch’s opening and subsequent launch with excitement and envy — excitement because founder Anthony Sorice had an exciting resume (LIC Beer Project) and comes across as thoughtful, meticulous and rigorously dedicated to his craft in his interviews, and envy because they began life as a gypsy brewer — much like my beloved Third Rail — only they seemed to have figured out how to not only absolutely nail it right out of the chute but build on it (to Third Rail’s credit we achieved early success as well; it was the sustaining-hype part where we fell short). Dead Men on Holiday was my first taste of Sorice’s handiwork at R+B, and well, it lived up to the hype — bold-yet-soft, with big-yet-nuanced flavors. A level of craftsmanship that only the top tier NEIPA producers usually evince. (Also bonus points for calling the beer “Dead Men on Holiday,” which is a phrase that appears in the Arthur Koestler novel, “Darkness at Noon.” My family isn’t aware of any relation to the author, but ours is a pretty unusual last name, so it’s still fun to make the connection).
Parish x SpindleTap | DDH Operation Juice Drop
A top 5 beer of the year for me, and rather handily my favorite single IPA of the year. I didn’t think the juice wizards at Spindle and Parish could possibly improve upon the original Operation Juice Drop, but I couldn’t have been more wrong — the DDH version, as DDH versions do, amplified the ever-loving shit out of an already-perfect beer, creating an otherworldly consumption experience. Even the best of the best tend to have a small nit to pick; I could not find one single flaw with this beer. If “juice bomb” were in the dictionary, DDH OJD would be its definition — truly, this is the standard by which all sub-7% ABV NEIPAs should be judged by.
Baa Baa Brewhouse | Many Beers
Baa Baa released so many top-shelf hazies this year that your eyes would start glazing over if I did individual entries for all of them, so I’m collecting them all here. Among Baa Baa’s standout 2018 releases were Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing, Minor Threat, Bop It!, Straight Outta Brookshire, Majestic AF, Chasing Rainbows and Notorious VIC, and several others. Baa Baa really elevated its game in 2018 starting with Bop It!, and with each hop-saturated, juicy AF release, continued to cement its name as one of Houston’s top producers of hazy IPA.
Claim 52 | Fluffier
It turns out the northwest might know a thing or two about haze, at least based off of my experience with Claim 52’s Fluffier, which does everything I love in the style — huge hop flavor, creamy mouthfeel, and a perfect finish that demands you take that next sip instantaneously.
Great Heights | Galactic Fruitier Pellets
Great Heights is one of Houston’s best all-around breweries, producing a wide range of styles and doing them all quite well, so it wasn’t a surprise that they’d have a strong take when it came to hazies. I enjoyed several of their offerings last year, including BAM BAM, but my favorite NEIPA from GH was the all-galaxy version of Fruitier Pellets, which hit all of the flavor notes us lupulin lunatics have come to expect from the style. Though I could easily have also gone with the regular version of Fruitier Pellets, which I somehow didn’t have for the first time until a week ago, and thought to myself “damn this is good,” but because I thought I’d already had it it somehow didn’t register for me just how good it was. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying I’m excited by Great Heights’ hazies, and, like Harry and Marv in “Home Alone,” I am indeed thirsty for more.
Equilibrium x District 96 | Sexual Fluctuation
Equilibrium and District 96 have received extensive hype for their hop bombs, and so the idea of these two Hudson Valley titans teaming up for a hazy beast almost seemed too good to be true. Thankfully it wasn’t, and the resulting beer was superb — big, juicy, turbid, hoppy AF, and just a pleasure to consume.
Other Half | Quadruple Dry Hopped Green City
As mentioned in my preamble, things got weird in 2018. Other Half has been a top 3 NEIPA producer for me for the last three years, but before I got to try 4XDH Green City this summer, it had been some time since I’d been truly wowed by an Other Half brew. It certainly hasn’t helped that they seem to have shifted into a 50% regular / 50% lactose NEIPA factory, and I find lactose NEIPAs to be total garbage. 4XDH Green City reminded me that OH can still throw down with the best of them when they aren’t wasting time throwing adjuncts in their IPAs — I’m not sure why they aren’t doing beers like this more often (I also want to give a special shout-out to regular Green City, which Other Half rolled out this year as the modern replacement for its original West Coast-inspired Other Half IPA. Green City is Other Half’s “restaurant beer” and the closest thing to a flagship that a brewery that makes 8,000 beers produces. It was a treat to see this on menus across NYC during my visit home this past Thanksgiving, not just because it was brewed by Other Half, but because it tasted damn good. Cans, please).
Monkish | Babbleship
The more often I get to have Monkish beers, the angrier I get that they remain such a challenge to acquire. Even with my brother living in LA I still can’t access Monkish as often as I’d like — providing virtually no advance notice on can sales alongside low yields results in sellouts that seem to occur in under two hours, making putting up with the traffic on the ride to Torrance a questionable proposition at best. So on the rare occurrences I do get a Monkish can in my hand, it’s almost always a memorable experience. Babbleship evoked memories of Trillium back when Trillium still produced elite NEIPAs and not brown/orange sugary disasters. One of the best DIPAs of 2018 for me.
Ingenious | Double Splat!
After much anticipation, Ingenious finally opened its doors in 2018, and once they started producing beers, they never stopped. Truly, the variety of offerings available on their taplist at any given moment is daunting in its depth. Unsurprisingly given the headaches they had to deal with from an equipment perspective, it took a bit of time to get the IPAs where they wanted them to be, but they really started rounding into form by the summer. While Ingenious still does a bit too much with lactose for my palate, the straightaway NEIPAs have been good to great, with DIPA Double Splat! — hopped with Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado and Ekuanot — their finest example to date.
Narrow Gauge | DDH OJ Run
I’d heard great things about Narrow Gauge, and so I came in with fairly high expectations, and to my pleasant surprise, DDH OJ Run not only lived up to them but blew them out of the water. Sip for sip, this was among my favorite drinking experiences of the year. There are a lot of breweries doing NEIPA now, and so when you come across one that clearly exhibits a superior level of finesse and sophistication, you take notice.
Trillium x Monkish | Insert Hip Hop Reference There
The only Trillium beer on the list this year, and only because Monkish had a hand in it. Ribbing Trillium aside, this was a truly special beer — at 10% I get very wary, as the style isn’t generally equipped to be able to ward off the inevitable alcohol burn, but somehow they pulled off a 10%er that drank closer to a 7-8% beer. I’ve never had a 10% TIPA that drank this smoothly — pretty remarkable.
Hop Butcher | Galaxy Bowl
Apparently Chicago’s got juice, too. For a scene that led the way for much of the earlier part of this decade, I got the sense that Chi-town was a later adopter of the haze craze — not too dissimilar from the way things went down in Houston. Regardless, Hop Butcher is here to say screw your preconceived notions about whether Chicago can juice with the best of them, as Galaxy Bowl was among the best all-Galaxy hazies I had this year.
B-52 | DDH Wheez the Juice
I love B-52 Brewing. Their desire to push the envelope and take risks is laudable, and their production is INSANE. No Houston-area brewery released more packaged beers this year, and B-52 does it across a ton of styles, to boot. Of course, for my purposes I only care about the hazies, and helpfully for me B-52 hit (mostly) home run after home run with their bright yellow juice bombs. Sure, some of the releases may have featured the dreaded “hop burn,” although that’s never been a huge problem for me. B-52 reliably released almost one new hazy IPA a week this year, and that kicks ass in my book. Perhaps none were better than the double dry-hopped version of their flagship hazy, Wheez the Juice. Truly, the first can of this I cracked brought me all the way back to the first time I drank DDH Fort Point. That’s about as high a level of praise as I can dole out to a beer.
B-52 | Summer Wardrobe: Shorts
OK, I lied. B-52 had another absolute banger this year, the criminally underrated Summer Wardrobe: Shorts all-Citra DIPA. Not sure what happened here — it seems some got scared off of the brewery’s releases given some of the canning inconsistencies, but for those of us that were lucky enough to try Shorts, we were treated to one of the best all-Citra DIPAs of the year.
Sigma | Spirit Journey DIPA
As tends to happen after I initially publish this list, I end up remembering a handful of additional beers that I meant to include. Sigma announced its foray into the world of monstrously dry-hopped DIPAs with a bang with Spirit Journey, an excessively hopped gem featuring Ekuanot, Ella and Galaxy that simultaneously feels of a part with the Houston juice scene, but also remains very much its own thing. Kind of like Bissell Bros’ The Substance meets Houston dry-hopping techniques. With yet another Houston-area brewer now making exceptional hazies, the rich keep getting richer in Juicetown.
Bearded Iris | Attention Please!
I can’t say I expected to include any Bearded Iris beers on my year-end list after my initial experience with a small handful of their cans led to less-than-desirable results. However, Attention Please! lived up to its moniker, grabbing my attention with a delightfully well-executed hazy IPA rich with hop flavor, thick mouthfeel, and none of the lingering sweetness that plagued their other efforts. More of this from Bearded Iris, please.
Other Half x Safety Team | Blazer Hazers
The third entry in Other Half and Brandon Tolbert’s (formerly of The Answer, now with the forthcoming Safety Team) basketball-themed collabs, I was ecstatic that this beer lived up to the excellent benchmark set by its predecessors, No Layups and Raining Threes, each of which made my 2016 and 2017 lists, respectively. Hard not to love a 3X dry-hopped DIPA, and again, between this and 4XDH Green City, I can’t help but wonder why OH is mostly sticking to lactose these days and not hopping the crap out of their IPAs even further when they can get results like this.
Other Half | Third Anniversary Imperial IPA
I inadvertently excluded this beer from my original post — I think I was so focused on being moderately disappointed with much of Other Half’s output during the second half of 2018 that I forgot about how good this was back in February. Originally released in 2017 and rebrewed this year, OH’s 3rd Anniversary 3XDH TIPA checked all of the NEIPA boxes for me — creamy, huge hop flavor, palate coating, and most importantly — no lactose.
Sand City | ONE
This beer also accidentally missed the initial cut until I realized that I was pretty light on northeast options. Similar to Other Half’s 3rd Anniversary above, this beer was also a re-brew from 2017, and I also ended up liking it better than the brewery’s most recent anniversary beer (in Sand City’s case, that would be TWO; in Other Half’s, it was 4th that didn’t wow me as much as 3rd). Citra & Galaxy in unison — is there a more legendary duo?
NOLA | Hoppyright Infringement
This might have been the biggest surprise of the list for me. My brother-in-law and I both ordered pints of Hoppyright Infringement on a taplist where it appeared to be the best option for two juiceheads, having somewhat high hopes but mostly expecting a middle-of-the-road affair given that my previous experiences with NOLA hazies hadn’t been much to write home about. We were both flabbergasted at how nuanced and complex this DIPA was, and it definitely made me reassess my thoughts on NOLA. I’ve heard the cans have been inconsistent at best, but if future cannings can recapture the magic of this early October batch, it’d easily be one of the best offerings on the shelf in Houston right now.
Outer Range | Loop to Loop
I had a Colorado tasting session with my brother-in-law this fall, featuring hazies from Weldworks and Outer Range, and while the Weldworks offerings we tried ended up being a very surprising disappointment given how highly I’ve heard people speak of them, Outer Range made its presence known immediately. Loop to Loop was delightful from the first sip to the last; and the only downside was that I just had one can.
SpindleTap | Many Beers
So I have separate entries for my two favorite SpindleTap beers of the year below, but, like Baa Baa above, this list would be insanely long and repetitive if I broke out all of the incredible ridiculously hazy IPAs SpindleTap released in 2018: Cosmic Clouds, Tiny Gypsies, Hopkeem, High Knees, Diamonds In My Mouth, Hat Trick, Candy Green, Faded, Chunk Up the Juice and Checkmate (and that doesn’t even include Juiceton, which of course was first released in 2017 and somehow kept getting better — despite already being perfect — with each new batch this year). Truly, Houston hopheads were straight-up SPOILED this past year, with SpindleTap leading the way with one world-class DIPA after another. If you follow me on any of my social channels you already know how highly I think of SpindleTap, but I’ll never get tired of singing their praises. And right now, especially in light of Trillium’s dramatic fall from grace, in my opinion SpindleTap has become the best producer of New England-Style DIPAs in the country. Yes, even better than Monkish, when you consider relative ease of acquisition. If you disagree with me, send me your favorite hazy IPA to prove me wrong. I exclusively drink this style, and I will put the entire Spindle catalog up against literally anyone else’s that I have tried.
Baa Baa Brewhouse x Laser Brewing x Larry Koestler | Group High 5
I mean, of course I’m putting a 5XDH NEIPA that I helped brew on my favorite beers of the year list. Although this juice grenade was so absurdly crammed full of hops, it may well have gotten its own entry on this list anyway. In any case, Group High 5 represented the pinnacle of everything I seek in the style: massive citrus flavors backed by a creamy canvas and just the right amount of bitterness to remind me you’re still drinking a beer. Looking forward to seeing this guy return in 2019.
Baa Baa Brewhouse | Rudolph DIPA
Released after I initially published my list, Baa Baa released four more canned offerings at the end of the year, and three of the four were excellent, but for my palate, Rudolph took the cake as perhaps the most outstanding beer Baa has ever released (not involving me, ha!). Brewed with Citra, Galaxy and Taiheke hops — this was the first time I’ve ever even heard of the latter hop varietal, let alone tried it — this is an exemplary DIPA that hits all the flavor notes juiceheads have come to expect from the best-in-class hazy producers. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give it is that I had it twice in the last week immediately following a DDH Ghost in the Machine, and I thought it not only held up following arguably the most palate-ravaging beer of them all, but tasted nearly as great.
SpindleTap | Houston Hazier
And now we’re nearing the end. I loved everything SpindleTap did this year, but there were two beers that were a cut above the rest, and one of those was Houston Hazier, brewed in honor of the one-year anniversary of the beer that changed everything for SpindleTap, good ol’ Houston Haze. Hazier is the bigger, burlier brother of Haze — 9% to Haze’s 7% — with the same gangbusters hop combo of Citra and Galaxy and the flavor profile ramped up to deliriously excessive levels of deliciousness. In a year full of insanely great DIPAs making it that much more difficult to stand out, Houston Hazier would’ve led the pack…
SpindleTap | Heavy Hands
…if it weren’t for this guy. (Hop) pound for (hop) pound, Heavy Hands blew the [bleep]-ing doors off of Houston’s hazy DIPA game at the beginning of the year, setting the stage for a year of lupulin-laden ecstasy. And even with the sheer volume of greatness being produced by my friends up on Hirsch Rd., each time Heavy Hands reappeared this year it was a reminder of how there may be no purer expression of the Citra hop on the planet than this beautiful ode to it. Neither Other Half (and DDH All Citra is an absolutely wonderful beer), nor Trillium (who doesn’t even have an all-Citra DIPA that I am aware of, at least one without adjuncts) have DIPAs that stack up to this absolute beast. The guys were spot-on when they went with Little Mac on the can — Heavy Hands will knock your palate into next century. The winner, and still champion.
Honorable Mention: Laser Brewing and Secret Beach
As if Houston’s juice mavens weren’t lucky enough to be swimming in some of the finest hazy offerings nationwide, we’ve also been fortunate to see several amateurs make names for themselves with great-looking cans that feature even tastier hazy IPAs. I became friends with Chris of Laser fame early in the year after seeing photos of his DDH Mutual Appreciation, which was such an absurdly flavor-packed IPA that it would have made the list proper if it had been a commercially released beer. And I met my pal Jamey, who brews as Secret Beach, a little later on, and have seen his hazies evolve with each release, culminating in this fall’s Swooner — my favorite Secret Beach beer yet. The fact that Houston has two homebrewers of this caliber — and others as well who I have yet to meet — brewing juicy IPAs and being dedicated to the point of canning their homebrews is truly awe-inspiring, and the city is watching with eager eyes to see when/if either eventually decide to make the leap to pro, as both have periodically hinted at wanting to do so.
Special Shout-Out: Parish bringing DDH Ghost in the Machine to cans
Technically I first had DDH Ghost last year, making it ineligible for the 2018 list. However, Parish finally packaging this absolute unbridled BEAST of an NEIPA in cans (where it belongs) merits a special mention, especially considering that it is now among my top 5 beers ever. If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing DDH Ghost, then I don’t need to tell you how great it is. If you haven’t, it ostensibly tastes like the accumulated knowledge of everyone who has ever made a world-class NEIPA funneled into one preposterously-hopped elixir that almost transcends space and time in its otherworldliness. In short, it’s absurdly great.
Business of the Year: Hop Drop
I realized after publishing this list that I was remiss in not giving massive props to a local business that helped completely upend the previously challenging process of obtaining far-flung hard-to-obtain brewery-only releases and making it as easy as humanly possible. While I’ll also take this moment to acknowledge several of our wonderful local drinking establishments — Craft Beer Cellar Houston and Growler USA Katy in particular were both massively helpful in getting highly-sought-after limited releases into my hands; the now-elder-statesman Growler Spot continues to maintain one of the most enviable taplists in the greater Houston area; Cobble & Spoke in Spring Branch was a delightful addition to the local scene; and while I haven’t gotten over there yet I hear great things about Craft Beer Cellar Cypress as well — no one changed the game quite like Hop Drop. The company’s members-only Draft Wagon program was a godsend to beer lovers, providing access to a massive number of beers that fans would otherwise have had to drive dozens of miles across Houston’s sprawl to obtain. While I love B-52 and the atmosphere at the brewery, I live nowhere close to Conroe, and knowing that I can purchase their latest hazies with the click of a button and have them dropped off at my doorstep has been nothing short of remarkable. The prices are more than fair, and the customer service is also top-shelf: the few small issues I’ve had they’ve more than remedied; and their delivery team is aces, always showing up with smiles on their faces. Truly, this was the business I don’t know if we knew we needed, but it’s now impossible to fathom a Houston beer scene without it existing. So thank you, Hop Drop, for bringing local beer and Houstonians even closer.