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Critic’s List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2023

Our managing editor—with his finger on the craft beer pulse from his outpost in Bangkok—selects top-of-mind picks and thoughts fresh off the past year in beer.

Joe Stange Nov 22, 2023 - 7 min read

Critic’s List: Joe Stange’s Best in 2023 Primary Image

Top 10 Beers of the Year

Hendrych H11 (Vrchlabí, Czechia) As usual, I can thank brother-from-another-mother Evan Rail for turning me on to a Prague pub like Pult, with its chill vibe and monomaniacal attention to pouring. Pult also gives pride of place to pale lager. The main reason I kept coming back, night after night, was this beautifully fresh and unendingly bright 11° světlé that was—in the technical sensory parlance—fucking bitter, listed at 52 IBUs.

Great Divide Laws Barrel-Aged Yeti (Denver) I’m so glad people still make them like this. In an era when super-thick barrel-aged stouts no longer taste like stouts, having coalesced into flat, viscous fig-bombs—more like dark-fruit syrup than malt—Sasquatch remembers. Yes, there are dried-cherry esters, but there is also espresso, dark cocoa, nutty whiskey-barrel depth, and even some woodsy hops to go with all that body and big brown foam.

Sapwood Cellars There Are No Edges (Columbia, Maryland) A bottle from the two-author brewery outside Baltimore was once again one of the best things I tasted all year. This Flemish-inspired imperial red ale, aged in malbec and pinot barrels, is gently lactic-tart—avoiding the acetic edge—with a punchy, dried-berries middle. Light on its feet, it somehow manages to be refreshing at 10 percent ABV, and the raspy-dry finish keeps me wanting more.

Otherlands Haładuda Specjal (Bellingham, Washington) This was one of our Best 20 in 2022, but guess what? I got to drink it again. Bright and fresh and light yet unreserved, this Polish-hopped pilsner has a white-flower nose like chamomile over brioche, but then that loaf warms into a malt-cookie that reminds me of sticking my nose into krugs at Franconian kellers. The bitterness is ample yet supple, never harsh. Tons of flavor for 4.4 percent ABV.

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Port Shark Attack (San Marcos, California) Some cans and kegs of this classic found their way to Bangkok and held up beautifully. It’s pretty—jewel-like crimson-amber, lush foam—with a nose that melds caramel and orange peels. The flavor is assertive and unapologetic, sweet yet brusquely bitter, with enough hops in the caramel-malt middle to tease out fruit punch before the alpha-resin and zesty alcohol settle and linger. Nostalgia, liquefied and refined.

Side Project La Belle Fleur (St. Louis) A not-so-well-kept secret is that behind the stout-hype cacophony, Cory King and his team are wearing their noise-canceling headphones—listening to Toots Thielemans, I guess—while continuing to hone and perfect their mixed-culture improvisations. This Brett beer smells of apricots and fuzzy peaches, lime wedges, and white wine, while tasting gently tart, dry, and totally quenching. I’m programmed to search for faults, and I found none.

de Garde The Trio (Tillamook, Oregon) From a bottle shared between friends and fondly remembered, this three-year blend of gin barrel–aged spontaneous beer had a stunningly floral nose—but it was also juicy and musty, like crushed oranges and rose petals in a wine cellar full of old books. Lightly tart with a low, earthy bitterness, dry and lively as hell, simply evaporating on the palate. Eldritch magicks, ethereal and elite.

Heckel Vollbier Hell (Waischenfeld, Germany) I went to Heckel once with my friend Michael James. Afterward, we both laughed at how our presence as tourists annoyed the audibly groaning regulars who didn’t want their local to be discovered. The beer is worth protecting: a helles with heft, sweetish, earthy-bitter and lemony-herbal. Mike’s gone now, but getting to drink it again at the great Pelikan pub in Bamberg brought back memories of him and others with whom I still connect over a shared love of Franconian beer and out-of-the-way breweries.

McIlhenney Bestest Buds (Alpine, California) I went to California to drink West Coast IPAs, and I drank them, and many were great, but I don’t remember enjoying any of them as much as I enjoyed this one. An IPA for grownups, the lean austerity puts grapefruit, orange zest, and even some pear-like esters into proper perspective—and there are pine needles, a hint of diesel, a firm yet guiding bitterness, and the lingering comfort of light resin. Bright, clean, dry, and excellent.

Haplab Watermelon Chile Ale (Bangkok) You know I have to drop a Thai beer in here, and this semi-clandestine nanobrew was one the most entertaining things I drank all year. I can never resist ordering a chile beer—the Carolina Reaper here was subtle, just a lingering tingle for accent—but the joy was in the watermelon. It delivered toothsome aroma and flavor without being a sour, or an IPA, or a slushy; instead, it found balance with a bitterish blonde-ale base. I went back for more.

Favorite Underrated Ingredient

Rice. There are loads of Japanese restaurants in Bangkok, many have fresh Asahi on draft, and that ice-cold, ultra-dry lightness is just the damn thing when it’s a balmy 95°F (35°C) outside. But beyond its ability to allow a light, lean frame, rice has more flavor potential than people realize—as with a cơm tấm pils I had in Saigon, where Vietnamese rice led to a corn-like sweetness more akin to Mexican lager; or with the jasmine-rice lager Chao Sungthong here in Thailand, softly floral and dry.

Top of My Beer Bucket List

I’d love to tick all the major hop harvests. I’ve done Hallertau and Yakima—and Poperinge, if that counts—but not Oregon, Bohemia, New Zealand, or Australia. Yet the one I most want to experience is Tettnang. If the hops grown there are important to the beers of Birrificio Italiano, Firestone Walker, Senne, and Schönramer, then they are also important to me.

My Perfect Beer Bar

It’s small, comfortable, and chatty. No full-on meals, but there are a couple of savory snacks meant for tiding you over and stoking thirst. The beer list is selective and tidy, not expansive, and I don’t care whether it’s cosmopolitan or parochial—as long as it has the ones that you want to get stuck into and enjoy all evening. The music comes via immaculate vinyl, high-fidelity and in stereo, but not so loud that it disrupts conversation (until you choose to sing along). Something close to it existed in Bamberg—Torschuster—before it closed for good a few years ago. Another is Gist, in Brussels. Enjoy the great ones while you can.

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