By Laurie Jo Miller Farr
Liberally sprinkled across the nation, America has more breweries, beer festivals and beer-centric bars than ever. It’s a golden age for beer enthusiasts to hop across the landscape tasting the best, from Boston’s Samuel Adams to San Diego’s AleSmith. If one of these top 20 American beer cities isn’t close enough to you for a long weekend tasting trip, there’s likely to be one nearer that has some good craft offerings.
As the nation’s foremost pioneer in micro-brewing, Portland is the Beer Capital of the World. It’s a place where brewers collaborate with bee keepers, chefs, distillers, winemakers and farmers to come up with one-and-only styles like Adam and Fred by Hair of the Dog. Check out Deschutes, BridgePort, Rogue Ales and 10 Barrels in the Pearl District or go all out at the Portland Craft Beer Festival in mid-summer.
Grand Rapids, MI
Grand Rapids has the best beer scene in Michigan, enhanced by the city’s official “Beer City Ale Trail” encompassing more than 40 breweries. Calling itself “Beer City USA,” Michigan’s second-largest city is home to the famous Founders Brewing Co., where its downtown Grand Rapids tap room pours world-class beers described as “complex, in-your-face ales, with huge aromatics, bigger body, and tons of flavor.”
It doesn’t get more hyper-local than Pike Honeymoon Suite, a brew infused with honey sourced from the beehives on the roof of the nearby Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The historic Pike Market is home to family-run Pike Brewing Company, a vibrant subterranean space offering tours, a museum, flights, samplers, and tasty pub fare. Seattleites may suggest Stoup, Reuben’s, and Lucky Envelope breweries for your craft crawl itinerary while pointing out that nearby Yakima Valley, Wash. produces about three-quarters of the nation’s hops.
San Diego, CA
Even outside the USA, San Diego-style IPA is a thing. If you crave bold, fresh aromas and blasts of citrus, floral and pine flavors, San Diego is one of the planet’s best beer cities. This SoCal city typically wins one-third of the state’s awards in prestigious worldwide beer competitions. Don’t miss San Diego’s golden child, AleSmith.
Beer is good business; Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper could tell you as a founder of Wynkoop Brewing Company, the state’s first brewpub. Today, more than 70 breweries, including Coors, make up the Denver Beer Triangle with points in Boulder and Fort Collins, each deserving of its own spot on this list. As home of the annual Great American Beer Festival, Denver hosts 750 breweries with 3,000 beers and 60,000 beer-loving folks paying allegiance to the Mile High City as king of the hill of hops. Don’t head home without trying Great Divide’s Imperial stout Chocolate oak aged Yeti.
Back in the 17th century, Pilgrim settlers were first to build a Boston brewery, knowing that beer was likely safer to drink than the water. In a place of pride, named in honor of one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams by Boston Beer Company came along in 1984 when one of its founders happened upon his great-great grandfather’s beer recipe. And the rest is history. Check out a few of Beantown’s craft brewers, such as Trillium, Harpoon and Endurance.
Tampa/St. Pete, FL
What’s Tampa Bay doing on a list of beer-centric cities? It’s all about sunny Tampa’s own Cigar City Brewing, producing bold “eyebrow raising flavors” connected with Latin influence. CCB’s stout is a centerpiece of Hunahpu’s Day, a commotion-causing March festival featuring 120 breweries from across the United States.
The small New England city has a big beer profile in this pretty, pedestrian-friendly university town on Lake Champlain. Vermont Pub & Brewery is the state’s oldest craft brewer; their Burly Irish Ale is a go-to choice. Alternatively, Magic Hat, Zero Gravity, Three Needs, Alchemist, and Switchback are made locally and poured liberally at the Vermont Brewers Fest in July.
Among the old guard of American beer cities, Milwaukee is home to mega-brands Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz. These days, the city has evolved into much more for beer lovers. Sophisticated micro-breweries like Lakefront, Sprecher and Company Brewing give the “Beer Capital of the World” a modern edge.
San Francisco, CA
The City by the Bay hosts a different beer event nearly every month, including SF Beer Week in February. Historically significant (founded in 1896), Anchor Steam Beer’s signature style has a thick and creamy head atop a deep amber pour with a rich, distinctive flavor. In legendary Haight-Ashbury, Magnolia Pub is home to an ale/lager hybrid modeled after Germany’s kölsch style. Anchor, 21st Amendment, and Fort Point beers are city-based winners while Drake’s, Faction and Fieldwork are noteworthy brands that hail from East Bay.
Claiming to have more breweries per capita than any other American city, over one dozen breweries are within the walkable Asheville city limits. Early brands like Highland and Green Man paved the way for newcomers including Hi-Wire, Twin Leaf and Wicked Weed. The “Napa Valley of Beer” hosts its own Oktoberfest, Beer Week and more major beer festivals year-round, making Asheville the regional beer magnet. Be sure to ask for Moonstone Stout from Oyster House Brewing.
The tiniest state continues to grow its outsized beer profile since Narragansett was founded in 1890. Providence’s own Great International Fall Beer Festival is a magnet for New England beer lovers. Stop in at the historic former train station, Union Station Brewery, for the best craft beer experience in the Rhode Island capital. Be on the lookout for a wide variety of top local brands: Trinity Brewhouse, Foolproof Brewing, and Revival Brewing Company.
New breweries are popping up all over the revitalized city in downtown, the Old First Ward, and in the Larkinville neighborhoods. Make a beeline for The Griffon Gastropub in Niagara Falls, where 50 craft beers on tap include local and regional labels like Big Ditch, Southern Tier and Great Lakes. In mid-June, Buffalo Brewers Festival hosts its expanded event at a new Outer Harbor location, bringing 40-plus New York State breweries to celebrate the explosion of regional craft beer.
Long known as “a beer and a shot town,” Pittsburgh’s steel workers would meet at the bar for an Iron City Beer and a shot of whiskey. Today, local beer aficionados may suggest you check out North Side’s Penn Pilsner and, during Oktoberfest, the Bavarian-style Penn Weizen from Penn Brewery, as well as Big Hop IPA from East End Brewing Company. In Lawrenceville, where Iron City was founded in 1861, Hop Farm Brewing company is a woman-owned, family-run craft brewery.
The Midwest is American beer’s ancestral seat, so keep a keen eye on Cleveland, experiencing a brew boom of large proportions in super-small-sized startups. At 375 beers, Winking Lizard Tavern lays claim to the nation’s widest beer selection, hosting a challenge for locals to drink 100 of them in 12 months for the Tour of Beers. Great Lakes Christmas Ale may have the most devoted following of all seasonal local labels.
From its first brewery in 1833 to today’s explosive craft brewery scene, the Windy City has long been a pioneer and a big player on the American beer map. Band of Bohemia is the nation’s first brewpub to earn a Michelin star for its an elevated bar menu built around the house beers. Half Acre, Two Brothers, Goose Island and Revolution are among your must-try local brewery brands. Come in May for the 10-day Chicago Craft Beer Week, when the entire industry celebrates local brews.
The Eastern seaboard’s “other Portland” earns a place on most best beer lists despite its smaller city population of under 70,000. The Belgian tradition is strong in independent brands such as Allagash, where it’s suggested to check out Black Belgian stout and take a free beer tour seven days a week. Classic American styles shine through in Bunker, Bissell Brothers, D.L. Geary and Sebago at the Maine Brewer’s Fest in November.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
Some say Surly Brewing Co., founded in 2005 and considered best in the Great Lakes region, will be the next big thing in craft beer breweries shipping nationwide. Indeed, this brewery even has a state law named after it, allowing licenses for craft makers to serve their own brews on site. Try their Russian imperial stout Darkness or Bitter Brewer at the new $20 million destination brewery in the Prospect Park neighborhood and save time to taste the Twin Cities’ best beer with bites at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul.
Kansas City, MO
For Americans who cannot resist the threesome of great beer, baseball and barbecue, Kansas City ranks high. Visit Boulevard Brewing Co., where Unfiltered Wheat Beer is the best-selling craft beer in the Midwest, and take a smokestack tour with your tastings. Craft & Draft is a beer bar inside Kauffman Stadium where visitors may also want to try KC’s newer brands, such as Torn Label, Cinder Block, and Big Rip.
Start at Craft Pride, frequently cited as of the country’s best beer bars, where 54 expertly curated Texas taps include local favorites such as Jester King, Pecan Porter by (512) Brewing Company and the hefeweizen from Live Oak Brewing. Don’t leave Austin without making a visit to WhichCraft Beer Store, where floor-to-ceiling shelves are covered with a curated beer selection, ideal for taking something home after tasting in the special onsite facility with 30 taps.