Kings of Craft

Earlier this week I read an article about last year’s World Beer Cup winners. In the comments section, a bunch of Europeans were bullying American beers. All right, guys, we get it; during the half-century following American prohibition, we produced a lot of watered-down lagers, but it sounds as if you haven’t tried a U.S. beer since the ’80s. That’s when craft beers began infiltrating our beverage industry. Since then, these small establishments have been producing high-quality examples of traditional styles and tweaking old recipes to find new flavors and aromas. Each new bottle of American craft beer contains a surprise — and these surprises are often palate-smashingly tasty.

Note: I make no claims that the following list represents the end-all-be-all best craft breweries in America, as I haven’t sampled offerings from each of the 1,300 currently in operation, because many of them only distribute locally. (But, as long as I continue breathing, I will keep trying to try them all — it’s like Pokémon for grownups!) Instead, this list comprises my favorite “big” craft breweries; the cream ales of the crop, if you will; the ones that provide a perfect balance of quality, variety, and availability. Any beer store or Bevmo in the states should offer something from at least one of these breweries.

5. Deschutes Brewery
Location: Bend, Oregon
Where to Start: Black Butte Porter, Inversion IPA, The Abyss

I once got into an argument with a man about Deschutes. The scholar informed me that he was from Bend, Oregon, so naturally I said in response, “Oh! I love Deschutes.” He replied, “I can’t stand them. I hate whatever it is they put in their beer.” We glared at each other for several minutes. Then I broke out my fiddle and sent him back to hell. (OK, it didn’t go down quite like that, but whenever I picture him now, he’s wearing red tights and holding a pitchfork, so I say it’s close enough.) Regardless of what idiots may tell you, Deschutes is heavenly. They make fresh, tasty beers for a reasonable price. Check out their Black Butte Porter, which can usually be acquired for $6-7 a six pack. They also have some stellar seasonals, such as The Abyss, an imperial stout that I describe here.

4. Brewery Ommegang
Location: Cooperstown, New York
Where to Start: Rare Vos, Hennepin

If Belgium were a magnifying glass focused on a single spot in America, it would probably set Ommegang brewery ablaze. Why? Well, for one, founder Don Feinberg erected a Belgian farmhouse to contain the original brewery, and old farmhouses burn like gasoline-soaked fire. But the act of building the farmhouse shows respect for the source — respect that’s reflected in each of their subtle, flavorful beers. From the potent dark fruits of their blended quad, Three Philosophers, to the easy-drinking elegance of their amber, Rare Vos, this brewery is difficult to beat — which says something about the next three.

3. Bell’s Brewery, Inc.
Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Where to Start: Kalamazoo Stout, Two-Hearted Ale

For the longest time, finding a Bell’s beer in Arizona was like finding money in my wallet: damn near impossible. But not anymore! They recently expanded their shipping reach into my home state, which means for the past month I’ve been drinking nothin’ but Bell’s. Try their Hopslam double IPA, which will hit your nose with floral hops harder than a face-plant in a flower bed, or their smokey-smooth Kalamazoo Stout, which I drank on tap recently and nearly pooped myself. This brewery’s lineup features a wide array of delicious yet reasonably-priced beers. And I’m talking wide. They even make something called a Cherry Stout. I need to try that one.

2. Allagash Brewing Company
Location: Portland, Maine
Where to Start: Allagash White, Allagash Curieux

Allagash is still an Arizona holdout. As if that weren’t sad enough, something tragic happened recently: I saw a liquor mart ad in a local paper that read, “Allagash on sale: four varieties!” After surviving 17 simultaneous heart attacks, I ran to the store in search of those four varieties, only to find, gird yourself — none. I guess the ad had accidentally slipped in from another state. But I hope to rectify my Allagashlessness soon (remember my New Beer Resolutions?). If you’re confused about my affection, I’ll explain: Allagash makes Belgian-style beers that somehow taste distinctly Belgian and American. And I love Belgian ales. That’s why I buy Allagash whenever I’m out of state.

1. Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales
Location: Milton, Delaware
Where to Start: 90 Minute IPA, Burton Baton, Indian Brown Ale

I have many reasons for placing Dogfish Head at the top of my list. No other brewery in America (nor, perhaps, in the world) provides such a compelling mix of experimentation and consistency. Their beers span many drinker experience levels and price ranges. You can find their 90 Minute IPA (a personal favorite that’s a fantastic choice for IPA lovers and haters alike) or their Indian Brown Ale (a great starter ale to prepare for their Palo Santo Marron) in most stores for a reasonable price. But, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can pick up Red & White, an extreme witbier aged in oak with pinot noir juice, or Pangea, a cinammon- and cloves-laced ambrosia made with ingredients from every continent, for $10-20 per 750 ml bottle. And I haven’t even broached the in-between stuff like Burton Baton. If you haven’t yet tried a Dogfish Head beer, I’d recommend picking up one (or six) as soon as possible.

And, because I feel weird about under-representing the west coast on this list (considering that Colorado, California, and Oregon are craft brewery meccas), here are 15 honorable mentions, many of which barely missed the top five:

6. Rogue
7. Oskar Blues
8. Great Divide
9. New Belgium
10. Anchor
11. Avery
12. North Coast Brewery
13. Russian River
14. Brooklyn Brewery
15. Bear Republic
16. The Lost Abbey
17. Alesmith
18. Founders
19. Stone
20. Breckenridge

No Responses to “Kings of Craft”
  1. Ben says:

    i can get behind this list, aside from new belgium at #9.

    • Scott says:

      Glad you approve! As for number 9 — to be honest, I just kinda threw the HMs into a rough list, then numbered it. We’ll just chock the placement up to New Belgium’s wide-reaching influence. Plus I got a couple of rad New Belgium snifters on the cheap a while back!

  2. jmwerry says:

    Great List! Sadly, I have only sampled brews from about half of these breweries. The Pokemon for grownups is a great analogy that made me chuckle out loud. It really is like a quest to search out and sample brews from everywhere. People give me crap because I very rarely try the same beer twice. My mentality is WHY try the same beer twice when there are thousands of others waiting to be tried. I guess you could compare my beer bottle collection to a stock pile of poke balls (God, I’m ashamed I remember all this from 7th grade). I keep one empty bottle for every beer I try. I should actually blog about that sometime. Keep the posts coming!

    • Scott says:

      That’s pretty cool. I collect caps, which aren’t as specific … but it’s still fun. Our mentalities about beer (and Pokemon, apparently) actually seem pretty similar; if I come back to a beer more than once, you know it’s an absolute favorite.

  3. thebeersnob says:

    Agreed 100% with Dogfish Head’s #1 position, though I haven’t had some of the others you mentioned. Dogfish Head just does it right….excellent solid beer. Too many breweries, even craft ones sometimes, depend on marketing more than anything else to sell their beers.

  4. shawn says:

    enjoyed the list; you should re-do this every year to see if your tastes change. I agree with dogfish head; haven’t tried a bad beer from them yet. i think i would have put Anchor a little higher. Haven’t tried any of Bell’s yet – must run to bevmo. on a side note, have you ever tried any wingwalker beers? now ive tried the lager and the amber and both are outstanding.

    • Scott says:

      That’s a great idea — I love trying out new beers, so I could probably find a new favorite in a matter of months.

      I have not yet tried a Wingwalker beer … after looking them up, I don’t think I’ve even seen the labels before. But I’ll keep an eye out for them! Thanks for the rec.

  5. Dude….Troegs…TROEGS…

    • Scott says:

      I’d love to try some Troegs! I’ve heard nothing but good things. Sadly, I don’t find myself on the east coast often, and apparently they haven’t figured out how to ship west. If their absence really bothers you, though, you could always mail me some 😀

  6. Scott, I asked Joel how to like mail beer and he said it’s a pain in the ass. You NEED to try Nugget Nectar. It’s essential for a beer lover. I’ll see what I can do.

    • Scott says:

      It’s definitely a pain … which is why I was joking 🙂 OK, half joking. I really want to try some Troegs. But don’t feel obligated to get involved in these nefarious schemes!

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