Beer Quest 2008: The search for America’s best microbrew

Feature photo by Ben Cox and Jamie Kent. Photo above by Guanatos Gwyn.

So you’re sick of Busch Light and PBR? Looking for a more satisfying beer? Guess what – you’re not alone. More and more young people are ditching the national heavyweights for better tasting craft brews.

Lucky for us, we don’t have to look hard for a better beer. Thousands of microbreweries are popping up across the nation and, chances are, there’s one in your own backyard.

Leaving beer-flavored water behind can be a little intimidating at first, like saying goodbye to those incoherent college days. But fear not – there’s an endless array of awesomeness that awaits you. No one has ever regretted the decision to drink quality beer.

The Great Beer Road-Trip Of 2008

Like you, we were thirsty for something different, and so we hit the road in search of the best beer in America.

Beer Quest 2008 was a crazy adventure that took us through about 30 breweries in 30 states. Although we’ve come home tired and broke, we’ve gained two valuable lessons about traveling and beer:

Lesson #1:
People are great, and most will offer inside info to road trippers. Play your traveling cards right and you’ll inevitably meet some amazing folks with great insights on the local scene.

Lesson #2:
There’s good beer everywhere. Just hit the bars with a touch of curiosity and enjoy the local microbrews on tap. You won’t know what you like until you try it.

Photo by Ben Cox and Jamie Kent.

Beer Report 2008

Sampling over 200 microbrews was hard work, but we’re proud of the fruit of our labor. Beer Report 2008 not only lists the best brews in the country, but also the best breweries and brewpubs to visit.

The Basics

All beer starts with four ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malted barley (i.e. sugar). The yeast eats the sugar, creating alcohol. Hops are added for flavor and the water holds it all together. Pretty simple, right?

Well, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) gives awards for 75 different categories of beer, so there’s plenty of room for creativity. 75 categories intimidates the hell out of us, so we decided to make things simpler and base our rankings on 11 general categories:

1. Pale Ale (English style and west coast) – a light, smooth beer. East coast generally equals English style; much maltier, less bitter. West coast pales are loaded with hops, so they smell fruitier and tend to pack a punch.

2. Pilsner/Kolsch – light bodied German style beers. New to beer? Try this one first; it goes down real smooth.

3. Hefeweizen – cloudy, unfiltered, golden wheat beer, often decorated with lemon.

4. Wheat -same as above, but filtered.

5. Fruit Beer – any type of beer with fruit added to the mix.

6. India Pale Ale (IPA) – a super hoppy beer with a fruity taste and a bitter finish.

7. Amber -medium in color, medium in body.

8. Brown – getting darker…

9. Porter/Stout – dark, toasty, creamy, a meal in a glass.

10. Miscellaneous – when brewers have the chance to get creative, there’s a lot they can pull off.

11. Only on tap – brews you can only find on tap at local brewpubs across the country. They can easily surpass the offerings of larger breweries, but you have to know where to find them (that’s where we come in).

Each of these categories brings a unique brew to the table. If you’re just getting into microbrews, we suggest starting with the light choices and working your way toward the dark side, just like Anakin Skywalker.

After six weeks on the road, 30 breweries and 30 states, 10,000 miles traveled, and over 200 beers sampled, here’s what we recommend.

Photo by Ben Cox and Jamie Kent.

Top Brews

Pale Ale

Steel Rail Pale Ale – Berkshire Brewing Co. (S.Deerfield, MA) (East Coast): Smooth, malty, with fruity hints, and straight from the Berkshire Mountains.

Mighty Arrow Pale Ale – New Belgium Brewing Co. (Ft. Collins, CO) (West Coast): A grapefruit filled nose, mouth watering flavor, and great balance. Packs a punch, but goes down easy.


Gruit Kolsch – Roots Brewing Co. (Portland, OR): Lavender and chamomile replace the hops here; relaxing, organic, and fantastic.


Sunset Wheat – Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. (Chippewa Falls, WI): Smooth and fruity; like a great sunset, but bottled.


In Heat Wheat – Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, MD): Chewy, with a strong wheat flavor and crisp finish.

Fruit Beer

Purple Haze – Abita Brewing Company (Abita Springs, LA): A raspberry lager Hendrix would love.


90 Minute IPA – Dogfish Head Brewing Co. (Milton, DE): A hopheads heaven. This beer will kick your ass if you’re not ready for it.


Drop Top Amber – Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. (Portland, OR): Smoother than silk with fruity hints and a well balanced, malty body.


Hazelnut Brown – Rogue Ales (Newport, OR): Flavor that dances in your mouth, reminiscent of your morning coffee with a toasty body to back it up.


Chocolate Stout – Rogue Ales (Newport, OR): True dark chocolate flavor balanced with a crisp finish and creamy body.


Double Bag Ale – Long Trail Brewing Co. (Bridgewater Corners, VT): The smoothest beer with over 7% alcohol that we have ever tried.

Only On Tap

Meyer ESB – Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. (San Francisco, CA): This nitro infused beer looks just as good as it tastes.

Photo by misterbisson.

Top Breweries

All breweries were ranked based on overall quality, variety, availability, environment, social impact, creativity, and, well, our humble opinion. Based on these factors, five microbreweries surpassed the rest. Drum roll please…

1. Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, MD)

Topping just about every one of our ranking categories, it is an honor to award Flying Dog with the Summer Brew Tour’s number one brewery ranking. Their list of great beers spans everything from an In Heat Wheat to the Gonzo Porter, giving them a well-rounded and practically unbeatable lineup.

The fine folks at Flying Dog also let us sample beer out of their 300 barrel fermentation tanks. By the way, did we mention all of their artwork is done by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman?

2. Rogue Ales (Newport, OR)

The variety and availability of this brewery are amazing for a midsized micro (at least 30 different beers in all 50 states!). If you’re into the darker stuff, Rogue Ales can’t be beat. If not, give their Red IPA or Chipotle Ale a try. If you’re not part of the Rogue Nation yet, join the revolution.

3. Magic Hat Brewing Company (S. Burlington, VT)

This Burlington-based brewery offers a fantastic artillery of beer, particularly for those hot summer days. Their unfiltered and unfettered Circus Boy is one of the top three Hefeweizens we’ve come across, and their flagship #9 is the best Apricot Ale we’ve ever tried. Not to mention, their recently expanded facilities in Vermont include a new taproom with 48 tap lines for the ultimate touring experience.

4. New Belgium Brewing Company (Fort Collins, CO)

Coined “The most environmentally friendly brewery in the world,” New Belgium not only sets the bar with their sustainability efforts, but they also offer a great lineup of brews. Their Mighty Arrow is the best West coast-style Pale Ale we’ve tried, and their flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale just hit the canning line. If that’s not enough, their taproom is open every day!

5. Widmer Brothers Brewing (Portland, OR)

This large micro is a Portland staple and most commonly known for its flagship Hefeweizen, which you can find just about anywhere in the country. Little do most know, the rest of their beer is just as good. The Drop Top Amber is unbeatable and the Broken Halo IPA is one of the top three West coast-style pales we’ve come across.

Keep an eye out for these guys – after a recent merger with Red Hook, we have a feeling you’ll be seeing a lot more of them in your local liquor store.

Photo by Burnt Pixel.

Top Brewpubs

All of the brewpubs we visited were ranked based on the quality and variety of beers on tap, the food they served, and the overall atmosphere of the establishment. We highly recommend checking out these places.

1. Capitol City Brewing Company (Washington, D.C.)

CapCity’s unique lineup of quality brews is what propelled it past all other brewpubs in our journey. Its three locations in the D.C. area offer a great escape from the city and a hearty menu complements all the beers on tap. We’re sure there’s a brew and a meal here for everyone in your dinner party. Try the Tart Cherry Ale, a favorite of ours and something you won’t find anywhere else.

2. Mountain Sun Brewing Company (Boulder, CO)

The Mountain Sun has more beers on tap than any brewpub we’ve come across. Teamed with a cozy environment and an interesting crowd of diehard beer lovers, you’re sure to have a good time. Give the F.Y.IPA or the Pearl St. Porter a try.

3. Thirsty Bear Brewing Company (San Francisco, CA)

Thirsty Bear sets itself apart from the rest with an impressive tapas menu that leaves more room for the good stuff. Snack away as you sip on their nitro infused Meyer ESB, unquestionably the best we’ve come across.

4. Crescent City Brewing Company (New Orleans, LA)

Should you ever find yourself in The Big Easy, take a break from Bourbon Street debauchery and stumble over to Decatur, where Crescent City is waiting to introduce you to some quality German-style brews and classic local cuisine. Don’t miss the baked oysters and the Pilsner, both the best of this tour.

5. River City Brewing Company (Wichita, KS)

Located in the heart of Old Town, River City needs to be part of anyone’s trip to Wichita. They’ve got more seasonal brews than any brewpub out there, stretching the boundaries of traditional styles. You’ll leave wholly satisfied, most likely in a cab.

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  • Tim Patterson

    Ah college road-trips. The good old days. Glad to see Long Trail and Magic Hat on the list. Another great VT beer is Trout River.

  • Simon

    Doesn't sound like the summer could have been any better. I know I've got a new list to work from.

  • Julie

    Hi guys! I think Brew Quest 2009 should be a trip to US holdings off the continent. My buddy Wally, who lives in Puerto Rico, makes a home brew out of passionfruit that grow on his property and though I'm not a beer drinker, it's good stuff.

  • Brenda Sprague

    great article . very interesting and fun . now I know what brews to sample. keep articles like this coming!

  • Bob

    Good article, nice to see beginners getting into beer. As your palette matures youll all look back and laugh at the selections you made years later. Just experiment more and have fun!

  • Katie

    wish I was on that trip to find all these hidden gems… I'm keeping the list so when I travel I know where to go now!

  • Steven Aoki

    Awesome article guys, just wish I was there with you, because it sounds so amazing. Now I really wanna try the Rogue Ales. Can I get that where I live? You guys are so cool! I wish I could be your friend. :(

  • Itraders

    "This article makes me thirsty"

  • Tim Patterson

    Glad to see Mountain Sun up there too. One of my all-time favorite brewpubs.

  • Burl Hash

    Excellent! Excellent!. Can't wait to go to some of these places and get myself a beer. Great little travel story. BH

  • Beooke

    wow this was really informative!! I hope some day I can go on a beer/road trip.

  • Dave Barner

    Mmmmmmmmm. Beer.

  • Erin Donnellan

    I'm pretty jealous of your summer. thanks for giving me new options…Ill have to try some out! Always looking to drink something other than keystone and busch light

  • Alex

    Great article!! Makes me want to go try them all!!

  • Spring

    Well done Jamie!

  • Jacob

    I have to admit, when reading lists like this and can't help that something is always missing. Oh yeah, Wisconsin/Midwestern breweries! Sure, as a Wisconsinite I can admit a bias, but I'm simply talking about sheer numbers…Point, Monroe/Berghoff, Pabst, Miller (shudder), New Glarus, Pioneer, Sprecher, La Crosse (shudder), Lake Mill, Leinenkugels…tons of breweries, some with traditions older than our grandfathers. Most states boast between one or two (real) breweries, and out west, half of them seem to have been founded within the last 10 minutes.

  • Dan Norton

    Hey guys, it's Dan, Head Brewer at River City Brewing Co. in Wichita. Thanks for the shout out in your article, a well written piece, I might add. Good luck in everything that you do! Cheers!!!!!

  • Paul

    Way to represent, Oregon! With 4 of the 12 top beers and 2 of the 5 top breweries on this list, it's no wonder considering that Portland has more craft breweries per capita than any other city. You can get run out of town around here for ordering a beer that isn't a micro.

  • Tzubear

    I grew up in Oregon and have been drinking Rogues Chocolate stout since it was called Chocolate Bear Beer and was only available at the brewery or in Japan. Kudos to you for discovering it. While Rogue is one of the best brews in the country, it is only the second best in Oregon. Go to Bend and try Deschutes beers from the source.

  • Ethan

    Sweetwater = best bear ever…. I went to college in ATL and miss that stuff. Wish they would start distributing outside the Southeast

  • Jeff

    You guys really missed out on a great brewery in Cleveland, OH! Great Lakes Brewery makes some of the most amazing beers in the United States. You don't win multiple gold medals at the World Beer Championships for nothing.

  • joe miller

    Sorry but Purple Haze is one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted. It tasted like bile. Horrible!!!!

  • Josh A

    Sweetwater 420… Try It= Live IT = Love It!

  • Terri

    Try some brews from New Glarus, WI. Fairly cheap, and great tasting. My favorite is the Spotted Cow, but there are several varieties. All smooth tasting.

  • Ryan

    I’ve been planning a similar trip myself but haven’t yet gotten on my way because I can’t seem to get out of Colorado without finding another great place! I wasn’t surprised to see New Belgium on the list (Fort Collins was my home of four years) but I was shocked to see Mighty Arrow as your pick! This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy that brew but I feel beers like 1554 and Abbey…even Frambozen (seasonal fruit beer, strictly for the fuit beer catagory) would work their ways into your list.
    I was also unaware that Flying Dog was had officially left Denver (sad news). I had to sleep in my car one winter night in Steamboat Springs and the Gonzo Imperial Porter was the only thing I had to keep me warm! Happy to see they made the top of your list (and equally as shocked)!

  • Jake Brown

    Did you guys get a chance to get down to Chico Ca ? They have a few microbrews there with the largest being Sierra Nevada. If you get a chance check them out.

  • Paul Cox

    Great article and great picks! Especially love the Flying Dog and 90 min shout out (120 min will completely ruin you if given the chance). Gotta come back over to the east coast and give Flying Fish from Jersey taste!

  • Marie

    You might also want to check out The 21st Amendment in San Francisco. They have a new Master Brewer on staff who’s beers I happen to know very well and I can highly recommend. OK, It’s my brother and I’m biased, but the boy does know his way around a brewery since he trained in Chicago and Germany.

  • Big Bear California

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  • Big Bear California

    Hello fellow blogger! I’m rather new to blogs but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your blog here about big bear lake mountain fest; It kept me engrossed all the way to the end! Keep up the fine work… I’m always hoping to learn more about Big Bear California.

  • Amanda

    You forgot Real Ale in Texas – esp for their Firemans #4, Allagash Brewery and Bells Brewery.

  • Ughhh

    This article is a good reason why Seniors in undergrad should never write about beer… just not enough years of experience to have any idea what they are talking about when it comes to good beer and good breweries… I do not blame them, at that time of life I would of done bad too. But to have people so new into the beer world write an article claiming what is the best beer and breweries that year… really, it just wasted all of our time…