WE’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CRAFT BEER revolution. 10 years ago, if you went into a bar, there was a fair chance they would just serve two types of beer: “light” and “foreign.” Mercifully, the era of bad beer is over. Beer is good pretty much everywhere, now. IPAs, DIPAs, Black IPAs Porters, Kolschs, Marzens, Browns, Reds, Sours — all right there on the menu of your local watering hole.
There’s really no bad place to be right now. But we’ve picked 10 cities that we think are truly stand-outs. There are obvious ones, yes — but we’ve tried to pay attention to less appreciated cities, as well.
Underneath the streets of Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is a series of tunnels. The tunnels were not built in service of the underground railroad, which had it’s first northern “stop” in the city, nor were they built in service of some illicit bootlegger operation. They were built as massive beer cellars in service of the neighborhood’s German population. It’s a city that literally has beer in its foundations.
Over-the-Rhine (the canal that used to run through the southern end of the neighborhood was so surrounded by German immigrants that it was nicknamed “the Rhine”) has had a rough few decades, but it’s getting back to its German roots, and new breweries are opening up left and right.
There’s no better destination in the country for German-style beer fans. Rhinegeist. Taft’s Ale House. Mad Tree. Moerlein. Mt. Carmel. Listermann. Rivertown. Across the river, there’s Ei8ht Ball Brewery and a Hofbrauhaus. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Of course the third largest city in the United States has good breweries. “What else made your list?” you could reasonably say, “New York? Boston? Munich?” But we’re giving Chicago a spot on our list for another reason entirely. Sure, there are great breweries — Half Acre, Local Option, Revolution, Pipeworks, Moody Tongue, Arcade Brewery, and 3 Floyds over in Munster, to name a few — but what really stands out about Chicago’s beer scene is the insanely good beer can art Don’t believe me?
A photo posted by Pipeworks Brewing Co. (@pipeworksbrewing) on
#repost @theopenbottle: Today’s tasting comes from @arcadebrewery. Lava Blender is a tropical American Pale Ale with coconut, passion fruit, and lime notes.🌴 🌺 Perfectly refreshing for this heat wave. Stop in for a taste and grab a 22oz bottle for $8.99! #tinleypark #craftbeer #drinklocal #myopenbottle #drinkcraft
A photo posted by arcadebrewery (@arcadebrewery) on
A video posted by Half Acre Beer Co (@halfacrebeer) on
Bottle ov the week: Anchorage Anadromous. This black sour is fermented in French oak foeders, Pinot noir and bourbon barrels with Brett. This is a staff favorite and only arrives once a year so stop in for one. #anchoragebrewing #anadromous #bottleovtheweek
A photo posted by Local Option (@localoption) on
A photo posted by Pipeworks Brewing Co. (@pipeworksbrewing) on
Step up your beer can art game, rest of the country. Chicago’s putting the rest of us to shame.
The other Portland gets all the attention, but Maine’s largest city (which, by the way, is still super small) is the stand-out when it comes to beer. The big boys in the city’s craft beer scene are Allagash, the Maine Beer Company, and Shipyard, but there are a ton of other really fantastic small breweries, as well — and Portland bars and restaurants are super supportive of their local breweries.
We suggest Bissell Brothers, Novare Res, Oxbow, Rising Tide, Liquid Riot, and Bunker. One of the best ways to visit all of them is to take the Maine Brew Bus, which hits up a ton of breweries in the Greater Portland Area. If you’re less into the idea of moving around, hit up Bull Feeney’s in Old Port and just order one of each.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Coloradans are spoiled when it comes to awesome beer. Denver and Longmont both deserve mentions, but the real star is Fort Collins. The mid-size college town is home to New Belgium, Odell Brewing Company, Fort Collins Brewery, Snowbank, Horse and Dragon, Black Bottle, Equinox, and a half dozen more.
New Belgium is the most prominent, of course, being one of the largest craft breweries in the country, but it’s not its size that makes it worthy of mention: When founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan decided to leave the beer business back in 2013, they could’ve done what the owners of so many craft breweries have done: sold out. Instead, they sold the company back to the employees, making New Belgium 100% employee owned. Outside magazine lists the brewery as the best place to work in America. New Belgium also diverts 99.99% of their waste from the landfill, and gets 10% of their energy from the methane produced by an on-site water treatment facility.
The other breweries clinch the spot for Fort Collins, but New Belgium’s insane awesomeness puts the city on the map.
San Diego, California
San Diego basically owns two global subcultures for a short period of time each year: They own nerd culture during San Diego Comic-Con. And they own beer culture during San Diego Beer Week. It’s arguably the best city on the planet for beer, let alone the United States, particularly if you’re into the now-trendy hop-heavy variety of craft beer.
The riches are endless: Stone. AleSmith. Ballast. Green Flash. Modern Times. Mike Hess. Karl Strauss. Societe. Rough Draft. Helms. Benchmark. We could go on: the city is home to 123 breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs. The city basically created the Double IPA, and one of the local breweries has won “Best Small Brewery” at the Great American Beer Festival four times, and Pizza Port has won several awards as one of the brewpubs in the US.
We don’t usually like to honor the big, obvious choices in these lists, favoring always lesser-known and lesser-appreciated towns and cities, but there comes a point when you’re so big, and so obvious, that ignoring you is just plain stupid. San Diego, we bow to your beer dominance.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
When we were asking people for input on this list, we knew we’d get a lot of votes for both Portlands, Asheville, San Diego, and Boston. There are obvious choices when it comes to these things. The one that surprised us the most was how gung-ho people were about Grand Rapids. One said he’s been going to Grand Rapids with a group of friends for 7 years — just for the beer. USA Today voted it “Best Beer Town.”
If you’re going for the beer, the way to do it is with the Brewsader Passport.
It’s exactly what it sounds like — you get a stamp for each of the 23 breweries you visit.
The first spots you need to visit are craft beer titan Founders, Grand Rapids Brewing Company, and Brewery Vivant. Then you’ve got another 40 breweries to go. There’s Harmony, the Mitten Brewing Company, andB.O.B’s. The city is also home to HopCat, the best brewpub in the USA, according to RateBeer.com.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Asheville usually gets all of the credit in North Carolina for being the “cool city,” and with good reason — as we have argued elsewhere, it’s maybe the coolest town in the US. But as a result, it overshadows some of the other really awesome cities in the state. In fact, if we were doing a “best beer states” list, North Carolina would probably be at the top, thanks in particular to three cities: Asheville, Raleigh, and Charlotte.
Charlotte in particular is on the rise: There’s NoDa, Sugar Creek, Birdsong, Legion, Old Meck, Heist, Triple C, and Wooden Robot. And a special shout out to Ass Clown Brewing, whose motto, “Drink one, don’t be one,” is the message we’ve been needing from our beer.
Our last beer cities list featured Philadelphia, and we considered putting it on again, until our Pittsburgh people put up a fight. Pittsburgh takes care of its own, and has an awesome growing craft beer scene (and, it should be said — Pittsburgh is just prettier than Philadelphia. And who doesn’t like drinking with a view?). Notables include Roundabout, Grist House, Draai Laag, Voodoo, Brew Gentleman, Spoonwood, Hitchhiker, Helltown, Hop Farm, Full Pint, and the East End Brewing Company. Oh, and like any good German city: they have a Hofbrauhaus.
The craft beer revolution came up so fast that there are a lot of cities that didn’t even have a real scene a decade ago. Birmingham is one of those cities. Good People sold its first beer in 2008 and is the oldest and largest operating brewery in Alabama. Before 2011, there were only 5 craft breweries in the entire state The jump start came in 2011, the year that Avondale, and Cahaba all opened up. Since then, the statewide number has gone up to 24.
Birmingham’s craft beer scene is still small compared to the powerhouse beer towns on the coasts and the midwest — on top of the three from 2011, there’s only Trim Tab and Ghost Train. But they have amazing craft beer bars like the J. Clyde and Hop City. And you don’t need to be big to be awesome.
Oregon is another state, like North Carolina, that has an embarrassment of riches. The obvious choice is Portland, and in our last craft beer round-up, we gave a shout out to Eugene. So let’s take a moment to acknowledge the third city in Oregon’s beer trifecta: Bend.
Like Eugene, Bend has a killer Ale Trail. They even have an Ale Trail app.
Deschutes is the king of the craft breweries in Bend, according to our sources, but there are a dozen other great breweries as well: Crux Fermentation Project, Boneyard, GoodLife, Three Creeks, Rat Hole, Cascade Lakes, Immersion, and Sun River.
Bend, unlike a lot of the other towns on this list, also has a selection of distilleries and wineries as well. So you can make a full boozy weekend out of it.