As of sometime in 2010, every state in the US contains a brewery. From barely a dozen craft breweries in 1983, America now boasts over THREE THOUSAND…and while we all know that a saturation point is possible and probably even inevitable, opening a small brewery – with realistic expectations – remains one of the smartest ways, as long as you have some talent for it, to make a living. And that last phrase is very important for anyone thinking about opening one: “Make a living“. Not “Get rich“. Not “Get famous“. Not “Become a legend” – “Make A Living“. This goes back to the realistic expectations thing. The most promising reason for a starting a new brewery is that there are 3,000 breweries. The greatest drawback to the idea is…there are 3,000 breweries.
The history is well-documented and inarguable: It happened first Out West. In terms of significant numbers of breweries in operation, only Sam Adams/Boston Beer Co. (and Yeungling, which predates even Sam Adams but was just another regional brewer of Bud-Clone watery Pilsners) has as much history. The craft brewing culture was really born in the West, which is why very few of the Emerging Beer Towns listed here is out this way. San Diego, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Fort Collins, Bend…all these have already emerged and are recognized for their excellence. Similarly, no Vermont towns are listed, simply because so much has been written in the recent past. Ditto for the wildly (and irrationally) hyped Asheville, which has been mentioned to death, mainly because there’s just no other brewing concentration for 500 miles in any direction and for a ridiculous, crowd-sourced poll in examiner.com. I fully expect to have people saying, “Hey, what about _______? Our brewing scene is killin’ it!” And that’s as it should be. Fervor for your local breweries and your own beer culture is what keeps the US craft community vital and growing.
And that, my friends, is the key to this list: Community. It’s no coincidence that the root of that word is “unity”. The towns on this list distinguish themselves by their tight-knit cultures, their communal attitude that A Rising Tide Floats All Boats. You need one or more great, veteran brewers in that culture; people others can learn from and emulate. And, most of all, you need a population that’s avid, open-minded, culturally aware, adaptable, adventurous, and ready to embrace the Journey along with that new brewery. And every town on this list has all those factors in place, in the groove, and Hummin’!
NUMBER TEN: COLUMBUS, OHIO
Columbus, Ohio, you ask? How can that be? Well, for starters, local stalwart Columbus Brewing, the resurrection of a brewery originally founded in 1830(!), has been delivering rock-solid beers since they emerged in 1988, led by the Gold Standard of Ohio Double/Imperial IPA, “Bodhi”, a pungent, crisp, palate-coating stunner that made me a tad weak in the knees…A brewery named for one my favorite adjectives ever? Yeah! Zaftig Brewing takes its name from the Yiddish-derived, Americanized word for a shapely, round-bodied woman and that’s exactly the aesthetic owners,brewers Jim Gokenbach and Brent Halsey have fiercely embraced: high-gravity, ass-kickin’ BIG beers, led by their spectacular Barleywine/DIPA monster, “Shadowed Mistress”, which can stand toe-to-toe with any American Strong Ale I’ve ever tasted…Smokehouse Brewing goes straight for the DIPA jugular with Double Dog Dare, a spectacular mouthful of citrus, flowers, resins galore, and iron-willed malt core…Barley’s Brewing should, if God is in His Heaven, make a killer Barleywine, wouldn’t ya think? And they do: the imaginatievly named “Barleywine!”, with a built-in exclamation point, both in print and in piehole. Titanic, rich, almost thick BW with flavors that explode on the tongue…Toss in Seventh Son Brewing, with one of America’s great Biere de Gardes, the very promising Zauber Brewing, North High Brewing with a Black IPA that would stack up strong even Out West. Four String Brewing, Sideswipe Brewing, Wolf’s Ridge, and the delightfully name-conscious Actual Brewing Company, with their towering Wheatwine, “Beau’s Eisenweizen Condensate”, and ya got a crazy-promising culture that’s only getting better, year by year, new brewery by new brewery.
NUMBER NINE: MADISON, WISCONSIN
Fact Number One is that I’ll probably get a tsunami of offended emails saying something along the lines of, “Hey! Only Number Nine? In the state that’s been brewing beer for 100 years?!?” Yeah, Milwaukee has been a brewery town for over a century, brewing one of those watered-down, insipid Pilsners. Doesn’t count because it’s not the type of “brewing” we’re talking about here. BUT, in craft beer terms, apparently Wisconsin folks have been able, all evidence to the contrary, to turn off the Badgers football games long enough to craft some seriously great ales. Madison, being a college town, was fertile ground for adventurous beer lovers, anyway, and one of America’s best brew pubs, Great Dane Pub & Brewing, leads the way with what is certainly one of the country’s best renderings of the vastly under-appreciated Bitters, the Great Dane Cask ESB, which almost made me speak in tongues…One of my nominees for top new brewery in America is also in Mad Town, Karben4 Brewing, whose “Fantasy Factory” IPA just may be the best under-the-radar Midwest India Pale and whose “Silk Scorpion” Black Ale will delight every drinker of lighter-bodied Darks…Ale Asylum also rings in, with a stupid-fine line-up, led by a stunning Belgian-style IPA, “Bedlam”…Other notables include the verging-on-spectacular Capital Brewing, out in Middleton, One Barrel Brewing, Next Door Brewing with their vivid “Hammerhead” Belgian-style IPA, Fauerbach, Wisconsin Brewing, Cross Plains, BluCreek, the tiny but intriguing new gluten-free project, Greenview Brewing, and my fave, MobCraft Brewing, which offers the single best beer name by any brewery, anywhere, ever: “Oak-Aged Sour Bat Shit Crazy” American Brown Ale. Madison is bustin’ with beer!
NUMBER EIGHT: PHOENIX, ARIZONA
Again, I’ll get emails. Phoenix folks tend to think, because they run around in shorts all year long and have four major sports teams, that Phoenix is out front on everything. Yet…not so much on the beer thing. For reasons passing all understanding, Phoenix and its sister in Pre-Occupiedness, Los Angeles, have come very late to the West Coast Craft Beer Extravaganza; a stunning fact when you consider that both places could really use some cold beer. But The ‘Nix is making up for it with a barrage of great new breweries.The Big Guns are well-established: Papago Brewing, Arizona Wilderness, Fate Brewing, and Four Peaks Brewing. In an eye-popping turn of events, Cartel Coffee Company suddenly started making beer (it’s all brewing, right?) and is doing a bang-up job of it. Papago’s brilliant “Double Red Hop Tamale” Chile Beer and “Wild Raven” Wild Ale anchor a whole roster of excellent beers and ideas…’Zona Wilderness offers at least fourteen ales that would have to be in anybody’s “Best Of” list, most notably a haunting Quad, “The New Brood”, a peach Porter(!), “Denmark In The Desert”, “Funky Chardonnay” American Wild Ale, and the spectacular “Imperial Refuge” DIPA…Fate showcases two Sweet Stouts, a delicious Roggerbier with cranberries(!), and a spectacular Coffee Kolsch…Four Peaks does everything and does it all very well. German, Belgian, American, Brit-trad, doesn’t matter, especially their “Hopsquatch”, “Diablo Rojo” Strong, and their brooding, Potter-inspired “Sirius Black” Imperial Stout…Other gems include San Tan Brewing, Sun Up Brewing, O.H.S.O. Eatery and Nano-Brewery, Desert Eagle, Huss Brewing, The Phoenix Ale Brewery, and what gets my vote for Top Dog Beer in the Phoenix market – North Mountain Brewing’s brilliant, James Gang hommage fruit ale, “Funk 49”, a Pomegranate, Pear, Apple and Grapefruit infused Blonde with an original gravity of…1.049. Of course. Better late than many towns are early, P-Town is coming out strong.
NUMBER SEVEN: PORTLAND…NO, THE OTHER PORTLAND…IN MAINE
People get confused by the Left Coast PDX and Maine’s sturdy seaport town and lately, given the general level of interest, Portland, Maine, seems to be thinking they’re that other beer mecca, too. Of course, the Portland metro has always included one of America’s greatest, Allagash Brewing, maybe the finest maker of Belgian-style ales in the US. Allagash “Curieux”, “Yakuza”, “PNC Broken Elevator”, Tripel, “Avance”, “Coolship Red”, and too many others to mention make Allagash a serious contender on any list of Best Brewery in The US…Past that, Maine Beer Company is my clear favorite. “MO” may just be the best American Pale Ale I’ve ever tasted. It’s perfectly balanced, impossibly delicious, and compulsively drinkable. Only Wild Earth Brewing’s “Tamarack”, IMHO, is in its class and all the same can be said about Maine Brew Co’s epic Imperial IPA, “Dinner”, possibly the best East Coast DIPA I’ve ever tasted…Rising Tide Brewing is the new heavyweight, with a collection of six (at last count) Farmhouse Ales, led by my favorite, the “Entrepot Series: Figue”, a gorgeous Saison infused with Turkish figs and mesquite honey and aged in Cabernet barrels(swoon). (Jeez, I’m getting all sweaty)…Behind those three, and not by much, are the various iterations of Sebago Brewing, the esteemed D.L. Geary Brewing, with one of the nation’s finest Wee Heavy/Scotch Ales, Bissel Brothers, whose IPA “The Substance” is making a lot of waves, the well-established excellence of Peak Organic Brewery, the new Belgian-centric Foundation Brewing, Casco Bay, Austin Street, the crowd-pleasing Shipyard Brewing, Bunker Brewing, and the fascinating In’Finiti Fermentation & Distillation, whose beechwood-smoked Rauchbier ran me a little short of adjectives. A Portland pal of mine recently wrote, “Portland is such a great brewing town because that all the %$@# there is to do here.” Here’s hoping Maine’s Portland stays quiet…and keeps on brewin’.
NUMBER SIX: HOT ‘LANTA…ATLANTA, GEE-AYE
The problem with trying to tell you about the history of Atlanta’s craft beer scene is there’s hardly any of it. Much like their downtown architecture, the whole thing seems to have sprung up out of the ground about two weeks ago. Maybe the best brewery in the city, Wrecking Bar Brewpub, opened in 2011. Beer has actually been brewed in Atlanta for well over 150 years, as is nicely laid out in the Ron Smith/Mary Boyle penned “Atlanta Beer”. (Of course, that early stuff was almost all the standard watery Pilsners.) In craft brewing, Atlantans seem to have all done the forehead smack and said “Oh, yeah. Better git bizzy!” about a decade ago. But they get good fast, there in ‘Lanta, and now we have the stunning Sweetwater Brewing, whose “Dank Tank” series of hyper-IPAs continues to turn heads…The new Orpheus Brewing has been a HUGE success, with a strong roster of Belgian-inspired Farmhouse/Saison beers and one mammoth Imperial IPA, “Transmigration of Souls”…My recent encounter, at Atlanta Hartsfield, with Three Taverns Brewing‘s “A Night in Brussels” Belgian-style IPA left me breathless and boarding my connecting flight with a big ol’ grin on my mug, and a recent tasting of their “Quasimodo” Quad has me looking for excuses to visit my aunt and uncle in Marietta…Red Brick Brewing‘s full line-up would keep any craft fan seated and happy for their entire visit to town, especially if you lead with what is arguably the signature Georgia IPA, “HopLanta”…Wild Heaven Brewing dabbles in both the Belgian and British traditions and dabbles deliciously, especially in their smack-down Quad, “Eschaton”…The two Gordon Biersch locations and two Five Seasons Brewpubs are both doing exceptional work, and O’Dempsey’s “Your Black Heart” Russian Imperial Stout may just be the best RIS in the South...Blue Tarp, Eventide, and Twain’s Billiards & Tap all deserve mention, too. Atlanta is, for many of us Southerners, a little too big for its britches, but in beer terms, they’re exactly the right fit.
NUMBER FIVE: ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
Al-boo-kerr-kee…for schoolkids all over America, it’s been little more than a word nobody wants to see in a spelling bee. But those kids grow up and many of ’em drink beer, so they’d better sit up and take a little notice of a town that’s as arguably booming, at least in beer terms, as any in the West. In this unearthly beautiful location, hard up against the Sandias Mountains, straddling the Rio Grande, in central New Mexico, a brewing culture is developing that rivals any in the country. Their relative isolation, which works against some beer communities, works here because everybody helps everybody and so everybody benefits. The Top Dawgs are the sublime La Cumbre Brewing, with a selection of…well, whatever they’re tinkering with lately. From Belgians to Brits to Baltic Porters to German lagers that would fool Hans and Fritz, to their “Dank Tank” Series of amped IPAs, La Cumbre (Spanish for “The Summit”) does it all beautifully, especially their main-line “Dank Tank IPA”…Down the road is Marble Brewery, where Co-Founders Ted Rice, Jeff Jinnett, and John Gozigian opened the doors in 2008 and instantly started a hyper-active brewing schedule that’s never really slowed down. Their “Pumpkin Noire” is easily the Southwest’s premier fruit beer, while the “Alpha-Acid Trip Double IPA” and the aptly-named Double IPA set the standard for NMIPA…Chama River Brewing stands out for their crowd-pleasing “Jackalope” IPA, a New Mexico pub staple, and visitors would be well advised to pub-crawl the just-opened Tractor Brewing, Blue Corn Brewing, Nexus Brewery, the new Duel Brewing, Bosque Brewing, all locations of Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizzas and Brewery Canteen, and brewpubs Kelly’s and Farside. Albuquerque is a literal oasis of great beers in a place where you really want a cold one after the long trip in.
NUMBER FOUR: AUSTIN, TEXAS
I vividly remember being in Austin in 1971, as a larval-stage beer snob from Maryland, and going in search of an imported beer. I walked all over downtown Austin…and struck out completely. It was Texas. It was 1971. Nobody in Texas was drinking those dark, bitter, weird imported beers and craft beer, of course, was barely a twinkle in Jack McCauliffe’s eye. I remember asking a store clerk for any imports…and she handed me a Michelob. Well, times have changed down there, Deep in the Heart Of, and Austin’s brewery scene contains – and booms with! – some beer styles that would, in 1971, have prompted all those Good Ol’ Boy Texans to start making jokes about a guy’s manhood. In Texas brewing circles, it doesn’t get any better than suburban giant, Jester King Brewery, a virtual temple of Belgian/American free-thinking experimentation. Jester King stacks up admirably with any of the nation’s best makers of reinvented Belgian styles and wild-fermented ales. Their “Bier de Miel” Honey Saison remaions one of the two or three most voluptuously delicious ales I’ve tasted in the past decade, while their “RU-55”, “Ambrée”, and “Boxer’s Revenge” stand as three of the best American Wild Ales I’ve found yet…Just half a hair behind is Hops & Grain Brewery, where stand-outs Belgian Stout and “Suzy Q” deftly marry the Brit and Belgian traditions to make something that’s beautifully American. Also of note are the pacifiers for the Hophead crowd, the striking “Dr. Buddish’s Experimental IPA”, “Greenhouse” IPA and “Pale Dog” APA, all delicious, all different and crazy drinkable…(512) Brewing Company scores BIG with their lush, emphatic Pecan Porter, and Draught House Pub & Brewery sets themselves apart with a fine roster of British/American ales, highlighted by their edgy, floral “Bombay” IPA…Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub does a little of everything and does it all well, especially their two outstanding Pales, “AXT” and “TAP” (“Tasty Ass Pale”…a name you really don’t want to dwell on too long.)…Also of note are Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, with their classic “Vulcan” IPA, Adelbert’s, Uncle Billy’s Brew & ‘Cue, Infamous Brewing, Kamala Brewing, and South Austin Brewing…and I’m probably forgetting a few. They really do things BIG in Texas and that includes going into craft beer in a big, big way.
NUMBER THREE: ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
I spent a LONG ten days in St. Louis’s trendy West End, back in 2004, and conducted a mostly fruitless search for craft beers, finally finding ONE tiny brewpub, Route 66, in the huge Union Station downtown. Route 66 is now closed but the seed they helped plant is growing like kudzu, all but taking over the ‘hood of their Crap Beer Colossus, just down the road, the Belgian/Brazilian company now colloquially renamed “The Brewery Formerly Known As Anheuser Busch”. This is a town on fire for craft beer and who can blame them? 100+ years of being enslaved to the same handful of watery adjunct Pilsners will do that to ya. But now, a tsunami of young brewers are opening outfits like Perennial Artisan Ales, 4 Hands Brewing, Square One Brewery & Distillery, Urban Chestnut Brewing, The Civil Life Brewing, Augusta Brewing Company, Six Row Brewing, Kirkwood , Cathedral Square, and Alpha Brewing. Ales are replacing Bud and Bud Light and dancing on the fresh grave of Michelob in all but the diviest bars in St. Lou. The local champion is Perennial Artisan Ales, where Cory King is so prolifically creative (and a little hyperactive) that he’s not content to be one of America’s hottest brewers once and is now hot twice, with his second-label brewery, the aptly-named Side Project Brewing. Both specialize heavily in Belgian-leaning but very Americanized ales that run mostly to Saison/Farmhouse styles but include one of America’s top-tier Stouts, Perennial “Abraxas”. Side Project branches out into Saisons and Wild Ales exclusively and features THREE new classics, “Blueberry Flanders”, “Fuzzy” American Wild Ale, and “Saison du Fermier”…After the King glories are 4 Hands Brewing, with their dazzling “Volume # 1” American Double / Imperial Stout and “War Hammer” American Double / Imperial IPA, The Civil Life and its list of Brit and German gems, the ancient-but-reborn Schlafly, whose Pumpkin Ale and “Tasmanian IPA” are local obsessions. Also notable and worth a visit are the solid, straight-forward Morgan Street Brewery, Kirkwood Station, Six Row, and Urban Chestnut. And don’t miss stalwart O’Fallon, with a Smoked Porter that’s like drinking a big Dark next to a bonfire. St. Louis sure has changed in just ten years…damnit.
NUMBER TWO: ANCHORAGE, ALASKA
Gabe Fletcher…that’s the main thing to know about brewing in Anchorage. Up there in the national Ice Box, quality trumps quantity. There are fewer breweries in Anchorage than in any other city on this list…but the beers! Fletcher’s Anchorage Brewing seems to ignore the fact that they’re figuratively in the attic of western civilization, working collaborations with Lower 48 brewers and shipping into the mainland USA freely. Fletcher’s beers are STUNNING; rooted in Belgium but given Fletcher’s own imaginative twists, with superb creations like the near-perfect “The Tide and Its Takers” Belgian-Style Tripel, “Time Waits For No One” Imperial Stout, and collabs like Anchorage/Hill Farmstead “Distant Matter” IPA, “Between The Staves” with Chad Yakobsen of Denver’s Crooked Stave, and the Jolly Pumpkin co-creation “Calabaza Boreal”. His “Bitter Monk” Belgian IPA and “Deal With The Devil” Barleywine are two of my favorites of the past three years. As the anchor for the Anchorage scene, Gabe Fletcher and his inspired envelope-pushing could scarcely be more perfect…Meanwhile, across town, Midnight Sun Brewing is merrily cracking out incredible, intense, balls-out ales the way a sprinkler spews water. “Arctic Rhino”, “Panty Peeler” Tripel, “Sockeye Red” IPA, “Arctic Devil” Barleywine, and “Berserker” Imperial Stout stand among the best of their styles in North America. One-offs and collabs – like the Black Raven co-op, “Sun of a Beak” Porter – keep everybody busy, over on Dimond Hook Drive, and each new season brings new surprises…The other four companies, King Street Brewing, Glacier Brewhouse, Snow Goose/Sleeping Lady, and the hard-chargin’ Broken Tooth Brewing await their new neighbor, Chugach Brewing, set to open in the fall of ’14. There are seven other pending licenses in Alaska and two are from Anchorage. This is a brewing destination already and will only get better.
NUMBER ONE: TAMPA. FLORIDA
In The Beginning…there was Saint Somewhere Brewing, starting somewhat quietly and woefully under-appreciated. Then, along came a budding colossus, Cigar City Brewing Company, and everything changed, there in Tampa-St. Pete. Every other brewery in the entire state of Florida stood in their massive shadow. But brewing is about, to some extent, being fearless, and other breweries opened in bunches and found, much to their dismay, that they could not only field an audience in the realm of CCBC but flourish. Even the profile of Saint Somewhere rose as a result of the brighter spotlight and Beer Geeks said that It Was Good…In that fertile beginning, Cigar City proved to be a great neighbor and, far more importantly, a challenge. When the bar is set that improbably high, you either rise to the challenge or sink like a rock. Today, Tampa is still Cigar Country but others are staking their own claim, too. Cigar City Brewing Company remains one of America’s best breweries. They have their detractors but you will not find one here. When it comes to totally out-of-the-box thinking and the chops to make it all Work, I’ve seen no brewery in the US that equals Cigar City. Cucumber Siasons, ales aged with broken-up cigar boxes, “Hunahpu’s” Imperial Stout, “Church(On A)Hill” Barleywine, the devastating “Jai Alai White Oak” IPA, “Kalivipoeg” Baltic Porter, a Cyprus Wood Orange Lager…and the most amazing use of varied and inventive woods by any brewery in the world, ever. Brewmaster Wayne Wambles and crew are relentlessly prolific and shockingly creative. Most brewers would never even think of what CCBC makes and would talk themselves out of doing it, if they did…No less towering is Peg’s Cantina & Brewpub, where Doug Dozark, who worked for four years at Cigar City, is now head brewer. Dozark didn’t miss a beat or lower his horizons when he changed jobs and signed on at his Mom’s funky little pub. Peg’s features a glorious series of APAs, all imaginatively hopped and all immaculately balanced. The offerings lean toward Belgians and American ales and Dozark defies the weather gods to make a stellar list of Darks, including the massive and uber-sexy “Cream and Sugar, Please” American Porter. Peg’s has been remarkably slow to bottle anything, so if you want a taste…take a vacation…OR, you can check out Doug’s latest development, the spun-off Cycle Brewing, which celebrates beer and bikes and sunshine and it is every bit the budding giant as Peg’s…Devon Kreps and Justin Stange came from Oregon and Cigar City, respectively, and are doing, basically, exactly what CCBC and Peg’s do: anything they freakin’ want. 7venth Sun Brewing makes nearly as many beers as their two celebrated neighbors but do it a tad more quietly, if no less beautifully. Since opening in 2012, they’ve made over 100 different beers and show no signs of slowing down. If you get down there, try the “Midnight Moonlight” Berlinerweisse…
Saint Somewhere Brewing is (I originally called them a “really odd duck”, here, but I thought about it and changed my mind) a Revelation: all Saisons. I’m flat-out addicted to several of them: the “Cynthiana”, “Lectio Divina”, “Philosophe”, and “Pays du Soleil”. I’m squirming with anticipation to get to Tampa and taste the rest but these few show what a great, visionary brewery can do within the scope of ONE beer style and if they start making anything else (They already tried a German-style Hellas), I’m betting it will be just as good…Barley Mow Brewing tinkers with fruity and other infusions a lot and they make it work. “Gourd Save The Queen!” American Porter is a stand-out, as are “Nuada” Chocolate Coffee Stout and “Abbatoir” DIPA…Very Honorable Mention goes to 3 Daughters Brewing, where former chef and current brewmaster, Ty Weaver, is killin’ it with his Barrel-Aged Quad, Breakfast Stout, and a gorgeous, golden Kölsch. Other notables are Pair O’ Dice, Green Bench, BrewBus, Three Palms, Cold Storage Brewing, St, Petersburg Brewing, and Dunedin Brewery. Tampa shows, better than any other US beer community, what it means to have a great, ground-breaking brewery that sets the bar, blazes the trail, and shows consumers what’s possible, so that everybody can avoid that strait-jacket of the endless iterations of IPA/Pale/Stout/Porter/ESB/Amber and nothing else. In terms of creativity and growing skill, Tampa is easily America’s Next Big Thing.
QUICK NOTE: I’ve gotten a small but fervent bunch of messages about Rapp Brewing in Seminole, Florida. They weren’t included in this list for three reasons: 1) I’ve never tasted any of their beers, 2) they’re usually not listed as a “Tampa brewery”, (See BeerAdvocate’s “Places” list for Tampa) and 3) they have a pretty modest national recognition.. They’re more properly considered a St. Pete brewery and this post was about Tampa. After a couple of quick phone calls, I got my main question answered: People in Tampa DO consider Rapp as a local brewery, despite the drive involved. Therefore, relying on their word, I want to alert you to what I’ve heard about them on the phone: “Absolutely stunning beers“…”Great across the board, from Berlinerweiss to Saisons to Peanut Butter Stout“…”Fu&@in’ killers“…”As good as anybody in the Southeast“..So, my apologies to the Rapp folks and, if you get to Tampa, as I plan to do SOON, missing the drive to Pinellas Park and a Rapp beer or three is going to be a bad idea.