As part of its silver anniversary celebration, All About Beer Magazine asked me to name my 25 favorite American beer cities. Lists like these invite controversy, which isn’t a bad thing. Differences of opinion make for good discussion and are amicably resolved over a pint or two.
Locals explained the secret of Alaskan beer: warm summer days encourage living life to its fullest, and long winter nights give brewers time to tinker with their beers.
Naming one’s favorite beer cities is, of course, a matter of opinion, but I tried to introduce a bit of journalistic objectivity by identifying the criteria that would go into a decision whether to visit. No city on Earth meets all of these criteria (well, Munich comes close), but those on my top 25 list ranked high on at least several. Here they are.
• Local breweries. That means microbreweries and brewpubs, because that’s where you’ll find classic beer and unusual new styles. In some cities, historic regional breweries, such as Yuengling and Spoetzel, play a prominent role in the local beer scene. And touring a brewery, be it micro or macro, is a pleasant way to wile away a few hours.
• History and lore. America doesn’t have breweries inside medieval castles or taverns where Shakespeare drank, but there’s plenty of history to be found. Our country is rich in beer lore, ranging from beer barons’ mansions, like Colonel Pabst’s home in Milwaukee, to craft brewing landmarks such as the Mendocino Brewing Co.’s original location in the appropriately named town of Hopland, CA.
• Hard to find beer. Many a beer lover has visited Portland, OR, and brought back bottles of the formidable Adam and Fred, brewed by Hair of the Dog Brewing Co. Likewise, travelers to the Great Lakes region have come home with Bell’s Oberon Ale or Consecrator doppelbock. Beers like these are enjoyable travel souvenirs and a great way to impress friends.
• Taverns. In some parts of our country, the corner tavern is still a part of everyday life. These establishments are what author Ray Oldenburg calls “The Great Good Places,” those places outside the home and workplace where a person can unwind with friends and beer fulfills its traditional role as a social lubricant. The nation’s best beer bars are, in my opinion, those that keep electronic distractions to a minimum and invite conversation.
• Beer festivals. It’s no coincidence that many of the nation’s top festivals are in or near its best beer cities. The Northwest, where the craft brewing movement began, is especially rich in festivals. But many cities not in the top 25 have notable festivals worth a visit. A couple of examples: Cincinnati, which stages the biggest Oktoberfest in America; and Syracuse, NY, where the Empire State Brewing & Music Festival is a summertime must.
• Local food. A beer trip is also an excuse to get out of your normal culinary routine: you can eat when you’re hungry and have fun eating. For me, that means trying such local specialties as Chicago-style hot dogs, Texas chili, New England clam chowder, and a Hawaiian plate lunch. After all, man doesn’t live by beer alone.
• Last but not least, public transportation. We all know the drill about drinking and driving. Besides, there are cities, like New York, where a car actually reduces your mobility. A number of cities on the list have safe, reliable transit systems, and some offer an all-day pass for not much more than the price of a pint.