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.
Once I came up with these criteria, I rummaged through my notes, beer in hand, and took a stroll down Memory Lane. The result: my Beer Traveler Top 25. Drum roll, please:
Art Deco buildings on Route 66 shouted welcome as I entered town, and so did the beer. My first stop was Kelly’s Brewpub, one of the few surviving extract breweries, which draws a colorful crowd and serves the cheapest pints in town. Il Vicino, part of a regional chain, is across the street. I stopped by Assets Grill just in time for happy hour one evening, and enjoyed a sampler before heading to Santa Fe for a few days. The IPA at the Second Street Brewery and the pale ale at the Santa Fe Brewing Co. made my visit all the more enjoyable.
To the bewilderment of friends, my wife and I flew to Anchorage in January one year. But there was method in our madness: we were going to the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival. 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. Downtown Anchorage is ideal for bar hopping, with Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, Sleeping Lady Brewery, and Glacier Brewhouse within blocks of one another.
In the world’s live music capital, beer is a way of life. I found a distinctive mood at each of Austin’s downtown brewpubs–couples at the Bitter End Bistro and Beer Garden, “Keep Austin Weird” funk at Lovejoy’s Tap Room and Brewery, and frat boys on the prowl at Copper Tank Brewing Co. At Opal Divine’s Public House and The Ginger Man, I got acquainted with beer from Texas’ Live Oak, St. Arnold’s, and Real Ale breweries; and at Scholz Garten, I found out how German beer lubricates the political machinery.
I visited Baltimore the year the Orioles moved into their new ballpark. Beer wasn’t foremost on my mind, but it managed to find me. Not far from the park was the Wharf Rat, an English pub owned by a card-carrying CAMRA member; and across the street was Max’s at Camden Yards, whose sister pub, Max’s Taphouse in Fell’s Point, boasts the state’s largest beer selection. I couldn’t find Bird beer, which was served at the old ballpark, but found a selection of Maryland microbrews at the new one.
Some years ago, I hit town for a weekend of beer, college football and beer. The weather added some intrigue. A nor’easter threatened but decided to remain at sea. I finally got into Harvard—John Harvard’s Brew House, that is; had a couple of quiet pints at Boston Brew Works, across the street from Fenway Park, on the way to the game; and, afterward, discovered The Boston Beer Co.’s brew house in the Lenox Hotel. The Sam Adams/Lenox marriage is now history, but memories of the maple porter and grilled sausages live on. Heading the to-do list for my next visit to Boston is the 3:00 tasting at the Harpoon Brewery. Make mine a Munich Dark, please.
Burlington is forbidding in mid-winter, but it was gorgeous when I attended the Vermont Brewers Festival. The backdrop is Lake George and, beyond it, the Adirondacks. Burlington is a perfect base for exploring the state, starting with the Vermont Pub & Brewery and the quirky little Three Needs Tap Room. The Magic Hat Brewing Co., a few miles down the road, is a trip back to the ’60s, complete with tie-dye T-shirts. Throughout Vermont, you’ll find local beer in bars, grocery stores, and even gas stations. Natives love small businesses and are fiercely loyal to local products.
California’s Wine Country
“You’re either a beer lover or a wine lover, but not both.” Tell that to the regulars at the Third Street Ale House in Santa Rosa, who unwind over pints after work—at the local wineries. My travels in Napa and Sonoma counties also took me to Downtown Joe’s American Grill and Brewhouse in Napa; Silverado Brewing Co., on the winery-studded Highway 29; the Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg (its Racer 5 IPA justified the trip); and Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery in the spa town of Calistoga.
College friends from Chicago swore by hole-in-the-wall places where conversation, usually about sports, was the main attraction. As a student I fell in love with Howard’s, across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s now closed, but the Goose Island Brewing Co. more than made up for the loss. But my favorite place to drink beer in Chicago is Wrigley Field—actually, a pre- and post-game sweep through Wrigleyville, whose bars offer everything from ’80s heavy metal to classical music to no music at all. It’s the Midwest’s answer to Bourbon Street.
Denverites insist that beer and baseball revived the Lower Downtown neighborhood. This district, surrounding Coors Field, has become a prime pub-crawl venue. Wynkoop Brewing Co.’s claims to fame includes a lineup that ranges from gruit to Anaheim chile beer and an owner who’s now Denver’s mayor. Within walking distance, there’s Rounders at the Sandlot; Breckenridge Brewery and BBQ; Flying Dog Ales, whose glasses feature the work of artist Ralph Steadman; the Falling Rock Tap House, the after-hours headquarters for brewers competing at the Great American Beer Festival.
Fort Collins was dry until the late ’60s, when voters came to their senses. Today, its best-known brewery is the New Belgium Brewing Co. Known for Fat Tire Amber Ale, a Western favorite, it has also become a world-class brewer of Belgian-style beer. Other breweries in town include Odell Brewing Co., which specializes in English ales; an Anheuser-Busch brewery with its own stable of Clydesdales; and, on the road south to Denver and Boulder, the Left Hand & Tabernash Brewing Co. The Old Town district is the home of CooperSmith’s Pub and Brewery and the site of the Colorado Brewers Festival.
Sitting on the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant’s lanai, märzen in hand, and watching the sunset is my definition of inner peace. Besides Gordon Biersch, Honolulu has two other brewpubs: Brew Moon, which overlooks Ala Moana Park; and Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch, Crab, and Big Aloha Brewhouse, where beer washes down island-themed seafood. When I come here, I stock the hotel room refrigerator with Kona, Mehana, and Keoki beers from Oahu’s neighbor islands. And at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the pink icon on Waikiki Beach, I can drink Keoki’s pink lager and feel like a millionaire.
Before Michigan legalized brewpubs, Larry Bell’s Kalamazoo Brewing Co. turned out high-gravity ales that earned him a following far beyond West Michigan’s snow belt. He has moved to a bigger brewery, but the original one supplies the Enigma Café. Across the street from Enigma is the Kraftbräu Brewery, whose atmosphere has been described as “retro hippie”; and there are two other brewpubs in town, Olde Peninsula Brewpub & Restaurant, and Bilbo’s Pizza in a Pan. Kalamazoo abounds in neighborhood hangouts like The Corner Tap, which offers 15 micros and a wide selection of bottles.
Good beer in Vegas? You bet! With casinos popping up everywhere, America’s original home of legal gaming is appealing to a wider audience—including beer lovers. Four casinos have in-house breweries, whose products might ease the pain if you’ve had a rough night at the tables. Vegas now has a licensed replica of the Hofbräuhaus, complete with shared wooden tables, oom-pah music, and the same beer that’s served in Munich. Out by the UNLV campus is the Freakin’ Frog, which offers a wide selection of western microbrews. One more thing: you can buy a beer in Vegas any time of the day—or night.
Madison always was a party town, and today there’s even more reason to celebrate: Wisconsin’s football team is a Big Ten contender. The beer has improved as much as the Badgers. Three brewpubs—Angelic Brewing Co., J.T. Whitney’s Brewpub and Eatery, and Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.—join the landmark Essen Haus and Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry. Just minutes away are two first-class breweries: New Glarus Brewing Co., whose Wisconsin Belgian Red ranks among my all-time top five; and Capitol Brewing Co., which operates a German-style beer garden. Madison hosts one of America’s biggest beer festivals, the Great Taste of the Midwest.
A good harbor and ice from the lake made Milwaukee the home of three of the nation’s top four breweries; their beer gardens were the forerunners of modern theme parks. Today, only Miller survives, but a new generation carries on the tradition. Best known is Sprecher Brewing Co., which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It’s joined by Lakefront Brewery, where you’ll find Bernie Brewer’s chalet from County Stadium; the Milwaukee Ale House; and the Onopa Brewing Co. Leinenkugel has a second home at the former Blatz plant, now called the 10th Street Brewery. German influence is reflected everywhere, from traditional restaurants to grilled sausages at pre-game tailgates.
New York City
My first beer expedition covered 10 miles, from Union, NJ, to Staten Island. The reason? The drinking age was 18 in New York. It was 1969, and we drank the local stuff: Ballantine, Schaefer, and Rheingold. Those breweries closed years ago, but that didn’t affect the city’s bar culture. You can find Irish-themed bars and watering holes straight out of ’50s movies that somehow survived yuppification and City Hall’s efforts to tidy things up. Or you can go to highly regarded beer bars like David Copperfield’s, d.b.a, The Ginger Man, and the Blind Tiger Ale House. While in town, keep an eye peeled for microbrews from Garrett Oliver’s Brooklyn Brewing Co. One final suggestion: if you’re a history fan, visit McSorley’s Old Ale House, where Abe Lincoln once stopped for a brew.
Our country was born here, and beer played a vital part. Delegates to both Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention settled their differences in the City Tavern. Philadelphia was the nation’s beer capital until the 1840s; the historic Brewerytown district is commemorated by a stand at the Phillies’ new ballpark that pours local micros. They include Yards Brewing Co.; Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant, named for the bobblehead doll; the Independence Brew Pub; and Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant, whose name is derived from a word meaning, “where we go to drink.” Also in Philly: Monk’s Café, one of America’s top Belgian beer bars.
The stereotype: dirty air and a shot-and-a-beer bar culture. What I found: a beautiful skyline, friendly people, and good beer. Penn Brewery revived traditional German styles and serves them in its own beer hall. It sponsors a festival of Pennsylvania microbrews. Church Brew Works restored a former Catholic church and, fittingly, placed the brew kettles above the altar. Traditionalists will run into a familiar name in town: Iron City is still on tap, for those who look around. Notable beer bars include Fat Head’s South Shore Saloon, Kelly’s Bar and Lounge, and the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium. If you’ve had a long night, make your nightcap a Primanti Brothers sandwich—just like a native Pittsburgher.
The “other Portland”? Hardly. This city’s beer is almost as big an attraction as the scenic Maine coast. In historic Old Town, you’ll find Gritty McDuff’s, an all-weather brewpub; and Three Dollar Dewey’s, which familiarized locals with good beer before local brewers got up and running. Area breweries include the historic Shipyard Brewing Co., the D.L. Geary Brewing Co. and the Allagash Brewing Co., which found a niche in high-end Belgian beers. Beers from these and other breweries are on tap at The Great Lost Bear, an acclaimed bar on the edge of town, and at the Maine Brewers Festival, held just before winter arrives.
The city’s ascent to world-class status began more than 30 years ago, when Mike and Brian McMenamin reinvented the concept of a bar and the Horse Brass Pub, an authentic British-style pub, opened for business. Today, Portland has as many breweries per resident as Bavaria—far too many to list here. Heading my list of favorites are Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., Portland Brewing Co., and BridgePort Brewing Co. Also worth a visit is the tasting room operated by Rogue Ales. Portland hosts the Oregon Brewers Festival, along with several smaller tastings, including a holiday ale festival in Pioneer Square.
My first trip was for a wedding in 1976. The bride’s family didn’t drink but graciously gave us the grand tour, which included a stop at Grant’s Farm, owned by the Busch clan for years. Other Anheuser-Busch sites include the Bevo Restaurant, a restaurant built as a last-ditch effort to stave off Prohibition, and, of course, the original brewery downtown. Despite A-B’s huge footprint, craft brewers also prosper. The Saint Louis Brewery, which turns out Schlafly beers, sponsors tastings and festivals; the Morgan Street Brewery occupies one of the oldest buildings in Laclede’s Landing; and Griesedieck Brothers beer, part of St. Louis lore, is once again on tap.
My beer hunting here dates back to the mid-’80s, when I walked into unlikely looking places that stocked hundreds of imports. Since then, the micros have invaded, led by Stone Brewing and its legendary Arrogant Bastard Ale. Other breweries in the area include AleSmith Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego Brewing Co. and Pizza Port Brewing Co., which sponsors Real Ale, strong ale, and Belgian beer festivals. The Liar’s Club, voted the city’s most popular beer bar, pours many local micros, and the San Diego Festival of Beer attracts 50 breweries from the area.
Ever since gold was discovered, this has been a drinking man’s town, one where bars are essential to city life. During the ’80s, I drank Anchor Steam at Dashiel Hammett-era bars like Lefty O’Doul’s and Tommy’s Joynt. More recent trips took me to the Magnolia Pub & Brewery in the Haight-Ashbury district (The Toronado Pub, an renowned beer bar, is close by), ThirstyBear Brewing Co. and the 21st Amendment Brewery. Farther afield, I took a BART train to Berkeley, home of the Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse and Jupiter, and a ferry to Larkspur and the Marin Brewing Co.
Recently, I toured the Fremont district, the self-styled “Center of the Universe.” My route began at the Trolleyman Pub, where Red Hook ale was once brewed; from there, I walked to the Hale’s Ales brewery; and finished the day at the Triangle Tavern and Red Door Alehouse. I spent the next day downtown, stopping at the Pike Brewery, the Pyramid Brewery, and, finally, F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop & Oyster House, where I was introduced to Northwest micros many years ago. Seattle is a great city for festivals, including the Washington Brewers Guild’s cask ale festival and Summer Microbrew Festival, and the world’s strangest Oktoberfest celebration, the Fremont Oktoberfest.
Washington-based clients have given me a chance to experience the city’s changing beer scene. One of my regular stops was the Brickskeller, which even in the late ’70s had an offbeat selection of regionals. Today, it has much more to work with—so much so that its beer program is as thick as an omnibus budget bill. At long last, the city also has brewpubs, including the Capitol City Brewing Co., District ChopHouse and Brewery, and branches of the John Harvard and Gordon Biersch chains. There’s another reason to visit Washington this year. Baseball is back, after a 34-year absence.
Whew! After that whirlwind beer tour of America, it’s time to unpack my virtual suitcase, put my feet up, and grab a cold one. Specifically, a 90 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head Brewing Co. Why? Because it summons memories of long summer days on the Delaware coast. You won’t find Rehoboth Beach, where Dogfish Head got its start, on my Top 25 list. Nor will you find Saratoga, NY, where I sipped Mendocino Red Tail Ale while watching an opinionated bartender, a real New Yorker, hold court; Clearfield, PA, where a waitress talked me into trying a locally brewed red ale that turned out to be delightful; and dozens of other cities. Fact is, you’re likely to run into good beer—and, more important, the right people to enjoy it with—in the most unexpected places.
My list of cities is just the tip of the iceberg, a starting point for creating your own travel memories. Now it’s your turn to get out there.