Great Beer Towns You’ve Almost Heard Of

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 3
July 1, 2008 By Mark Lisheron

You have to hand it to Don Russell, although what you had to him might vary depending upon the city where you prefer to drink beer.

In Philadelphia, Russell is Joe Sixpack, a man who turned beer into a full time job: reason enough to admire him. He has also rather brazenly declared his hometown “America’s Best Beer Drinking City,” and slapped that tagline on a 10-day beer festival he helped organize called Philly Beer Week.

Mr. Sixpack’s boast doesn’t sit well in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. At the Brewer’s Association in Boulder, CO, officials stopped short of censuring him, saying only that Russell ought to be prepared to defend his claim over a place like, say, Denver or Boulder or Fort Collins. In a column that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a day before the festival started, fellow beer writer Bob Batz Jr. wasn’t so sure that Philly was even the best beer drinking city in Pennsylvania.

Before we go on and I’m exposed, I ought to confess that I like Russell a lot. I wrote about him for another magazine and, afterward, took him up on an invitation to let him convince me about Philly. After four days with friends hoisting glasses in the South Philly Taproom, the Pub on Passyunk East (POPE), Capone’s, the Old Eagle Tavern, Monk’s, the Standard Tap, Azure, the Royal Tavern and, for good measure, a last Racer 5 again at POPE, I was in no shape to disagree with him.

Now, before you reach for your bung starter, realize that Mr. Sixpack has done us all a big favor. He has helped stir a national discussion about what makes a beer city good or great or even the best. We’ve had these debates from the time someone took note that there was more than one microbrewery in a city or that a neighborhood had suddenly sprouted several bars with exotic tap handles. Admit it. We love to fight over the best places to drink beer.

People used to pester Michael Jackson all the time for his favorite places. In 2000, he wrote that there were exactly seven great beer cities in America: Austin, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Baltimore, Chicago and New York might be contenders, he said at the time.

Just two years ago, Celebrator Beer News declared that not only did it know that there were 10 great beer cities but knew what order they came in: Portland, followed by San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, Boston and a tie between Chicago and New York. The Web is choked with Top 10 lists.

Some of this is just spreadsheet work: numbers of microbreweries, brewpubs, good beers bars and homebrew clubs, population ratios and all that. But if it were merely a matter of mathematics, all of the lists would be exactly the same.

What is missing from all of the calculating is what Paul Gatza, the director of the Brewers Association, calls “the mystical experiences that people talk about.” It’s that heady feeling, impossible to quantify, that you are in a place among people who care as passionately about beer as you do. It is by this giddily subjective standard that Don Russell can claim Philadelphia’s supremacy. “Other towns, you sit in a bar, you could be anywhere in the United States,” Russell wrote in one of his recent columns. “You can’t drink beer in this city and not feel Philadelphia.”

And so, it is by Russell’s standard that I have been liberated to create my own, altogether different, list of beer cities. Without getting out the calculator, they are cities that have reached a certain critical mass in the availability of good beer. Unlike those Top 10 cities, they are not often recognized outside of their regions. Some are established stalwarts. Some are audacious upstarts. But they are all capable of making the argument that beer is an intrinsic part of their culture.

So as to ensure hurt feelings, I deliberately left off this list some fine beer cities: Milwaukee, my hometown, where I’ve probably had as much good beer as any one place in my lifetime; Baltimore, with its bewitching combination of locale, ethnicity and old and new brewers; St. Louis, where a certain brewing behemoth overshadows a vibrant craft brewing scene; and Austin, the city where my wife, Susan, and I have raised our children and where a major microbrewery (Celis) and a core of brewpubs have closed since the city made Michael Jackson’s list. While well known for beer, none of these has the same dynamism and momentum of the cities on my list. “Beauty,” as Gatza says, “is in the eye of the beerholder.”

Asheville, NC

Tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains where two rivers come together in western North Carolina, Asheville might well be the most beautiful beer city on this list. As vibrant as its tourism is and as desirable a place to live, Asheville could have remained a beer backwater had it not been for Pop The Cap, a non-profit lobbying group. Pop The Cap took on and helped repeal an old North Carolina law setting a limit of 6 percent on the alcohol content of beer. You can chart the rise of Asheville’s beer community with the beginning of Pop The Cap’s effort five years ago.

There are five breweries in a city of 75,000: Highland Brewing Co. was the first, opening in 1994.; French Broad Brewing Co.; Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co.; Green Man Ales/ Jack of the Wood Brewpub and Pisgah Brewing Co. in nearby Black Mountain. Before the end of the year, Wedge Brewing Co. and Lexington Avenue Brewery Co. will join them.

So vibrant is the taproom culture of Asheville—with Barley’s and its 70 taps, the Mellow Mushroom’s 45 taps and all the Belgians at the Thirsty Monk—that it has exploded into suburban West Asheville.

Among the signatures of the beer world in Asheville is the annual Brewgrass Festival in late September, put on by the Great Smokies Craft Brewers, among them the Asheville brewers.

The beer community has coalesced around Bruisin’ Ales, a store opened in December 2006 by Jason and Julie Atallah. The Atallahs call themselves “beerlanthropists,” selling 700 different kinds of beer and everything that goes with beer and only beer.

“A great beer city has everything to do with the people,” Julie says. “People here are very educated about their beer. They know exactly what they like and don’t like.”

Atlanta/Decatur, GA

No city in the last 10 years has benefited more from a change in beer laws than Atlanta. In the mid-1990s, the city had Georgia’s first microbrewery, Atlanta Brewing Co., and a few chains, like John Harvard’s. The beer was strictly average. Today, SweetWater, which opened just four years after Atlanta Brewing, is literally tearing the roof off of its brewery to grow to a capacity of 45,000 barrels of beer a year. Atlanta Brewing is still chugging along at under 5,000 barrels.

“When the alcohol law changed seven years ago, Atlanta just took off,” beer writer Owen Ogletree says. “Along with Decatur, Atlanta has become the most amazing place in the state—in the whole Southeast, for that matter.”

Everything you want to know about the Atlanta and Decatur nexus can be found on Ogletree’s website, which he runs, oddly enough, from Athens, the home of the University of Georgia 45 minutes away. It can be said that Ogletree’s annual Classic City Brewfest in Athens is Atlanta and Decatur’s biggest showcase. Athens has its own growing beer culture, but Atlanta and Decatur are where it’s at, Ogletree says.

What Atlanta and Decatur are creating on the fly is a beer culture that takes risks. The beers being brewed at Twain’s in Decatur are every bit as challenging as any brewed in the country. The Brickstore Pub in Decatur, the Five Seasons, Six Feet Under and the Clairmont Inn in Atlanta have the funky kind of feel that says you are in a real beer place.

The surest way to show how Atlanta has arrived as a beer city is to visit a Taco Mac, a modest family restaurant that grew into a most unlikely chain of 20 places. The original restaurant has 24 taps and 150 different kinds of bottled beer. Most of the Taco Macs, however, have 100 taps and hundreds of different kinds of bottled beers. Good beer has taken root in one of Atlanta’s most beloved institutions.

“To compare Atlanta to a great beer city like Chicago or Portland is unfair,” says Fred Crudder, the beverage director for the Tappan Street Restaurant Group, which includes the Taco Mac chain. “We have had only a few years to attract choice American craft brewers and European specialties. But the excitement about beer here is tangible. Atlanta is like a big sponge for new beers.”

Burlington, VT

To make a case for this bucolic little place, I’ll need the help of a Magic Hat. I pull out of the hat a map of Vermont, a state that is home to 18 microbreweries and brewpubs, almost all of them within 90 minutes of Burlington. Burlington is the capital of the state’s beer world.

Burlington is the home of artisans, with a deep respect for products locally grown and made. There is more than a little hippie culture here. Close your eyes sitting in front of a pint of one of Magic Hat’s beers and you might mistake the hops for another kind of bud, set aflame.

Magic Hat’s is a classic microbrewery story, the brewery cobbled together at first in an abandoned factory in 1994 and growing into a larger plant near Bartlett Bay in South Burlington. The names of their beers, #9 and Circus Boy, their Mardi Gras in the spring and their Night of the Living Dead in the fall, their sponsorship of and association with jam bands like Phish establish Magic Hat’s bonafides. “Magic Hat continues to inspire and amaze a grateful nation with their singular alchemy of unusual art and strange science,” says Magic Hat’s Susan Evans, with the brewery’s singular aplomb.

Magic Hat is joined by Switchback Brewery, which serves its beers only on tap. There are another four breweries within 45 minutes of Burlington (Vermont is an itty-bitty state). Among the three brewpubs is Vermont Pub & Brewery, the second oldest brewpub on the east coast. Brewmaster Greg Noonan says Burlington’s beer culture ought to be measured by its eclectic quality. His brewery was brewing sour Belgians years before Americans caught on. In April, Noonan tapped Blue Nile, a beer he brewed with lotus flower, rose petals, yarrow and ginseng.

Three Needs Brewery and Taproom, Zero Gravity and AmericanFlatBread are all part of a tight-knit beer community.

In 2006, MSNBC was sufficiently dazzled by it all to name Burlington the fourth best city in the world in which to enjoy beer, just behind Amsterdam, Berlin and Brugge.

Madison, WI

Every year, the 5,000 tickets for the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival here sell out in 45 minutes. Maybe it is because you almost have to know somebody to score a ducat that one of the best beer festivals in the country is so little known outside of the Midwest.

Not unlike the entire beer culture in this state capitol and university city. Greater Madison is home to Capital Brewing Co., one of the most honored lager breweries in the country, and is the principal market for the New Glarus Brewing Co. beers, brewed by Dan Carey, one of the most honored brewers in the country.

There are 17 microbreweries and brewpubs in the Madison area and the range of beers is limitless, says Fred Swanson, the brewery coordinator and past president of the Great Taste festival. In the next six months alone, four new bars are expected to open, none of them officering a single corporate beer on tap, Swanson says.

The pervasiveness of locally brewed craft beer is part of a culture of buying fresh and buying local. The area is dotted with dairies making award-winning cheeses. The Madison farmer’s market, held weekly around the Capitol Square, is justifiably known as one of the biggest and best markets in the Midwest.

The beer market benefits from the constant churn of a student population of 40,000 at the University of Wisconsin. At the students’ Memorial Union, most of the 18 taps are reserved for local craft beers and imports.

“By any measure, by the level of quality of the beers or our per capita rank, I think we compare favorably to Portland or Seattle or one of the big beer cities,’ Swanson says. “There is not a bar you can go into in Madison and not find at least one local beer on tap. Impossible.”

Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Funny how a second wave of brewing can change a city’s beer identity. For years, people have associated the Twin Cities with Summit, a brewery well known for the quality and consistency of its lagers and ales. The reputation has also carried with it a whiff of old Midwestern fustiness. Then, a few years ago, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery opened and it was as though anyone who ever cared about good beer in the Twin Cities suddenly had a place to go. With the opening of Surly Brewing Co. in early 2006, the scene acquired an edge that could match the hip feel of the cities themselves.

Now, people began to recognize the contribution of Mackenzies, a bar that has specialized in craft beer for 15 years. The beer dinners at the Happy Gnome and café twenty-eight broadened the beers they paired with food. The Muddy Pig went crazy for Belgians and the Blue Nile was the place to go, if only to have your pint drawn by the inimitable Al.

Omar Ansari, the former homebrewer who opened Surly’s in a building his family owns, says that in the first few months he was open he held a cask beer event. Most of those who attended didn’t know what cask beer was, he says. Now Surly can’t keep up with requests by local beer bars to tap a cask.

“I still think the market has a ways to go, but the thirst for great craft beer is exploding at the bar level and the consumer level,” Ansari says.

Stan Hieronymus, one of the best-traveled beer writers in the country and who writes for this magazine, says a recent trip to the Twin Cities surprised him. The area always supported the old German beers, and beer and food were naturals together, he says. The addition of the cult breweries has given the Twin Cities a new patina. “I liked Minneapolis/St. Paul before,” Hieronymus says. “But it has clearly taken a step forward.

Pittsburgh, PA

When asked which cities in America best exemplified an established good beer culture that had gone unrecognized, Stephen Beaumont, another esteemed beer travel writer, zeroed in on one. “Pittsburgh has a really, really cool beer culture going on, definitely under the radar,” Beaumont says. “There is a lot of support from the locals and the tavern culture is really cool.”

Pittsburgh didn’t “arrive” the way an Atlanta or a Minneapolis did, but built slowly on the tavern culture you find in the neighborhoods of older, working class cities. Penn Brewery is one of the oldest microbreweries in the east, for more than 20 years surviving the shakeouts and the trends to offer consistent, high quality German-style beers. Bracket Penn with the easygoing ale man Scott Smith at East End Brewery.

There are brewpubs of all stripes, with chains like John Harvard’s and Rock Bottom being kept on their toes by locals like Hereford & Hops. The Church Brew Works, built in an old Catholic Church in suburban Lawrenceville is, pardon the sacrilege, a religious experience.

The beer bars are particularly deep and distinguished. The Sharp Edge has a national reputation for its selection. Chris Dilla’s Bocktown Beer & Grill encourages its customers to browse what Dilla calls her “beer library.”

Fat Head’s Saloon, around for 16 years, is so well thought of that among its 42 taps are beers made exclusively for the bar by the brewers at Rogue and Brewery Van Steenberg in Belgium. Owner Glenn Benigni changes five to 10 of those taps every week.

Tim Santoro, one of the owners of Barley’s & Hop’s, says that Pittsburgh distinguishes itself by the penetration of good beer in restaurants, even the chains. This is at least in part due to the education provided by Santoro, whose store offers at least 1,000 different kinds of bottled beers and encourages customers to mix their sixpacks.

“The beer culture in Pittsburgh is thriving more than ever,” Santoro says. “Per capita, I think we are one of the better beer cities in America.”

Portland, ME

Like Pittsburgh, the Right Coast Portland established itself early in the craft brewing revolution and held on as stubbornly as winter. D.L. Geary’s Brewing Co. and Shipyard Brewing have been making good beer since the 1980s. Geary’s was the first microbrewery in Maine. Because of the growing popularity of Belgian styles, Portland has found a new cache in Allagash Brewing Co., one of the best Belgian-style brewers in the country.

The brewpubs like Gritty McDuff’s are old stalwarts but the cultural reach of beer in Portland is best discovered in its beer bars, like the Great Lost Bear, Brian Boru or the piquantly named Three Dollar Deweys, where you kind almost always find Allagash, Geary’s or the beers from Casco Bay and Sebago Brewing Cos.

Santa Rosa/Healdsburg/Petaluma, CA

Surprise, surprise, the stories always begin. I was driving along in the heart of wine country when suddenly, unexpectedly and for no good reason I happened upon a place that brewed beer. My, how queer! While the brewers in this part of the world have probably wearied of it, this surprise has been an effective tool in galvanizing a beer community in the heart of Sonoma County.

I readily admit once again to bending the rules that I have been mangling right along as I create this list. Santa Rosa might not stand alone as a beer city. Healdsburg to the north and Petaluma to the south are not close enough to be sister cities. But this North Bay Highway 101 Corridor is strung together by hop vines rather than grape vines. Rebellion forges the fiercest kind of community.

Beginning in Petaluma, you have the exquisitely hopped ales of Lagunitas Brewing Co., which just put a new 80-barrel brewhouse on line. Lagunitas IPA is now available in many parts of the country, but the real treat is their seasonal lineup, sold in 22-ounce bombers. Lagunitas Maximus is one of the finest of the bigger India pale Ales and they make Gnarleywine, which rhymes with its style and an old ale called Hairy Eyeball.

Not to be out-alphaed are the beers made by the brewers in Santa Rosa. Randall Gremp’s Third Street Ale Works and Vinnie Cilurzo’s Russian River Brewing Co. offer a wide range of ales. Cilurzo makes excellent Belgian-style beers and his supercharged Pliny the Elder is one of the great beers made in America. Cilurzo says he is just completing an expansion that will more that triple his output to 10,000 barrels of beer.

And up the highway apiece is Bear Republic, just off the lovely town square in Healdsburg. The unpretentious brewery is an oasis of sorts on the square, overrun as it is by the traps selling high priced bric-a-brac to the tourists.

The ales are uniformly wonderful; the Racer 5 India Pale Ale, a standout. Richard Norgrove, the owner and brewer, was named the 2006 Small Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

“We are all very tight,” Cilurzo says of the other brewers. “You can make a case for the corridor. We’re all about big flavors, like the wine; the locally raised chicken and ducks and the farmers’ markets are just great. We all really fit into that mix.”

There may be surprises here, cities you might not have known had muscled up on the malt and hops, or others that have burnished their reputations. What should not surprise is that the craft beer revolution is broader, deeper and stronger across the country. There may still be seven or 10 beer cities of the first rank, but never before have their been so many creditable beer destinations.

It’s time to travel, belly up and remake our lists. Let the Great Beer City debate resume.

Mark Lisheron
Mark Lisheron has been a newspaper reporter for 28 years, the last eight at the Austin American-Statesman. He is a senior contributing writer for American-Journalism Review and one of the few who have written about beer for the respected journalism magazine. He has written for most of the major beer magazines.