Super Bowl 50 has the makings of an epic battle, but when we see a Colorado squad matched up against a team from North Carolina, our mind turns to beer. Colorado, after all, was one of the first great beer states and home to the home-brewing movement. North Carolina got a late start, but quickly became an East Coast powerhouse, boasting both its own world-class ales and attracting second locations by New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues. But can the Carolina upstarts beat the Rocky Mountain beer veterans? We decided to stack up the states on six key criteria to see who'd come out on top.
Colorado, at last count, offered 327 breweries to North Carolina's 151, but we value quality over quantity. To better compare the best each state offers, we eliminated the brewers with locations in both states (the venerable Oskar Blues and New Belgium) and picked our top three from each.
Colorado: Avery Brewing, Crooked Stave, Prost Brewing. These three favorites of ours represent the best of American ales and lagers, sour and wild innovation, and traditional German brewing — you'd think Prost was based in Munich.
North Carolina: Fonta Flora Brewery, Foothills Brewing, Wicked Weed Brewing. Foothills helped drum up early excitement for North Carolina a decade ago, and now the likes of Fonta Flora, which integrates local ingredients, and Wicked Weed, which has mastered both sours and IPAs, are continuing to build the state's sudsy reputation.
Winner: North Carolina. Both states can boast amazing beers, but North Carolina's brewers are pushing more boundaries.
Colorado: Great American Beer Festival. It doesn't get any bigger than GABF. Last year, 60,000 attendees sampled 3,800 beers from 750 brewers.
North Carolina: Brewgrass Festival. Based in Asheville, the heart of North Carolina beer country, AKA "Beer City USA," the Brewgrass Festival entertains 20,000 beer lovers with samples from 50-plus breweries over a steady stream of live music.
Winner: Colorado. The Great American Beer Fest is the ultimate bucket-list event for any beer lover.
While we'd prefer an Odell IPA in Fort Collins, or a Burial Coconut Brown in Asheville, these are the most pervasive beers in each state.
Colorado: Coors Light. Budweiser has Clydesdales and Coors has its Rockies. While we don't mind an occasional Coors Banquet on a hot day, we rarely tap the Rockies.
North Carolina: Miller Lite. The original light beer is actually a local brew, thanks to a MillerCoors plant in Eden. When it's fresh, it's very light and inoffensive.
Like picking favorite breweries, best beers is no easy task, so we again limited each state to three of its most highly sought after labels — incidentally, they're all barrel-aged.
Colorado: Avery Uncle Jacob's Stout, Crooked Stave Nightmare on Brett, Oskar Blues Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy. Uncle Jacob's Stout is one of Avery's impressive 16-plus percent brews, and stands out for incredible depth of flavor. Similarly rich and deep, the Nightmare on Brett combines high-strength sours with whiskey-infused oak, and Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy elevates one of America's top stouts.
North Carolina: Foothills Barrel-Aged Sexual Chocolate, Olde Hickory Omega Point, Wicked Weed Red Angel. The Tar Heel State has its own lust-worthy barrel-aged stout, thanks to Foothills. Likewise, the North Carolina veterans at Olde Hickory amplified their award-winning barleywine in bourbon casks for Omega Point. The Belgian-inspired Red Angel matures in wine barrels, finishing with a dose of fresh fruit to brighten the flavor.
Winner: North Carolina. Like our best breweries pick, Colorado has mastered current styles, but North Carolina's beers are doing more to push the limits of our favorite styles (while remaining delicious).
Craft Beer Bar
Colorado: Falling Rock. This Denver icon set an early standard (and a high one at that) for craft beer bars. Falling Rock rotates through 75-plus tap lines that showcase locals, national treasures, and nerdy favorites. More importantly, those lines are always clean and fresh. This is a true temple to craft beer.
North Carolina: Thirsty Monk. Asheville's Monk serves as one of the best beer schools in the country. In addition to carefully selected taps celebrating the best of U.S. and Belgian brewing, and its own Thirsty Monk brewhouse, the three locations regularly host its Beer Academy sessions, educating and exciting North Carolina beer fans.
Winner: Colorado. If there's ever a register of historic craft beer places, Falling Rock will be the first bar on it.
We reached out to two brewers from each state — nominated by their respective brewing guilds — to make the case for Colorado and North Carolina.
"It's hard for me to argue we're a better beer state than Colorado, but when you think of a state that's rising in craft beer, North Carolina is one of the first to come to mind. NC has experienced tremendous growth in the craft beer scene, and this boost in enthusiasm has prompted a surge of new breweries, all offering their own unique creations. You can find breweries dedicated to making super-traditional brews from Germany, Great Britain, and Belgium tucked right next to style-redefining breweries dabbling in everything from pushing the IPA to the next level to crafting barrel-aged sours with their own unique twists. NC has breweries that have been around for enough years to see expansions, market growth, and upgrades, but the state is still mostly filled with new breweries that are all offering their own unique take on the industry. Being a craft beer enthusiast in NC means you are here to actually experience the birth of a craft beer culture and witness it actually bloom before your eyes." —Chad Henderson, head brewer, NoDa Brewing (Charlotte, NC)
"Really it comes down to selection and quality. We have an amazing number of breweries, around 300 at last count, and everyone is out to one-up each other in quality and styles (in the most friendly way, of course). And because Colorado has been not only a mecca for breweries opening, but for out-of-state distribution, our selection is unparalleled." —Josh Breckel, national field quality manager, Left Hand Brewing (Longmont, CO)
"We're fresh, new, and exciting. Colorado's amazing, and there's no doubt that they're the epicenter of the American craft beer industry, but we're the future. We've got classic styles down and innovation flourishing. We've been recognized as having some of the best IPAs in the world, the best kolsches in the world, some of the best dark beers. We're enthusiastically leading the charge on innovation: barrel-aging, mixed-culture fermentation, organics, farmhouse, alternate sugar sources, local ingredient usage, you name it. I'll always go back to Colorado and enjoy every sip I take there, but there's no better place in the world to have a beer than North Carolina." —Erik Lars Myers, founder, head brewer, Mystery Brewing (Hillsborough, NC)
"Colorado is beer, and we Coloradans are all products of it. Even going earlier than craft, we had the good old '60s and '70s when my dad would pile us and as much Coors Banquet as he could in our Ford Econoline to take back to relatives in Iowa à la Smokey and the Bandit. Medal count at this year's Great American Beer Festival (GABF) could be one simple way to illustrate our dominance. Thirty-one Colorado breweries earned 36 medals, while seven of our brewing brethren in NC took home eight pieces of hardware." —Brian McEachron, co-founder, Steamworks Brewing (Durango, CO)
Overall Winner: Colorado
We could die happy drinking beer in North Carolina for the rest of our lives, but the Southern leader in craft still has ground to make up against the Rocky Mountain titan. While North Carolina's number of breweries grew by roughly 50 percent in 2015, so did Colorado's scene. While we picked favorite beers and brewers from each state, both offer such strong rosters it almost seems unfair to call one superior. But Colorado's decade-plus head start in the world of great beer gives it a deeper roster (327 brewers!) that North Carolina may never catch up to.