It was once the case that a beer city happened to be adjacent to a big national brewery (we’re looking at you, St. Louis). But as we all know, the American beer-scape has changed in the last 30 years. Today, there are more than 4,000 craft breweries in the U.S., and most of them are microbreweries — small enough to squeeze into the confined space of a city. So if you want to drink the best beers in the world, head downtown — to San Diego, Philadelphia, Portland, and Milwaukee. The following is a list of cities with beer scenes spearheaded by people who passionately care about brewing and who serve the finest beers in the world. Some towns are more brewery-centric, while others are more intimately connected with the international beer world. But they all take beer to another level, and they all deserve to be on your travel wish list.
This longtime craft-brewing powerhouse continues to dominate the numbers board, with 52 breweries inside the city limits — more breweries than any other city in the world. For the beer drinker, that means real range. Portland’s a place where you can hole up in a British-style pub with an extraordinary tap list or visit one of the country’s largest craft brewers for a taste of beers made with experimental hops.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars One of the city’s original craft breweries, Widmer Brothers Brewing remains a stalwart. The brewpub serves impressive one-offs made from experimental hops (varieties grown especially for Widmer) alongside the iconic Hefeweizen, which is freshest here. Up the street, the celestial-themed Ecliptic Brewery is the city’s newest destination brewery. Beers, including the Filament Winter IPA, change according to the old-world solstice calendar.
Cascade Barrel Brewing House taps its own sour ales, some straight from the barrel. Try the Sang Noir, a double red aged in pinot and whiskey barrels blended with cherries. Find more sours and Belgian-inspired beers at the casual taproom inside The Commons Brewery.
The British-inspired Horse Brass Pub is a world-class watering hole that feels British, but revolves around a tap list of stellar Pacific Northwest beers.
Oregon’s deep love of beer doesn’t stop at the Portland city limits. And just 20 miles from Mount Bachelor, Bend has the added bonus of being one of the country’s premier outdoor-adventure destinations. There are few better spots in the world to ski, hike, or mountain bike, and then wind down with a few beers.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars You can hit our three favorite Bend breweries along a one-mile walk. Start at Crux Fermentation Project for lunch and a pint — we like the Sugar Daddy pale ale. Then head north to Boneyard and try the Armored Fist black ale. Finally, arrive at Bend’s biggest success story, Deschutes. You can’t go wrong working your way through the flagships like Bachelor ESB and Black Butte Porter, but save room for the pub-only specialties.
Grab beers to-go (or another round) at the Platypus Pub and Brew Shop. There you can get harder-to-find local favorites like the intense wild ales from Bend’s Ale Apothecary (not open to the public).
Its status as “the other Portland” is unfair given everything this coastal town has going for it. The bar and brewery scene has blown up in the last five years, and though it can’t match its Oregon counterpart in sheer numbers, the quality here is phenomenal.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars Start with a tour and tasting at Allagash, the first great Belgian-style brewery to take root in the U.S. It doesn’t offer a full-service bar (just four-ounce samples), but Allagash will sell you beer to-go from its retail store, and we highly recommend the available-only-at-the-brewery House Ale.
Portland, Maine’s real strength lies in its ridiculously hoppy pale ales and IPAs. You’ll find world-class offerings at an impressive triumvirate of breweries: Maine Beer, Bissell Brothers, and Foundation Brewing.
While we love eating seafood fresh at the docks, when you’re ready to sit down for a meal, head to Novare Res. The cozy Belgian cafe features 30 taps covering the best of Maine, the U.S., and Belgium.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Michigan is the star of the Midwest’s brewing scene and Grand Rapids is the de facto beer capital. The town of 200,000 is also home to more than 40 breweries and anchored by the stalwart Founders Brewing.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars Start your tour of Grand Rapids with a stop at the Mitten Brewing Company. It’s a newer addition to the scene with rock solid offerings across the board, though we recommend starting with a Country Strong IPA or the easy-drinking Triple Crown Brown.
Next, hit HopCat, possibly the best craft beer bar in the state. While it has its own brewpub, the big draw is the extensive tap list that’s heavy on Michigan’s finest ales and lagers.
Finish your visit with an evening at Founders. In addition to producing many of the country’s most sought-after beers — get your Kentucky Breakfast Stout in April — the beer hall-style taproom also provides some of the best live music around.
The annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) anchors Denver’s beer destination status, but there’s more to the scene than the 49,000-person event, which tends to sell out in minutes. These days, Denver boasts classic breweries that still rake in GABF medals, plus new breweries that keep the beer scene fresh with ambitious barrel-aging programs and modern taprooms.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars Denver’s classic breweries still pour some of the best beers in town. At Wynkoop, try the Colorojo, a caramely imperial red ale with a hoppy bite. Great Divide Brewing Co. has been one of the city’s defining breweries since it opened in 1994. The taproom only serves the brewery’s beers, including the year-round Yeti Imperial Stout.
Another classic, the Falling Rock Taphouse, is one of the country’s most iconic beer bars with 75 beers on tap and 130 bottles.
Newer hot spots include Epic Brewing Company, a Salt Lake City-based operation that recently expanded to Denver with a new brewing facility and impressive taproom in the hip River North Art District. Nearby, the new Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project taproom serves a range of beers fermented with brettanomyces yeast strains, which add layers of farmhouse funk to the seasonally adjusted St. Bretta Belgian witbier, or wheat beer.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Long considered a part of Denver’s beer sphere, Fort Collins deserves its own orbit. The laid-back college town is overflowing with people riding beach cruiser bikes in the summer and brewers pumping out vast quantities of beer year-round. This is the kind of town where you can receive a top-notch beer education by spending time at high-profile craft breweries, where the coursework includes brewery tours and sample trays.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars At Odell Brewing Company, the taproom is the place to try experimental beers from a pro-style tasting tray. Don’t miss O’Dell IPA, a standard-setting resinous IPA with depth and bitterness. Within walking distance is New Belgium, the third largest craft brewer in the country. Sure, there’s the beer that put them on the map – Fat Tire Amber Ale – but branch out to La Folie, a blended sour beer aged in oak that’s part of the brewery’s extensive barrel aging program. Don’t leave town without hitting Funkwerks, a three-year-old brewery that cranks out unique saisons. Try ’em all in the modest taproom, where every beer is served in a snifter.
About 30 miles south of town, Left Hand Brewing Co has a taproom serving the brewery’s own beers, including the stellar Left Hand Milk Stout. Longmont neighbor Oskar Blues has become famous for its canned beers. It brews in Longmont and runs a restaurant and taproom with 40-plus beers on tap, heavy on Colorado beers but also with a smattering of beers from the East and West coasts.
Put away the brewery tour boots and expectations of tank ogling. Philly is a city where beer drinking happens in world-class bars, some of which are intimately connected to the vast international world of beer. The city has long appreciated Belgian beer styles and boasts its own rich history of lager brewing (Victory, anyone?). These days, it seems like every town is putting on a beer week, but the Philly Beer Week is one of the pioneers and does it right. The defining 10 days are packed with more than 1,000 events, from beer dinners to tap takeovers.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars Worship at the altar of fine Belgian brews at Monk’s Cafe, an unparalleled beer bar when it comes to draft imports. For the patriotic, domestic beers come from places like Russian River and Allagash, plus there’s a mind-blowing bottle list to pair with mussels and frites. Marc Vetri’sAlla Spina, which means “from the tap” in Italian, has a deep tap list with an Italian focus, plus beer cocktails and, for dessert, beer floats. Try the exclusive Alla Spina Novello blonde ale by Victory Brewing. Continuing the global theme, the German-styled Brauhaus Schmit carries rare German beers, which dominate the 30 taps.
The sleek new Tria Taproom has no official national allegiance, which produces an alluring mix of Belgian, German, and American beers on tap. Peruse the list and order using one of the taproom’s iPads.
San Francisco, California
With the 1896 Anchor Brewing Company as its founding father, San Francisco’s beer scene is a mix of West Coast style and locavore pride. Newer breweries craft everything from English ales to experimental farmhouse saisons. Beer bars and gastropubs serve top-notch locally sourced food. Hey, it’s Alice Waters country.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars A Mission District must, Monk’s Kettle is the city’s defining gastropub with beer-centric chef Adam Duyle at the helm. The draft list has plenty of local and Belgian brews, plus there’s a selection of vintage beers from the cellar. Focus on beer and beer alone (there’s no kitchen) at the dimly lit Toronado Pub, where a jumble of tap handles represents a diverse tap list, which may include the locally brewed, sessionable 21st Amendment Bitter American.
On the Upper Haight, the Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery has been brewing British-style ales in the basement since the 1990s, including the dank and hoppy Proving Ground IPA. Look for the new Magnolia brewery, taproom, and BBQ joint in the Dogpatch next spring.
An American take on a Copenhagen classic, the new Mikkeller Bar has quickly become a beer nerd destination, with 40 taps and two casks attached to the formidable Flux Capacitor draft system. Think selections from Nøgne, Hill Farmstead, and, Mikkeller.
In the past few years, the craft beer scene inside the Beltway has exploded. Drinking in our nation's capital isn't a completely buttoned-up affair, but power lunches near deep beer lists feel grown-up. Commercial brewing here is still new, which means you will find plenty of scrappy upstart breweries with unpretentious tasting rooms, such as Right Proper and DC Brau.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars A can't-miss beer destination, Bluejacket Brewery, occupies a former industrial Navy Yard space that has become an airy brewery and ground-level restaurant. The brewery makes a range of beers to supply the 25 on-site taps, and Beer Director Greg Engert helps design beer recipes to pair with specific dishes, such as the low-alcohol Black Lager, which was made for the Lucy Juicy dry-aged beef burger.
ChurchKey boasts 555 beers, including five casks, 50 drafts, and 500 bottles. Packed with beer aficionados, the beer bar generously shares its tap system with the Birch & Barley restaurant below.
Asheville, North Carolina
What’s not to love about an artsy mountain town that’s now the brew capitol of the Southeast? With more than 20 breweries, Asheville has become the place to drink fresh local beer in laid-back brewpubs, where it’s natural to pair live bluegrass with spicy IPAs. The scene has even attracted three craft beer giants: New Belgium, which will open a location here in 2016, plus Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues, which have already opened with taprooms.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars One of the town’s original breweries, Highland Brewery‘s first beer was the Gaelic Ale, a reliable amber ale with Cascade and Willamette aroma hops. For thoughtfully brewed beers from a newer spot, head to Burial Beer, where you’ll want to sample all the beers but will come back for a pint of the Bolo Coconut Brown. Hops and sours share the spotlight at Wicked Weed Brewing, another new downtown brewery with stellar beers that run the style spectrum. You can’t go wrong with the award-winning Pernicious IPA, or anything from the barrel-aging program.
Break away from the breweries to drink at the Thirsty Monk, a beer bar with more than 50 taps and an impressive bottle collection on two levels at its downtown location.
San Diego, California
San Diego is more than sunshine, Corona, and shore leave. The city has 120 craft breweries and new operations opening every month. More approachable than crafty Portland and a good deal warmer than hard-drinking Denver, San Diego is making a reputation for itself as the ultimate destination for beer lovers, who can choose from a wide variety of tasting itineraries. The up-and-coming breweries are fun to visit, but serious sippers will be more impressed with the quality of product (and experience) at the city’s stalwarts, the group of breweries that established a beachhead here and never stopped innovating.
The fastest way to understand San Diego brewing culture is to talk to Shawn DeWitt, co-founder of the Coronado Brewing Company, which underwent a $1 million expansion last year, doubling its production to an anticipated 16,000 barrels in 2013. DeWitt’s signature beer, served to greedy-looking visitors in the brewery’s restaurant, is the java-tinged Blue Bridge Coffee Stout, made using beans from local artisanal roaster Cafe Moto and a process he developed. Rather than trumpet his success in creating a great coffee beer, DeWitt shared the recipe with a direct competitor.
“Stone Brewing recently approached us and said, ‘We’re intrigued. How’d you get that coffee flavor so pronounced in your beer?” says DeWitt. “‘We know you have your secrets, but seriously, how’d you do it?’ So I shared our process with them. I have yet to come up with another industry like that. Coke and Pepsi certainly aren’t doing it.”
Across the bay on Columbia Street is Karl Strauss, a Coronado inspiration that opened here in 1989 after co-founders and cousins Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner consulted their “Uncle Karl,” a 44-year Pabst veteran born in a German brewery, about the possibility of creating something new. Karl has since launched seven other locations that pour local favorites like Karl Strauss Amber and Red Trolley Ale. The latter, which was intended as a medium-bodied holiday seasonal, is now brewed year-round using caramelized malts for the smooth flavor of toffee and an overall sweet finish that settles easily. The city acted as an expert taster.
Farther north near Mira Mesa is Ballast Point, another early trendsetter founded in 1996. The location – a business park – is odd for a thriving brewery, but the packed tasting room masquerades as a lively beachside bar and the place is perpetually hopping. The Sculpin IPA is a crowd favorite, but the Calico Amber Ale has earned a hat trick of gold medals at the World Beer Cup, European Beer Star, and Great American Beer Fest over the years. Despite the industry recognition, Ballast Point Beertender Chris Stinner says, CAA is the breweries’ “most underrated beer.” It isn’t easy, after all, to create an amber with a strong bite that isn’t overpowering like hop-forward IPAs.
Five miles due west is the two-year-old production facility of Green Flash, which has a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year and is now home to between 20 and 25 different ales at any given time. Nearly the entire 45,000-square-foot facility, replete with two-story conditioning tanks, oak barrels, and a 20-case-per-minute bottling line, is visible from the tasting room. Belgian beer fans can tip back a glass of the light, but spice-forward Saison Diego, an unfiltered golden ale brewed with Seville orange peels, Chinese ginger, and West African grains of paradise. Looking out at a happy crowd, Green Flash Tasting Room Manager Dave Adams, admits that it’s gratifying to watch his hometown’s reputation grow.
“When I talk to beer fans now, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re from fucking San Diego!’ ” he says. “They’re starting to realize how big we are compared to Portland and Colorado.”
Ever since Polish and German immigrants settled along Lake Michigan’s Wisconsin shore in the early 1800s, Milwaukee has been a city soaked in beer. Locals brew it, celebrate with it, mourn with it, and occasionally drink it during midmorning work breaks. Thanks to several new efforts to immerse tourists in the longstanding local hops culture, the Brew City is becoming the ultimate destination for hard-drinking history buffs.
Best Brews, Breweries, and Bars The brand-new Historic Bar Tour, put on by established local company Milwaukee Food & City Tours, takes visitors on a three-hour bus trip between different pre-Prohibition taverns that serve up local ale and Wisconsin’s official-unofficial state cocktail, the Brandy Old-Fashioned. Drinkers start at the Landmark 1850 Inn, Milwaukee’s oldest tavern, then move to Puddler’s Hall (established 1874), where early union leaders cried out for justice while polishing off their pints. Next up is a bit of gnoshing at the Historic White House Tavern, which stocks every variety of cured meat that has ever come out of Germany. The final stop is Holler House, which has the nation’s oldest bowling alley in its basement and female patrons’ bras dangling from every beam and light fixture. In typical Milwaukee style, the owner, an octogenarian named Marcy, still tends bar and cracks jokes that make sailors blush.