I recently set out to find the 20 best craft breweries in America, a treacherous exercise considering that there are now more than 1,300 in the country. In assembling this list, I relied not only on years of committed consuming but also on the informed opinions of bartenders, "brewspaper" editors, beer writers and industry analysts. I scanned the results of 10 years worth of Great American Beer Festival judgings to see which breweries performed the most consistently in the annual competition. Holding the list to 20 meant leaving out some excellent breweries--and there are many. These days a world-class beer is often around the corner or in the next town over, waiting for you to find it.
Most of the following breweries are open to visitors and equipped with on-site brewpubs.
The East and Southeast
While the modern microbrew movement started in the West, today New England is every bit as brewery rich. The mid-Atlantic (particularly Maryland and Virginia) is coming on strong too. And although the Southeast re-mains the last frontier for craft beer, it has a few rising stars.
D. L. Geary David Geary's Maine establishment has become synonymous with crisp, clean pale ale, but the star of his British-inspired lineup is his Hampshire Special Ale, a complex winter brew that hits you with a blast of herbal hop flavors. It's fruity, whiskeyish and--at 7 percent alcohol, as opposed to 4 or 5 percent for most mainstream beers--warming.
Catamount This Vermont pioneer, founded in 1986, still makes some of the region's best beers, such as Catamount Porter, a rich, robust, chocolatey brew that illustrates how a dark beer can be full flavored without being overweight.
Boston Beer Jim Koch's earnest radio ads put his Samuel Adams beers on the national map. Some of them are contract brewed at larger facilities (like Stroh). Still, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is a reliable everyday beer with deep flavor. For connoisseurs, there's the potent (17 percent alcohol) Samuel Adams Triple Bock. Its name is misleading, as bocks are strong German lagers; this is more of a barley wine, a syrupy brew that makes a great dessert drink.
Brooklyn Brewery At the turn of the century, New York City was the nation's brewing capital, but today its craft beer scene is largely centered here. While brewer Garrett Oliver's entire line is worth trying, his Brooklyner-Weisse should come first. Its yeasty, fruity flavors, creamy head and bubble-gum aroma make it arguably the best Bavarian-style wheat beer in America.
Stoudt Carol Stoudt, the owner of this Adamstown, Pennsylvania, brewery, specializes in German-style beers: round, malty lagers. Stoudt Pilsener, with its floral, herbal nose and its delicate balance of hop bitterness and malty flavors, is on a par with the best of Europe. It's an inspired accompaniment for grilled corn on the cob.
Frederick A growing Maryland producer, Frederick makes a wide range of brews, including Hempen Ale, a spicy ale flavored with hemp seeds. But the standout is its rich, toffeeish Blue Ridge Steeple Stout, a beer with enough body and intensity to be enjoyed with dessert--or even in place of it.
Old Dominion Just outside Washington, D.C., is another small brewery with a big reputation. While Jerry Bailey's beers are all well-received, the headliner is the intensely aromatic Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale, a crisp, pungent pale ale that is dry hopped (fresh hops are added to the maturing beer, further heightening its herbal aromas and enlivening its bitterness).
Abita In the balmy Southeast, craft beer has yet to take off. But the scene is changing, and this brewery outside New Orleans has been at the forefront. Abita's rich, full-flavored beers include the popular Turbodog, a robust, malty ale with a chocolatey edge.
The middle of the country has long been home to the behemoths of brewing--Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, Miller in Milwaukee--but an increasingly heralded array of craft breweries has been sprouting up among the giants.
Sprecher This tiny Milwaukee brewery has made a name for itself with its accurate interpretations of traditional German styles. Sprecher Black Bavarian is a rare American version of Schwarzbier("black beer"); it's smoky, dry and meaty, the beer world's answer to Arabian mocha java.
New Glarus Another Wisconsin brewer with a knack for difficult-to-make styles is Daniel Carey, whose artisanal operation just outside Madison specializes in Belgian-inspired fruit beers. Too often, American fruit beers are sickly sweet and sodalike; Carey's offerings are exceptions. His Wisconsin Belgian Red is flavored with fresh Wisconsin cherries but is still very much a beer.
Goose Island Like so many craft breweries, Chicago's Goose Island started out as a brewpub. Its flagship Honker's Ale is a British-style pale ale, a bit more moderately hopped than the aggressively floral American pale ales. Salad dressed with a vinaigrette or citrus makes a good match.
Kalamazoo This quirky Michigan brewery's hearty stouts--Bell's Kalamazoo Stout and the more limited-quantity 11 percent alcohol Bell's Expedition Stout--are fortifying drinks during the cold months.
Texas to the Rockies
In the past few years, Colorado has become a center of brewing activity. (Denver is the site of the Great American Beer Festival.) Anyone who de-sires an après-ski brew while in Vail or Aspen will not go wanting for exciting choices.
Tabernash Near the top of everyone's Rocky Mountain hit list is this Denver brewery, yet another specialist in German styles. The one to look for first is Tabernash Weiss, a yeasty, peach-scented wheat beer that brings to mind the best Bavarian Weizenbiers.
New Belgium This Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery is well-regarded for its Fat Tire Amber Ale and especially beloved for its Abbey Ale. The brewery's name says it all in terms of style: it specializes in hearty, often sweetish ales. Its Abbey--a malty brown ale along the lines of a Belgian dubbel--would do the Trappist monasteries of Belgium proud.
Celis The Belgian expatriate Pierre Celis chose Austin for his brewery because--seriously--its water resembled Belgium's. His now-legendary Celis White is America's most accurate interpretation of a Belgian wheat beer, or Witbier. Light and creamy, with flavorings that include coriander, Curaçao and orange peel, it's a refreshing, spice-absorbing partner for piquant Asian dishes.
The West Coast
The craft-brew revolution began in the late Seventies at the now-defunct New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California. Northern California remains home to two of the country's leading breweries, Anchor and Sierra Nevada, as well as to such new luminaries as Mendocino Brewing and Anderson Valley Brewing. But it's the Pacific Northwest that has become America's true beer mecca.
Anchor This San Francisco brewery produces excellent European-style beers, including a well-regarded porter and the vinous, ageworthy Old Foghorn Barleywine. But it's best known for its steadfastly homegrown Anchor Steam Beer. Steam beer is made only by Anchor, using a unique brewing process (Anchor has trademarked the name) that gives it the fruitiness of an ale and the rounded maltiness of a lager.
Sierra Nevada As with Anchor, just about every beer this Californian brews is worth tasting. The assertive pine-needle hoppiness of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale makes it the quintessential American pale ale. There's also the chewy Sierra Nevada Porter and the fine Bigfoot Barleywine.
Rogue This funky Newport, Oregon, brewery is in the process of expanding. Its wildly diverse selection includes the honeyed Maierbock (named for brewer John Maier) and the extra-strong Old Crustacean Barley Wine, but Rogue's Imperial Stout--a highly hopped yet deeply chocolatey stout--is the one that takes the honors. Beware, though: the alcohol content tops 11 percent.
Yakima The man who best embodies craft brewing's rise in the Northwest is Bert Grant, a Scotsman who opened a brewpub in Yakima, Washington, in 1982. The demand for his beer escalated so rapidly that he started a commercial operation; his brewery, based in the heart of America's premier hop-growing region, is celebrated not just for its unctuous Scottish Ale but also for Bert Grant's Perfect Porter, a rich, chocolatey, well-balanced porter with a refreshing hop bitterness.
Alaskan The beers from this Juneau brewery have been perennial award winners. Alaskan Smoked Porter, made by using smoked malt in the mash, is one of the most exotic, flavorful specialties in the world of beer. A seasonal favorite, it may be the ultimate complement to a winter game dinner.
David Lynch is a senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.