Please, don't forget to eat
It’s officially a good time to be a beer lover in the United States. The Brewers Association puts the 2016 brewery count at a record-setting 5,301—a number that’s more than doubled since 2012—and, also according to the non-profit trade organization, most Americans now live within ten miles of a craft brewery. While macrobreweries are included in that total, the vast majority is made up of microbreweries, regional craft breweries and brewpubs, many of which only distribute locally or regionally. Which means that if you want to get your hands on their beer, you have to travel to the source. With this embarrassment of riches, it’s easy to make time on a vacation or business trip to stop in and enjoy a pint, but Chris O’Leary has taken his love of beer a step further. The New York City resident and founder of the website Brew York is about to land at his 1000th brewery.
O’Leary began visiting breweries around 2004 while living in Vermont. “There were all these little breweries popping up—Switchback, The Alchemist just opened in Waterbury, Magic Hat had a well-manufactured experience. You could go into the tasting room, get some free samples, I believe for $6 you could fill a growler,” he says. “So I made it part of my life. It got to a point where every time I traveled, I went to a brewery.” O’Leary travels for fun, but also clocks a lot of miles for his day job in advertising. “Hopefully a brewery is still open by the time I’m done with everything I’m doing, and sometimes I convince my co-workers to come with me.”
While he won’t name a favorite, the 35 year-old can scroll through his spreadsheet of breweries visited—with entries from all across the U.S. (he just visited Fargo, North Dakota, marking his 50th state) and abroad—and recall a particularly good memory from the list. “Number 375 is Tilted Barn in Exeter, Rhode Island,” he says. “I had heard they were open but didn't know anything about them, and when I walked in a guy I graduated from high school with was the brewer. Now they’re highly sought-after beers.” Or the time he walked into Pigeon Head Brewery in Reno, Nevada and asked about its name. “They just pointed to a portrait on the wall of a human body with a pigeon head,” he laughs.
For his milestone brewery, O’Leary has chosen Jester King in Austin, Texas. There was some well-thought out criteria for his choice, of course. For starters, the city had to be home to a lot of breweries, in case he had to visit a few before his 1000th. (O’Leary points out that since he first visited Austin seven years ago, the number of breweries has more than quadrupled.) It also had to be somewhat centrally located in the country, since a group of his friends are flying in to join him for the occasion, and finally, the brewery had to be memorable. “I think Jester King is noteworthy, they’re revered among a lot of different brewers, they’re heavily involved in the beer community and they make absolutely beautiful, esoteric beer,” he says.
Although he keeps meticulous track of each brewery he visits, O’Leary isn’t on this journey just to check off a box. He suggests not rushing through the visit. “I want to take in the experience,” he says. “There are exceptions, but for the most part, taprooms tend to reflect the intentions of the brewer or owners or brand, so I feel like if I don't sit there and at least talk to the bartender, or other people around me—because hey, it’s beer, it’s a social environment—I don't necessarily feel like I’m getting the full experience.”
Read on to learn more of O’Leary’s expert tips for starting out on your own brewery-driven adventure.
How to get started.
For your first trip, pick a city with a beer neighborhood, or a dense population of breweries, O’Leary advises. “In Denver, I spent three full days visiting just the breweries in the River North neighborhood. Ballard in Seattle is similar. Asheville, North Carolina is a small enough town that you could just walk around from brewery to brewery and spend a whole weekend there, too. And I’d be remiss to not mention San Diego. You could probably spend four days in the Miramar area alone. In one day I did the most high profile day of breweries I’ve ever done: Lost Abbey, Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith and Green Flash.”
Don’t set a schedule.
O’Leary researches and maps out a few breweries before arriving to any destination, but keeps his schedule open for finds along the way. “I usually go to a brewery that I’ve heard is good, and then ask them where else we should go. Some of my greatest finds have just been through word of mouth,” he says. Talking to people he meets along the way is a huge help, too. “At Russian River [in Santa Rosa, California] I met a brewer from Tennessee. She ended up giving me a whole bunch of tips for a trip to Nashville I made a few months later.” It’s also how he found an unexpected gem on a recent trip to Hawaii. “I went to a brewery in Oahu and they told me to go to a beer store, so I went and talked to the staff, who told me I had to go to this bar, so I went and they sent me to Inu Island Ales. At the time it was two weeks old, and they were making absolutely incredible beer. I had heard nothing about them, they were so new that if I went to do a Google search it wouldn't have come up.”
But don't discount a brewery based on one opinion.
Not all beers will appeal to all people. “Everyone’s palate is different, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that beer isn’t good, it just means it’s not good to them,” points out O’Leary. Also, breweries can and do change, including their head brewers or facilities. “They might have a lab now and they didn't six months ago, so your friend who told you they were terrible six months ago was talking about the beer then, not the beer as it is now.” So while gathering opinions is important in the hunt for great breweries, take each person’s opinion with a grain of salt and find your own way, he suggests.
Don't order a flight.
Flights may be popular, but O’Leary suggests instead asking for a recommendation and a small sample of a beer, based on what you already like. It will annoy the bartender more if you order a flight when it’s busy, plus O’Leary doesn’t like leaving a half full beer on the bar. “I just feel bad about it,” he says. “Here’s the thing: there is bad beer out there. It’s just the reality when you have this many breweries. But I don’t think there’s ever a time where the brewer intended to make bad beer. They just have poor judgement about serving it. So you’re kind of personally insulting the brewer by leaving a half full beer.”
Make time to sightsee.
Just because your goal is to see a city or town through its breweries doesn’t mean you can’t experience any of its other sights. O’Leary advises utilizing the first half of the day. “Breweries aren’t open in the mornings! Of course, that may be difficult depending on how many breweries you visit the night before.”
Don’t forget to eat.
While O’Leary doesn’t often visit twelve breweries in one day—his record—he usually hits at least a handful. In order to get the most out of your day, balance your beer intake with food. “I always make sure to eat when there is something to eat at a brewery taproom. Even if it’s just pretzels or jerky, it’s better to keep a somewhat full stomach as you go from brewery to brewery,” he says. “And if I can, I try to end my day at a place with a full kitchen so I’m not regretting a day of visiting breweries.”