Top New Breweries
(less than three years old)
Notch Brewing (Salem, Massachusetts) is as close to brewery perfection (of this size) that I’ve come across. Brewer/Owner Chris Lohring is an industry veteran who after years of working for others (and then contracting out his canned session beers) hung out his own shingle. Only lagers and Pilsners of lower ABV strength. Grab a liter, sit along the canal, and bask in the company of good friends and beer.
Hoops Brewing Co. (Duluth, Minnesota): After a career spent producing flavorful ales and lagers at Fitger’s Brewing Co., a Minnesota mainstay, Dave Hoops opened his own brewery on the site of a former steakhouse in a hotel lobby near the shores of Lake Superior. With up to twenty beers on tap at any given time, he’s done away with clever names and opted to have us order by number. From his pale ales to wizenbocks, barleywines, and pilsners, a respected brewer has given us a sprawling and comfortable place to taste the diversity of beers.
Foam Brewing (Burlington, Vermont): It’s everything you’d expect from a Vermont brewery. Solid IPAs, inspired wild and sour ales, all in a casual chic spot with views of Lake Champlain . The name is a nod to Phish, of course, but it’s a gathering spot to all artists, musicians, and creative types who celebrate local and love the casual camaraderie that comes with getting lost in pints on lazy afternoons.
American Solera (Tulsa, Oklahoma): Surrounded by American oak, wild yeast, and his own creativity, Chase Healey is able to explore new ground. Last year the former head brewer at Prairie Artisan Ales opened his own space that is full of foeders and barrels filled with beers of all kinds that are blessed with the luxury of time. He told me last fall that he’ll release the beers when they are ready, with no timeframe on when any batch will reach that point. For us, it means good things will come. We just have to wait.
Industrial Arts Brewing Co. (Garnerville, New York): Listen to a podcast interview with Jeff O'Neil here.
Most Underrated Regional or National Brewery
Earlier this year the Boston Herald released a list of the best IPAs in New England and rightly put Harpoon Brewery’s IPA at the top. Beer geeks howled that offerings from Maine Beer Co., Tree House Brewing, Trillium, and others were snubbed the blue ribbon. Harpoon has been around since 1986, fostered amazing brewing talent over the years, and consistently created fresh, flavorful beers that might not get geek credibility but are as reliable as a Swiss watch. New offerings such as a blonde ale, mango pale ale, and a simple brown ale are solid and consistent. Philanthropic and employee-owned, both their locations in Boston and Windsor, Vermont, are comfortable and welcoming.
Top Beers of the Year
Hidden Cove Brewing Co. Fragola (Wells, Maine): A Belgian-style golden ale base aged for 10 months in fresh Valpolicella barrels stuffed with strawberries. It’s a wonderful blend of tartness and wood from the barrels, sweetness of the ripened fruit, and floral character from the beer. A beer to make you stop and relax.
Carton Brewing Co. Canoe and Rabaska (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey): The brewery made its name, in part, with a pale ale named Boat. I joked with owner Augie Carton (I host a weekly podcast with him called “Steal This Beer”) that he should make a 3 percent ABV cream ale and call it canoe—a nod to that old Monty Python joke. Earlier this summer, he released Canoe (complete with caricatures of him and me on the label) along with a ramped up 6 percent ABV version called Rabaska. Crisp, clear, and good for multiple rounds, it was my go-to beer for the summer.
Heavy Seas Brewing and Maine Brewing Co. Red IPA (Baltimore, Maryland): A collaboration under the “Partner Ships” label brought us this mix of Old School and New School ingenuity in a style that tried to pick up steam (but fell short) over the summer. Toasted malt boosted up a cornucopia of hops that emitted grapefruit, orange blossom, and pine aromas and flavors. A 22-ounce bottle you’d want for yourself, followed by another.
Yazoo Brewing Co. and Blackberry Farm Brewery Peel Your Face Orange IPA (Walland, Tennessee): Another collaboration that shows the brotherhood of brewing is alive and well. Hazy and citrus-forward, this bottle-conditioned 6.3 percent ABV IPA was like getting spritzed from an orange peel (likely because generous amounts were added). It aged for a bit on blood-orange puree that added a bright depth to the whole experience.
Favorite Beer Trend
Maybe it’s because of my recent change in lifestyle (a daughter born 7 months ago) but I’m increasingly liking how breweries are becoming family hubs. On the weekends, it’s great to find a brewery to park the stroller, have a beer with my wife, and just relax without the judgment that sometimes comes from bars or trendy brunch places. Breweries have long been communal gathering spots, and teaching the kid about responsibility early on will hopefully lead to good habits down the road. Side note: I’m 100 percent of the mind that the kiddos should be gone when the sun goes down and remain well behaved when on the premises. It’s still a brewery, not daycare.
Best Beer-Related Experience of the Year
Visiting a brewery on opening weekend. Years ago this would mean rolling the dice and hoping that the initial offerings would be quality. But, breweries have learned from other’s mistakes and now (usually) come out of the gate with dialed-in recipes and solid flavors. Experiencing an opening weekend means seeing first hand the look of reward on owners and brewers faces while reveling in the celebratory mood. Plus, witnessing the first days of a hopefully long and successful run comes with bragging rights: when they hit big “you knew them when…”
A Hope for 2018
Less technology. Let’s all try to unplug a little more. Fewer phones on the table or in hands when out for rounds with friends and family. Enjoy the moment of personal connections without worrying about Untappd, Facebook, or those pesky work emails. And to the brewery owners with televisions on all the time: it’s absolutely not necessary to have them on unless 1) the local sports team is playing or 2) there’s huge breaking news that we all need to be aware of. Turn off the muted sports center and food network.