Top Three Small Breweries (15K bbl or less)
Wayfinder Beer (Portland, Oregon) I was told I had to go to Wayfinder Beer (by Modern Times, actually) when I visited Portland, Oregon. “Their lagers are unreal—they brew a Czech dark lager.” Tmave?! I have never been to the Czech Republic, and only recently are U.S. brewers (with a few outliers) getting into the Czech game (besides the famed Czech Pils). So in June, as instructed, I went down to have a pint of their Hidden Hand Czech dark lager. See, I do this thing when I have a pint that speaks to me; I drum the bar or table in front of me real fast after the first sip. I don’t know why I do it, but I do. And I did it with this beer, by myself, during a crowded lunch rush at Wayfinder. It’s one of the best beer experiences of 2018.
Fox Farm Brewery ( Salem, Connecticut)
Full disclosure, I’ve been studying for the Master Cicerone exam, and to get out of the house, I took Fox Farm Brewery Owner Zack Adams up on his offer to work a day or two a week in the tasting room of their farm brewery in Salem, Connecticut (near the “quiet corner” part of state).
The people in my home state have the NEIPA bug more than anyone else (this is a hot take, but I truly believe it), and Fox Farm’s are some of the best—luscious, full, and intricate but refreshing (my shift beer is usually in a take-home mason jar, and nine times out of ten it’s their “flagship” NEIPA, BURST). They also brew beers they want to drink (smoked Helles anyone?), and make sure their small barn brewery off a quiet farm road has a range of products to keep everyone from geeks to townsfolk coming back again and again.
COAST Brewing Company (Charleston, South Carolina) Todd Boera from Fonta Flora Brewing took me to COAST in 2013 when I met him at a good friends’ family oyster roast in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, and I’ve been smitten with COAST’s beers ever since. Their Kölsch may be one of the best New World translations of the style, and every time I’m in Charleston, I make it a point to visit or at least seek out a pint. I was in South Carolina in June during a particularly steamy week (118°F heat index—damn, just going from car to hotel was agonizing), and their Kölsch saved my sanity. Everything they brew is consistent and solid. Any time someone says they are going to Charleston, I practically demand they visit (if owner Jaime is there, say “hi!” because she’s great!).
Top Regional or National Brewery (15K bbl or more)
Allagash Brewing Co. (Portland, Maine)
There’s so much to love about Allagash. It’s a feat of strength to connect the tripels and wits of Belgium to the wilds of Maine, from rocky shores to towering pine-laden mountains, but Allagash’s beers have a sense of belonging to the location. Plus, it’s a large brewery that doesn’t take itself too seriously except with beer (their fridge in the employee kitchen has a picture of Cher on it, and it says, “Cher’d Fridge”). Belgian beer is a vast swath that incorporates so many flavors, and Allagash can do it all with something that craft beer can miss the mark on: grace and elegance. You know that when you’re in a giant MonstroMart-style liquor store (at least on the East Coast/SoCal/Chicago), you’re going to find Allagash, and chances are, it’s going to be excellent.
Top 5 Beers of the Year
Austin Street Brewery Patina Pale Ale (Portland, Maine)
I had Patina Pale Ale on my birthday at the brewery, and it was handed to me by the Beer Babe herself, Carla Jean Lauter, with a “must-try” look on her face. One sip and I said, “Oh...man, I want one of those.” I promptly bought a 4-pack the next day. Unfiltered, fruity, and refreshing; this beer practically glows in a shimmery straw color, like a sunbeam.
Counter Weight Brewing Company/Jack’s Abby Group Chat Pils (Framingham, Massachusetts)
We were out to lunch at one of the best spots of beers near my home, J. Timothy’s Taverne (best wings ever, fight me on it and lose), when I had a dimpled mug of Chat Pils, an insanely delicious German Pils. When Pilsners take on a lemon-curd note from a sweetness of the malt and a soft punch from the hops, that’s when everything clicks. An awesome collab.
Allagash Brewing Company Coolship Red (Portland, Maine)
It’s kind of weird that two of my favorite beers this year were from the same day, but I received a private tour from Allagash on my birthday and drank the Coolship Red, their spontaneously fermented framboise fruit lambic-style ale. I thought nothing could dethrone my favorite beer from Allagash, the Mattina Rossa, brewed with local wild raspberries, but here we are. Drinking Coolship Red in their coolship room on a cold March day made the drinking experience all the more vivid. If you are looking for a beer that can play with the Old World kids in the same sandbox, this beer is it.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest (Chico, California)
I deemed this hot New England summer, “the Summer of Saaz” and went on a tear to drink as many Czech lagers are I could find. But the one I could find easily and enjoyed the most of this summer was Sierra Nevada Summerfest. It’s clean and refreshing, with a light spiciness from the use of Saaz at the finish.
deGarde Brewing The Lucy (Tillamook, Oregon)
On a family vacation, I’m not supposed to do a lot of beer stuff because, let’s face it, my sister and mother don’t really care about beer. But on a drive through Tillamook, Oregon, I demanded we stop (I had been good about not pressuring them for beer stops) at deGarde Brewing. deGarde sours are some of the best in the country, and their new tasting room was brimming with happy customers. The muscat grapes added the dessert-wine atmosphere to The Lucy, and my mom even liked it (she’s never liked a sour, so this beer truly is epic).
One Classic Beer You’ll Always Order
I was at a beer bar in Rhinebeck, New York, and the person behind the bar mentioned to me the concept of the “panic beer”—when you don’t know what to order but you see a beacon, a shining example of goodness in a sea of uncertainty. In my home state, that beer is New England Brewing Co.’s Sea Hag. You can find it at almost every package store, and it sells so well, it’s usually fresh. It’s a straight American IPA—citrus zest, lightly malty—a solid go-to. In terms of classics, I usually go German. I love Köstritzer Schwarzbier or Gaffel Kölsch. Both are great four-season beers and go with almost all food.
Favorite Beer City
Portland, Oregon. Mine is a real “duh,” but Portland, Oregon, is simply the best. When I lived in Oregon in 2011, Portland had about thirty breweries. Now, I think even the city itself has lost track. Old favorites are surrounded by young upstarts, and everyone seems pleased (as long as the beer is good). Walk anywhere, and if you haven’t found a brewery, then you aren’t in Portland. The best part of the beer scene is that many of the breweries are also serving some excellent cuisine. Breakside Brewery and Ecliptic Brewing both make great, amazing beers, and their food is just as stellar.
Favorite Beer Bar, or Beer Bar that Everyone Should Experience
No favorite, but the neighborhood around E. 7th in the East Village of NYC makes for a easy and high-quality pub crawl. Start at Proletariat for tekus of some heady brews or ciders (contrasted with the menu being in those multicolored letter magnets for kids) and end your evening with the authentic and sometimes rowdy German atmosphere of Zum Schneider. I also encourage stops at Good Beer, ABC Beer Co., and Coopers.