Top Three Small Breweries
(15K bbl or less)
Block 15 Brewing Company (Corvallis, Oregon) This unassuming little brewery in downtown Corvallis is routinely overlooked by aficionados, even in Oregon. And yet it may be the best brewery in the state and one of the best in the country. The brewery’s range is remarkable, including classic European lagers, trend-setting saturated-hops IPAs, immensely complex saisons, and even spontaneously fermented beers that begin life in the brewery’s coolship. It’s not just that Block 15 makes all these types of beers, either, but that it consistently makes some of the best examples across the categories.
Union Craft Brewing (Baltimore, Maryland)
Breweries exist to make beer, but for millennia, they have also functioned as community gathering places. Union Craft Brewing is one of Baltimore’s best breweries, but it’s the way they’ve integrated into neighborhoods that’s really special. When they were founded seven years ago, they accelerated the revitalization of the Woodbury neighborhood. This year, the brewery moved production to an old Sears building and created the Union Collective, which will house small artisanal makers and act as a hub for the community to gather. Craft breweries often talk about making the world a better place; Union is committed to doing it.
Dwinell Country Ales (Goldendale, Washington)
The town of Goldendale (population 3,500) is on the dry side of Washington State, two hours from Portland and more than three from Seattle. It’s not the kind of town where you expect to find an incredibly ambitious brewery making mixed-fermentation beer, but that’s exactly what Jocelyn and Justin Leigh have created in Dwinell. When locals come in and ask what tastes closest to Coors, they may be handed a Brett pale ale (a scene I witnessed). The beers are complex yet delicate, and many take advantage of the local fruit that grows in abundance around the valley.
Top Regional or National Brewery
(15K bbl or more)
Fremont Brewing (Seattle, Washington)
For years, the best-selling brewery in Washington has been Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery. Following the collapse of Pyramid and Redhook, no Evergreen State brewery has captured locals’ fancy. Fremont is set to change that, with a blueprint for growth every ambitious brewery should follow. Their core line is anchored by approachable easy drinkers, but the real interest lies in the barrel program, specialty-hops series, collaborations, and one-offs, which sparkle with the kind of originality and interest that have set the pace for what creative breweries can achieve.
Top 5 Beers of the Year
Upright Brewing Company Pathways Saison (Portland, Oregon) Upright Brewing’s Alex Ganum has a rare talent for making and blending wild, barrel-aged beers. Perhaps his best example of that is Pathways Saison. Blended from a collection of barrels inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria, it is composed of the elements he has on hand. Vinous, lightly acidic, fruity, and dry, it is a movable masterpiece.
Big Island Brewhaus Dark Sabbath (Waimea, Hawaii) This little brewpub, on a remote hillside on Hawaii’s Big Island, is one of those little gems that one increasingly finds in remote areas. They make many excellent beers (and a bang-on steak), but my nod goes to their Belgian-style dark ale, Dark Sabbath, in which a peppery phenolic note and dry finish complement a chocolaty, boozy body.
Mother Earth Brewing Company Galactic Armadillo (Nampa, Idaho) There are so many hazy IPAs, it’s hard to choose. So, I won’t. Instead, I give you this little session IPA that accomplishes what so many cannot: vivid infused fruit flavors and aromas that come from Galaxy and Amarillo hops on a light chassis that is somehow full-bodied and creamy.
Reach Break Brewing McRea’s Stout (Astoria, Oregon) Astoria, Oregon, has become a tiny powerhouse of great breweries, and the seaport at the mouth of the Columbia River specializes in dark ales. McRae’s is a smoked oyster stout—which sounds like one too many elements until you taste the marriage of salinity, roast, and smokiness. It all comes in a sessionable 5.5 percent ABV package.
Structures Brewing Isolation (Bellingham, Washington) One of Bellingham’s incredible crop of new breweries, Structures is the most unassuming, with a barebones taproom and a brewhouse cobbled together from used dairy equipment. They’re nevertheless making exceptional beers, particularly their barrel-aged saisons. Isolation is a blend of 30 percent aged wild stock and 70 percent fresh saison. Milky white, it is a triumph of balance with Pinot gris–like sweetness, delicate acidity, and pastel stone-fruit esters.
One Classic Beer You’ll Always Order if It’s on the Menu
One sunny afternoon in mid-October several years ago, I stopped into Mahr’s Bräu, one of the many wonderful breweries in Bamberg, Germany, to try the brewery’s legendary Ungespundet. It’s sort of like Franconian cask lager—unfiltered and low in carbonation. The reputation somehow, if anything, understates what an amazing beer it is. Honey-colored, slightly hazy, and frothy, it has a mineral quality, lacy peppery hopping, and a slightly raw quality.
I have encountered few beers that pull so much flavor out of such a slight beer. It is so memorable that people who have shared a similar experience tend to bond over it. When I was at the Novare Res Bier Café in Portland, Maine, a couple years ago, the waiter and I went on such an extended reminiscence that he came out when we were leaving to give me a Mahr’s mug. That’s the kind of beer it is.
Favorite Beer City
Prague, Czechia. The joy of drinking in America in 2018 is that you are never far from a great brewery, whether you’re in Duluth, Minnesota, or Tampa, Florida. But if you want a truly rare and special experience, go to Prague. Americans are largely unaware of the range of lagers made in the Czech Republic (or Czechia, if you prefer), which run from low-alcohol pale lagers to ambers and booming, doppelbock-strengthed dark lagers. Even Pilsner—or světlý ležák, as it’s known locally—is a style we don’t fully appreciate. Using just one malt and one hop, local brewers can produce remarkably different flavors from the beer.