Top Three Small Breweries (15K bbl or less)
Coppertail Brewing Co. (Tampa, Florida)
There’s a tobacco-themed brewery that gets a lot of attention in Tampa, but whenever I’m in the area, Coppertail Brewing is my first stop. First, let’s take their core lineup: an IPA (of course), a porter, a Pilsner, and a tripel. That last one seems out of place, right? But it’s delicious and, I’ve found, a perfect night cap. Under the direction of Casey Hughes, the brewery also turns out Florida-weisse varieties that rank among the best in the state. From the artistic nautical decor to the onsite kitchen that has elevated the standard beer menu, you’ll see why it’s always packed (but somehow never feels too crowded) and a hometown favorite.
Tributary Brewing Company (Kittery, Maine) In the few years since he left The Portsmouth Brewery (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) and opened his own brewery just across the river in Maine, Tod Mott has been quietly turning out some of the best beers in the region. It’s no surprise, of course, since Mott is one of the most talented brewers in the country. Tributary Brewing is in an unassuming spot inside a strip mall on a county road, but inside, the beers showcase Mott’s brewing talent, from a delightfully crisp and Old School bitter pale ale to a honey saison. Always mixed with locals and travelers making the trip between Boston and Portland, the taproom feels like the beer: humble but inviting. The Russian imperial stout (once known as Kate the Great and now going by Mott the Lesser) still gets released annually and is what everyone who makes the style should strive to produce.
Chuckanut Brewery (Bellingham, Washington) Lager lovers get spoiled when visiting this brewpub in northern Washington. Will and Mari Kemper have dedicated their careers to making clean, fresh, flavorful beers that pay homage to traditions and are also a pleasure to drink. Bellingham is a cool beer city with a lot of options to satisfy the modern palate, but even the most serious of line lifers eventually find themselves here, quenching a thirst with a vibrant Helles, crisp Pilsner, or robust schwartzbier. It’s a brewery that any of us would be fortunate to call our local and is always worth the trip.
Top Regional or National Brewery (15K bbl or more)
Sun King Brewery (Indianapolis, Indiana) In less than a decade, Sun King Brewery has become a powerhouse in the Hoosier State. As a young news reporter, I got to know brewery founders, Clay Robinson and David Colt, as they worked at a local brewpub finalizing the Sun King business plan. Early adopters of cans, they built a brewery on the back of cream ale, Scotch ale, and a citrusy pale ale. They quickly branched out into a barrel program (also canned) that turns out flavorful and sought-after recipes, as well as just about every other style under the sun. They’ve added new locations (and a distillery) and only recently started sending their beer out of state. Accelerated growth is harder than ever for breweries, but Sun King shows that it can be done with a clear vision and principles plus the right people in the right roles, a desire to play with beers, but also an understanding of what every-day drinkers want.
Top 5 Beers of the Year
Carton Brewing Inside our DNA (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey) This IPA is a call back to the early U.S. iterations of an IPA, especially ones rooted in New Jersey. It’s a 6.6 ABV IPA that was aged in an oak foeder. The wood adds mellow complexity to the pine-forward hops profile that leaves a pleasing bitterness and sweetish caramel malts. Drink fresh or—as the brewery suggests—let it age in the can for a few years as it morphs into an American barleywine.
Cerebral Brewing Barrel-Aged Ancient Ruins—Rocky Road (Denver, Colorado) I’m admittedly not a connoisseur of pastry stouts, but this beer, which I first had at the WeldWerks Invitational (Greeley, Colorado) stopped me dead in my tracks. As a kid, Rocky Road was the ice cream flavor of choice in my house, and this beer nails all the flavors, combining them just like you’d get from every spoonful from a bowl. Some beers in the style are chaotic or heavy-handed. This deftly combines diverse flavors into a harmonious drinking experience.
Yazoo Brewing Company Daddy-O Pilsner (Nashville, Tennessee) If it’s being offered, I’m always going to order Yazoo’s Daddy-O Pilsner. Such was the case when visiting Yazoo earlier this year. I’d downed more pints of this beer than I can count in the past but was so pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the brewery changed the hops profile. Owner Linus Hall says that the German Hop Growers Association donated the varieties Calista and Ariana for a special batch. It was such a hit (just ask anyone who tried it) that the brewery plans to make it commercially available again very soon.
Firestone Walker Barrelworks Feral Brut (Buellton, California) Jeffers Richardson, the barrel master of Barrelworks, appeared on the Steal This Beer podcast earlier this year with an unmarked bottle. A collaboration between the brewery and a local winery, it’s a hybrid of pinot noir and a blonde ale in the champagne style, and it stunned everyone at the table. It was lightly salmon-colored and bursting with funk and fruit. If you can get a bottle (it’s soon to be released commercially), open it with friends—to share and to be quiet and contemplate how remarkable beer can be.
Reuben’s Brews Bits and Bobs (Seattle, Washington) Constantly changing, evolving, and putting education to good use is the sign of a good and thoughtful brewery. In the case of Bits and Bobs, an IPA that is always changing be it through process or ingredients, you can tell with the first sniff and taste that a pint is going to be a pleasurable experience.
One Classic Beer You’ll Always Order
Pilsner Urquell (Plzeň, Czech Republic) It’s been heartening to see so many lagers and Pilsners turned out by smaller breweries recently. When I’m just out for a night with friends, I’m a big fan of the session beer—that is one beer that I can drink all night long without jumping between styles. Low ABV helps, too, so if I see Pilsner Urquell—the bready, slightly Saaz-spicy, clear golden Czech Pils—I know that’s what I’ll be ordering all night. It’s got complexity and simplicity working together to keep my taste buds interested. Bonus points if it’s served in a dimpled mug and poured correctly from the taps.
Favorite Beer City
Nashville, Tennessee. My in-laws live in Nashville, so I’ve been visiting the Music City for the better part of the past two decades. It’s been amazing to watch the transformation from a relatively sleepy state capitol to a bustling metropolitan area. The beer scene is one that any fan of drinking local should visit. From stalwarts such as Yazoo Brewing Company, which continues to turn out easy-drinking flavorful beers as well as the Embrace the Funk series, to relative newcomers such as Bearded Iris Brewing, there’s something for every beer desire. Drop-in bars such as Vinyl Tap (a record store and bar) or Craft Brewed (a bottle shop and taproom with a Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish location across the street) make you realize that no matter where you are, you’re guaranteed to get good music and great beer.
Favorite Beer Bar, or Beer Bar that Everyone Should Experience
No matter how good the architect or interior designer, there’s no way to fake history and longevity. I’m a sucker for old, worn-to-the-bone bars that capture not just a moment in time but entire eras. Two places come to mind, and neither is really about the beer. McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York has two beer selections: light or dark. And whichever beer you order, it’s served in two 8-ounce mugs instead of a pint glass. On the walls, you can see the whole history of New York, from when McSorley’s first opened in 1854 through today. Wash down the beer with a cheese-and-onion plate, keep your phone in your pocket, sit in chairs older than your grandparents, and soak in genuine atmosphere. Similar, but more polished, is The Brown Bottle (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), a wood-paneled bar inside the campus that was once the Schlitz Brewery. The full history of “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” is on display along with Pilsner glasses filled with the pale golden lager. Step back in time and appreciate where we are today by remembering where we came from.