The 16 Best Beer Cities in America
In the US, craft beer makes the world go 'round. And not just because of the sensation you get after a couple great imperial stouts. In the past few decades, Americans' thirst for great beer has become embedded in our culture. It's an economic driver. It's a part of our culture. Oh, and most importantly, good beer is, well, good.
But who does it best? Every day, some metropolis tries to lay claim to the title of "Beer City, USA." Here at Thrillist, we have the argument regularly, which is why we've decided to tap our nationwide group of editors, experts, and lushes to definitively crown the best beer city in the year of our (Dark) Lord, 2015. We factored in influence, breweries, history, impact, culture, and maybe -- just maybe -- some personal bias. Here, for our beer money, are the 16 best beer cities in the US.
16. Asheville, NC
Like a breakdown of Jimmer Fredette’s college stats, it’s impossible to NOT talk about Asheville’s size in a conversation about its beer scene. The Western North Carolina town clocks in around 83k. (For comparison, beer titan Portland has over 600,000 fine beer drinkers in its environs.) But the teensy town has enough breweries to give it one of the largest per capitas in America. Things kicked off in the ‘90s with Highland, who still produces solid craft brews, but they’ve been joined by everyone from one-barrel experimental brewers at Burial Beer to Wicked Weed, who makes incredible barrel-aged beers on top of its basic lineup -- plus, they added the sour operation Funkatorium last year. All this beer love that fostered a relative beer boom was enough to attract the attention of craft powerhouses Sierra Nevada -- they opened an East Coast outpost last year -- and New Belgium, who will open their facility this year.
The breweries:Wicked Weed, Twin Leaf, Burial Beer, Hi-Wire, Catawba, Wedge, French Broad, Asheville, Highland
The bars:Thirsty Monk, The Bier Garden, Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, Jack of the Wood
Tradition: In the region that was really quite fond of Prohibition (but also of moonshine), brewing culture is relatively young. That said, North Carolina ranks ninth in the nation for most breweries per capita and Asheville is at the forefront of the state's short sudsy history.
15. Boston, MA
The Hub of the known universe was, at one point, the Hub of the modern craft beer world as well, thanks to a young gent named Jim Koch discovering his great-great grandfather’s beer recipe. But since the '80s and '90s, much of the craft beer in Mass has moved outside the city proper, and today you’ll find many of the most creative brewers right in places like Somerville and Everett and Framingham. But with that said, Boston is still doing many hops-related things right, with the brewers they do have left like Trillium, Harpoon, Endurance (and of course Boston Beer), and a slew of bars both old (Sunset, Bukowski’s, Parish) and new (Row 34, Deep Ellum, Lord Hobo) offering up some of the most extensive and amazing beer lists in the Northeast.
The breweries:Harpoon, Trillium Brewing Company, Boston Beer Company, Endurance Brewing, Pretty Things (Somerville)
The bars:Bukowski’s, Parish Cafe, Publick House, Deep Ellum, Sunset Grill & Tap, Lord Hobo, Row 34, The Lower Depths
Tradition: The first Boston brewery (West Boston Brewery) opened in 1796. But the best old Boston brewery had to be Burkhardt Brewing, as, according to BeerAdvocate, they made “Red Sox Beer and Pennant Ale for the Red Sox 1912 championship series.”
14. Portland, ME
While the other Portland has hogged all the brewing attention and stolen Maine’s lumberjack fashion sense, the original Portland’s making its own waves -- and they’re less likely to make T-shirts about it. Every conversation about Portland’s beer scene rightfully starts at Allagash, one of the best purveyors of Belgian-style beer in the country (Belgians even like it!). Maine Beer Company, just down the highway in Freeport, is hot on its heels.
Meanwhile, smaller breweries are making a name for themselves, among them Austin Street Brewery and Bissell Brothers, which tweak American styles, and Liquid Riot, which kind of does whatever the hell it wants -- and does it beautifully. The bars are low-key, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legends: take, for instance, the Great Lost Bear, which keeps the locals hydrated with Maine’s finest beers, in addition to taps and bottles from around the world. Not bad for a town of less than 100k.
The breweries:Allagash, Shipyard, Bunker Brewing, Peak Organic Brewing, Maine Beer Company
The bars:Great Lost Bear, Little Tap House, The King’s Head, Thirsty Pig, Duckfat
Tradition: The love of beer in Maine dates all the way back to before it was even a state. Down the road in Freeport, secessionists plotted Maine’s emancipation from Massachusetts over beers at the Jameson Tavern. They haven’t put down their mugs since.
13. Burlington, VT
The nearby presence of Alchemist -- even if Heady Topper didn’t exist -- might be enough to get Burlington a spot among the greats. But, thankfully, the small city has so much more. In fact, there’s one brewery for every 3,800 people among the Rockwellian streets butting up to Lake Champlain. And while Magic Hat might be the most recognizable, smaller operations like Switchback, Infinity, and Vermont Pub -- the state’s oldest brewery -- hold their own. It has a small-town feel, but there’s more brewing cred in this city of 42k than most cities three times its size.
The breweries:Alchemist, Switchback, Infinity, Vermont Pub & Brewery
The bars:Farmouse Tap & Grill, Das Bierhaus, Hen of the Wood, Three Needs
Tradition: Though the Temperance movement made its mark on Vermont in the early days, the state rallied against crappy parties. Today, the state’s got the highest per-capita number of breweries in the country. Which is to say, tottle your tee elsewhere.
12. Cleveland, OH
At the rate it’s going now, in 10 years Cleveland might soon have a serious shot at the top of every list of this type. The epicenter of the Rust Belt revival is making huge strides in local-sourced everything -- especially beer. The Ohio City neighborhood is ground zero, with the infamous Great Lakes Brewing seeming to have birthed a small revolution in the area (Nano Brew and Market Garden are highlights), while outside the 'hood, the city’s other big dog -- that’d be Fat Head's -- continues to expand. The smaller guys are making waves too, in the form of Indigo Imp’s small-batch open fermentation program or Bottlehouse’s small-batch experiments, which produce everything from IPA to chili-infused mead.
The breweries: Great Lakes, Market Garden, Indigo Imp, Fat Head's, Nano Brew, Butcher & the Brewer
The bars:McNulty’s Bier Markt, Tremont Taphouse, Johnny's Bar, City Tap Cleveland
Tradition: Back in the 1870s, Cleveland was one of the country’s biggest brewing towns. As it was then, it is now -- Ohio City was ground zero. Great Lakes, in its expansion, took over the same building that used to house L. Schlather Brewing Company. Also, Eliot Ness was a regular in the brewery’s bar -- after Prohibition was abolished, of course.
11. Philadelphia, PA
An employee at a prominent Philly brewery explained it to us like this: Philadelphians are passionate people. And if they love you, they hardcore love you. The passion they have for their sports teams is well documented. Luckily for the local craft brew scene, they love their beer too. And the city loves beer so much they claim certain beers as their own even though they aren't brewed there; Tröegs, Yuengling, and Weyerbacher are all brewed more than an hour away, but they're as much a part of the beer scene in this town as Philadelphia Brewing Company.
Not coincidentally, there's a part of the city called Brewerytown, named because hundreds upon hundreds of breweries sprouted up there in the 1900s. And while there aren't breweries lining the blocks there anymore, Yards, Tired Hands, and Victory are brewing enough good stuff that Brewerytown sounds like an appropriate nickname for the entire city.
The breweries: Yards, Free Will Brewing, Philadelphia Brewing Co., Dock Street, Tired Hands, Victory
The bars: Monk's Cafe, Good Dog Bar, City Tap House, Johnny Brenda's, The Grey Lodge Pub
Tradition: Philly Beer Week, a 10-day celebration going eight years strong that features 1,000+ events. Longer than eight years ago, Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, but he moved to Philadelphia and became a famous politician. And a complete boozehound. His beer-loving spirit lives on through Yards' Ales of the Revolution releases, including the Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce, which was made from Franklin's original recipe.
10. Minneapolis, MN
Not even 10 years ago, Surly sold its first keg. Since it was sold in Minneapolis, we're guessing that keg was difficult to tap because it was covered in 3ft of snow. The fact that it was only 10 years ago is significant because it shows that the most celebrated Minneapolis brewery is a relative baby. And without them, the still-burgeoning Mpls/St. Paul scene would not be what it is today.
It was only in May 2011 that a law was passed to allow breweries to serve beer in their own taprooms. And serve they do. Late last year, the law requiring restaurants to have no more than 30% of their sales from beer and wine was repealed, opening the door for even more places to cater to the craft beer-drinking masses. Based on both the quality and quantity of the microbreweries opening up in the Twin Cities these days, it seems like there has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Minnesota.
The breweries: Surly Brewing Co., Fulton Brewery, Summit Brewing Co., Dangerous Man Brewing Co., 612 Brew, Harriet Brewing, Indeed Brewing Company
The bars: Town Hall Brewery, Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub, The Happy Gnome, Muddy Waters
Tradition: Brewing has a long and storied tradition in the Twin Cities, with old-old-old-old-school brands like Grain Belt being founded in 1890, Hamm's in 1865, Schmidt in 1901, and even Summit in, umm, 1986. The fact that Hamm's and Grain Belt even exist in 2015 is nothing short of miraculous, especially Grain Belt -- which was rescued from oblivion when "one time Minnesota rival brewer" Schell's acquired the brewery.
9. Milwaukee, WI
The history of Milwaukee is basically a page in the history of American brewing. Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Blatz -- hell, Milwaukee’s pretty much responsible for keeping everyone from your dad’s work buddies to your fixie-riding neighbor Starmichael hydrated for more than a century. And while Miller and Leinenkugel remain juggernauts, the general consensus is that beer’s future lies in craft, and that’s where Milwaukee’s ability to step from past to present comes in mighty handy.
That old blue-collar sentiment is still prevalent in Milwaukee. But nowadays, you’re as likely to find your beer cheese soup made with something crafty as you are something familiar. Lakefront’s leading the charge -- and has been since ’87 -- and that includes solid offerings from Milwaukee Brewing Company and German-style goods from Sprecher, who also makes a great soda. Those and more are served up at some of the country’s most laid-back beer bars -- Sugar Maple being the king among them -- where the scene is populated less by beer snobs and more by Joe Sixpacks whose six-packs just happen to consist of 22oz one-offs.
The breweries: Lakefront, Water Street, Brenner, Milwaukee Brewing Co., Miller, Leinenkugel
The bars: Romans' Pub, Sugar Maple, Burnhearts, Nomad World Pub, Uber Tap Room, The Rumpus Room
Tradition: Back in the 1850s, there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, making it kind of like Portland, but with German immigrants instead of hipsters (though lederhosen could come back into vogue). Which is to say, it's a city with breweries and bars in its very roots. Beer is a way of life. You didn't think the baseball team was named after the dude who played Goat Boy, did you?
8. Grand Rapids, MI
So obviously any discussion of beer in Grand Rapids has to start with Founders, on its way to becoming an international beer force thanks to a minority investment from Mahou San Miguel of Spain, though locals remain more focused on the simple joy of housing an enormous sandwich and some amazing beers in their taproom (and getting their hands on some KBS when it comes along). But there’s a vibrant scene beyond the big boys. Brewery Vivant has won over a legion of fans with its take on Belgian-style brews (and its duck confit nachos and gorgeous brewpub built in an old chapel). HopCat is as fine a beer bar as you’ll find anywhere (crack fries!)... so much so that they’re evolving into a mini beer empire with a growing number of Midwest outposts, but Grand Rapids will always be home. Oh, and they have some fine brews in their own right.
While several other Grand Rapids breweries are also developing strong followings (Mitten, Harmony), GR also has to get some points for the surrounding areas... most notably Kalamazoo, where you’ll find a little brewing outfit known as Bell’s (among others). Yes, they’re an hour apart, but you think you couldn’t spend an hour traveling in between some of these places in New York or San Diego? The point is, Michigan has one of the most vibrant, innovative, and locally loyal brewing cultures of any state in the union, and Grand Rapids anchors the state’s most prolific brewing region. Walk into any bar and you’re looking at dozens of seriously impressive beer options that were likely brewed within a quick car ride. It’s without question one of America’s finest places to enjoy beer.
The breweries:Founders, Brewery Vivant, Mitten, Harmony, Grand Rapids Brewing Company, HopCat
The bars: ALSO HopCat, Graydon’s Crossing, Logan’s Alley, Rezervoir Lounge
Tradition: The brewing culture in the area actually predates the city, as there’s historical evidence of German settlers doing what you’d expect German settlers to do way back in the 1830s, before the city of Grand Rapids was even incorporated. The city was pumping out a quarter of a million barrels annually before Prohibition did its thing. Founders’ original name was actually Canal St. Brewing, a nod to the downtown district where much of that sudsy action was taking place. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better brewery-thrown bash than Founders Fest, where you just might catch Zach Morris playing guitar.
7. New York, NY
Some of these cities earned their rank because of a concentration of breweries, or maybe high-quality beer ubiquity that leads to a drinker’s ability to get four different imperial stouts at a Thai place. New York is on here because of raw size. The champion beer bars might not be on every corner, but they’re there (see: Blind Tiger, who gets some of the best kegs of anyone). And then there are breweries. Committed canners Sixpoint wouldn’t let Hurricane Sandy stop them. Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø doesn’t brew in Brooklyn, but he runs Evil Twin from there. New kids Other Half make some of the best IPAs anywhere, and instead of brewing in a warehouse tucked deep into one of the boroughs, they’ve committed to creating a true drinkers' community at their tap room smack in decidedly not-cheap Carroll Gardens. Oh, and they fill growlers at ubiquitous corporate pill-pusher Duane Reade. It’s all really happening.
The breweries:Brooklyn Brewery, Sixpoint, Other Half, Finback, SingleCut, Bronx Brewery, Evil Twin
The bars:Blind Tiger, Alewife, Proletariat, Alphabet City Beer Co., Rattle N Hum, Tørst, Jimmy’s No. 43, Bar Great Harry
Tradition: In 1932, 100,000+ very thirsty New Yorkers attended a "We Want Beer" protest put together by Mayor Jimmy Walker, in an effort to get congress to repeal that dastardly 18th Amendment. That says about all you need to know.
6. San Francisco, CA
With its forward-thinking cocktail culture and the surrounding wine country, you’d think that SF’s beer scene would be an afterthought, but that is false, and upsetting. With a strong lineup of beer bars, including the surly grandaddy of NorCal beer-bar culture Toronado, and the recently arrived Copenhagen transplant Mikkeller, plus a crazy number of breweries for a city that only stretches 7x7 (and even ones like Pacific Brewing Company that started in a garage in the city and then got so big they moved to Oakland), SF continues to prove that it isn’t just hills and hippies.
The breweries:21st Amendment Brewery, Almanac Beer Co., Anchor Brewing Co., Cellarmaker Brewing Co., Southern Pacific Brewing, Magnolia Brewery, Triple Voodoo Brewery
The bars:The Monk’s Kettle, Mikkeller Bar, Toronado, Magnolia Brewpub, Southern Pacific Brewing, La Trappe
Tradition: In San Francisco’s legendary history, there have been 76 breweries in the city, not even counting the ones currently open. THINK ABOUT WHAT COULD’VE BEEN.
5. Chicago, IL
There was a time early on in the craft beer boom when Chicago seemed to be lagging behind a bit, but it caught up in a hurry and then some. It’s impossible to talk about the local scene without addressing Goose Island, which, sale to AB InBev notwithstanding, remains very much a part of the fabric of the local scene (see the lineups for BCS that start forming each year around the time everyone else is enjoying Thanksgiving dinner).
But these days Chicago find itself with an embarrassment of sudsy riches. Revolution is a looming giant. Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter has become synonymous with a Chicago summer. Pipeworks puts out covetable new beers at an astonishing pace. Newer outfits like Off Color and Moody Tongue embody the whimsical and experimental spirit that similarly defines the city’s dining scene (see the $120-a-bottle Black Truffle Pilsner that was the cause of much Internet fanfare).
On the other end of the spectrum, Lagunitas chose Chicago as the site for its massive new brewery and taproom. And that’s all without even discussing 3 Floyds (admittedly across the border in Indiana, but more closely associated with Chicago than any other market, and you won’t find a city that has more bars tapping Zombie Dust). Speaking of bars, Chicago just has a way with them. No matter your taste -- the heavy-metal edge of Local Option, the Belgian sophistication of Hopleaf, the effortless diviness of Maria’s and Fischman’s -- you’ll find a bar serving world-class beer ready to welcome you.
The breweries:Goose Island, Half Acre, Pipeworks, Revolution, Off Color, Moody Tongue
The bars:Map Room, Hopleaf, Bangers & Lace, Local Option, Maria’s Packaged Goods, Fischman Liquors
Tradition: There was a dark time (the ‘80s) when Chicago proper was without a brewery after Meister Brau ceased operations here (fun fact: when Miller acquired Meister Brau, their “lite” formula would become the beer you may know now as Miller Lite). Goose Island was at the forefront of the barrel-aged beer boom, so it makes sense that Chicago’s Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beers (FoBAB, for short) has evolved into one of the nation’s most prominent celebrations of the form, as well as a hard-to-score ticket.
4. Seattle, WA
Even without beer, Seattle would still be the beverage capital of America: they clearly dominate coffee (been to a Starbucks lately?), and booze (over half the country’s craft distilleries are in Washington State), and you could even make an argument for wine (ask someone from Napa where they’d rather be in 10 years), but who cares? Because they DO have beer... oh, do they have beer.
Washington is currently home to almost 300 breweries (83 new ones opened in the state last year, more than any other state), and most of them can be found in and around Seattle. Heck, they’ve got neighborhoods with more breweries than at least 10 states. And best of all, 77% of the country’s hops are grown just a short trip over the Cascade Mountains. Said hops are the crucial ingredient in the flavorful Northwest-style IPAs that have become America’s most popular craft beers, and that have been perfected by Seattle brewers like Fremont, Two Beers, Black Raven, and many, many more.
When you combine such mainstays with old-school giants like Elysian and Redhook, and creative new suds-makers like Reuben’s Brews and Stoup, you get a diverse and inventive range of breweries that even the most dedicated craft suds sipper can’t get a handle on. Or they could if they weren’t so busy also drinking coffee... and booze... and wine... and... you get the point.
The breweries:Fremont Brewing, Reuben’s Brews, Black Raven Brewing, Georgetown Brewing, Stoup Brewing, Epic Ales, Pike Brewing Company
The bars:The Pine Box, Chuck’s Hop Shop, Beveridge Place Pub, The Burgundian, The Noble Fir, Brouwer’s Cafe
Tradition: Though it’s no longer brewed there, Seattle still proudly reps Rainier beer -- there are currently craft breweries in both of their sprawling pre-war facilities, and the old-school macrobrewery's famous red “R” was restored to its place atop the SoDo spot last year. Oh, and if that’s not enough, the nation’s first brewpub opened a (relatively) short drive from Seattle back in the ‘80s.
3. Denver, CO
Denver isn't the only Colorado town obsessed with beer -- Fort Collins birthed Odell and New Belgium, Oskar Blues is in Longmont, and Golden has this little outfit called Coors. Recently, however, the city's come into its own as a beer destination not just on a state level, but a national one. It's been the home of the Great American Beer Festival since 1984, a gathering of all the major players in the craft scene to drink and celebrate. And despite its undue reputation as a snow-filled Siberia, the city's plentiful 300+ days of sunshine enable brewery taprooms to double as outdoor drinking spots, because nothing pairs with a high ABV quite like an SPF.
Brewery taprooms aren't just places to enjoy beer, they're the equivalent of a neighborhood bar, and there's seemingly one in every hamlet. Great Divide Brewing planted their roots in the now-thriving Ballpark area in the mid-'90s, before there was even a ballpark... fittingly named Coors Field. Blue Moon started underneath that very field before being acquired by Coors and spreading its wings nationwide. Wynkoop (since merged with another Colorado product: Breckenridge Brewery) was Denver's first microbrewery, and the guy who started it went on to become the mayor of the city, and then the state's governor. It might seem like a strange trajectory at first, but the city's beer roots run deep.
The breweries:Great Divide, Crooked Stave, Wynkoop, TRVE Brewing, Black Sky Brewery, Denver Beer Co., Renegade Brewing Co., Our Mutual Friend
The bars:Colorado Plus Brew Pub, Falling Rock, Euclid Hall, Historians Ale House, Highland Tap & Burger
Tradition: The Great American Beer Fest has been in Denver since '84, and doesn't so much take over the Colorado Convention Center as it does the entire city. Thousands of people from all over the country come in for one of the greatest beer tastings in any city all year long: everyone from casual beer drinkers to snobs of every stripe to fancy beer judges. It sells out lightning fast every year, and for good reason.
2. San Diego, CA
You have consumed beer from San Diego. You absolutely, definitely have. Maybe it was from Stone, the behemoth with the really nice backyard. Maybe you were lucky enough to try Duet or Nelson from beloved IPA-maker Alpine, which just merged with Green Flash, which you’ve also almost surely had. Maybe you spent a whole day in a faux-Bentley limo touring what seemed like all the tap rooms, but in the end, was really about .001% of them.
If you count North County, and we do, San Diego has more than 100 licensed breweries, and a lot more people in garages primed to start one. And it’s not just their famed, fruity double IPAs -- Pizza Port spinoff Lost Abbey does some of the world’s finest Belgians not made in the country they’re named after, AleSmith stouts it up with the best, and Societe is doing sours the right way. Come for the beer, stay for the beer. The beach can wait.
The breweries:Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, Green Flash, Alpine, Coronado, Pizza Port, Lost Abbey, Karl Strauss, Bagby, Mike Hess, Modern Times, Societe, way too many more to name
The bars:Hamilton’s Tavern, Blind Lady Ale House, Tiger!Tiger!, The Brew Project, Barrel Republic, Toronado, Draft, O’Brien’s Pub, Encinitas Ale House
Tradition: OK, so it’s not really IN San Diego, but during Prohibition, San Diegans’ drive for consumption -- and proximity to a country not insane enough to outlaw booze -- led to more than 130 cantinas opening just across the border in Tijuana, and the city’s population growing by a factor of 10 over that dark decade.
1. Portland, OR
Movie theaters, arcades, putt putt courses, strip clubs, concerts, museums, tattoo parlors, optometrists’ offices, art galleries, and record shops. What do they all have in common? Those aren’t just great places to stage adult movies -- they’re all places where you’re likely to drink beer in Portland.
More than 70 breweries call the city-proper home (not including the sprawling suburbs), which places Portland as the city with the biggest volume of beer out there. Widmer Brothers -- who were on the cutting edge of craft beer when "craft beer" wasn’t even a phrase -- got their start here, laying the groundwork for some of the best brewers in the country to do their thing. And now, Portland’s ground zero for some of the best brewing in the country, from Breakside -- purveyors of this year’s GABF-winning IPA -- to the barrel-aged innovation of Cascade and Upright, the legendary Hair of the Dog, the weirdos at Gigantic, and newer guys like the great Ecliptic and Ex Novo, which is the city’s first nonprofit brewery.
And lest you think it’s all craft and snobbery, the city’s also credited with revitalizing Pabst for the younger crowd. Depending on your opinion of skinny jeans, you might have Portland to thank for keeping you hydrated and out of poverty. So while the city has its fair share of beer snobs (“supporters of native Oregon beer,” they call themselves), there’s really something for everybody in the City of Roses.
Add to that some of the best beer bars in the country, an endless parade of fests (ranging from the enormous Oregon Brewers Fest to the Fruit Beer Fest, Cheers to Belgian Beers, and Firkin Fest), bartenders leading the charge for beer/cocktail hybridization, and a brewing community that's more "love (and collaborate with) thy neighbor" than competitive, and you don’t just have a great beer city. You have the best damned beer city in the country.
The breweries: Breakside Brewery, Hair of the Dog, Gigantic, Cascade, Hopworks, Upright, Laurelwood, Widmer Brothers
The bars: Horse Brass Pub, Bailey’s Taproom, APEX, Imperial Bottle Shop, Saraveza, Belmont Station
Tradition: Back in the day, workers in downtown’s Brewery Blocks constantly drank on the job, thanks to the gigantic Henry Weinhard's brewing. This led the city to install water fountains throughout the city. Today, the Benson Bubblers aren’t just operational: they’re Portland icons.
Andy Kryzais a senior editor on Thrillist's Food & Drink team and lives in Portland, but all the writers who helped him with this story couldn't deny that Portland is #1. Follow him to unbiased tweets: @AndyKryza.