Oh, breweries. If you blink a new one sprouts up like a summer dandelion. Or, if you’re like me, leave your hometown for two years, come back, and find a dozen new brew establishments. Some of these joints I’m convinced are just using Mr. Beer kits at industrial levels.
However, from time to time a really great brewery does pop up, offering more than the same old-same old IPAs and reds and stouts you’ll find everywhere else. Which breweries are the best? Well, everyone loves their local hot spots. However, when considering the number of brews that pop up on Rate Beer and Beer Advocate top lists, here are, in a semi-scientific but not completely accurate, the top 10 breweries in the United States.
Kalamazoo, Michigan: 1983
Notable Beers: Black Note Stout, Hopslam, Two Hearted IPA
If you were to ask a seasoned beer drinker in Michigan what brewery makes the best brews, they’d likely tell you Founders. As someone born and raised in the state, I’d give that answer as well. In terms of consistency, Founder’s, to me, is pound for pound tops in the state.
With all that said, it’s hard to argue with classics like Hopslam and Two Hearted. Two Hearted came out before the current rush of IPAs, and when you really want a classic and delicious India Pale Ale, I tend to go with these classics. Outside of maybe having the most overrated beer on the list (which Oberon certainly is, but that might only be because in Michigan there’s an “Oberon Day,” celebrating the return of a beer that is available year round…). All in all though, a solid start to the list.
In terms of distribution for Bells, it’s easier to list where the beer isn’t available than where it is. There’s a diagonal of states from Washington down to Texas where the beers aren’t available, but you can find the brews in California and Arizona, which only means it’ll spread throughout more of the Southwest sooner rather than later.
(And a side note, this is by far the oldest brewery on the list by a good 12 years, so while it’s not best of the best, Bell’s did help ultimately create the micro beer industry).
9. Toppling Goliath
Decorah, Iowa: 2009
Notable Beers: Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, Mornin’ Delight, King Sue
I’ll admit I don’t know a ton about this brewery. According to SeekABrew.com (a great website that offers beer distribution info, so check it out), it’s only available in six states (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin).
However, we’re not rating breweries based on distribution. There’s nothing wrong with some exclusivity. I remember the joy of making pilgrimages out West and picking up Fat Tire and other brews. While there are many who complain about the InBev takeover of microbreweries (myself included), it has helped with the spread of great beers around the country.
So if you visit one of these states, make sure to pick up some suds from Toppling Goliath.
8. Cigar City
Tampa, Florida: 2007
Notable Beers: Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, Life is Like Milk Stout, Caffe Americano Double Stout
Distribution to Cigar City is a bit limited, but it’s starting to expand. I recently found some pop up in Arizona, which usually means it’s about to make it’s way into California (although Cali is so inundated with its own beers it’s a bit of a bottleneck breaking in from the outside).
Normally I tend to connect the best breweries with colder regions of the country (when I put together my personal favorite brewery lists most will probably be from these locations worldwide). However, Florida bucks the trend with two breweries on this list. So whether visiting on vacation or you live in the Sunshine State, check out Cigar City.
7. Funky Buddha
Oakland Park, Florida: 2010
Notable Beers: Morning Wood, Last Buffalo in the Park, Wide Awake It’s Morning
Want to get your hands on a Funky Buddha beer? You’ll need to make your way down to Florida. Because of in terms of distribution, there is no distribution. You’re either drinking it in the state or you’re probably not drinking it at all.
Now, I tend to hesitate a bit on these only on location beers. There’s always some hometown bias going on. People want their local brewery to be the best brewery, so many will vote these better than others. But when one joint has so many beers rate so well, it’s hard to ignore. Plus, who doesn’t like a little beer pilgrimage to check out something new?
San Diego, California: 1995
Notable Beers: Numerous Speedway Stouts, Old Numbskull
AleSmith has a bit of an unusual distribution route. Unusual in that there’s really no rhyme or reason behind it. If you’re in a state that doesn’t have it, drive to your neighboring state, then you might find it there (unless you live in the Southeast, because then only North Carolina has the beer).
San Diego is one of the greatest beer producing cities, maybe not just in the United States but the world. Toss in Ballast Point and you have a one-two punch few can compete with.
The microbrewery scene didn’t even begin until the mid-1980s, so AleSmith is one of the older micros around, which has given it some time to hone its craft.
5. 3 Floyds
Munster, Indiana: 1996
Notable Beers: Zombie Dust, Dreadnaught IPA, Permanent Funeral
Boy, do I have a love/hate relationship with Munster. Out of college, I had a job offer to work as a video editor for a production company. Munster is part of the South Bend footprint, so it would have entailed doing a good amount of Notre Dame sporting events, as well as some of a variety of races in the Northern Indiana region.
So I quickly left Georgia, returned to Michigan and went in for the interviews. After working on several projects for free to show my editing capability, the owner took me into his office. He sat, kicked his shoes onto his desk and fidgeted with a screw and washer while he told me they could pay $9 an hour…for a job that should pay $60,000 at least.
I made the drive home to Michigan more than a bit upset. And, naturally, I was pulled over and given a speeding ticket. And I did do freelance work for the guy, which he never paid for. So all in all, the city of Munster can completely burn in hell, save for the land around 3 Floyd’s Brewing. I’ll save that the eternal fire of damnation.
For those of us who remember the days before the oversaturation of IPAs, a beer needed to be a stout, or an imperial stout, to garnish any kind of real accolades and attention. For years, if you looked up beer rankings on sites like Beer Advocate, the top spots were either hard to find Belgian beers or Russian imperial stouts like Dark Lord from 3 Floyds.
Times have changed, but 3 Floyds continues to be the one good thing in Munster (and since it’s only available in five states, you may actually need to venture to Indiana to find it).
4. Russian River
Santa Rosa, California: 1997
Notable Beers: Pliny the Younger, Supplication, Blind Pig IPA
Tucked away in the San Francisco metro area, Santa Rosa doesn’t receive as much attention as it should. And, in reality, neither does Russian River Brewery. The brewery didn’t (and hasn’t) gone head first into the IPA craze.
Sure, you’ll find some. You’ll even find beers like Pliny the Younger, which is a triple IPA. However, the brewery has some of the best Belgian style beers made in the United States, not to mention a wide number of barrel-aged beers.
So if you’re in the SanFran area and want a break from the standard Anchor Brewing Company trip, head up to Santa Rosa and Russian River.
Boston Massachusetts: 2013
Notable Beers: Double Dry Hopped Congress Street, Galaxy Dry Hopped Fort Point Pale Ale, Headroom
Want to try a fabled beer from Trillium? Well, you best be heading to Massachusetts, otherwise, you’re totally out of luck. Which sucks. Sure, it helps keep the batches small, and maybe that helps. But it’s a bummer you can’t try it anywhere else. And this isn’t the only brewery on the list that is possibly more exclusive than it should be.
Of course, it’s also on the newer side, as it’s just now five years old. So nothing like perfecting its craft before sending it to the masses. And worst comes to worst, you’ll need to visit Boston to check it out.
2. Tree House
Charlton, Massachusetts: 2011
Notable Beers: King Julius, Very Hazy, Julius
If you thought Trillium was exclusive, this takes it to an entirely different level. Trillium at least has full distribution throughout the state. Tree House is basically canned in a few spots and then available in draft form. If the two breweries put together are trying to drum up tourist dollars, it might be working. Perhaps we should all pool money together and plan a giant beer trip.
1. Hill Farmstead
Greensboro Bend, Vermont: 2010
Notable Beers: Abner, Double Citra, Civil Disobedience Plu
In possibly the most unusual brewing distribution in the history of beer, Hill Farmstead is available in Vermont and Nebraska. Does that make sense? Nope. Why skip over half the United States? Who knows. Is it kind of a joke? Probably? But good on Nebraska for having the top brewery in the United States available.
I really do wish the top beers on the list were more widely available. But as the rankings improved, distribution and availability shrunk. There might be a collation to it.
There also is probably some hometown friendly voting going on with these beers. If it saw mass production like a Bell’s, chances are rankings would begin to slip. But Hill Farmstead completely dominates rankings on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, so you can’t discount that.
It just means I’ll need to plan a trip to Vermont. Or, I guess, Nebraska.
(In no particular order): Alpine, Prairie Artisan, Other Half, Goose Island, Firestone Walker, Founders, Fremont Brewery and Perennial.