Sea of Suds

The craft beer renaissance has produced an overwhelming number of brands and styles. Here is a guide to the breweries whose products consistently rise to the top.

“At more than 1,700, the number of breweries in the U.S. is higher than any time since the late 1800s,” notes Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “Beer lovers’ appreciation for American craft brewers and their craft beers continue to grow.” But with that increased adoration and fervor comes a market that offers more choice than ever before. Increased space is being devoted to artisanal selections, but the sheer number of options can be intimidating.

So many names. So many styles. What’s a shopper to do?

While the best advice is to try as many different kinds of beers from as many breweries as you can, that might not be the most economical approach. To offer some guidance, we created this guide with some of the best names to look for while perusing your local distributor’s shelves.

Although it’s impossible to list all of the great breweries out there, consider this a jumping off point for when you dive into your beer-tasting adventure.

The Biggest Little Giants

It might seem like these names are everywhere, but in reality they only represent a small portion of the American beer market; the giant breweries still reign supreme. Consider that in 2010, the total craft brewing sales share was 4.9% by volume, according to the Brewers Association. That means out of all of the beer sold, less than 5% was from a domestic craft (small, independent and traditional) brewing company. Here are five of the biggest from the Top 50 Craft Brewing Companies of 2010.

*#1 Boston Beer Co.; Boston, MA
The major player on the craft beer scene remains BBC, brewer of Samuel Adams and the iconic Boston Lager. With a wide portfolio of styles and the creativity to continue developing new releases, this “Goliath” will remain on top and for good reason: It is a pinnacle of quality and consistency that’s available from coast to coast.

#2 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.; Chico, CA
Through the tremendous success of its Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada has become a staple on beer shelves across America. Its exceptional brews don’t end there, with other year-round offerings, seasonals and limited selections produced as well as specialty (often experimental) drafts in their Taproom and Restaurant..

#3 New Belgium Brewing Co.; Fort Collins, CO
There was a time when all beer geeks wanted was Fat Tire, the flagship amber ale from New Belgium. Unfortunately, New Englanders still miss out, as while the beer is currently distributed in 26 states, the northeast remains mostly dry territory. It also releases a special series called Lips of Faith in addition to the year-round lineup.

#5 Deschutes Brewery; Bend, OR
Based out of one of the most beer-centric states, Deschutes produces remarkable core brands and a handful of some serious cult items like The Dissident, The Abyss and Black Butte XX/XXI. Unfortunately, east coasters have a hard time getting their share, with distribution currently across the west but nowhere near the Atlantic.

#11 Dogfish Head Craft Brewery; Milton, DE
Though it’s #11, Dogfish made serious strides in 2010 (they were #16 in 2009) and will only continue to develop thanks to increased exposure via president and founder Sam Calagione’s tv show Brew Masters and a slew of collaborations. Dogfish’s “off-centered stuff for off-centered people” is some of the most unique and forward-thinking product today.

*Top 50 Craft Brewing Companies of 2010 based on 2010 beer sales volume. Source: Brewers Association.

Ten Reliable Names

In addition to the five “little giants,” there are numerous other breweries crafting distinctive and intriguing beers, producing as much as they can without compromising quality. We list 10 domestic companies that rank in the Top 50 in domestic craft beer sales, some of which you know, and some you will come to know as they become increasingly available.

Bell’s Brewery, Inc.; Galesburg, MI
Bell’s beers have been slowly making their way to more markets, and they’re currently working on an expansion, but the brewery just can’t keep up with current demand. Since starting in 1985 they have grown to now produce 20 beers distributed across 18 states.

Harpoon Brewery; Boston, MA
Started in 1986, Harpoon is a classic New England beer destination with breweries and tasting rooms in Boston and Windsor, Vermont. Harpoon’s UFO wheat beers are some of the most popular, while their 100 Barrel Series keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Boulevard Brewing Co.; Kansas City, MO
Boulevard built a brand known for using both traditional and avant-garde brewing techniques. Founder John McDonald won the Brewers Association Recognition Award in 2011 for bringing exceptional craft beer to a part of the country that did not have much.

Alaskan Brewing Company; Juneau, AK
The first brewery to open in Alaska after Prohibition, ABC’s beers reflect Juneau’s brewing tradition and innovation through their historic Alaskan Amber recipe and ingredients like alder-smoked malts and Sitka spruce tips.

Stone Brewing Co.; Escondido, CA
If you take a look at Stone’s development since starting in 1996, you get the feeling it might be working toward global beer domination; Stone has posted double-digit growth every year thanks to their Arrogant Bastard lineup, special releases and collaborations.

Brooklyn Brewery; Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Brewery’s goal has been to try and resurrect the city’s local beer-loving image since 1987. Its flagship lager is among the top drafts in NYC, while brewmaster Garrett Oliver works tirelessly to promote the industry through consumer education.

Full Sail Brewing Co.; Hood River, OR
Full Sail produces beers with a local mindset; hops and barley are sourced from neighboring farms and water is tapped from a spring on Mount Hood. The brewery is also environmentally conscious with its own water treatment plant, sustainable filtration system and recycled paperboard packaging.

New Glarus Brewing Co.; New Glarus, WI
Since 1993, New Glarus has won countless awards, medals and recognition. Unfortunately, you can currently only find the beer throughout Wisconsin, as demand is so high for their outstanding brews that it can just satisfy the local market.

Victory Brewing Co.; Downingtown, PA
Brewmaster and president Bill Covaleski’s training in Germany allowed him the opportunity to appreciate the creative freedom that is key to the American beer culture. Cult favorites like HopDevil and Prima Pils blend traditional methods with a modern twist.

Odell Brewing Co.; Fort Collins, CO
Established in 1989, Odell experienced instant success as an artisanal purveyor and a welcome alternative to commercial offerings. Always pushing the boundaries, Odell is a trendsetter with the use of techniques like assorted barrel ageing and yeast cultivation.

For the Craft Beer Hunter

With over 1,700 craft breweries in the US today, obviously they can’t all make the Top 50 list. There are so many great options out there, and the good news is that most Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer. But for those looking to broaden their horizons even further, here are 10 worth seeking out.

Avery Brewing Co.; Boulder, CO
Committed to producing eccentric beers that defy styles or categories, Avery masterfully blends Old World tradition and expertise with ingenuity, creativity and boldness for a truly definitive American style.

Cigar City Brewing Co.; Tampa, FL
CCB was founded with two goals in mind: to make the world’s best beer and to share with people near and far the culture of the Cigar City of Tampa. The brewery also strives to use local ingredients whenever possible.

Founders Brewing Co.; Grand Rapids, MI
Founders has thrived under this philosophy: “We don’t brew beer for the masses. Instead, our beers are crafted for a chosen few, a small cadre of renegades and rebels who enjoy a beer that pushes the limits of what is commonly accepted as taste.” Enough said.

Left Hand Brewing Co.; Longmont, CO
Left Hand strives for a balanced portfolio with options for every beer lover’s tastes, from crisp golden pilsner to a roasty imperial stout. They also feature some killer oak-aged limited edition selections that are definite trophy bottles.

Ninkasi Brewing Co.; Eugene, OR
These new kids on the block have made serious waves since starting in 2006, ending with being number 50 on the Top 50 Craft Brewing Companies of 2010 after tremendous growth. Their flagship beer, Total Domination IPA, has garnered numerous accolades.

Smuttynose Brewing Co.; Portsmouth, NH
Through distribution in 19 states and a portfolio full of year-round classics, adored seasonals and highly sought after limited edition bottles, Smutty is one of the most respected east coast breweries offering something for everyone.

Southern Tier Brewing Co.; Lakewood, NY
Since late 2002, this western New York brewery has been steadily growing both in size and reputation, churning out seriously good beers (and a killer Limited Release Imperial line) that are now available in more than half of the US. 

The Bruery; Placentia, CA
At just 3 years young, this brewery has been generating buzz from day one with their pure and simple approach to crafting complex beers. They do not filter or pasteurize and all bottled beers undergo bottle conditioning. They also love using rye and experiment frequently with Brett and friends.

Three Floyds; Munster, IN
This micro brewery may be small, but with one very special beer they put Munster, IN on the map as a yearly destination for hardcore beer geeks: Dark Lord Day, or the only day of the year to buy their Dark Lord Russian imperial stout (as well as a select few barrel-aged versions).

Uinta Brewing Co.; Salt Lake City, UT
Named after an east-west mountain range located in northeastern Utah, Uinta distributes a broad lineup of beers ranging in style and alcohol percentage. Their other-worldly Crooked Line shows just how well they brew outside the lines.

Embracing the Wild Side

Brettanomyces, a winery’s worst enemy, has found a welcome home in a number of craft breweries. While Brett is notoriously tough to control and the resulting characteristics imparted are often unpredictable, these wild boys take their chances with Brett-inoculated (and other wild bacteria-infused) selections that are sure to knock your socks off.

Allagash Brewing Co.; Portland, ME
Allagash is known for their Belgian-inspired beginnings and styled brews, but they have melded that with an affinity for experimentation to cement themselves as one of the most respected breweries in the world. Barrel aging, wine grapes and a house Brett strain keeps these wild ones on the forefront of beer innovation.

Captain Lawrence Brewing Company; Pleasantville, NY
With distribution currently centralized around the greater tri-state area, Captain Lawrence has brought exciting selections to the local brewing scene. Of particular note is what was dubbed the #1 beer of 2009 by WE, Rosso e Marrone, an American sour ale fermented with grapes and aged in oak barrels. Look for a serious brewery expansion in the near future.

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales; Dexter, MI
Through open fermentation, oak barrel aging and bottle conditioning, JP strives to create traditional, rustic country style beers with a modern American craft twist. They truly believe in the art of brewing and experimentation with one-of-a-kind offerings.

Russian River Brewing Co.; Santa Rosa, CA
With distribution mainly on the west coast, it’s tough for anyone else to find these coveted brews. Pliny the Elder is their popular year-round behemoth, but with names like Temptation, Beatification and Supplication in their barrel-aged series, you know it’s some serious stuff.

The Lost Abbey; San Marcos, CA
This producer of “inspired beer for sinners and saints alike” follows their own Ten Commandments, including “fresh beer is great, aged beer is better.” With a sign over their barrel room that reads In Illa Brettanomyces, Nos Fides (in wild yeast we believe), you can have faith that these sinners are producing heavenly brews.

International Wave Makers

Though they’re not American brewers, these international masterminds have crafted out an identity of their own by producing unique and trendsetting products. Many even enjoy collaborating, forging the bond of friendship through creative artistry. Check them out next time you’re abroad or happen to wander into the imported section.

Baladin Piedmont, Italy
The Italian craft beer scene has been gaining momentum, and at the forefront is Teo Musso’s Birrificio Baladin. Baladin’s birra artigianale is some of the most sought-after product today, and with new projects and products in the works, you can be sure that they’re not going away anytime soon.

Brewdog; Fraserburgh, Scotland
Their homepage reads “Welcome to the craft beer revolution”, and these guys take that very seriously. Though they made a splash with the release of The End of History, a 55% abv brew that came in a taxidermied animal, it’s what’s inside their bottles that people should really be talking about.

Epic Brewing Company; Auckland, New Zealand
The name says it all for this kiwi brewery, turning out flavorful brews in a country that’s not entirely known for their beer culture. With five classic selections and a collaborative nature that birthed the world’s first tree-tomato beer, be sure to keep an eye on these guys to see what’s next. 

Nøgne Ø; Grimstad, Norway
Nøgne Ø (“naked island”) formed in 2002 to share good beer through diversity and innovation. The uncompromising brewery’s mission is to create the highest quality ales with distinct personality and character. They currently produce more than 20 different styles and export more than 70% of their production.

Unibroue; Quebec, Canada
Unibroue has established its reputation by producing some of the best Belgian-styled beers this side of the Atlantic. The brewery has remained faithful to its origins even as it has grown since its humble beginning in 1990, never compromising high standards to meet increasing consumer demand. Their strong design asserts their desire to present only the best.

Published on June 10, 2011



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