The Best American Beer Trails

The Best American Beer Trails

The last 30 years have seen a monumental evolution in the American beer scene. The thirst for craft beer, inspired by the likes of Anchor Brewing, Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, primed the tap for today’s golden age of local brews.

This movement has led the Brewers Association to recognize more than 100 different beer styles. Craft brewers are trying new flavor combinations, and incorporating ingredients like cocoa nibs, cinnamon, figs, oak chips and even wine-grape juice, just to name a few.

There are dozens of variations in hops, malts, yeasts and water. There are also differences in how brewers use yeast, how they treat it, how they pitch it and the temperature at which they ferment—a never-ending palette for experimentation.

For beer drinkers, this means no two IPAs are going to taste the same and that one brewer’s stout is not another’s, even if we don’t know precisely why. As Anchor Brewing founder Fritz Maytag once said, “Beer does not make itself properly by itself. It takes an element of mystery and things no one can understand.”

Thoughtfully considered beer is being made in small batches throughout the country, from Oakland and Orange County in California, to Bend, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado. Here are some of our favorite sudsy spots from the Rockies to the Pacific.

Cooper brew kettles on the tour at Anchor BrewingCalifornia

Although California produces more wine than any other state in America, the state has long loved its beer. Fritz Maytag and his resuscitation of Anchor Steam beer played an integral role in the craft beer revival. Today, lines form outside Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa for its seasonal beers, and visionary brewmaster Adam Lamoreaux of Linden Street Brewery is bringing the craft back to West Oakland. Restaurants from San Francisco to San Diego are emphasizing beer with food, elevating the whole affair into a celebration of keen, bold flavors. —V.B.

Where to Taste

Set in an Orange County industrial park, The Bruery made Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s number-one beer of 2012: Saison Rue, a farmhouse ale brewed with rye and brettanomyces. The brewery’s range of Belgian-style craft beers often feature unconventional ingredients like beets, Thai basil, truffle salt and lavender. Look for soon-to-be-released beers using Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez wine grapes.

Firestone Walker Brewing Company, specializing in pale ales, has taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton, providing beer havens in busy wine regions. Linden Street is Oakland’s first production brewery in 50 years, where Lamoreaux uses yeasts from Tartine’s famous bread. In San Francisco, stop at 21st Amendment Brewery for its Monk’s Blood Belgian Dark Ale.

The Lagunitas Brewing Company TapRoom and Beer Sanctuary in Petaluma offers sandwiches, snacks, live music, weekday tasting tours and growlers to take home. Up Highway 101 in Santa Rosa is Russian River Brewing, a lively hangout for disciples of Pliny the Elder (a double IPA) and Damnation (a golden ale). Lines snake down the street every February upon Pliny the Younger’s release.

Keep heading north to historic Hopland, where the state’s first brewpub was opened in 1933. Enjoy Piazza de Campovida’s brews and fresh gourmet food, and newly opened Hopland Ale House. Fort Bragg is home to North Coast Brewing Co., maker of PranQster, Brother Thelonious and Old Rasputin, the brewery’s imperial stout.

Where to Dine

Great beer is often being paired with great food, and there may be no better practitioner of the concept than San Francisco’s The Abbot’s Cellar. From the founders of nearby The Monk’s Kettle, it’s a Mission District eatery dedicated to California cuisine and craft beer.

At Mill Valley Beerworks, enjoy a meal with house-made brews like the Botanical No. 3, an ale flavored with juniper and bay. Karl Strauss Brewing Company has a brewery restaurant in downtown San Diego, plus six other locations. All offer cask-conditioned beer nights every Thursday. Head to Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido for locally sourced small-farm food amidst a one-acre organic beer garden.

Other Activities

The San Francisco International Beer Festival in April, California Beer Festival in Santa Cruz in July and West Coast Barrel Aged Beer Festival in Hayward in November are all worthy events.

For the Budget Minded

Camping is part of the fun at The Legendary Boonville Beer Festival, hosted by Anderson Valley Brewing Company on May 4. For $11/person, stay overnight onsite at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds.

Insider Tip

At Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, daily tours (by reservation, up to six months in advance) end with a flight of Anchor beers. Head up to the rooftop bar and outdoor beer garden, with outstanding views out to the San Francisco Bay. The complex also houses Anchor Distilling Company and its parade of fine spirits, from Junipero Gin to Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur and Japanese Nikka Whisky. In December 2012, Anchor debuted the hops-based HopHead Vodka, made in the distillery’s alembic still.

The main stage at Tour de FatColorado

Colorado is home to one of America’s original “big three” brands. Founded in 1873, Coors has since become a household name, but the state’s connection to beer doesn’t end there. Colorado is often considered the epicenter of the American craft-beer movement, thanks to progressive residents that paved the way for craft brewers in the ’70s. Passionate locals established small, independent breweries and brewpubs, and industry groups like the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association are headquartered in Boulder. There’s a reason Coloradans call it the state of craft beer. —L.B.

Where to Taste

There are more than 160 licensed craft breweries in Colorado, so there’s certainly something to suit every beer lover’s palate. Colorado’s largest craft brewery is Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing. This wind-powered brewery rose to fame in the late ’90s, thanks to its Fat Tire Amber Ale. Visitors can sample a wide assortment of Belgian-inspired beers, including the top-tier Lips of Faith Series.

Also in Fort Collins is Odell Brewing Co., home to some of the most sought-after and highly rated beers in the country: The Meddler (96 points), Woodcut No. 6 (95 points) and Friek (94 points).

Established in 1994, Denver’s own Great Divide Brewing Co. offers 16 taps of year-round and seasonal selections, great views into the brewhouse and free tours.

At the forefront of the canning trend is Oskar Blues Brewery, which first canned its flagship Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002. Check out the Tasty Weasel Tap Room for the latest from these metal heads. Sign up for a 45-minute tour of the brewery, or jam to the live music every Saturday while you enjoy a cold one.

Although its year-round lineup is classic and approachable, Boulder’s Avery Brewing challenges your palate with its Dictator, Demons of Ale and Barrel-Aged brews. Be sure to taste whatever it has on hand from its Annual Barrel Series—the more experimental the brew sounds, the more unique the tasting experience.

Where to Dine

The Wynkoop Brewing Company—co-founded by Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado—is an eco-conscious eatery that features an assortment of small-batch brews. The menu boasts a wide array of Colorado-sourced meats and vegetables, not to mention numerous pool tables, dartboards and other games.

Grab a sampler flight while reviewing the expansive menu at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, or visit Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Cafe to taste hard-to-find Belgian beers, including many on tap, paired with classic Belgian fare. For an intellectual food-and-beer pairing experience, be sure to check out Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen. The menu will make your mouth water (house-made wursts, roasted marrow bones, duck confit poutine) and bring out the best of whatever you order from the impressive beer list.

Other Activities

Avery hosts the Boulder Strong Ale Fest in March, but also check out the offbeat Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland. The Palisade Bluegrass & Roots Festival runs from June 14–16, with camping available.

For the Budget Minded

New Belgium’s nationwide Tour de Fat—a free, eccentric, day-long event featuring a costumed bicycle parade, entertainment, food, contests and New Belgium beer—raises money for nonprofits through beer and merchandise sales.

Insider Tip

No serious beer lover can live a full life without experiencing the Great American Beer Festival, hosted annually in Denver by the Brewers Association. The 2013 festival—the event’s 32nd incarnation—is scheduled for October 10–12. With more than 2,700 beers from across the country available to taste, the festival’s four sessions typically sell out in minutes.

Full Sail Brewing Co., on the shores of the Columbia RiverOregon

Oregon’s first craft brewery opened in 1980, and brewpubs have only been legal since 1983. But the state’s hip culture and locavore mentality has allowed the craft beer culture to flourish and evolve at a rapid rate. By 1990, Portland was proclaimed “America’s Microbrew Capital,” with more craft breweries and brewpubs per capita than any other U.S. city. The interactive Oregon Beer Trail map on the Oregon Brewers Guild Web site is an invaluable resource. Unofficially, the state is often dubbed “Beervana.” Officially, Oregon is obsessed with craft beer. —L.B.

Where to Taste

The Bend Ale Trail is the perfect start to your Oregon beer adventure, covering the area’s 14 craft breweries. All of the breweries are within a few miles of one another, so you can walk or bike the route. If you prefer, make arrangements with the Bend Brew Bus. Allow ample time for Deschutes Brewery—the fifth-largest craft brewery in the U.S. Don’t miss the fresh-hop selections in the Bond Street Series and the world-class Reserve Series.

Brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer founded their Portland-based Widmer Brothers brewery in 1984, and it’s a key stop for any serious beer lover. Hood River’s Full Sail Brewing Co. opened its doors in 1987, and it was the first commercially successful craft brewery in the Pacific Northwest to bottle its beers. The brewery offers over a dozen selections from the tap, as well as breathtaking views of the Columbia River.

Newcomers Ninkasi Brewing Company and Oakshire Brewing both opened in Eugene in 2006. Ninkasi quickly became a beer-geek darling, thanks to its focus on hop-heavy selections with radical names (like Total Domination IPA and Tricerahops). Oakshire’s brewmaster, Matt Van Wyk, is a 10-time Great American Beer Festival medalist, including being named Small Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year in 2006. Make sure to sample the brewery’s O’Dark:30 Cascadian Dark Ale.

Where to Dine

Mike and Brian McMenamin opened Oregon’s first brewpub, McMenamins, in the Hillsdale neighborhood of Portland in 1985. The chain now has 24 breweries throughout the state, serving handcrafted ales and Northwest pub fare.

Rogue brewery has numerous spots to suit every diner’s style and preference, from the Rogue Ales Public House (several locations) to Rogue Meeting Hall and the Green Dragon Bistro & Brewpub.

For a unique tapas-style experience, visit Saraveza Bottle Shop & Pasty Tavern in Portland. The menu features pasties, pickled items, house meats and Midwest treats to enjoy with the carefully curated bottle or rotating draft selections. Also in Portland is the famous Horse Brass Pub, an English-style watering hole with an expert staff to guide you through the extensive tap list and traditional menu.

Other Activities

The 19th-annual Spring Beer & Wine Fest is scheduled for March 29–30 at the Oregon Convention Center. Or enjoy more than 80 craft beers on the banks of the Willamette River at the Oregon Brewers Festival, from July 24–28.

For the Budget Minded

If you’re in Oregon around hop-harvest time—roughly mid-August through September—visit a hop farm like Goschie Farms or Crosby Hop Farm for an eye-opening look at this key beer ingredient.

Insider Tip

The recently conceived Crux Fermentation Project aims to create beers that push boundaries. It’s the brainchild of three industry insiders: Larry Sidor, former brewmaster of Deschutes; Dave Wilson, a sales and marketing executive who worked for Deschutes and 21st Amendment; and Paul Evers, a packaging and branding guru for several craft labels. Visit the tasting room, open Tuesday through Sunday, to sample the latest from these beer icons.

Published on February 12, 2013
Topics: Beer GuidesTravel